Jewish-Muslim Dialogue and the Value of Peace
Posted Jul 19, 2007

Jewish-Muslim Dialogue and the Value of Peace

By: Jacob Bender

Salaam Aleikhem. Shalom Aleichem.

One year ago, thanks to the generosity of the Emir and the State of Qatar and its Foreign Ministry, as well as the leadership of Dr. Prof. Aisha Al-Manae, Chair of the Department of Sharia at The University of Qatar, many of us attended this same conference seeking to contribute to greater interfaith understanding in our tormented world. We made many new friends and spoke about justice, about peace, about the values that we Muslims, Jews, and Christians, share in common.

Who among us could have imagined, even in our worst nightmares, only a few weeks after our departure from Doha that war would break out yet again between the “Children of Abraham”? Many of us watched in horror last summer as the rockets and missiles and bombs flew back and forth between Israel and Lebanon, each day bringing new images of destruction and carnage to our television screens.

If our words here are to have lasting value, we must not only speak in abstractions, but attempt to utilize our religious traditions to address the problems of the world in which we live.

Numerous other speakers and scholars have remarked upon the centrality of “salaam” and “shalom” within the Islamic and Jewish traditions. Although many in the West argue that Islam is a religion of conquest, the Quran specifically decrees that Islam should be spread by peace: “Invite to the way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching, and with arguments that are most gracious.” And the peace between the early Islamic state and Abyssinia was maintained for many years, and according to Malik ibn Anas, was based upon the hadith of the Prophet: “Leave the Abyssinians in peace so long as they leave you in peace.”

In Jewish tradition, the prophets of the Hebrew Bible elevated peace into a divine commandment, and the words of the Prophet Isaiah have echoed through the ages:

You shall beat your swords into plowshares, and your spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn anymore.

In our own time, our teacher, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, writes:

Mankind’s passion for war will be subdued by a great passion: the passion to discover God’s ways. Into a world fascinated with arrogance, enters Isaiah’s word that swords will be beaten into plowshares, that nations will search, not for gold or power, but for God’s word.

And finally, both traditions regard each human life as sacred, worthy of respect and preservation. The Quran declares:

“If anyone slays a person, it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people.”

And Rabbi Akiva teaches us that:

However sheds blood, it is as if he had diminished the image of God, for God made humankind in his image.

Additionally, for hundreds of years, Jews were an accepted part of the umma, and Arabic was, in fact, also a Jewish language, as countless Jews contributed to Islamic civilization as philosophers and physicians and poets, astronomers and musicians, even military commanders. This Judeao-Islamic civilization was no where more evident than in Al-Andalus, Muslim Spain, the setting for “Out of Cordoba,” the documentary film I am currently directing about the life and works of Ibn Rushd and Rabbi Musa Ibn Maymun, the two most illustrious Muslim and Jewish personalities produced by this remarkable Golden Age.

I know this audience will be most pleased to learn that there are now dozens of interfaith Arab-Jewish and Jewish-Muslim dialogue groups in the United States, seeking to learn from the legacy of Medieval Spain and its culture of coexistence,. One such project is “Abraham’s Bridge,” a traveling Jewish-Muslim dialogue that I have created with Prof. Saeed Khan, a American Muslim scholar and professor of Islamic Studies in Detroit, and who was also a participant in this conference last year. Together, Prof. Khan and I have been traveling to universities and colleges, synagogues, churches, and mosques, to bring our message of Jewish-Muslim reconciliation to these audiences, countering both Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. And additionally, my own synagogue hosted, this past September, a Jewish and Muslim “breaking-of-the-fast,” both for Ramadan and Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar.

However, all these dialogue groups, no matter their internal harmony, are constantly burdened by the penetration of the real world outside, by all the familiar issues we sometimes wish would just go away: the so-called “clash of civilizations,” the conflict between Israel and Palestine, the dangers of terrorism and fundamentalism and extremism. Some of the dialogue groups deal with these issues by simply deciding to avoid them altogether, believing that only by first building personal relationships of trust can one deal later with the difficult political issues that we face.

