Top Reform Rabbi Gives Watershed Address to Largest U.S. Muslim Group

By Marc Perelman

Published September 05, 2007, issue of September 07, 2007.
  • Print
  • Share Share

The head of America’s largest Jewish denomination last week became the first top Jewish communal leader in recent memory to address a major American Muslim organization.

At the 44th annual conference of Chicago’s Islamic Society of North America last Friday, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, called for an end to discrimination against Muslims, more dialogue between religions, and for Jews and Muslims to unite in support of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A “profound ignorance” about Islam in the United States had helped spread the image of Muslims as the enemy, Yoffie said, pushing for a more active denunciation of those promoting such beliefs.

“The time has come to stand up to the opportunists in our midst — the media figures, religious leaders and politicians who demonize Muslims and bash Islam, exploiting the fears of their fellow citizens for their own purposes,” Yoffie said, drawing frequent rounds of applause and a standing ovation. “The time has come to end racial profiling and legal discrimination of any kind against Muslim Americans.”

Liberal Jewish organizations such as the URJ have sought Muslim partners at the national level for some time to bridge the gap widened in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the ongoing violence in the Middle East. But it was the emergence of a more moderate leadership at the helm of ISNA, which has been accused of supporting Hamas, that made the breakthrough speech possible, URJ leaders say. ISNA’s condemnation of terrorism, including that conducted by Hamas and Hezbollah, and its open support for a two-state solution, as well as the participation of the Pentagon, Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security in this year’s conference, were key factors in Yoffie’s decision to accept the invitation to speak.

“We carefully looked at the leadership’s consistent and outspoken condemnation of terrorism and their backing for a two-state solution,” said Mark Pelavin, director of the URJ’s commission on inter-religious relations and a key player in the outreach effort along with ISNA’s co-founder, Sayyid Syeed. “The FBI and the Pentagon were represented, so this answers the allegations about terrorist associations.”

Yoffie’s overture drew criticism from David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.

“Here is another discredited group eager for mainstream recognition,” Harris wrote in a blog on the Web site of The Jerusalem Post. “Inadvertently, in the name of inter-religious dialogue, he gave it.”

Yoffie was not the only conference participant to come in for criticism. In a letter to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, two Republican lawmakers, Peter Hoekstra of Michigan and Sue Myrick of North Carolina, called the Justice Department’s involvement in the ISNA confab a “grave mistake.”

ISNA, based in Plainfield, Ind., is the largest umbrella group of Muslims in North America, claiming more than 100,000 members and 300 constituent organizations, including mosques, campus groups and professional associations. The URJ, which represents some 1.5 million Jews and 900 congregations, said that both umbrella groups were in talks to set up a joint dialogue and education program involving local congregations and mosques.

In addition to his denunciations of anti-Muslim stances adopted by, among others, Christian leaders Pat Robertson and Franklin Graham and radio host Dennis Prager, Yoffie won plaudits by criticizing what he described as the Bush administration’s encroachment on civil liberties and its lack of involvement in seeking a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

He warned, however, that while Jews should support Muslims in their fight against Islamophobia, Muslims should help fight against antisemitism and Holocaust denial.

Critics of Yoffie’s participation in the conference, including the AJCommittee’s Harris, have pointed out that ISNA is named as an unindicted co-conspirator in a major terrorism trial against the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, a Texas-based charity shut down after the September 11, 2001, attacks for its alleged ties to Hamas. ISNA insists that it is not a target of the prosecution and that government officials have indicated the move was a tactic to allow the admission of evidence at the trial.

Steven Emerson, a counterterrorism expert who has accused several Muslim groups of being linked to terrorism, claims that an ISNA subsidiary had financial ties to Musa Abu Marzook, a Hamas leader indicted in the U.S. on terrorism-funding charges and now living in Syria. Emerson also contends that the organization still hosts speakers who have made anti-Jewish remarks in the past.

ISNA leaders have acknowledged that past leaders have on occasion expressed statements critical of Israel and Jews, but the current leaders stress that the group has now adopted a clear stance against such views.

In a statement released during the conference, the organization said that its condemnation of terrorism also included acts perpetrated by Hamas and Hezbollah, groups often considered in Muslim countries to be legitimate resistance movements.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight":
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here:
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.