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