GUESTVIEW: Gaza, New York, Mayor Bloomberg and interfaith dialogue

January 2, 2009

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the author’s alone. The author is Program Director at the Interfaith Center of New York. He is writing a book about Interfaith and Civil Society.

By Matthew Weiner

The last day of 2008 was a bad day for interfaith relations in New York City. Mayor Michael Bloomberg had his annual Prayer Breakfast at the New York Public Library, where several hundred religious leaders gathered (see video here). As usual there were prayers offered from many faiths. The Hindus were miffed, because a Sikh got their usual slot. Instead of praying, the Sikh explained Sikhism for a bit too long. The Buddhist monk also prayed too long, and the translation took forever. But poor staging was not the reason for the dark cloud that hung over us all.

(Photo: Mayor Michael Bloomberg, 3 Nov 2008/Lucas Jackson)

Instead, it was the bombing of Gaza. Or rather it was the Mayor’s response the day before that created  tension in the audience. The night before, Bloomberg had sided with Israel in the conflict. “I feel very strongly that Israel really does have a right …to defend itself,” he said. The mayor said nothing about the loss of innocent life on the Palestinian side.

For him, the current situation is not a story with two sides. While he is the mayor for all of New York, and while there are more or less as many Muslims as Jews here these days, on this day he spoke for one side of his city.

This, anyway, is the way the Muslim leaders in New York who I spoke to see it. Their frustration is not that Bloomberg criticized Hamas, but rather that he took sides instead of calling for peace or a cease fire. The many Muslims who came to the breakfast were ready for battle.

“I thought not to come,” said one leader. “Then I was reading Gandhi on Non Violence, and I realized that I could not let his one sided political response stop me from joining a public forum.” Another Imam added, “If he had repeated what he said last night, I would have had to stand and walk out.”

Every Muslim I spoke to agreed. They also did not stand when the mayor got an otherwise standing ovation. Nor did not laugh at his jokes, the way others were. When I asked a rabbi afterwards if he noticed this silent protest, he had not.

In further quiet protest, the Muslim Consultative Network handed out a protest statement to participants. It was eloquent: “While one generally agrees with his simple point about self defense…it ignores the Palestinians, who have been dying in great numbers.” It goes on to say that there is a need to acknowledge the common humanity of both Jews and Arabs.

Bloomberg did not repeat his comments in front of this interfaith audience, and one can only guess that hewas astute to the tension in the air. Perhaps this is a good thing.

(Photo: New York Public Library, 14 Dec 2004/Mike Segar)

But there is, I think, a serious problem here. It is not one of life and death, but one of perception and honesty when it comes to the public sphere. Interfaith events are intended to serve two basic purposes: to create a symbol of unity (call it the unity model), or to discuss and debate a problem at hand (call it the discourse model). In the unity model, religiously different groups stand together to condemn something, call for peace, you name it. It is a symbolic act, but a powerful one, and one done with a shared conviction of its power.

In the discourse model, interfaith can serve as a venue for debate and discussion. Interfaith is a part of civil society, and therefore a kind of public sphere. It’s what the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas calls communicative action, where rational people debate an issue with the goal of a shared better understanding of the truth and the potential for shared action. Both kinds of interfaith happen in New York City and around the world every day. Every day, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and others join together successfully in this kind of public interfaith. It makes for a better democracy.

And Bloomberg has been good on interfaith in many ways. He was the first mayor to hold regular interfaith services and work with leaders from every faith. The problem with Bloomberg’s interfaith service this particular time around is not his own opinion (he is entitled to one) but that he held an interfaith event, while skipping both legitimate reasons for having one. He talked about the good work of his administration and the economic crises. Yes, this is indeed a shared issue for all, but it totally ignored the issue at hand, and (most importantly) his opinion on it. It left one side of his citizenry very angry- not because he did not take their side, but because the moral reasons for joining interfaith — to make a symbolic statement, or to discuss truth and shared action — were ignored.

Jewish groups may be happy with the mayor’s strategy, but what do we lose in the process?  Many mainline Jewish groups will not even discuss the conflict with their Muslim colleagues who they work with on so many other issues. As one rabbi who works for a Jewish agency said during breakfast, “My hands are tied.” This means that regardless of what he thinks (and I cannot pretend to know what he thinks), his agency will not let him work on a shared statement about the current crises. And yet he is mandated to work with Muslims on other issues.

While interfaith appears to go on as normal here, the tension and frustration run deep. It at least must lead us to ask the question of which public sphere we want interfaith to help create? Maybe this is a New Year’s question, as opposed to a contrite resolution, to hold onto.


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by the writer’s logic, this event would have been a good place for everyone to condemn hamas terrorism and its rocket attacks on israeli civilians. sad that instead the writer uses this interfaith meeting as a platform to try to split and divide our community rather than to foster harmony.

