Dialogue With Moderate Muslims Urged

By Eric J. Greenberg

Published September 03, 2004, issue of September 03, 2004.
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A new study says the American Jewish community must redefine its definition of militant Islam in order to create crucial new dialogue partnerships with American Muslims — the fastest-growing faith group in the United States.

The as-yet-unreleased study, obtained by the Forward, argues that Jewish leaders are doing long-term damage by rejecting potential Muslim partners who don’t meet their standards for what an acceptable moderate Muslim should be. Backed by Israeli Knesset member Rabbi Michael Melchior, a leading Jewish voice for interfaith dialogue, the study concludes that while the organized Jewish community is legitimately spending a lot of time and resources identifying and exposing militant Islamic forces in America, it is not doing enough to reach out to the nonmilitant Islamic majority, especially young American-born and educated Muslim professionals and academics. It criticizes the “restrictive criteria” being used by such national Jewish defense organizations as the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League for deciding with whom the Jewish community can break bread since the second intifada broke out three years ago this month.

“[A] key part of the problem lies in the way that Jewish groups have defined who is a credible or moderate partner,” states “Locating the Silent Muslim Majority: Policy Recommendations for Improving Jewish-Muslim Relations in the United States,” a 20-page report sponsored by Mosaica Research Center for Religion, Society and State. Raquel Ukeles, a doctoral candidate in Islamic and Jewish studies at Harvard University, conducted the study but declined to comment pending its release.

It was previewed at a private breakfast briefing with about 20 Jewish leaders at UJA-Federation headquarters in Midtown Manhattan last week and is expected to be released later this month.

In the study, Ukeles argues that in response to American Muslim support for the intifada and then in the wake of the September 11 attacks, the American Jewish community developed “restrictive guidelines regarding who can be defined as a credible Muslim partner.”

These guidelines, she writes, function as a boycott against two kinds of Muslim groups: Muslim organizations and their leadership who actively endorse violence against noncombatants to further religious and/or political ends, and who promote international organizations committed to the destruction of Israel; and Muslim individuals or organizations who are or have been affiliated/in contact with the above organizations and individuals.

The report acknowledges that the Jewish community must reject relations with anyone seeking to destroy Israel and can’t lend them credibility by meeting with them. But Ukeles contends that applying the principles to the second group has led to a boycott of a more moderate Muslim through an unfair “guilt by association.”

According to the report, this policy ignores the fact that there is significant interaction among Muslims — even those who disagree about basic positions — and “restricting interactions with controversial organizations prevents the development of a potentially fruitful relationship.” Secondly, “the current boycott allows the Jewish community to ignore” the distinction between extremist Muslims who advocate Israel’s destruction and the overwhelming majority of Muslims, from progressive to extremist, who are highly critical of Israel and highly sympathetic to the Palestinian struggle yet at the same time recognize the reality of Israel and the need for a diplomatic solution.

She cited the example of Howard University Professor Sulayman Nyang, who, although known for his work in improving Muslim-Jewish relations, often affiliates with the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the American Muslim Council, both deemed controversial by the Jewish community.

ADL Interfaith Director Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, who attended the briefing, said Ukeles’s “scholarship and presentation was interesting, provocative and important.”

But Yehudit Barsky, director of AJCommittee’s Middle East and International Terrorism department, said the study is academic and does not reflect the real world. She questioned why the Jewish community needs to change its definition of what is moderate instead of insisting that extreme Islamic leaders move toward the mainstream.

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