Muslims and Jews: Conflict and Dialogue

May 1, 2005
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BY ITS VERY NATURE the conflict in the Middle East between Israel and the Palestinian people has taken many forms, including inter-ethnic and inter-State conflict. In the course of these permutations, the religious dimensions of the conflict have, at different times, appeared as more or less salient. On the whole, however, the religious idiom has remained markedly circumscribed and the conflict has remained (and seems to remain) one of conflicting interests rather than one over ultimate and religiously articulated truth claims.To be sure, recent decades have seen an intensification of religiously rooted rhetoric on all sides, and the general assessment has been that this will make compromise and accommodation all the more difficult; for many (not just Jews and Muslims, but also evangelical Christians), the conflict over the Holy Land becomes a prime arena for the “clash of civilizations.” Indeed, this conflict has become, for many, a marker or icon for a much broader and apocalyptic conflict between the Western and Islamic worlds. The following brief dialogue should help dispel such notions. Our interlocutors are two deeply religious and thoughtful educators who bring their religious commitments and identities to their dialogue and to their historical and political assessments. Shlomo Fischer is Founder and Director of Yesodot — The Center for the Study of Torah and Democracy. Dr. Muhammed Hourani is Coordinator of the Center for Peace and Reconciliation at the Shalom Hartman Institute.

What we learn from them is that religious commitments do not need to be understood as a barrier to understanding and an obstacle to peace. Rather we see that the inclusion of the religious dimension into the terribly complicated calculus of the conflict may also provide opportunities for resolution and the achievement of understandings not hitherto available. Perhaps the very apprehension of the universal, shared and common aspects of our humanity, noted at the end of the dialogue, is only possible from within the particular and specific languages of different religious traditions. If so, it is an ancient truth that we would all do well to heed
— Adam Seligman, Boston University

Adam: We know that in the encounter with modernity, Islam, and Judaism have experienced moments of greater flexibility and openness as well as moments of greater rigidity toward the other. What have been some of the crucial factors leading to one or another of these responses? When has Judaism been more open, and when has it been more closed and rigid?

Shlomo: Modernity institutionalizes cultural and political visions in the entire society — the center permeates the peripheries, as they say in technical language. It does this (among other things) through its nationally organized educational, media, legal, and political systems. Therefore, groups no longer have their own niches to perpetuate their own way of life. Modernity, in a structural sense, is always in your face. Thus, as a result of modernity, Jewish communities began to close in on themselves. Thus, it is as a result of modernity that you have very insular Jewish communities that adopt a militant stance towards the outside world and the Other — such as the Haredim. Many pre-modern Jewish communities adopted a much more flexible and porous relationship with the non-Jewish world.

Muhammad: There is no need to examine the whole of Muslim history. It’s enough to look at the era of the Prophet Mohammad to discover the flexibility and openness on the one hand and the rigidity and closure on the other hand. Early Muslims looked upon others — whether they were non-Muslim Arabs or non-Arabs like Jews who lived side-by-side with other Muslims — in two different ways. We learn from the Koran how the messenger, Prophet Mohammad, related to Jews, how he reacted to them, and how he mentioned them in the Koran. At that time, there was enough space for Jews to be “other.” In the Koran we find the beginning of the Prophethood of Mohammad; then the words and names relating to religious groups outside of Islam and the Muslim community were very positive names. We used the term, People of the Book, ahl al-kitab in Arabic. Mohammad the Prophet intended, from the very beginning of his prophethood, to bring his community to a life like Jews — to create security for his community and stability. But unfortunately this sympathy we find from Mohammad toward Jews and others who were outside the boundaries of Islam didn’t continue later when Prophet Mohammad left Mecca for Medina. After that there were aggressions by Islam toward the Jews. And today, Muslims think that they are the victims of western misunderstandings. They feel insulted and a deep absence of equality in so many different levels in their relationships. About a century ago, they came to the conclusion that because we share the same globe, the best strategy is to cooperate with others for the benefit of all Muslims and non-Muslims. When we speak about the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims, we must remember that until two generations ago, Muslims experienced a period of colonization and imperialism of which almost all Muslims were victims, and this has not yet been forgotten by the collective Muslim memory. It’s the duty of others — especially those who have been powerful — to help heal this bitter memory. In that spirit, we learn to cooperate and widen the space of our lives.

Adam: Whether we live in a family or community, as part of a religion or of a tribe or nation state, we all accept that we have different degrees of responsibility and obligation to people within our family and to people outside our family. What, then, is the nature of the religiously articulated responsibilities toward the other for any community that exists beyond the boundaries, and how do more particular and more universal injunctions play out in terms of the broad responsibilities Jews might have, again to those outside of their community? How does this work in terms of principles of distributive justice?

