(photo credit: Courtesy)
Rabbi Eric Yoffie is becoming American Jewry's Daniel, boldly strolling into lions' dens as diverse as the late Jerry Falwell's Liberty University and, more recently, the annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America. He has managed to cut through the ideological and theological fog of the "family values" debate to propose a sexual ethic for teens that is both moral and realistic. He stood up to Israel's since-fallen president, Moshe Katsav, who couldn't bring himself to call the leader of America's largest Jewish denomination "rabbi."
In his speech to the Islamic society, Yoffie was forthright and pointed when he warned that "surely no religious cause...can ever justify murdering the innocent or targeting the uninvolved." He managed to acknowledge "dignity for the Palestinians" while reminding his audience that "Muslims will need to accept the reality of Israeli vulnerability, including the vulnerability of that tiny nation's ever-threatened borders."
However, the balance - between reconciliation and admonishment - seemed off.
Yoffie seemed to buy into a theme of victimization among Muslims and to take on faith what a New York Times article on the convention called, with little substantiation, "growing intolerance" toward Islam and its practitioners.
Said Yoffie: "[T]here is no shortage of voices prepared to tell us that fanaticism and intolerance are fundamental to Islamic religion, and that violence and even suicide bombing have deep koranic roots. There is no lack of so-called experts who are eager to seize on any troubling statement by any Muslim thinker and pin it on Islam as a whole."
THERE MAY be no shortage of such folks, but does their message really predominate outside the fringes of talk radio? What's remarkable in the six years since 9/11, and is a testament to the tradition of tolerance in much of America, is the absence of a vicious anti-Muslim backlash, legal or social. If anything, Americans have been more eager than their European counterparts to give their Muslim neighbors the benefit of the doubt.
Granted, Muslim individuals and their charities face legal scrutiny since the attacks.
But there is scrutiny, and there is harassment. Yoffie says it is time to "end racial profiling and legal discrimination of any kind against Muslim Americans." But would he really prefer that law enforcement groups relax their surveillance of certain groups and leaders who have proved to be ripe for recruiting terrorists? Besides, is it "racial" profiling or good police and intelligence work to track the ideas and movements of the very groups from which radical ideas and even more radical acts have sprung?
The same Times article cites "leaders of American Muslim organizations" who see three main factors behind "growing intolerance" against Muslims: global terrorist attacks in the name of Islam, disappointing reports from the Iraq war, and the agenda of some supporters of Israel who try [to] taint Islam to undermine the Palestinians."
Let me characterize those "factors" this way: hot, warm, ice cold. Islamist terrorism is real, and intractable. It is not the product of a mere "radical fringe" of Muslims. Al-Qaida finds fertile soil for its fanaticism across the Middle East, in Indonesia, in downtown London. There are plenty of bad ideas in the Muslim world being spread by people who find haven in countries that coddle the fanaticism they profess to reject.
We talk of a "war on terrorism," and even that phrase is a curiously tolerant evasion. If we are in a war, it is against a dangerous, and quite real, trend within Islam toward religious fanaticism and nihilistic violence.
The majority of Muslims who do not embrace this radicalism undoubtedly suffer the indignities inherent in the effort to root out those who do. But it is important to stress - given the trauma of 9/11 and the daily Muslim-on-Muslim death toll in Iraq or the deadly backlash against the Danish Mohammed cartoons and the Taliban's return to Afghanistan - how tolerant and patient Americans remain.
As for the "supporters of Israel who try [to] taint Islam to undermine the Palestinians": Show me the ZOA or MEMRI news release that has even the fraction of the power of an Islamist suicide bombing to tarnish Islam, or the ability of an Internet "beheading" video to cement public perceptions.
If Americans stereotype Muslims, it is not because the "Israel Lobby" told them to. It is because innocent people feel targeted by those who would kill them for not being Muslim, or not being a certain type of Muslim, or, really, for no reason at all.
Yoffie's speech is canny, beginning with a direct appeal to what concerns his listeners most. That leads to a "let's all agree" second half that tries to enlist them in his vision of a two-state solution in the Middle East, unequivocal denunciation of terror, and, most interestingly, an effort to stop thinking of the Arab-Israel conflict in religious terms.
Can Muslims make this distinction?
"Political battles" have political solutions; "holy wars" are fought only to the bitter end. Americans are ignorant of Islam, no doubt, but the main thing they want to know is if its leaders and followers are able to separate the religious and the secular and if groups like ISNA are able to stand up and say, like Yoffie, "Let us do everything in our power to prevent a political battle from being transformed into a holy war."
The writer is editor in chief of the New Jersey Jewish News.