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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Reform Rabbi Eric Yoffie urged the largest assembly of US Muslims on Friday to help "fight the fanatics" in their two religions, marking the first time a major Jewish leader has addressed the group in its four-decade history.
Yoffie, president of the liberal Union for Reform Judaism, said each faith has "a tiny, extremist minority" that misinterprets religious teachings to justify violence. To counter them, moderate majorities in Islam and Judaism must speak out, he said.
"It is ... our collective task to strengthen and inspire one another as we fight the fanatics and work to promote the values of justice and love that are common to both our faiths," Yoffie said, at the start of the Islamic Society of North America convention.
The society, based in Plainfield, Ind., is an umbrella group for a wide range of communal organizations, representing mosques, students, physicians, chaplains and groups that arrange Muslim marriages. About 30,000 people attend the annual meeting, which runs through Monday.
Convention organizers invite representatives of other religious groups to attend every year, but no major Jewish leader had said "yes" until Yoffie. The Union for Reform Judaism is the largest American Jewish movement, representing 900 synagogues and about 1.5 million Jews.
"This is a major breakthrough," said Sayyid Syeed, who directs the Islamic Society's national interfaith outreach. "There have been misgivings and misunderstandings, but during the last few years, both sides have seen that there is so much in common."
Along with other major American Muslim groups, the Islamic Society's private IRS records and its prison chaplain programs have been investigated by the federal government seeking to uncover any ties to terrorists. No wrongdoing has been found. Representatives of the US military and government agencies often attend the convention to recruit Arabic speakers and chaplains.
The Reform movement and the Muslim group have been working together through their Washington offices on issues ranging from immigration to civil rights.
Wearing a Jewish skull cap and punctuating his words with his fists, Yoffie condemned "racial profiling and legal discrimination of any kind against Muslim Americans," and "vicious and public attacks" on Islam. The two organizations are trying to launch a joint education program in synagogues and mosques nationwide. The crowd applauded throughout his speech.
Yet most American Jews and Muslims remain deeply divided over violence in the Mideast.
Yoffie said they should stop fighting over the issue and instead collectively urge the federal government to forge a viable peace in the region. While the Islamic Society and Reform movement differ over the specifics of how to resolve the conflict, Yoffie and Syeed said both groups essentially support establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
"Will we, Jews and Muslims, import the conflicts of the Middle East into America, or will we join together and send a message of peace to that troubled land?" Yoffie said. "As religious Jews and as religious Muslims, let us do everything in our power to prevent a political battle from being transformed into a holy war."