Learning Faiths (Extract)

Extract of an article in Issue 26, April 14, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Even in serene Cambridge, the roads to Jewish-Muslim reconciliation can be bumpy As Christian a town as you will find anywhere in England, Cambridge is filled with church spires, university chapels, and colleges with monastic origins. But it is here that, if a group of academics have their way, the future of Muslim-Jewish relations will be determined. The Center for Muslim-Jewish Relations was set up a year ago with a $2 million grant from the charitable trust, Stone Ashdown, with the ambitious aim of "founding a new discipline" that will explore the relationship between the two faiths, in the words of Dr. Edward Kessler, a Reform Jew, one of the most respected interfaith activists in British academia and the new center's executive director. According to Kessler, once established, this new discipline will set the agenda for exchanges between the two faiths, and change the distinguishing characteristic from the hot-headed emotion that surrounds much of Jewish-Muslim relations worldwide to calm reason. The center's high-profile backers include Prince el-Hassan Bin Talal of Jordan, who co-hosts events with the center and, at the celebratory opening, addressed a select audience, including Saudi and Israeli diplomats and British foreign office officials, in the Jerusalem chamber of Westminster Abbey. Britain's chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, was also at the official opening, and British Muslim leader Baron Hamed has declared his support. The vice-president of the World Union of Progressive Judaism, Rabbi Jonathan Magonet, serves as an academic adviser and affiliate lecturer. The center is housed in Wesley House, in central Cambridge. In the United Kingdom, the Jewish community's interfaith efforts have traditionally focused on the Christian community, and especially within the framework of the Council of Christians and Jews. Kessler's first project, the Cambridge-based Center for Jewish-Christian Relations, set up in 1998, followed this model. However, a paradigm shift has been taking place in the Jewish community, especially since the events of 9/11. Three leading figures from the Council of Christians and Jews have come to the conclusion that interfaith efforts must also include Muslims. These leaders - Jewish philanthropist Sir Sigmund Sternberg; Jewish activist Sidney Shipton; and Anglican priest the Rev. Dr. Marcus Braybrooke - have joined with the Muslim scholar Sheikh Dr. Zaki Badawi to set up the Three Faiths Forum. Organizations across the Jewish community, from synagogues to student groups, have begun to organize dialogue groups. Kessler's decision to set up a Muslim-Jewish initiative to work alongside his Jewish-Christian center came in the light of this change in focus of the Jewish community's interfaith efforts. Last September, the first 13 students arrived for a one-year course in Islam, Judaism and Muslim-Jewish Relations, accredited by Cambridge University as a Certificate of Continuing Education. The center has also launched a program of public lecture and an e-leaning course, given over the Internet and leading to a Master's degree; and research programs for its staff. According to the center's head, if their activities can bring about something like the Jewish-Christian dialogue in the United Kingdom between Muslims and Jews, then it will be a success. "Look at where Jewish-Christian relations were at 100 years ago, when there was huge ignorance and suspicion," says Kessler. "This has changed." And moreover, Kessler adds, current Jewish-Muslim relations aren't as bad as Jewish-Christian relations were, implying that perhpas the center's mission won't take another 100 years to fulfill. Just over a month ago, the center initiated a project that Kessler views as reminiscent of the olive branches offered to Jews by Christian theologians a century ago. It brought together some 30 prominent Muslim leaders from 12 countries, mostly academics and theologians, who authored a letter to world Jewry described as "a call for positive and constructive action that aims to improve Muslim-Jewish relations." The Muslim notables included Prof. Akbar Ahmed, chair of Islamic Studies at the American University in Washington, D.C. and former British High Commissioner in Pakistan; Prof. Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem; Sheikh Mustafa Ceric, Grand Mufti of Bosnia; Dr. Sheikh Suhaib Hasan, Secretary General of the Islamic Shari'a Council in London; and Dr. Sayed Amir Akrami, secretary for interreligious dialogue at the Organization for Islamic Culture and Communication in Tehran, Iran. Overall, the message of the letter paralleled the message of the Center: calm and calculated thought conquers all. The much discussed "clash of civilizations" between Islam and the West is a myth, they stated; instead, there is a "clash of ill-informed misunderstandings." The letter writers proposed similarities between the two religions, including dietary laws and emphasis on charity, as a basis of reconciliation. They cited verses from the Koran to argue that Islam has a positive attitude towards Jews. "Deep-seated stereotypes and prejudices have resulted in a distancing of the communities and even a dehumanizing of the 'Other,'" they wrote. "We urgently need to address this situation. We must strive towards turning ignorance into knowledge, intolerance into understanding, and pain into courage and sensitivity for the 'Other.'" Jewish leaders, including Rabbi Dr. Naftali Brawer, adviser on Muslim affairs to Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks; the popular Masorati (Conservative) minister Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg; and Rabbi David Rosen, adviser on interfaith relations to the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, responded positively. But the applause was not universal - on either the Muslim side or the Jewish side. The letter took a "na•ve and condescending" approach, complained prominent Muslim interfaith activist Mehri Niknam, writing in The Jewish Chronicle. She continued, "It seems to me that this letter is more appropriate as a religious education essay by a 15-year-old than a scholarly letter addressed to 'rabbinic leaders and the wider Jewish communities of the world.' To assume that the problems of Muslim-Jewish relations worldwide can be resolved simply because we all worship a Unity, give charity and eat kosher and halal food is intellectually offensive equally to both sides." She accused the authors of misquoting the Koran, "jazzing up" verses that are actually an "admonition of the Jews or the Children of Israel" to fit their agenda and quoting verses out of "historical, geopolitical, theological and hermeneutical" context. The center retorted that "an academic reading, not a misreading" had been employed. And one of the Jewish community's best known philanthropists, Lord Kalms, led the criticism, again in the pages of the Jewish Chronicle. He referred to the part of the letter that states, "At the core of the Muslim-Jewish tension lies the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The loss of every single life is a loss to humanity and a bloody stain on the tapestry of history. We call for a peaceful resolution that will assure mutual respect, prosperity and security to both Palestinians and Israelis, while allowing the Palestinian people their rights to self-determination. Most Muslims would hope that the sufferings Jews have experienced over many centuries would make them more sensitive to the sufferings of others, especially the Palestinian people." From this, Kalms wrote, he understood the "purpose of the letter" as "the proposition that the relationship between Jews and Muslims depends on the settlement of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict." And he continued, "The letter suggests that if the Palestinians achieve their objectives in Israel, peace and harmony will prevail. It suggests that violent jihad against civilians and soldiers will cease, the dream of the return of the Caliphate will be renounced, calls for the introduction of shari'a in the U.K. would be dropped, women will be given full legal rights, honor killings will cease, instigating hatred of Jews and Christians will stop, and the threat of death for apostates from Islam will end. All this if the Israel/Palestinian problem is solved!" The reality, according to Kalms, is that the notion "that Islamic fundamentalism will cease the moment Israel disappears" is a "fantastical illusion." Where does all this disagreement over the letter leave Kessler's center and its aim of bringing the two faiths closer through its "new discipline"? He responds, "Any time you put your head above the parapet, you are going to be critiqued. But the critique itself is an important part of the process - it opens up new channels of communication. Extract of an article in Issue 26, April 14, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.