Rabbi aims to improve Muslim-Jewish ties

David Rosen was invited to next week's Saudi-sponsored interfaith parley.

rabbi david rosen 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
rabbi david rosen 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Rabbi David Rosen, who has been invited to an interfaith conference in Madrid hosted by Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah next week, said Thursday that he expects to make significant progress in Muslim-Jewish relations while there. Rosen is the only Israeli rabbi to be invited to the conference, which will host 200 spiritual leaders from July 16-18, including representatives from Iran, Lebanon and Syria. Several American rabbis from varying streams have also been invited. Born in England, Rosen moved to Israel in 1967 and now serves as the president of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultation, based in Jerusalem. While he acknowledges the controversy surrounding the conference, Rosen sees attendance as an opportunity to bridge cultural barriers and bring about political reconciliation. "This is just a first step in breaking stereotypes and increasing communication between the Jewish and Muslim worlds, even the Israeli and Arab worlds, and decreasing the violent abuse of religion," Rosen told The Jerusalem Post. "I believe that we have everything to gain through encouraging this process and a great deal to lose if we turn our back on it." Even so, Rosen feels that Saudi Arabia has an ulterior motive in sponsoring the conference and that limited benefits will come out it. "The primary motive is that the king of Saudi Arabia understands that the image of his land has a serious problem in the Western world and would like to demonstrate how it can be positively and constructively involved in confronting challenges," he said. "Obviously, whatever the Saudis want to achieve, they feel that they have to do it step-by-step." Rosen's main qualm with the conference is that it includes neither an official Israeli representative nor a Palestinian delegate. While he is an Israeli citizen, Rosen is not listed as such by the conference. "One thing we'll have to make clear is that the Jewish people sees Israel as central to its national identity," he said. "Israel has been intensely discriminated against; so have the Palestinians. You cannot claim to have a full dialogue with the Jewish people if Israel is not officially represented." The Spanish government, however, feels that the conference is an important first step in dialogue. "The Spanish government is part of the interfaith and intercultural movement," said an official for the Spanish embassy. "Spain has its origins in the middle ages from the three monotheistic religions. That was a golden age for the coexistence of the three religions." While Rosen believes that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is central to these negotiations and plans to address it in private discussions at the conference, he does not plan to raise the issue publicly because of cultural understandings in Arab society. "Anybody who has any experience with public encounters in the Arab world knows there's a public choreography where you have to show loyalty to the cause," he said. "The last thing the Saudis want is to lose any credibility as champions of the Muslim, Arab and Palestinian cause." Despite these challenges, Rosen feels that dialogue with hostile nations, however intolerant, is crucial to reaching an understanding. "There are well known Israelis that say that Israel should only have contact with entities that are democratic," he said. "If that's the approach, Israel will wait a very long time and through lots of bloodshed. You should engage the most problematic of dictatorial regimes and through those negotiations have a salutary effect on those countries that will hope lead to a democratic regime." Representatives of one totalitarian regime with whom Rosen will be in contact are members of an Iranian delegation of ayatollahs to the conference. Rosen is not worried about the meeting, as he has met Iranian officials before. "It would not be a problem to meet the ayatollahs whom I've met at different places," he said. "By definition, those ayatollahs who go to these conferences aren't the ones who call the shots, but you have no idea what impact changing their perspectives has." While some have criticized Rosen for his plans to attend the conference, he feels that he is doing the right thing. "There are those who accuse me of serving as a fig-leaf for the Saudis, playing into their legitimating," he said. "Anyone who's not criticized is not doing anything worth doing."