Jews and the Muslim World

Jews and the Muslim World


Any amateur crossword puzzle enthusiast ends up with open squares. In the grand scheme of life, knowing the lead ballerina from the Bolshoi Ballet in 1924 is not important as long as one can solve the major elements of the puzzle—the big pieces that reveal the overall theme. Through Colloquium ’07, many of the major pieces to the puzzle of Jews and the Muslim World were uncovered, and even if, at the end, filling in every space and providing complete solutions proved elusive, what was discovered was still valuable.

Colloquium ’07 took place in the shadow of the tragic death of its founder and visionary, Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine. True credit for the power and importance of this Colloquium belongs to him: he conceived the topic, assembled the scholars and set the context. In addition to the moving tributes offered, the general sentiment was that the best way to honor his memory was to continue his pursuit of the truth, wherever it may lead. His position paper on the topic as he conceived it lays the groundwork for this volume. What was truly satisfying about the conference, however, was the realization that principles commonly articulated in Secular Humanistic Judaism, and by Wine, had much to bring to the topic of Jews and the Muslim world. In the end, they may well provide crucial keys to solving the puzzle.

Professor Yaakov Malkin, International Co-Dean of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism (IISHJ), began with a tribute to Wine through a celebration of apikorsut, or Jewish heresy. Professor Malkin highlighted the joy of heresy, which is really the joy of the modern world: the freedom to pursue human happiness. He recalled the historical moment under the Abbasid Caliphate (750–1258 CE) when the intellectual setting was open enough to enable the Jewish heretic Hiwi Al-Balkhi to write his heresy, and also open enough for his heresy to become so famous that he was condemned by the chief rabbi of his age, Saadiya Gaon. That condemnation provided a nice parallel to the Israeli Rabbinic Program of the IISHJ being attacked by Israel’s chief rabbi on the occasion of its first rabbinical ordination in December 2006—in this modern case, the only result was more publicity and positive interest!

The English term “heresy” derives from the Latin haresia, which means “to choose.” This is why, in Peter Berger’s phrase, the “heretical imperative”¹ is a hallmark of modern life, and of all liberal approaches to religious tradition, even Secular Humanistic Judaism. This is also an insight into the dialogue between Jews and the Muslim world: the importance of freedom of choice, the freedom to believe or not, as long as co-existence is possible.

The keynote presentation of Colloquium ’07 was given by Fawaz Gerges, then the Christian A. Johnson Chair in Middle Eastern Studies and International Affairs at Sarah Lawrence College and a senior analyst for ABC Television News. His exploration of what he called the “Broken Middle East,” emblematic of divisions in the wider Muslim world, highlighted the clash between a modern life of choice and abundance, and the experience of both mainstream Muslims and the dark corners of Islamic extremism that Westerners cannot visit.

In the growing gap between rich and poor, the 40 percent of the Arab world living under the poverty line is fertile ground for extremism. Gerges sees failed governments and failed states where the only alternatives seen to despotic autocrats are Islamists. He also explained that the Shi’a-Sunni split in Iraq has spread across the Middle East, such that in Egypt many people believe that the Iraq invasion by the United States was actually a Shi’a-U.S.-Zionist plot. What most disturbed him in his recent travels to the region was that he was hearing these ideas not from extremists, but from mainstream people who are beginning to agree with the extremists.

What solutions did Gerges offer? As many others also suggest, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a key to the region as a test of the sincerity of American interest. He also opined that if the United States took even a part of the billions of dollars being spent in Iraq and used it to build the groundwork for civil society in the greater Middle East, it would ultimately reap the dividends. One of the highlights of every core Colloquium program following the keynote evening is the interchange and discussion among the panelists after their formal presentation—something preserved in the audio-visual record on DVD but before this volume not represented in print. The major issues raised and addressed in that discussion period are summarized in brief Afterthoughts following each essay.

Saturday morning, the exploration of the history of Jewish-Muslim relations began with Jacob Lassner, the Philip M. & Ethel Klutznick Professor of Jewish Civilization at Northwestern University and an expert in medieval Near Eastern history. Lassner emphasized the importance of words: both the words of the founding narratives and teachings of Islam in the Qur’an and hadith²and also the Arabic meanings of terms like “tolerance,” which can range from “absorbing an annoyance” to “bearing a burden” to “lightening a load” in newer interpretations. The rhetoric of the narratives and teachings as Lassner reads them is very negative regarding Jewish-Muslim relations, including insulting epithets, defaming accusations, and even negative qualifications of texts that might have been read to justify tolerance.