Posted by Tzvee | Report as abusive

Tzvee,Your opinion that the author’s comments are divisive couldn’t be further from the truth. I believe Mr. Weiner does an admirable job in framing an extremely under-reported problem that is happening around the world right now. That problem is the blatant disregard by Israel, the US (government), and other world powers/leaders for the very real suffering of the CIVILIANS of Gaza. Mr. Weiner’s assessment that an opportunity for dialogue and growth was wasted by the poor handling of the interfaith conference is completely correct, and in no way divisive. Your assertion that “this event would have been a good place for everyone to condemn Hamas terrorism and its rocket attacks on Israeli civilians” is also correct, as long as they also condemn the suffering and death caused by Israel in the Gaza Strip. The dishonest one-sided approach that you suggest is exactly what Mr. Weiner was discouraging in his article, and ironically is also very divisive.Of course no one is disputing Israel’s right to defend its citizens against acts of aggression. However, no country has the right to imprison an entire population, cut off access to food, fuel, medicine, electricity, economic growth, and whatever else they feel is necessary to assure their security. NO COUNTRY!

Posted by Mullins | Report as abusive

I live in Washington, DC; let’s pretend for the sake of argument that DC is the entire US. Imagine for a moment that the people of the United States were to elect a government that the rest of the world truly despised (disputed election, questions of legitimacy, reports of voter intimidation, etc). This government then decides they have the right to attack another country in order to further their own agenda. The people of the United States don’t support these actions but are essentially powerless to remove this evil regime. At this point does the country we have been attacking have the right to build a fence around DC and hold the entire civilian population of the US accountable for the actions of its government? These American civilians living in this impromptu prison, would you expect them to sit quietly in deplorable conditions while they are tormented, or would you expect them to become increasingly angry, defiant, and nationalistic? Would you expect them to support their evil government more or less after these conditions worsened? Not such a clear-cut case of right and wrong anymore is it?Anyway, my only point is that Mr. Weiner is exactly correct that an opportunity was wasted by Mayor Bloomberg and others to further the cause of peace and reconciliation in the Middle East. He also worries that: “…there is, I think, a serious problem here. It is not one of life and death, but one of perception and honesty when it comes to the public sphere.” Coincidentally this is exactly what is wrong with the comments from Tzvee. We live in a world today with enormous problems, and these problems can only be solved once we all let go of the hatred, mistrust, naiveté, and intellectual dishonesty that started these problems in the first place.We all deserve peace and security, but I would rather none of us have it, rather than some of us at the expense of others. Every human life on earth is sacred and whenever we fail to see that we lose some of our own humanity.

Posted by Mullins | Report as abusive

It is time to speak about the unspeakable!Let us test the strength of our interfaith relations when and where it matters most – when we’re in trouble and reaching for inspired solutions from our Creator. I’m confident we are strong enough to withstand the test and that we will all benefit beyond our wildest imagining and grow even stronger because of it.

Posted by Aisha al-Adawiya | Report as abusive

When ninetynine point nine nine percent of Moslem children are born out of loveWhen ninetynine point nine nine percent of Christian children are born out of loveWhen ninetynine point nine nine percent of Buddhist children are born out of loveWhen ninetynine point nine nine percent of Hindu children are born out of loveWhat on earth these mothers of the children doingAre they telling the men and their counterpart women their duty to see them live their entire lifeAnd not at the mercy of the nincompoops who have their say of terrorismOrganised or administered.No religion or community on earth advocates killing of childrenYou will never understand the pains, a mother only knowsMothers of all religion wake up and stand up against this.Do the administration have the choice to kill innocent children whatever age they beAsk their mothers how painful it is they live after thatI know my mother who every second she lives, is only bothered about my well beingMothers of all children wake up and tell that do not harm anyoneLest the mother of the harmed one lives dying every momentStop this my men and women friendsNothing changeth in this world out of hatredLiving together and enjoying the fruits of natureWhy don’t we live peacefully with the help of natureBarack Obama you have been given the torch to lead the worldEveryone is looking at you to change the worldBring peace everywhere in the world, which your predecessors never botheredAmerica will rejoice the world leadershipIraq and Afghan wars are foughtIsrael and Lebanon wars are foughtNothing has changed so farLet us take oathEvery human being on earthThat we shall see no child killed on the earthBy any act of ours.