Shlomo: I would like to introduce into this kind of discussion some of the nitty-gritty of the real world. I want to point out the importance of power differentials. Given the fact that all cultures have both open and closed potential, Jews have adopted open attitudes toward the other when they were on the losing end of power differentials. Jews in America are open because they don’t have collective political power, they have been a tiny minority, and thus it is in their interest to link up to the most liberal aspects of American civilization. The minute that Jews aquire power, as in Israel, it becomes a lot less certain that they are going to adopt “religiously articulated responsibilities towards the other.” It seems that the same is true regarding Muslims. It seems to the non-specialist such as myself that the more liberal Muslim ideas are coming from the U.S. and Europe where the Muslims are on the losing end of the power differentials.

Adam: How do you feel toward the unbeliever within the boundary of the community? How do you feel in dealing with that internal other, with the non-religious if you will, the individual who is born within a Muslim society but himself or herself does not accept the submission that is at the heart of Islam?

Muhammad: Islam also has a problematic category of internal other — for example the status of women. This is a big problem from the beginning of Islam from which we still suffer because we’re not able to change the Holy text in the Koran. So we try to maneuver between different contradictory positions inside and outside of the Koran. It’s very difficult to say that Islam and Muslims accepted the concept of secular individuals inside the Muslim community or non-religious individuals inside the Muslim community. We relate to all Muslims the same. But if you look upon Muslim society today and the different Muslim states — the Arab Muslim states and the non-Arab Muslim states — you discover that we have at least two different categories of people: those who live in accordance with basic Islamic principles and those who do not. We have a lot of tensions between these two groups, but both try in different ways to create a social and political stability. For example, in my society here in Palestine we have many different Palestinian groups — some less religious than others. Sometimes the tension is hidden, and sometimes it’s overt.

Adam: Muhammad chose to answer this question in terms of existing situations, but in the discourse of tradition itself, what are the Jewish responsibilities toward the internal other?

Shlomo: The traditional response that is laid down in the law codes to the internal other is in some fashion to exclude them from the community and in extreme cases to kill them. This in a number of ways has been mitigated in modern times, especially since the majority of the community stopped keeping the law of the Talmud and the Shulchan Aruch. One of the most important ways is that in modern times, the boundaries of the community have become ethnic and national. Thus, as long as one maintains one’s loyalty to the national or ethnic community, or at least does not violate it in any important way, one remains within the confines of the community. Nevertheless, it must be realized that even these national boundaries have a religious dimension to them and are not purely secularly “national.” One of the most important ways that you can violate the national boundaries is by converting, say, to Christianity.

Adam: How do you feel about this modern interweaving of religious identities and commitments with nationalist commitments on both sides of the conflict lines in Israel and Palestine? How does this influence Muslim/Jewish relations?

Shlomo: Jewish/Arab dialogue around Israel used to be conducted by secular political elites, but today we’re seeing, increasingly, that the conflict has become religionized and, as a result, the dialogue has become religionized. What has been a political conflict is now becoming, increasingly, religionized with disastrous consequences.

I don’t know if this interweaving will provide a way out, but at least it’s providing another arena to talk about solutions. There are now more types of people talking to each other. Here, people decide to have dialogue despite the conflict, because of the conflict, with the conflict, in the conflict.

Muhammad: First, let us accept that the conflict in the Middle East is between two different nationalities and identities. On the one side we have the Jewish Israeli identity or nation, and on the other side we have the Palestinian nation. With time we notice that more and more we have an interference of their religious identities in this confrontation. Within Islam is Judaism. And because of the conflict, we have a hot discussion among Jews about Muslims and the rights of Muslims in Israel. In order to dialogue, we need to isolate those religious obstacles that stand in front of both of us. From the Muslim standpoint, Jews are strangers, outsiders to Islam, and therefore belong to another geography outside of Muslim lands. They are now part of Western society, which is distinct from the Middle Eastern way of life. But we do have Muslim sheiks and rabbis who have been coming together for years to meet, speak, and find ways of creating harmony. I think it’s more difficult to dialogue here in Israel/Palestine than it is in Germany or in the United States.

Judaism has had more impact upon political considerations. While the conflict here is not religious, it is influenced by religious societies. And certain elements of our religions can constructively help us find a path toward peace. In the Bible and in the Koran, in Judaic sources and in the interpretation of Koran, the days of Mohammad the Prophet, we have enough materials that can point us in the right direction to meet in a positive way and not in a negative way. I think in this arena religion is good for both sides, and we have to search our sources to ask the pertinent and difficult questions. For example, how can we live with the “other” despite the distinctions between us? Is the “other” equal, and if not how do we create that equality? According to our sacred texts, we are all children of Abraham created in the image of God, so mustn’t we work together to create harmony?

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