On the other hand, the actual behavior of Muslim communities toward Jews was more mixed—the Jews of Arabia and other locales were always treated as native to the area, and there were no massacres, mass expulsions or forced conversions as happened in Christendom. The key question remaining is which is more important: rhetoric and traditional imagery, or the actual lived experience of medieval tolerance, however that was defined?

Jane Gerber, director of the Institute for Sephardic Studies at the Graduate Center of City University of New York, offered the Jewish side of early and medieval encounters with Islam. She began by exploring not what happened, but how historians have presented what happened: between the lachrymose story of Jewish tragedy after Jewish tragedy and the concept of a “Golden Age of Muslim Spain” popularized by Heinrich Graetz and others as an argument for their own emancipation. She ably set out the phenomenon of Jewish status under Islam as dhimmi, a protected yet submissive minority.

Dhimmitude” was a hard bargain: in exchange for freedoms of religion, movement, economic affairs and residence, Jews experienced widely varying degrees of both personal indignities and professional and cultural triumphs. The reality of the dhimmi experience today is that it is all but over—the few thousand Jews left in the Muslim world are all that remain of what was once a vibrant and problematic experience.

Derek Penslar, the Samuel Zacks Professor of Jewish History and director of the Jewish Studies program at the University of Toronto, turned to the modern period to address the impact of Zionism on Jewish-Muslim relations. Penslar emphasized that most scholarly literature on Zionism and the writings of first generations of Zionists themselves minimally address Islam, if at all. Zionist founders spoke of the Arabs as a people, analogous to their self-conception of the Jewish people, and paid much more attention to Christian Arabs than to Muslim Arabs. He also highlighted the consequences of British and later Israeli choices to support Islamic authorities instead of Palestinian nationalism. Ironically, Zionist-produced images of the Dome of the Rock (the al-Aqsa mosque) under a Jewish flag were used to make Islamic religious appeals against Zionism. And fear of Jewish plots against al-Aqsa has been used often since 1948 to encourage Arab unity against Israel—September 2000 is only a recent example.

Yehuda Bauer, professor of Holocaust Studies at the Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry at Hebrew University, highlighted the ironies of Jewish-Muslim relations (between an ethnicity and a religion, and in size between an elephant and a squirrel). Bauer’s central claim is that radical Islam wants to conquer the world, and like all movements who imagine a perfect global utopia it envisions genocide for its enemies—the West, the West’s Jewish spearhead in the Middle East, and all Muslims and Muslim governments who disagree with them. The parallels to Holocaust language are clear, and Bauer fears that this currently small cancer is growing because the more moderate middle in the Muslim world has little direction and has been confused and made desperate by the dislocations of modernity. The risk will be that this desperation may flee toward Islamist utopian thinking.

Amir Hussain, professor in the Department of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University, gave a Muslim response, because the 1 billion individuals and many peoples that make up the Muslim world are much more diverse than those in the West may realize. Hussain also discussed his own life as a Pakistani-born but Western-raised Muslim, and the similarities he sees between the Jewish and Muslim immigrant experiences, such as a love of learning, social justice, a feeling of exile and the modern self-assertiveness of women within the religious tradition. He also emphasized the positive social nature of many Jewish-Muslim relations in the West—as friends, teachers and students, or even musicians.

Yehuda Bauer (in a presentation not reproduced in this volume) offered some thoughts on a Jewish response to these problems, and he emphasized that the true goal of positive relations must be respect and not tolerance; after all, “tolerance” implies disdain and condescension. Bauer also emphasized the importance of creating coalitions of like-minded thinkers, such as Amir Hussain and other Western practitioners of a proto-“reform Islam.” In the end, he explained, the potentially moderate middle in the Muslim world will not be reached by Yehuda Bauers, but rather by Amir Hussains.

In the concluding session, I offered some perspective on each of the speakers, and also on those basic principles of Secular Humanistic Judaism confirmed by the discussion and helpful to solving the puzzle. If this collection of essays only whets your appetite for more, a DVD of the complete proceedings of Colloquium ’07 is available from the IISHJ.

The puzzle of Jews and the Muslim world remains far from solved, but incremental change in a positive direction is still of worth. If this volume contributes to such progress, then its lasting value is clear.

Editor’s note: Spellings of non-English words from Hebrew or Arabic may vary, as each contributor’s preferred spelling has been preserved.

¹ Berger, Peter. The Heretical Imperative: Contemporary Possibilities of Religious Affirmation (Anchor Books, 1979). ² Non-scriptural traditions concerning the deeds and sayings of the prophet Mohammed.