Posted by Padmanabhan Nair | Report as abusive

I commend Mr. Weiner on the reporting of this event and the lost opportunity to acknowledge the loss and suffering on both sides. It saddens me to inform you that Mayor Bloomberg could care less about interfaith dialogue or taking a balanced approach to represent all New Yorkers.Arab and Muslim New Yorkers have been disrespected on a number of occasions by mayor Bloomberg- let me enlighten you. Mayor Bloomberg made a similar statement during the Israel and Lebanon war a couple of summers ago. Ironically, days before he hosted the ArabAmericans to an Arab Heritage breakfast at Gracie mansion. This breakfast is similar to this interfaith breakfast except for the last several years, the public has not known about it because media coverage was not permitted. Why doesn’t Bloomberg and his administration want New Yorkers to know about this annual event? What does he have to hide, from fellow New Yorkers? Is he ashamed of courting Arab Americans? Aren’t they New Yorkers?The second slap in the face to Arab and Muslim New Yorkers was the removal of Debbie Almontaser, the founding principal of the Kahlil Gibran International School set to teach Arabic. Mayor Bloomberg pandered to right-wing neo-conservative propaganda carried by local tabloid papers branding Ms. Almontaser as someone condoning terrorism- Gaza style. When, in fact, Ms. Almontaser is known to be a prominent educator and leader who brings people of all religions together for common understanding. Mayor Bloomberg’s removal of Ms. Almontaser was an assault on all Arab and Muslim Americans if you ask me.Arab and Muslim New Yorkers need to wake up let Mayor Bloomberg know of their discontent and say enough is enough. The need to demand respect and equal treatment as New Yorkers escpecially since he may be there mayor another 4 years.

Posted by Bruce Kahn | Report as abusive

as a jewish american, i am a big supporter of mayor bloomberg.He has done wonders for NYC and has been a stable and senisible leaders during some tough times.His interfaith conferences are one of the best thing he has done since being in office.In a city as diverse as NYC a nation that is divesifying as much as america has been, these are the type of conferences that need to be held in ever major city in america.this is the best way to promote peace, tolerance, and unity amongst all americans. in the case of the current situation, even I will admit that Israel has gone way too far. it is one thing to take action against the rocket fires, but the level this has gotten to is rather distubring. while the silent response from washington is not a surprise, I was surprised a dissappointed to hear that mayor bloomberg did not take this wonderful opportunity to try and make a statement that would speak for the majority of americans and that is that this operation needs to come to an end. I was also expecting more from the president elect, but it seems as if he is standing in line with his washington buddies. i am sad to say, but the two men who i though would represent america best in this type of crisis have failed to stand up for what we all thought they would stand for.

Posted by William | Report as abusive

Mr Bloomberg’s behavior has not only angered Arabs and Muslims, I’m sure. He shows his sympathy for Israel (which is warranted), but he doesn’t say a word about how Palestinians have suffered with the Israeli incursion. He is letting his personal feelings matter more than his own constituents. Although I would be the first to cheer the downfall of Hamas, I think that Mayor Bloomberg should think first about how his words and actions affect the people that he represents. However, I guess I should not be surprised considering that the Bush administration blatantly ignores Palestinians’ plight while blindly supporting Isreal’s actions.

Posted by helga | Report as abusive

500 palestinians are dead, and 5 israeli’s and Bloomberg’s only response is to blame Hamas without a word of concern for the Palestinians that are still in the line of fire? He should keep his teddybears. Clearly he is not the mayor of all of NYC.

