Many observers believe that all Muslims have just a single shared attitude to Jews and Israel — hostility. Moshe Ma’oz, professor emeritus of Hebrew University’s Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies, strongly disagrees.
What’s more, he says, such thinking is counterproductive and makes it harder for both sides to discover and develop areas where they hold similar interests.
He noted that Iranian nuclear capability is seen as a major threat not only by Israelis, but equally or even more so by Sunni-led Arab states throughout the region.
Ma’oz said he regards this as an opportunity for Israel and the Arabs to align with each other to thwart a common enemy.
Ma’oz spoke at Temple Beth Miriam in Elberon Feb. 26. The event, “Muslim Attitudes to Jews and Israel” — which is also the title of Maoz’s latest book — was sponsored by American Friends of The Hebrew University and hosted by the temple’s brotherhood. It attracted nearly 50 attendees.
Maoz, a professor of Middle East history at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a previous director of the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, has devoted his career to studying Muslim politics and culture.
He acknowledged that there are extremist elements in Islam. “They are very dangerous,” he said.
But, he added, there are approximately two billion followers of Islam, and it’s unreasonable to believe that they all think alike. The vast majority — even among Arabs — devote their time and attention to practical matters like making a living and spending time with their families, not plotting attacks, he said.
Ma’oz suggested that religion — as it is for many Jews — is part of Muslim life, not the whole of it. Noting that “interests often take precedence over ideology,” he pointed out that Egyptian President Anwar Sadat had been a major critic of Israel to the point of anti-Semitism, but that didn’t prevent him from signing a peace treaty when it would benefit his country.
The speaker also took issue with those who suggest that the Koran is a book that preaches hatred and justifies violence.
“As with the Bible, if you look hard enough, you can find anything you want in it,” he said.
Ma’oz referenced Muslim attitudes in parts of the world outside the Middle East. Indonesia, in particular, he said, has been “very friendly and supportive to Israel,” he said.
In fact, throughout Asia, he said, he has found that Buddhist and Hindu influences “help to cool the temperature.” Turkey, too, until recently has been a hospitable environment for Jews, Ma’oz said.
During a Q&A following the talk, one audience member, citing recent events in Syria, suggested that “Muslims get upset only when Muslims die at the hands of Israelis. If the other Arab countries don’t care to step in and stop the bloodshed in Syria, why should we?” The questioner added that he had never heard any Arab denounce acts of terrorism.
Ma’oz said this was incorrect and that he remembered even Palestinians speaking out against the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Temple member Andrea Phox praised Ma’oz for bringing “a positive twist and outlook to a sometimes scary situation.” She said she learned a great deal about Muslim/Jewish relations around the world and was surprised to find that there are many common interests.
Harry Silverman, the temple’s financial secretary, said, “I agree with the speaker that extremists — anyone on the far left or the far right — is potentially dangerous. The answers will have to come from the mainstream middle.”
Brotherhood chair Tom Gavin said Ma’oz presented insights that often are missing from most general news reports. “We will be sure to invite him back.”
According to Howard Gases, executive director of AFHU’s NJ office, the organization’s mission is to “ensure the nation’s well-being by nurturing Israel’s greatest asset: the intellectual strength of its people.”