A unique voice

Egyptian Sheikh Dr. Omer Salem speaks to burgeoning young diplomats on Jewish-Muslim conciliation.

Egyptian Sheikh Dr. Omer Salem (center) with students from the Petah Tikva Young Ambassadors School with Model UN director and instructor Steven Aiello (far left) (photo credit: Courtesy)
Egyptian Sheikh Dr. Omer Salem (center) with students from the Petah Tikva Young Ambassadors School with Model UN director and instructor Steven Aiello (far left)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A recent speaker of note at the Young Ambassadors School debate event in Petah Tikva was Egyptian Sheikh Dr. Omer Salem.
Based in New Haven, Connecticut, Salem was in Israel last month to tour and speak before a range of audiences, including at yeshivot in the West Bank, Jewish Agency programs, synagogues and mosques.
Salem grew up in Cairo but studied at The University of California at Berkeley and Stanford University. He was a research fellow at Darussalem University in India, and continued to Yale University, where he attained a masters degree in religious studies. He completed his PhD at Al Azhar University in Cairo, where he defended the Jewish people as ahlul kitab, or People of the Book.
So on December 17, only a few hours after landing at Ben-Gurion Airport, Salem was sharing ideas with students at the Young Ambassadors School, the program run by the Petah Tikva Municipality and the Education Ministry under the guidance of Rachel Amrani. The ideas he shared were novel to many.
“I was shocked by what he said,” participant Amit Daniel says. “These are concepts that never would have occurred to me.”
Salem had been invited to speak by Steven Aiello, the Model UN and debate instructor for the Young Ambassador program.
“Overall, his message jibed with much of what I try to teach – that you must understand what those who disagree with you believe and why, and that education and informed discourse are the most powerful tools,” Aiello states. “His bottom line message to the students was read, do not take anything for granted [and] check the sources yourselves.”
Before the sheikh’s arrival, Aiello provided the students with a broad overview of Islam and Salem’s background.
Participant Adi Meroz remarks that there was an undercurrent of excitement in meeting Salem.
“We were very inspired by his recognition of the Jewish people as based on the Koran,” Meroz says. “We finally felt validated. Many of us have renewed hope in the possibility of conciliation with Arabs and Muslims, but of course, there are students who see the situation as so problematic, that the answers he proposes seem somewhat inaccessible, at least for now.”
SALEM SPOKE about how Jews, as the People of the Book, are to be respected and protected by Muslims, and even protected in their land, promised to them by God, as written in the Koran.
But to attain this level of respect, Jews must uphold the very book that they are bound by, the Torah. So while heralding a message of support – to which students expressed surprise at hearing from a Muslim sheikh – Salem also encouraged a certain level of revival in mitzva observance in order to attain that level of respect.
“It is important for me, as a Muslim scholar, to communicate to my Jewish brothers and sisters, especially the young generation, that Islam according to the Koran does not discriminate against Jews,” Salem said of his motivation to tour Israel and speak to the Young Ambassadors participants. “Both Islam and Judaism prospered and flourished in peace in Morocco, Egypt, the Levant, Turkey and Spain for centuries.”
The students spoke about the uniqueness of Salem’s support for Israel. One asked: “Why do so many Muslims around the world see things differently [from Salem],” and “Why does it seem like Islam has a lack of consensus on so many issues?” As to his differing from the majority of Muslims, at least for now, Salem says that “many Muslims do not take the trouble to learn the Hebrew language or read the Hebrew Bible. Also, many Muslims are ruled by totalitarian regimes that view their stability as stemming from feeding their constituencies with negative information about the Jewish people.”
Hateful rhetoric is an industry, he adds.
“Muslims do not have a central figure, like a pope,” he explains. “Many Muslims today are yearning for a caliphate, as it would provide them with a central authority.”
Salem was asked whether he had been on the receiving end of hatred from other Muslims for being so sympathetic to Jews.
“Some Muslims have expressed their dismay that I am sympathetic with the Jewish cause. They point out injustices committed by Israel – the occupation, for example – as a reason why I should distance myself from the Jewish people,” he replies.
“My answer to that comes from the Koran: ‘They are not all the same’ (Q3:113),” he goes on. “Not all Jews support the occupation, but I also tell them that the Jews who support the occupation are not doing this because they want to oppress other people – they are doing so because they are afraid for their own safety. They are afraid that radical groups would take over the West Bank and lob rockets at Israel from there.”
This echoed Salem’s tireless defense of a central Jewish concern – security.
He has reiterated this in lectures to his brethren in Egypt, in Arabic, and says so in his book, The Missing Peace.
Finally, a student sums it up: “How can we help?” “You can help by not taking your information about Islam from the media,” Salem responds. “Take your information from the primary sources, the Koran and authenticated hadith [commentary, legends]. Also, share a meal with Muslim Arabs who respect their religion; invite them to your home or accept an invitation to visit their home.”
ALTHOUGH STILL in middle school, Ariel Terkeltoub speaks with the eloquence of a young adult.
“We have had many interesting lectures, but Dr. Salem’s was totally unique,” he says. “He speaks logically, showing how he can bring Koranic verses to support Israel. And it was valuable to hear how we as Jews are seen by Arabs and Muslims, and seeing this totally different perspective is vital to anyone who wishes to understand and alleviate the situation."
Terkeltoub adds that some students were cautious at first.
“Salem managed to engage our trust when we heard loud and clear that this is an Arab Muslim who supports Israel,” he says. “Despite initial hesitation on the part of some of the students, many came away with a sincere respect for him.”
Tenth-grader Roey Hasid also shares his impressions.
“As a religious student, I am more aligned with the Right politically, so it was new for me to hear an Arab Muslim who actually supports the Jewish people and our presence in the land,” he says. “I always heard that Arabs want us out, and here was an Arab Muslim stating publicly that he supports us here. I am definitely interested in learning more about Islam.”
But how, as a religious Jew, does Hasid plan to approach learning about Islam? “My life is guided by the Torah,” he says. “I will approach the Koran as I would approach a study book that enables me to learn about how others view us. With this as the goal, there is no need for a religious person to feel threatened by such study.”
SALEM DESCRIBES his talk with the Model UN students as having been a positive experience.
“Overall, the encounter was very polite, friendly and congenial,” he says. “I felt like I was talking with my own kids. The students were respectable and courteous, expressing a positive attitude that is all too rare in today’s world.”
It is to the program’s credit, he says, that a group of high school students could speak comfortably with a Muslim sheikh, especially while tensions are high in Israel. He insists that both peoples can and must flourish simultaneously, and there is no need to think that when Jews are strong, Muslims must therefore be weak, or vice versa.
“I would like for these young Jewish students,” he says, “to be ambassadors of both Judaism and Islam, to see Islam not as a source of animosity for the Jewish people, but instead as a source of protection for the Jewish people.”