Posted by maria | Report as abusive

Much of what is said about Gaza is myopic and without historical context. Israel, despite the condemnation of the international community (the USA administration excepted), constantly justifies its hideous crimes on the grounds of self-defence. Those who never engage with the root of the Israel-Palestine conflict and its history are very easily led to believe that the Israeli assault is a response to the rockets launched from Gaza by HAMAS.Butchering civilians is nothing new for the Israelis. How can one forget the atrocities committed by the Zionist terrorist organisations Irgun, Haganah and others before Israel was created. Could anybody forget Deir Yassin, where in 1948 more than 200 hundred Palestinian civilians, mostly women and children, were killed by Zionist terrorists, who later became members of the Israeli Defence Force (IDF). How can anybody forget the 17,500 dead – almost all civilians, most of them children and women – in Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon; the 1,700 Palestinian civilian dead in the Sabra-Chatila massacre; the 1996 Qana massacre of 106 Lebanese civilian refugees, more than half of them children, at a UN base; the massacre of the Marwahin refugees who were ordered from their homes by the Israelis in 2006, then slaughtered by an Israeli helicopter crew; the 1,000 dead of that same 2006 bombardment and Lebanese invasion; and the frequent assaults on Gaza since 2005, in which almost all the victims were civilians?The question one should ponder is: when did Israel ever abide by international law and UN resolutions if they were not in its favour? It never cares about the Geneva Convention, or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Now Israelis justify their crimes by blaming enemy fighters for taking shelter behind civilians, when the known facts and evidence of witnesses indicate this is not the case. More than 40 people, mostly children and refugees, were killed in the Fakhoura School run by UNRWA, but, despite the statement by the UN officials on the ground about the non-existence of militants in the school, every Israeli spokesperson who appears on the media keeps repeating the lie.Condemning HAMAS for being a peace hating and terrorist organisation which rejects any peace proposal is far from the truth. Anybody who has followed the conflict since the very beginning will be aware that HAMAS was ready to renew the truce with Israel that ended on December 2008 on condition that Israel ended the siege and opened the borders. What they received in return was the brutal attack from Israel. And this was not the first time that a truce had been proposed by HAMAS and turned down by Israel. Since 1994 HAMAS has repeatedly offer of a truce which Israel has stubbornly rejected. Moreover, since 2004 HAMAS has three times observed a truce that Israel never respected.What has HAMAS received in response? The free elections that brought them to power in 2006 has never been respected by Israel. The Palestinians were punished for their choice, and their sovereign government was boycotted not only by Israel, but by the USA and EU. Half of their cabinet ministers and 44 of their members of parliament were captured and detained without trial in Israeli prisons. Moreover, Israel denied Palestinians the taxes collected on their border. Palestinian women and children were detained in Israeli prisons and denied their basic rights behind bars. Since June 2007, after the failure of a coup d’état attempt by a group of mafia supported by Tel Aviv, the Gazan people have been imprisoned in their own country. Gaza became a huge prison with all the land, air and sea borders sealed by Israel. Any countries that tried to establish relations with Gaza were threatened by the USA. Gazans were denied food, petrol, goods, medicine, and contacts with other people all over the world. Electricity was cut off and the supply of water was controlled by the Israelis. Even before the recent Israeli aggression there was a humanitarian crisis which was created by Israel.In such a situation any people would fight for their freedom and their rights. What has really been happening in Gaza is a struggle of the oppressed against their oppressor. If somebody came to your house to kill you, your children, your wife and your parents, would you stand still or fight back? If you fought back, and the aggressor killed you in the act of protecting yourself, would others blame you for such an act of self-defence? Let us stop blaming the victims. What the Israelis are doing now is the act of a terrorist state, worthy of the Nazis.For a fair judgement of the situation in Gaza, let us tune in to al-Jazeera and other alternative media and listen to what is really happening on the ground rather than listening only to the Israeli apologists in the mainstream media. Let us read what Fisk, Pappe, Finkelstein, Chomsky and other peace loving journalists, including the non-Zionist Jews, have to say about the true face of Israel. Or maybe we should start to listen to the Israeli soldiers who have resigned, the ‘Refusniks’, who oppose the killing of Palestinians and call for dialogue with HAMAS. It is time the civilised international community freed itself from the lies it is forced to swallow by the pro-Israeli media.

Posted by Ami | Report as abusive

The issue of religion and state is a very important one in today’s world. Too often we see what’s on the news and allow it to impact our day to day relations with people of other traditions. The key is listening first and then speaking later. Though you may not agree with the person you are listening to, at least at the end of the conversation you will truly understand him or her.For more information on how to continue dialoguing in your day to day life, check out, the new website of The Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue™. The Journal is a forum for academic, social, and timely issues affecting religious communities around the world. It is designed to increase the quality and frequency of interchanges between religious groups and their leaders through its free peer reviewed Journal and online forums. Ultimately, the Journal seeks to build an inter-religious community of scholars, in which people of different traditions learn from one another and work together for the common good.With the understanding that members of the clergy and lay leadership substantially impact the dynamics within their congregations and religious movements, the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue™ offers a novel way to establish long-term dialogue and collaboration between religious communities. Its content will include articles on the theological underpinnings of inter-religious work, best practices of organizations on college campuses and in the non-profit sector, and direct engagement of the difficult issues that religious leaders face in their interactions with one another.The Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue™ will be stewarded and peer reviewed by a multigenerational Staff of seminarians and religious scholars, and an illustrious Board of Scholars and Practitioners. This Board contains broad representation of academic disciplines, non-profit work, and activism, including Swami Tyaganada, Hindu Chaplain at Harvard University, Edward Kessler, Director, Woolf Institute of Abrahamic Faiths at Cambridge University, Burton Visotzky, Appleman Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Eboo Patel, Executive Director of the Interfaith Youth Core, and Sheryl Kujawa-Holbrook, Academic Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School.

Posted by he Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue™ | Report as abusive

I storngly believe in the necessity of dialog among people of different beliefs/religions. All religions have many commonalities. In addition, I do believe that our differences enrich us. You can take a look at that article which provides a compherensive view on the necessity of dialog.http://fethullahgulenconference.o rg/houston/read.php?p=fethullah-gulen-co ntribution-muslim-christian-dialogue-abr ahamic-cooperation

Posted by shaqesen | Report as abusive