I believe, however, that although there is some tactical merit in this argument, ultimately it is a self-defeating strategy, both because the real world has a way of always being present, but also because our respective religious traditions demand that we deal with the difficult issues of justice, and war and peace.

And so at last we come to the war between Israel and Hezbollah. On the one hand, a deliberate provocation and an admitted miscalculation by Hezbollah; on the other hand, a massively disproportionate and brutal response by Israel, bereft of planning or goals.

Was there ever a more useless war? A war whose only success was the hardening of the hearts of the Other: Arabs and Muslims saw and suffered once again the destructive power of Israel’s overwhelming military might, while Jews and Israelis saw Hezbollah’s rocket attacks as a violent manifestation of extremist Islam by a group that, contrary to the Arab consensus, still calls for Israel’s destruction and whose Charter is filled with anti-Jewish racism. On both sides of the border, hundreds of thousands of people were forced to leave their homes during the war, not knowing if their homes would even be standing or in rubble when they returned.

Human Rights Watch, the respected international organization, after detailed research, concluded that both Israel and Hezbollah deliberately attacked civilians during the war, a violation of international humanitarian law, with both sides using “cluster-type” anti-civilian weapons.

Furthermore, these crimes of war were, I believe, not only crimes against human beings, but equally, were crimes against history. For the war violated the memory of the Medina Charter (Sahīfat al-Madinah), which established the first pluralist political order based upon a multi-religious society. The war violated the memory of Ismail ibn Nagrela, an Arab Jew in Spain who served the Caliph of Granada as military commander of the Muslim army. The war violated the memory of Sultan Bayezid II, who welcomed thousands of Spanish Jews into Ottoman territory when, in that fateful year of 1492, they were expelled from Christian Spain. The war violated the memory of Khaled Abdelwahhab, an Arab Muslim from Tunisia, who during WWII, hid a group of Jews from the Nazis on his farm, thus saving their lives. Abdelwahhab’s memory has recently been honored by Yad Vashem, Israel’s National Holocaust Memorial, where I had the honor of working during the years I lived in Israel. Lastly, the war violates the present work of those Israelis and Jews who have for decades opposed the oppression of the Palestinian people. One such organization is “Rabbis for Human Rights,” whose members have been arrested while blocking Israeli army bulldozers on their way to destroy Palestinian homes.

Jewish tradition tells us this story: When the Children of Israel were fleeing slavery, Pharaoh, his heart hardening, sent his army to kill the freed slaves, only to see his soldiers drowned in the Red Sea. The angles in heaven, upon witnessing this miracle, burst into celebration, only to be rebuked by God Himself with these words: “Celebrate not, for my children are dying.”

The message of this story is unmistakable: even our enemies are human beings created in the image of the Divine and therefore endowed with inalienable rights. When we destroy another human life, particularly the lives of noncombatants so recklessly targeted by both sides in last summer’s war, we are, in effect, attacking God as well.

In our Sabbath prayers, we sing the following song in our synagogue:

Come to us in peace, O angels of peace, angels of the most sublime.
Bless us with peace, O angels of peace, angels of the most sublime, the Holy One praised be God.

Perhaps these angels were there recently in Mecca, when the entire Arab world, led by His Majesty King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, custodian of the Holy Mosque, offered to normalize relations with the State of Israel. It will be a tragedy of unimaginable proportions if this historic initiative does not find a greater receptivity in the West, in Israel, and in Jewish community, and is not pursued with great energy by the Arab and Muslim world.

In the present day, with wars and occupation and terrorism continuing all around us, how easy it is to give in to hopelessness, pessimism, and cynicism. We must all, however, continue to believe that the pursuit of peace, and the struggle for justice, is the only solution for our political problems. It is as well, the path mandated by the sacred religious traditions that we Muslims, Jews, and Christians share in common.

Thank you, and shukran.

Paper presented at 5th Doha Conference on Interfaith Dialogue, May 9, 2007

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