It’s no coincidence that the last few weeks have seen a flurry of Muslim-Jewish dialogue, much of it initiated by Jewish groups. This week we report on a visit by 10 Syrian refugee families to Bnai Keshet in Montclair, whose rabbi welcomed them by recounting the story of his own family’s flight from Europe. Temple Sholom in Scotch Plains was among the initiators of an interfaith rally against bigotry at which Jewish, Christian, and Muslim leaders spoke out against, in the words of Rabbi Joel Abraham, “those who would use hatred as a tool for political gain.” We also profile a physician from Montville who is working with his hospital’s Muslim chaplain to make their Staten Island community a more welcoming place for people of all faiths.
Despite these gestures, the Muslim-Jewish dialogue pales when compared to the decades of solid progress that mark the Catholic-Jewish dialogue. This year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the landmark Vatican document that all but eradicated centuries of anti-Jewish incitement within the church. Earlier this month, the Vatican issued what one Jewish leader called the “first formal document that makes it clear there is no intentional desire [by the church] to actively proselytize amongst Jews.”
Few expect such strides to be made in our relations with Muslims, in part because Islam is a diverse religion and lacks a central power structure like the Vatican, and in part because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (and the exploitation of it by Muslim political and religious leaders) remains a massive stumbling block. In the United States, those engaged in dialogue must sidestep the issue and stress mutually beneficial themes like freedom of religion and freedom from discrimination. And even as we recognize that extremists do not represent mainstream Islam, we’d be foolish to deny the threat from the sizable minority that carries out violence in the name of the faith.
That doesn’t mean it is pointless to continue the work of reconciliation. If we can’t agree on Israel, we can agree on coexistence. And we can certainly stand up for people in distress, and jointly declare our abhorrence at religiously inspired terrorism and our support for religious moderates. Deep, systemic reconciliation is a long way off, but, to paraphrase Rabbi Tarfon, while it is not our responsibility to finish the work of dialogue, we are not free to desist from it, either.