Can religious Muslim-Jewish dialogue make a difference?
Can religious Muslim-Jewish dialogue make a difference?

Dialogue for everyone - and you can be a part of it!

A friend recently quipped concerning my articles, “where do you meet all these Muslims?” This article gives you an example of how to make such connections.

You wondered when the day would come when any Muslims would ask what your opinion is.

Perhaps that day has arrived.

Secular leaders are becoming increasingly aware of the vital role that religion plays in the personal and public lives of many of the peoples of the world. The exodus of tens of thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing westward poses an immediate intellectual challenge to those steeped in a strongly secular system. On the one hand, the Muslim immigrants who choose to live in the West understand that they are expected to strike a balance between their former more traditional life and the new freedoms they will greet. This can cause crises in the Muslim immigrant’s life; still, these are somewhat “self-made” crises.

The refugee faces a different scene entirely, the way I see it. Having hung on this long in his homeland, he flees in order to preserve his life, not in order to improve it. Leaving home and culture against his will, his first concern is safety, then once the dust settles he will find himself in a confusingly open society that he would not have ordinarily chosen. He will naturally turn to his religious leaders for guidance.

It is vital that the voices of religious leadership must be heard, and the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy is responding to the need. Based in Berlin, the ICD’s stated goal is “to promote global peace and stability by strengthening and supporting intercultural relations at all levels.”  My husband Ben was invited to attend their recent gathering, and I found myself whisked away on a one day trip to Istanbul to accompany him.

December 7 marked the “International Symposium on Cultural and Religious Diplomacy: Religions as Catalysts for Peaceful Coexistence.” A title filled with hope for what Marc Donfried, executive director of the ICD, says should be the beginning of many such meetings; co-sponsored by Diktio Network for Reform, this gathering was unique in that it placed both religious and secular leaders at the podium on equal footing.

Marc Donfried opened the discussion by describing that there has been a movement from the use of persuasion, or “soft power” via government bodies with the aim to convince the other side, towards dialogue. Dialogue exists in the private sector and here connotes not persuasion of the right against the wrong, but a more open forum of sharing, building understanding, and trust. “We may not all agree with each other today” he emphasized, guiding us forth from the previous right vs. wrong scenario to a new paradigm, where ideas are shared freely and easy answers will just have to wait.

“Until now” he noted, “religion has been taboo. The ICD however embraces the role of religion in dialogue. There are many more religious moderates than extremists.”

Law professor Dr Peter Petkoff, Brunel University, London, noted that the refugee crisis has highlighted a blind spot to religion regarding international relations; secular leaders previously unused to taking religion seriously are indeed consulting with religious leaders and even implementing policies in line with their needs.  Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox, Archbishop Bartholomew, stated that religious people can no longer be on the sidelines, as spectators looking upon social programs. He invoked the imagery of Avraham Avinu hosting the three travelers as the paradigm from which to draw. Are strangers to be feared, or welcomed and provided for?

The above example of hospitality is not being embraced by the majority in the west. France, which invited itself into North Africa and the Middle East in colonial times, is not reciprocating now -  xenophobia is a factor but fear of terror is uppermost. Yet most Muslims cannot be blamed for terror - they are fleeing it!

Muslim speaker Dr Michalis Marioras, lecturer at the University of Athens School of Theology, noted that the extreme right is garnering thirty percent support from voters in France. He noted that Muslim leaders in the west can help the integration of Muslim refugees into the host country by cultivating a feeling of belonging and loyalty in the minds of the refugees for their new host country.

A professor of religion and clergyman from Greece noted that his church is helping scores of Syrian refugees in Greece on their way to Europe, but he has no ability to help them obtain visas or give any legal assistance. This is an indication of how religion has not just been taboo, but disempowered.  

The disempowerment of religion and religious leaders is further illustrated concerning the United Nations Resolutions on the Culture of Peace, an issue which was raised at the symposium. There is discrepancy between these resolutions and their implementation in a legal sense.

Religion has indeed been marginalized, but isn’t that natural in a Western model of separation of religion and state?

Religion has been increasingly disempowered in the United States only since the 1940’s, due to Supreme Court cases that cited Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Baptists of Danbury Connecticut of 1802. In this letter, the president highlighted the separation between religion and state. He was talking to a minority religion that feared government interference. Some argue that his intent was to assure a minority religion that their religious expression would not be interfered with by the government, and not as a way to disempower religious institutions.[1]

That same letter has been used to justify issues that Jefferson may not have intended, like defunding auxiliary needs of religious schools such as government-paid transportation, hot lunches, even the funding of nondenominational charity (chessed) organizations simply because they are located on property owned by religious bodies. It leaves us with a legacy of much energy that is contained within religious organizations – the energy to Old models just do not work anymore. And no, religion in the public sphere need not spell tyranny...
inspire, the teachings of charity and hospitality - that lay dormant in the public sphere.

Some solutions were offered at the conference: The Ottoman Millet system, one Catholic priest insisted, can be updated for today. Minorities retained their basic rights and were equal citizens with members of the majority.

Maybe it is time to emerge from a mythology that ended up putting religion in the disempowered position that it was never meant to be in. Old models just do not work anymore. And no, religion in the public sphere need not spell tyranny.[2]

The recognition of the role of religion in personal and public life is on the ascent. Let’s be ready to provide the intellectual framework that has too long slumbered.

The above is a small sample of the four hour long symposium. What was important was the space provided for dialogue, making that one on one contact and building trust. Exchanging cards and pleasantries can be as important as the working out of new paradigms.

Other organizations are working at this too. The Inter Parliamentary Coalition for Global Ethics (IPCGE), whose stated purpose is to promote legislation based upon the United Nations Resolutions on the “Culture of Peace”, which so far consist of good intentions with no legislative power.

There is nothing preventing traditionally observant Jews in joining such efforts. The IPCGE is, in fact, run by an orthodox Jewish woman, Mrs. Shoshana Bekerman.

More such organizations run by Orthodox Jews: in line with the trend of dialogue as opposed to persuasion, Abrahamic Reunion, run by Eliyahu McClean holds events both in Israel and world-wide and now has NGO status.  Left-leaning Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger heads the Roots organization, based in Efrat. Rabbi Yaakov Nagen of the Otniel Yeshiva, Hevron, is, in the words of Rabbanit Hadassa Froman, widow of the late Rabbi of Tekoa, Menachem Froman, taking over Rabbi Froman's role in dialogue with Muslims. The Interfaith Encounter Association, run by Yehuda Stolov, hosts encounter groups all over Israel.

You wondered when the day would come when they would ask what your opinion is. Perhaps that day has arrived.


[1] An organization that interprets Jefferson’s letter to protect, not disempower, religion And the original copy from the Library of Congress, with discussion:

[2] The founders of modern political theory were Hebraists who studied the system of the Hebrew commonwealth to form a notion of government. The concept of the ger toshav, the protected minority, was instrumental in the thinking of 16th – 18th century political scientists such as Erastus, Hugo Grotius, Henry Ainsworth, John Selden, the founding fathers of the United States.