ROSEMONT, Ill. (JTA) – The delegates trickling into the massive convention center chatted, renewed acquaintances, greeted each other with traditional Muslim blessings and largely ignored the endless words of welcome from the podium.
Until the rabbi spoke.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s fiery indictment of Islamophobia at last week’s annual conference of the Islamic Society of North America in this Chicago suburb turned heads, silenced chatters and, finally, earned an extended standing ovation.
“The time has come to put aside what the media says is wrong with Islam and to hear from Muslims themselves what is right with Islam,” said Yoffie, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism. “The time has come to listen to our Muslim neighbors speak, from their heart and in their own words, about the spiritual power of Islam and their love for their religion. “
The outreach was long overdue, said the associate director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, Mark Pelavin, who facilitated the address.
“This is a recognition, particularly on Rabbi Yoffie’s part, that we’re communities that need to be speaking to each other and we’re clearly not,” Pelavin said.
Yoffie addressed not only how Muslims are perceived but how U.S. authorities treat them.
“The time has come to end racial profiling and legal discrimination of any kind against Muslim Americans,” he said. “Yes, we must assure the security of our country; this is absolutely our government’s first obligation. But let’s not breach the Constitution in ways we will later regret. After all, civil liberties are America’s strength, not our weakness.”
Daniel Pipes, the historian who directs the Middle East Forum, criticized Yoffie’s speech as naive.
“I found it profoundly ignorant and terribly superficial in its analysis,” said Pipes, who added that he “reluctantly” has arrived at the conclusion that “there must be special scrutiny of Muslims.”
“If the police are looking for a rapist, you look exclusively at male, not female, suspects,” Pipes said. “If you look out for Muslim terrorists, you look at the Muslim population.”
The Islamic Society of North America has been named as “an unindicted co-conspirator” in federal investigations of the Holy Land Foundation, a charity believed to have funneled funds to Palestinian terrorists.
The society acknowledges this fact on its Web site, but it says “the listing of ISNA was not to imply that ISNA was part of a criminal conspiracy or that it acted with any criminal intent, but rather, it was a legal tactic to permit the government to seek the admission of evidence that would otherwise be excluded. ISNA is confident that its name will be removed from the list so that the organization’s reputation is cleared.”
Organizers of last week’s conference appeared to recognize a need to clear the air.
“ISNA remains consistent in its rejection of terrorism and violence,” the society said in a statement timed for the conference. “ISNA rejects all acts of terrorism, including those perpetrated by Hamas, Hezbollah and any other group that claims Islam as their inspiration. ISNA has encouraged and continues to encourage a just and fair settlement of disputes between Israel, the Palestinians and their neighbors through diplomacy and other peaceful means.”
Naming Hamas and Hezbollah was something of a breakthrough. U.S. Muslim groups have condemned terrorism generally and have named groups targeting Americans, such as al-Qaeda, but until now have abjured naming Palestinian groups.
Nevertheless, the American Jewish Committee blasted Yoffie for choosing to address the Islamic Society, saying the group had not sufficiently disassociated itself from the Holy Land Foundation.
“This is not the right organization and not the right time,” said Yehudit Barsky, AJCommittee’s counterterrorism specialist. “Had they repudiated their association with the organization or its activities, this would have been welcome.”
However, Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, defended the Islamic Society, calling it the “most appropriate umbrella organization in the American Muslim community.”
“It is not perfect, and no umbrella organization is at all times perfect. It has spoken out against terrorism,” Foxman said.
At the convention, the effect of Yoffie’s speech was galvanizing.
“Excellent, excellent for the humanity of the world,” said Khaleel Rahman, who came to the conference from Houston. “We were very impressed. He is extremely judicious. He understands most of the religions really well, and the needs of human beings, and he presented the humanity involved, not only the religions.”
Conference organizers wanted Yoffie to speak at prime convention time Sunday, but a scheduling conflict had him addressing about 1,500 delegates as the conference began Friday. The conference drew about 30,000 people.
The speech was of a piece with Yoffie’s outreach effort last year to Christian evangelicals, when he spoke at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. But Yoffie’s speech last Friday had a subtler goal: to roll back the perception that Jewish groups had left behind a commitment to civil liberties in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Yoffie’s speech was welcome because it returned the Jewish focus to freedoms, said Steve Gutow, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. He called the speech “healthy” and “very positive.”
The Reform leader only touched briefly on the problem of Muslim anti-Semitism, with the bulk of the speech focusing on bigotry and discrimination against Muslims.
“We are especially worried now about anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial,” Yoffie said. “Anti-Semitism is not native to Islamic tradition, but a virulent form of it is found today in a number of Islamic societies, and we urgently require your assistance in mobilizing Muslims here and abroad to delegitimize and combat it.”
Yoffie ended his speech with an appeal to unite in a commitment to bring peace to Israelis and Palestinians.
“Let us work toward the day when a democratic Palestinian state lives side by side, in peace and security, with the democratic State of Israel,” he said.
It was an appeal that resonated.
“I’m Palestinian and I think the Palestinian people are entitled to their land, but I also see the Jewish perspective of why they deserve a national state, and I think honestly that they should come to a compromise between the two,” said Mohanned El-Natour of Orland Park, Ill. “The Palestinians can have their land, become friends with the Jewish people and have a state, but more peacefully, in a way that doesn’t transgress on people’s rights.”
Ron Kampeas contributed to this story from Washington.