The Dialogue Dilemma


 Can Jews talk to Muslims who reject the very existence of a Jewish state? 

Rabbi Marc Schneier, founder and president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, hopes they can. Last week Schneier convened the first National Summit of Imams and Rabbis, a risky venture that he hopes will plant the seeds of future cooperation and communication.

The Union for Reform Judaism is also working with the Islamic Society of North America to promote joint education and dialogue projects.

It is commendable that some leaders in both communities are exploring ways to overcome deep suspicions and angry stereotypes. Jewish leaders who venture into the minefields of Jewish-Muslim dialogue face criticism in the face of a communal mood that sometimes equates talking with appeasement; they are to be commended for their courage.

But it is also critical to go into such exchanges with open eyes — and an openness to talking not just about points of commonality, but about the rough edges of conflict. In the case of Jews and Muslims, dialogue efforts will ultimately prove futile if they fail to confront the issues at the heart of the friction between the two communities: Israel, and the fact that many Muslims — far too many — continue to deny its right to exist. And they will fail unless they address head-on surging anti-Semitism in the guise of opposition to Israeli policy, as well as rising bias against all Muslims in this age of terrorism.

At last week’s conference, organizers instructed participants to avoid talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  That was an understandable admonition for a first effort at dialogue, but also one that, if it remains in place, will ultimately undermine the process.

It is not without value to have “Kumbaya” moments of Jewish-Muslim accord, with the really contentious issues saved for later.  It makes sense to build a foundation for open discussion by talking first about the values we share and the issues on which we have a common interest.  Local programs that bring synagogues and mosques together around non-controversial issues like poverty can open important channels of communication. But there is a fine line between tiptoeing around controversial issues and setting the groundwork for meaningful and difficult confrontations. In the end the test will be whether such discussions lead to changing attitudes about Israel and its Jewish supporters.