|Walter Ruby - Special To The Jewish Week |
A rare dialogue between a rabbi and an imam at a New York Orthodox synagogue turned from love fest to misunderstanding last Saturday, demonstrating some of the hurdles to progress that such dialogues face.
In soaring rhetoric, host Rabbi Marc Schneier of the New York Synagogue and Imam Omar Abu Namous of the Islamic Cultural Center urged that Jews and Muslims should put aside conflicts and reach out to each other.
But after Rabbi Schneier and moderator Joel Cohen pressed him on why more Muslims don't speak out against Islamic extremism, Abu Namous, leader of New York's largest mosque, unleashed a barrage of criticisms against Israel, at one point even questioning its legitimacy.
The event rapidly deteriorated into a dialogue of the deaf.
"It demonstrated how far apart we are and opened my eyes to the reality that we have a long way to go," Rabbi Schneier said after the event.
Schneier, an engaging rabbi with a penchant for publicity, is spiritual leader of the Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach and the three-year-old New York Synagogue on East 58th Street in Manhattan. He is also president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, an organization he built in partnership with hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons to address black-Jewish relations in New York
Abu Namous, who was born in 1934 in what was then Palestine, became chief imam of the 96th Street Mosque — the city's largest — in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Originally from a village near Jaffa, Abu Namous said he and his family were expelled from the nascent state of Israel in 1948 by Jewish forces, starting a lifetime of exile. Like Schneier, he projects abundant personal warmth. Donning a black kipa during his visit, Abu Namous referred to congregants as "my brothers" even as he expressed opinions that were anathema to them.
Abu Namous is widely viewed as a moderate in comparison with his predecessor at the Islamic Cultural Center, Sheik Muhammad Gemeaha. The previous imam gained notoriety by telling an Arabic-language Web site that Zionists in command of the nation's air traffic control towers had helped the suicide hijackings on 9/11, and that Jewish doctors were poisoning Muslim children.
Abu Namous disowns Gemeaha's comments. But he himself has publicly questioned whether Muslims were really responsible for the 9/11 attacks and asserted that only Muslims are spiritually pure enough to have sovereignty over the Holy Land.
In their dialogue, both men cited the patriarch Abraham as the common father of Jews and Muslims. Rabbi Schneier recalled the story of Hagar, Abraham's bond woman, and Ishmael, their common son, both of whom Abraham dismissed from his household at the request of his wife, Sarah, and God's instructions. In the story, Hagar, left in the desert, has her eyes opened by God to see life-sustaining water which she then gives to her son.
"This is also the challenge of Muslim-Jewish relations," said Rabbi Schneier. "We need to open our eyes to the past and the many commonalities we share … We must open our eyes and see one another as human beings who ... are children of God and deserve to be treated with respect."
Abu Namous said that Jews and Muslims are presently in conflict because "Both sides have forgotten the commandment of God given in the Holy Koran that ‘All of you should establish one religion together and not divide against each other'… The three faiths are in fact one faith, and the Bible, Gospels and Koran are in fact one book. If we return to the command of God and agree to serve God selflessly, we will cooperate and even sacrifice ourselves to save one another."
But the tenor changed when Rabbi Schneier bemoaned "the absence of centrist, moderate religious clerics in Islam." He pointed to statements by radical Islamic clerics that the Holocaust never happened and comparing Jews to monkeys, deploring "a culture of violence that has entered into a fundamentalist-radical version of Islam."
Abu Namous replied, "I disagree that Al-Islam has a streak of violence."
He contrasted the behavior of the Prophet Muhammad — who once stopped his army from attacking another because one innocent woman had been accidentally killed — with the actions of the Israel Defense Forces in the recent Lebanese war, which, Abu Namous claimed, killed 2,000 innocent civilians in Lebanon. And he asserted that "80 to 90 percent" of Muslims in New York condemn violent attacks on innocent civilians in the name of Islam.
Pressed by Cohen, the event's moderator, on why more is not heard from this majority, Abu Namous countered, "There are also extremist voices among Christians and Jews." He cited Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's new deputy prime minister who has advocated stripping Israeli Arabs of their citizenship en masse and blowing up the Aswan Dam as "singularly extremist."
"Since 1948, when Israel occupied Palestine and stripped [the Palestinians] of their property… The Muslim nation is frustrated we cannot reach a settlement and so [extremist] groups in the Muslim world who normally no one would listen to have found their opportunity," said Abu Namous.
He asserted that Israel's treatment of the Palestinians had robbed that people of their dignity, calling it "a wound allowed to bleed for 60 years without being treated, so it has become gangrenous. … If you show Palestinians some respect and give them back some property, give them independence and sovereignty, they will be pleased and won't support Hamas, Hezbollah and al-Qaeda."
Pressed by Cohen about his 2001 statements questioning whether Muslims carried out the 9/11 attacks, Abu Namous said, "Now I am sure [Muslims] did it."
He also acknowledged saying in 2002 that only Muslims are righteous enough to control the Holy Land, but told the congregation he now believes that the Promised Land "belongs to God's holy people and that doesn't exclude good Jewish people. So let them come forward and be part of the government."
To the evident mystification of the audience, Abu Namous asserted that "the Arabs never rejected independence or sovereignty for Israel in 1948," and that the Arab states did nothing to pressure Jews from Arab countries to leave for Israel. In contrast, he said, "The Jews from Europe drove out the Palestinians, so there are millions of them today in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan"
Abu Namous stunned his interlocutors by asking rhetorically, "Why shouldn't Israel agree to a one-state solution and incorporate the West Bank and Gaza into that state? There would be two administrations, one for Jewish affairs and one for Christian and Muslim affairs. No one will take a Jewish person's property and [Palestinian refugees] will not return to Haifa and Jaffa."
Rabbi Schneier quickly responded: "A one-state solution won't happen. It is not reality. Would a two-state solution be accepted by the Muslim world?"
Abu Namous at first objected, "It wouldn't work" but finally said, "I would accept a two-state solution. We have been waiting for it since President Carter was in office."
Several congregants said afterward that the dialogue left them more pessimistic than before about hopes for Jewish-Muslim reconciliation. "The imam's words left me feeling that we are even farther apart than I had imagined," said one woman, "so far apart that we really have nothing to say to each other."
Yehudit Barsky, director of the American Jewish Committee's Middle East division, questioned Schneier's appraisal of Abu Namous as a moderate.
"When you talk to someone with views like those of Abu Namous, it is hard to go very far in having a meaningful dialogue," she said.
But Rabbi Michael Paley, scholar-in-residence at UJA-Federation, who has participated in a Jewish-Muslim dialogue group for several years with Abu Namous, termed him "a deeply religious person ... someone deeply committed to the brotherhood of the human family."
The problem, he said, is that "Whenever you ask him for a political perspective, he will offer you a religious perspective. And therefore we will misunderstand him.
"We rightfully think about political issues," Rabbi Paley explained. "He doesn't. He believes in a single state where all will have rights. It's his dream. It's not ours. He's not a good person to negotiate political boundaries with. He's the imam of a mosque."
Rabbi Schneier said he came away "concerned, frustrated and deeply disturbed by [Abu Namous'] misinformation and misinterpretation of the facts about Israel … He is more extreme in his views than I had understood."
But he insisted the dialogue was worthwhile. "I could have gotten someone else if I wanted a polite dog-and-pony show, but it seemed to me important for our people to hear what the head of the most prominent mosque in New York City is thinking."
Rabbi Schneier said he intended to accept Abu Namous' invitation to speak at his 96th Street Mosque. "Despite everything he said, it is incumbent to continue the dialogue," he said. n