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Jewish World Review
March 4, 2008
/27 Adar I 5768
Moderation in a Higher Place
By Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
An Orthodox Jew and an Egyptian meet on an international flight. The debate turns to whether there were or could be Muslim moderates. Think that you can predict who picked which position?
It was just not what I wanted to hear. The middle seat on the flight from Los Angeles to London had stayed unoccupied, and both of us at the ends hoped it would remain that way. Just before the doors closed, a gentleman walked on and sat himself in what could have been great extra space on a long flight. Then, he turned to me and began speaking, and the flight became longer yet.
"Hi!" he opened with a large smile. "I'm Egyptian."
We did not reenact the Yom Kippur War at 35,000 feet. We did wind up debating Middle East politics for a tolerable portion of the journey, but it did not go the way you might have expected. He turned out to be a Christian, a Copt to be precise, a group that has been persecuted for quite some time in Egypt, has had its churches burned and its adherents assaulted, and is under increasing pressure from the Muslim Brotherhood.
The argument concerned whether there were or could be Muslim moderates. He refused to consider such a thing. It took me, the Orthodox rabbi, to argue the contrary both from history and from my own experience.
We parted friends, although he continued to look at me like some naïve Westener, who couldn't possibly know what was going down. The question is not academic. At stake is just what the Western world can and will do to stop the jihadist juggernaut. If Islam is locked into a model that permits, in the final analysis, only loyal Muslims on the one hand and dead people on the other, then what the rest of us must do is arm ourselves to the teeth, build larger walls, and try harder to ferret out the danger already in our midst. If, as I strongly believe, the centuries-old struggle within Islam can resolve itself if a way that more pacific voices prevail, then there will be a different response. We must still take all precautions in the interim, but also do our utmost to identify and deepen our relationship with those who can become a significant counterforce from within to the jihadists.
Not that small numbers are the only possibility. Late last year, a delegation of Indonesian religious leaders visited Israel as guests of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, led by a colleague, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Associate Dean of the Center in conjunction with the LibForAll Foundation. These religious leaders met with Palestinians, and visited Ramallah, but also saw Sderot up close. They visited Jewish and Christian holy sites, and prayed at Islamic ones. They danced with hesder yeshiva students celebrating Chanuka in Kiryat Shemonah. They presented President Shimon Peres with a kippah emblazoned with "Kedamiain" the Indonesian word for peace. They stuffed packages in a food-distribution facility that serves poor Jews and Arabs in Yaffo. One of them openly wept at Yad Vashem. "How could this have happened? They were only children!"
These Muslim leaders are part of two religious organizations that comprise seventy million people of the 195 million Muslims in the most populous Muslim country in the world. What will come of the visit? Hopefully, a changed perspective on the part of the participants, and future visits by others. The initial press coverage was positive; it later precipitated inspired fierce argumentation on Indonesian blogs. After a week, the modal response was, "OK, perhaps Israel wouldn't be my personal travel destination. But all they did was talk. How bad could that be?" Minimally, a debate has begun.
Can we dare, though, to think of more? Might it not lead to a few less terrorists in the future, or a few more teachers in classrooms who will deliver a different message than the one heard in Gaza, or a rediscovery by some people of the interpretative tradition that was once the rule in Islamic thought?
What happens to Muslims trained in Salafist madrassas, taught from childhood that Christians and Jews are pigs and monkeys, when they meet Christians and Jews who act different in every regard from the ugly stereotypes they took for granted? We know that in many cases they not only change their attitudes towards those they previously hated, but they are forced to painfully reexamine every other stereotype, every other extremist view they were taught. When some of these become journalists, professors, and clergy, how many people can they reach, in the space of very few years? Might some in time become potential bridges to the Palestinians?
Jews in particular have historical reason to be hopeful. For close to two millennia, we had good reason to believe that Christianity itself was an enemy of Judaism, and that some of its texts and traditions precluded any softening of its stance against the Jews. A hundred years ago, could anyone have predicted a document like Nostra Aetate, or a Pope's visit to the Western Wall, asking G-d for forgiveness for the Christian treatment of Jews? Protestant denominations ate supersessionism -- the doctrine that the Jews of the Bible had been replaced in G-d's favor by the New Jews, i.e. Christians -- for breakfast. Who would have thought that group after group of Protestants, standing shamefacedly in the aftermath of the Holocaust, would have moved supersessionism to a locked cellar, reached out to the Jewish people, and worried about the theological details later? (No, they did not eliminate antisemitism from their midst, and the record of some of those groups regarding Israel is appalling. But the change in attitude is still a step in the right direction.) Reason overwhelmed them and they found a way for faith to accommodate it. Decades of interfaith dialogue will not be as effective as multifaith contact that leads to change coming from within, not negotiated or compelled from without. Could this not happen to Muslims? This optimism may prove to be groundless, but does it make any sense for Christians and Jews not to try to facilitate change?
On my way back from London, the cabin attendants brought out the meals rather quickly. As I struggled through the various layers of covering of my kosher meal, the fellow sitting next to me peered at the food. "I see you are eating a kosher meal. I am Egyptian…"
Then I noticed that he, too, had a special meal: halal. This flight, however, was not going to be a rerun. He was not a Copt, but Muslim. This could turn into a long flight, I thought. But my cabin mate continued. "Hmm. The kosher meal reminds me of a good friend of my oldest daughter. Shoshana from Tel Aviv…."
Might I dream that the pleasant conversation that ensued will take us all, in time, to a better place between Muslims and Jews?
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JWR contributor Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is Director of Interfaith Affairs at The Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.
© 2008, Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein