Damaging Dialogue


What is the conventional wisdom today among some of the leading Islamic thinkers and opinion leaders about Israel and the Jews?

At a groundbreaking meeting here between seven of these figures and leaders of the American Jewish Committee, the unquestioned truths came tumbling out:

“Jews, in the eyes of the Torah, are the master. And non-Jews, regardless of nationality, are their servants,” complained Ahmed Abu Halabia, dean of the faculty of religion at the Islamic University of Gaza. He cited the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” as evidence.

“We accept that Jews live in Palestine. … I support the Jews’ right to live in any Islamic country,” reassured Ahmed Fazez al-Shamsi, a Muslim banker from the United Arab Emirates.

And so it went at an often heated three-hour forum that left AJCommittee leaders stunned — but still committed to the principle of dialogue.

“This meeting showed us that there is an enormous gap in our perspectives of each other and it will be very difficult to bridge it,” said AJCommittee spokesman Arthur Berger.

“But the religious leaders have a lot of influence on the next generation, and it’s important to try to maintain a dialogue with them in the hope that they will begin thinking a little more openly about Israel and its right to political sovereignty in the Middle East,” he said.

The men, six Muslims and one Christian, were here as part of a 21-day visit to the United States sponsored by the U.S. Information Agency, a State Department office.

In his opening remarks, AJCommittee executive vice president David Harris hailed the meeting as a “significant if not historic occasion.” But the tenor shifted quickly when al-Shamsi offered his opening statement.

“You speak about normalizing relations [with us],” he said. “I am against any kind of normalization or dialogue with Israeli Jews.”

At first, Harris shrugged it off.“It didn’t take long [for disagreement],” he said with a laugh.But al-Shamsi continued.

“At the people’s level, we are against any normalization with the Israeli state,” said al-Shamsi, 39.

After Harris explained that AJCommittee leaders had traveled extensively in the Middle East seeking to “write a new chapter between Jews and Muslims,” he added: “If you don’t accept the right of Israel to exist in the region, then there is no discussion.”

When pressed, al-Shamsi said: “We accept that Jews live in Palestine. … I support the Jews’ right to live in any Islamic country. This right is guaranteed by our religion.”

Harris, clearly frustrated, said simply: “We have an irreconcilable difference at the beginning [of the discussion], and it’s profoundly disturbing.

The heated exchange underscored the gap that exists between religious leaders and intellectuals in these countries, Berger observed.

Rabbi A. James Rudin, the AJCommittee director of Interreligious Affairs, noted that he has worked for 30 years to strengthen Christian-Jewish relations and that he now plans to spend more of his time on Muslim-Jewish ties.

“You have to keep plugging at it,” he said. “You are in for the long haul. … They will always remember this meeting.”

Harriet Heilbrunn, who with her husband, Robert, funded the new AJCommittee Institute for International Understanding, said the institute was an effort to inform those of other religions that Jews are “not ogres, that we are human beings like they are. … It is very disturbing for us now in our older years to see any friction.”

At that point, al-Shamsi offered to leave “if you think my presence here is disturbing.” Al-Shamsi stayed, however.

Harris said later that although he is “entitled to that view, to us [Israel] is critical to our existence. … You can’t separate our religious identity from our connection with the land that has been central to our religion for 3,000 years.”

Tension in the room eased when it was suggested that the discussion concentrate on the stated purpose of the meeting — the role of religion in the United States.

Halabia, dean of the faculty of religion at the Islamic University of Gaza, then began the discussion by asserting that “the Jewish religion believes Jews are God’s chosen people. Jews, in the eyes of the Torah, are the master. And non-Jews, regardless of nationality, are their servants. From here the idea of Eretz Yisroel was launched. And Jews are trying to instill that in their writings, like the ‘Elders of Zion’ … But relations between people should be based on equality.”Rabbi Rudin replied that Halabia had mistranslated the Torah from the Hebrew. What the Torah actually said, according to Rabbi Rudin, was that the Jews “have chosen to follow God and the commandments and the life we live. That is very different than being chosen. You have chosen Islam, we have chosen this route to find our God.”

Halabia then quoted by memory from the Torah to refute Rabbi Rudin’s interpretation.

Harris later told Halabia that the book he had earlier referred to, the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” was actually a czarist forgery designed to prove that there was a Jewish conspiracy to control the world.

As the conversation proceeded around the room to allow each man a chance to speak, the representative from Syria, the only Christian, said he did not wish to participate. Indeed, he declined to talk.After Halabia spoke of his family members being displaced from their home during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, Harris reminded him that “we are American Jews, not Israelis. … But we believe that these discussions, however painful, have a value. We ask you as well to [listen] to what we are saying. You see the world very differently than Jews. I don’t ask you to accept [Jews], only to listen to them.”

Harris went on to say that “people of good will who develop confidence in each other must be prepared to make compromises. Jews must abandon the goal of a greater Israel and Palestinians their rejection of a Jewish state. The great majority of Israelis are prepared to compromise for peace if one issue is addressed — their fundamental security.

“You want self-determination and political sovereignty for Palestinians. We seek security for a Jewish state. If you can work within that framework, this conversation can continue. But if you begin by saying there is no place for Israel, I don’t know what the discussion is.”

Other Muslim opinion makers participating were Mohamed Nour El Din, an assistant law professor in Egypt and the former editor-in-chief of the Islamic periodical El Moslem el Moasser; Abdel Vetah Ould Babah, a law professor in Mauritania; Hafez al Jabari of the Palestine National Authority, a dean and instructor at Hebron University; and Abdullah al Yahyah, research director for the Office of Islamic Council in Saudi Arabia.

As the meeting ended, Berger asked the participants to gather for a group picture. Al-Shamsi and the representative from Saudi Arabia both refused and walked out.

After the men left, Harris and the others were left shaking their heads over what had happened.

“We were surprised; we didn’t expect it,” said the AJCommittee’s associate executive director, Shula Bahat.

“In the year 1998,” said Harris, “21 years after [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat came to Israel and five years after Oslo, I didn’t expect to hear the ‘Protocols’ invoked or the Torah interpreted as creating a master-slave relationship.

“Naively, I had thought we had inched a little beyond this, at least with intellectuals and these were the intellectuals,” he said. “It’s a little worrisome.”