Rabbi Pelavin’s Response to “Attention Rabbi Yoffie: Please Speak To Moderate Muslims”

Rabbi Pelavin’s Response to “Attention Rabbi Yoffie: Please Speak To Moderate Muslims”

In September, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of the Union for Reformed Judaism addressed the ISNA annual convention. This was followed by Ingrid Mattson, President of ISNA addressing the convention of the Union of Reformed Judaism (Rabbi Yoffie’s organization). Both events were received with overwhelmingly positive responses from both the Muslim and Jewish communities. In fact, both were received with standing ovations. This is a very positive step for Muslim-Jewish dialogue in the U.S.

What is surprising is that recently a group of self-defined Muslim “moderates” published a letter in the popular Jewish Week News, attacking Rabbi Yoffie for choosing ISNA and not them for this partnership. Their letter was entitled “Attention Rabbi Yoffie: Please Speak To Moderate Muslims”.

Rabbi Pelavin, the Director of the Commission on Interreligous Affairs of Reform Judaism (Rabbi Yoffie’s organization) has crafted a clear and concise response.

Response to “Attention Rabbi Yoffie: Please Speak To Moderate Muslims”

by Mark J. Pelavin
Director, Commission on Interreligous Affairs of Reform Judaism

The recent letter (“Attention Rabbi Yoffie: Please Speak To Moderate Muslims,” 1/2/08) attacking the Union for Reform Judaism’s outreach to, and work with, moderate, mainstream elements of the American Muslim community requires a response.

Much of the attack centers on the fact that we are working with the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), which reaches the largest, broadest cross-section of the American Muslim community. ISNA is the largest, broadest, most representative group in American Muslim life. The ISNA convention attracts more than 30,000 participants and is– by any measure – far and away the largest, most significant, event in Muslim American life. If we are serious about engagement with the Muslim community, and we are, than it makes sense to go where the American Muslims are. In contrast, the organizations whose leaders signed the letter represent a very small segment of the American Muslim community.

Second, ISNA has made a significant effort to engage in this type of work. They have opened an office in Washington, D.C. – headed by a very senior member of their staff – to focus on interrelgious work. ISNA has clearly made engagement with the broader American religious community in general, and the Jewish community in particular, a priority.
Third, and not insignificantly, they took the initiative to invite Rabbi Yoffie to address their convention. None of the signatory organizations have ever extended a similar invitation.

Of course none of that would matter if we believed that ISNA were, in the words of the letter “apologists for violence, or proponents of restrictions on freedom under the pretext of religion.” We don’t. As Rabbi Yoffie said in his sermon at our recent Biennial Convention, ISNA “has issued a strong and unequivocal condemnation of terror, including a specific condemnation of Hizbollah and Hamas terror against Jews and Israelis. It has also recognized Israel as a Jewish state and supported a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These statements provide the framework of common values that we believe are necessary for a fruitful dialogue to occur.” We took note, for example, of the fact that when Rabbi Yoffie spoke at the ISNA convention, he shared the platform with a senior Pentagon official. Further, we have had the opportunity to hear from, and meet with, ISNA President Dr. Ingrid Matson a number of times, in a number of forums, and we have never, never, heard her say anything, or write anything, which could be fairly called “extremist.” In fact, the “radial rhetoric” of hers which the letter cites ( “we see candidates [in the current Presidential election] being asked to prove that they comply with an ever narrower definition of what it means to be a Christian — forget about being a Muslim or a Jew” ) is not only not radical, it strikes me as empirically true.

Finally it was never our intention to work exclusively with ISNA or any other one organization. I am pleased to learn that the organizations that joined in the criticism of our effort are interested in dialogue. Perhaps it might have been more effective for them to signal that interest in some way other than their unhelpful letter in these pages.

Here is the original letter that Rabbi Pelavin is responding to:

Attention Rabbi Yoffie: Please Speak To Moderate Muslims

As adherents of moderate religious and intellectual trends within the Islamic global community, the signatories of this column view with dismay a report in The Washington Post of Dec. 16, 2007, on a “partnership” between the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). This new alliance was announced by the URJ’s president, Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, at his organization’s biennial convention in San Diego.
We do not presume to judge the political or theological outlook of Rabbi Yoffie or his organization, except with regard to his and their comments about Islam. We, however, know the Muslim community, worldwide and in North America, and we do not recognize or otherwise support ISNA as a legitimate representative of mainstream Islamic believers in the West.

