Rabbi Marc Schneier’s appearance over July 4th weekend at the Islamic Society of North America’s annual conference was just the latest in what Schneier says is a sincere effort by the organization to reach out to Jews — although one speaker didn’t cooperate with the message. (See update below.)
"Time and time again, they have made outreach to the American Jewish community a priority," said Schneier, "not only in the terms of the work they do year round," but at the group’s annual gathering of thousands of delegates.
The founder and president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, who worked with ISNA last fall for a "Weekend of Twinning" with synagogues and mosques throughout the country, participated in a discussion panel at the Washington, D.C. conference as well as an interfaith gathering which included a taped speech by evangelical Christian Pastor Rick Warren. (Warren was scheduled to be there live, but had to unexpectedly return home early.)
Schneier said he reminded those at the conference –Schneier estimated about 1,000 people were at the interfaith gathering — that faith leaders have the "responsibility" to continue to speak about against "religious extremism," praising them for their denunciation of the foiled attacks on Jewish institutions in Riverdale back in May.
His basic theme, Schneier said, was the famous quote of Edmund Burke: "All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing."
Schneier’s appearance was not the first time a rabbi had spoken at the ISNA event. Two years ago, Union of Reform Judaism president Rabbi Eric Yoffie addressed the crowd. And two other rabbis also participated in a panel at the event, which you can read more about in this Washington Jewish Week article.
UPDATE: But one speaker at the conference didn’t get the message of reconciliation, reports Nathan Guttman at the Forward:
At one of the conference’s 70 sessions, Warith Deen Umar, a New York imam, spoke critically of Jews, saying that the Holocaust happened to the Jews “because they were serially disobedient to Allah.” He also said that a small handful of Jews around President Obama “control the world.” ISNA immediately condemned the tenor of the comments. This was enough for some of the Jewish figures in attendance, but not enough for the Jewish terrorism hunter who brought the comments to light.
The divide comes in the context of a broader debate in the Jewish community about how far to go in dialogue with Islamic groups. One strong view has been presented by Steve Emerson, head of the Investigative Project on Terrorism and a skeptic when it comes to close ties between Jewish groups and the major American Muslim organizations.
Emerson has argued that ISNA and other Muslim groups are not as moderate as Jewish groups would like to believe. It was Emerson’s project that released a record and transcript of Umar’s comments, and he immediately rejected ISNA’s apology.
“I think they have fooled the Jewish groups,” Emerson told the Forward. “They haven’t changed.”
But Rabbi Marc Schneier, president and founder of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and a keynote speaker at the ISNA convention, said that Islamic groups are too often condemned based on extreme outliers.
“When you have 99.999% of the people saying good things and one person saying other things, you shouldn’t magnify the words of that one person,” Schneier said. “It is time for the Emersons of the world to understand that the process has begun and that while there may be bumps on the road, the process has begun.”
Emerson shot back that “Rabbi Schneier is involved in legitimization of extreme Islamist groups for years. He wouldn’t tell a good group from a bad one, even if he got hit on his head by jihad.”