GUESTVIEW: Reflections on Jewish-Muslim Engagement

May 19, 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, Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky, is Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and author of the novel A Delightful Compendium of Consolation.


(Photo: Muslim sheikh and Jewish rabbi address interfaith meeting in Brussels, 4 Jan 2005/Thierry Roge)

By Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky

Jewish-Muslim engagement in an international context is inevitably more than interreligious dialogue. Muslim representatives, for the most part, do not come from countries that have a separation of mosque and state. Practically speaking, these dialogues are a form of second-tier diplomacy. In the United States, this is made apparent by fact the State Department sponsors Muslim visitors through its Foreign Leadership Visitor Program.

Under the aegis of the State Department, the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS, where I teach) has welcomed imams from Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Imam Shamsi Ali of the 96th Street Mosque in New York has brought the heads of the Indonesian Muslim community to visit JTS. I have been privileged to visit Muslim colleagues in Cairo (2004), in Doha (2005) and Madrid (2008), the latter for the first Saudi Arabian interreligious dialogue, sponsored by King Abdullah and hosted by Spain’s King Juan Carlos.

abdullah-and-visotzky-2As a representative of Judaism at these dialogues, I am often called upon to represent and/or defend the state of Israel. It has been my personal practice as a rabbi participating in such international dialogues to contact the Israeli Foreign Ministry either directly or indirectly in advance of my participation, so that I have the opportunity to hear their views on these conferences (which may not have invited any Israeli representatives). This sometimes leads me to feeling conflicted personally, when our views may diverge.

(Photo: Rabbi Visotzky and King Abdullah in Madrid, July 2009)

Jews reacted to September 11th and its aftermath in complicated ways. I recall giving a public address in lower Manhattan on the first anniversary of the tragedy in which I suggested “we all live in Jerusalem now.” To me, the horror America experienced echoed the terror Israelis know daily. As a Jewish American, it is important to me to represent and advance Israel. On the other hand, my own dismay at the Israeli government’s overreaction in Gaza earlier this year and my personal disapproval of the impediments that the “settler movement” has created to a two-state solution have been a part of what pushes me to participate in international Jewish-Muslim dialogue. I do so in order to help, in whatever small way I am able, to move Israel and the Palestinians toward a mutually agreeable accord. I am, however, not naïve about the apparent intractability of the problem and the chasm between the narratives on each side in the dispute.

I also believe there is a genuine Jewish imperative for dialogue with our Muslim colleagues. From a religious perspective, we share much in common. For the past five years, I have represented the JTS in a variety of dialogue and social-action projects with the Muslim community in the U.S. as well as abroad. Locally, we joined with members of New York City’s 96th Street Mosque for dialogue, exchanged mosque and synagogue visits and worked side-by-side in a soup kitchen run by a local Presbyterian Church.

New York Islamic Cultural Center, 23 April 2008/Tom HeneghanNationally, JTS has joined with the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) on a number of projects, including matching Conservative synagogues with local mosques for dialogue. We have also surveyed the 1,200 Conservative Rabbis in the United States both to see what Jewish-Muslim projects they are engaged in and to encourage other congregations to participate.

(Photo: New York Islamic Cultural Center, 23 April 2008/Tom Heneghan)

Personally, as an American who disagrees with Bush-era policies, I want to demonstrate that there are U.S. citizens who are respectful of and eager to dialogue with Islam, despite that administration’s Manichaean world-view. One hopes that the more open face of the Obama administration toward the Muslim world is a harbinger for more productive dialogue and encounter.

Of late, there has been a marked increase on the part of Muslim, particularly Arab Muslim moderate countries, for interreligious engagement. This can be attributed to the horrific events of September 11th, to a reaction to the Bush declarations against so-called “Islamo-fascism” and the perceived “clash of civilizations,” and as a response to Islamic extremism. It may also be a reaction to the influences of radical Islamic elements in Iran. But we must recognize that the move toward interreligious dialogue is also a genuine Islamic sentiment toward engagement with the “other,” particularly “religions of the Book.”

In the end, it is incumbent upon Islam to deal with its violent religious radicals, much as it is equally incumbent upon Judaism to deal with its violent religious radicals. For those of us who consider ourselves moderates or progressives, it is a religious obligation to continue the Jewish-Muslim engagement on the local, national, and international levels.

(For a fuller account of the JTS participation in Jewish-Muslim engagement, see the inaugural issue of The Journal of InterReligious Dialogue, )

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