Rabbi Yoffie was cited by the Post in a number of statements with which we disagree. He said, “As a once-persecuted minority in countries where anti-Semitism is still a force, we [Reform Jews] understand the plight of Muslims in North America today.”

We are Muslims concerned to protect the rights of our communities in non-Muslim societies, but we consider absurd any attempt to equate the situation of Muslims in Western Europe and North America today with historic anti-Jewish prejudice and oppression. Muslims in Western Europe and North America have not been subjected, in recent times, to wholesale denial of civil rights.

Free discourse about Islam in the Western democracies is occasionally abrasive, but has never resembled the wholesale libels directed against Jews — including by latter-day Islamists — and has not been embraced by or institutionalized by any government in Western Europe or North America.

Rabbi Yoffie continued, “Islamic extremists constitute a profound threat. For some, this is a reason to flee from dialogue, but in fact the opposite is true.”
We do not understand the intent of this statement. It appears that Rabbi Yoffie believes dialogue is possible with extremists. We do not agree. We believe that dialogue between mainstream Muslims, Jews, and Christians is necessary, but that the defeat of Islamist extremists is necessary for such interfaith efforts to succeed. We do not support “dialogue” with Islamist and other apologists for violence, or proponents of restrictions on freedom under the pretext of religion.

We also disagree with Rabbi Yoffie’s statement, “There exists in [the Jewish] community a profound ignorance about Islam, along with a real desire to learn about what moves and motivates Muslims today. We must respond to this desire with serious programs of education.”

If Rabbi Yoffie believes that Jews are ignorant about Islam, he should be recognized as speaking only for himself.

In reality, we and other Muslims recognize the contribution of numerous Jewish scholars to the understanding of Islam by Westerners. Most educated Muslims know the name of Ignaz Goldziher, the pioneering 19th century Jewish scholar on Islam. Sufis are aware of the historical writings of Gershom Scholem, one of the greatest 20th-century Jewish figures, on the relationship between Kabbalah and Sufism. Further, numerous Jewish community leaders and public intellectuals have commented soberly on the problems of Islamic extremism, in a manner we wish were more commonly visible in the ranks of Muslim believers.

ISNA, which URJ has accepted, apparently uncritically, as a “partner,” has a long history of association with extremist trends in Islam. ISNA has served as a front group for Wahhabism, the official sect in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia; the jihadist ideologies originating in Pakistan with the writings of a certain Mawdudi and the Deoband schools in that country — the latter of which produced the Afghan Taliban, and the Ikhwan al-Muslimun, or Muslim Brotherhood.

Ingrid Mattson, president of ISNA, revealed the style of radical rhetoric with which the organization is saturated when, in addressing the URJ’s recent convention, she declared that in the current U.S. presidential primaries, “we see candidates being asked to prove that they comply with an ever narrower definition of what it means to be a Christian — forget about being a Muslim or a Jew.”

This is an inexcusably irresponsible, inflammatory charge. Although Christian affiliations have been a topic among some presidential candidates, none has been compelled to “comply” with a Christian religious test and no such criterion is reasonably possible in the American electoral process.

Many Islamic mosque congregations, Sufi orders, and Muslim personalities have called for intelligent and sincere discussion with Jewish individuals and groups, to further interfaith civility and cooperation. This noble goal, to which we as Muslims are called by our revelation and our traditions, cannot be served by flattery toward groups like ISNA, in which radicals are camouflaged as moderates.

We therefore appeal to Rabbi Yoffie and other Jewish leaders to conduct a serious and thorough survey of the situation in Western Islam, identifying authentic moderates, and enabling them as interlocutors with Jews and other non-Muslims. We do not believe that ISNA qualifies for such a role. We fear that heedless acceptance of ISNA as an ally of URJ does harm to both our communities, by legitimizing a radicalism that, regardless of ISNA’s rhetorical claims, is fundamentally hostile to Jews and suppresses the intellectual and social development of Muslims.

Nawab Agha, president, American Muslim Congress
Omran Salman, director, Aafaq Foundation
Kemal Silay, president, Center for Islamic Pluralism
Stephen Suleyman Schwartz, executive director,
Center for Islamic Pluralism
Salim Mansur, Canadian director,
Center for Islamic Pluralism
Jalal Zuberi, Southern U.S. director,
Center for Islamic Pluralism
Imaad Malik, fellow, Center for Islamic Pluralism
M. Zuhdi Jasser, president,
American Islamic Forum for Democracy
Sheikh Ahmed Subhy Mansour, president,
International Quranic Center