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Op-Ed: Facing the real interfaith challenge

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NEW YORK (JTA) — With the deserved uproar now fading over Pope Benedict’s lifting the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying bishop, the Vatican and the
Jewish community are seemingly back in each other’s good graces. Indeed, all is well between Jews and the Church simply because it was already in a good place as a result of our dialogue with the Vatican over the past 50 years.

Now we must move beyond our myopic focus on Jewish-Christian relations and face the real challenge of the 21st century: Jewish-Muslim dialogue.

Shifting gears will be anything but easy, but a re-examination and reassessment of interreligious dialogue is necessary. American Jews may not recognize the seriousness of the situation, but they only need to look to Europe and the recent phenomenon of Muslim anti-Semitism to see what’s at stake.

The war in Gaza has brought about a sharp uptick in the number of attacks against Jews, but violence in France, Sweden, Britain, Denmark and other countries has been going on for years and already should have served as a wake-up call. British Jews are in a state of anxiety. There have been physical assaults on Jews in London, recent arson attacks on synagogues outside the capital, and anti-Semitic graffiti scrawled in towns and cities across the country. In Belgium, Jewish community leaders have received death threats.

The need for Jewish-Muslim dialogue has never been greater.

Yet when faced with this new reality of partnership-making and bridge building, why are Jews uncomfortable? Why are we are hesitant, worried, anxious and unsure of how to go about the next step? It is true that expanding one’s thinking and comfort level is always difficult, yet what better impetus than to help our brothers and sisters around the world?

A cadre of extremists has been trying to hijack Islam. Thankfully they have failed in that effort because the majority of Muslim leaders and scholars are, in fact, fair-minded individuals who wish no harm against Jews. Indeed, many significant Muslim leaders, in America and globally, have extended the hand of friendship to us, an outreach we cannot afford to spurn.

Islamic leaders have an obligation to help prevent the toxic spread of anti-Semitism among the Muslim masses. More leaders must follow in the footsteps of the courageous Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi, president of the Fiqh Council of North America, the highest body of Islamic jurisprudence in North America, who has denounced anti-Semitism unequivocally as against the teachings of Islam. In the same spirit, I believe that more Jewish leaders must speak out against Islamophobia, making clear that it is wrong to demonize an entire religion because of the hateful actions of a relative few.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said recently that America has a “responsibility to speak out and to work with the Muslim world on behalf of positive change, and to enlist the help of Muslims around the world against the extremists.” As a religious community we have that same responsibility: We must get our rabbis to work with imams, get our college students to talk with their Muslim counterparts, get this dialogue going in a meaningful way.

Already there are a number of steps in the right direction. The Union of Reform Judaism has a Children of Abraham Web site designed to foster Muslim-Jewish dialogue; rabbis and imams are preaching to their congregations, urging communication and understanding; and the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding “twinned” 50 mosques and 50 synagogues in the United States and Canada last November and this fall plans to expand the effort to Europe.

The battle will be uphill, the struggle difficult, the discomfort inevitable. But Muslim leaders have the opportunity to echo the historic declaration of the Vatican’s Nostra Aetate and to decry “hatred, persecutions, and displays of anti-Semitism directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.” We must then rise to the occasion by grasping the outstretched hands of Muslims and work with them to build ties of friendship and trust between our communities.

(Rabbi Marc Schneier is president of the New York- and Washington-based Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.)

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