April 10, 2009

The Delicate Dance Of Muslim-Jewish Dialogue

As a sometimes skeptical participant in dialogue, I was pleased to read of the recent vote by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs in support of strengthening Muslim-Jewish ties (“JCPA Approves Effort To Build Dialogue With Muslim Groups,” March 13).

To be honest, most Muslims and Jews will continue to differ on issues relating to Israel, while often seeing eye-to-eye (instead of eye for an eye) on social justice issues. I would, however, caution us all to be aware of how our language and terminologies often make the situation worse. The terms “pro-Israel” and “pro-Palestine” are unhelpfully vague, as well as oppositional. The objections that most Muslims have to Israel also need to be better understood; the objections have to do with what we Muslims perceive as the neo-colonial land grab that is still underway though the settlement-building movement, not to Jews as such.

By all means be cautious, but engage with us. Please do not demonize the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, the Islamic Society of North America, the Islamic Circle of North America and the rest of our community leaders. You will get more traction with engagement. And while we Muslims perceive ourselves as the less powerful partner in America, we owe it to ourselves, to our dialogue partner and to truth itself to be frank about our concerns and also warm in our compassion. Therefore we will mourn the dead of Gaza, but maintain a hope for peace, not as some fig leaf but as an olive branch from a thousand-year-old tree that will not be bulldozed by any state, insurgent or act of destruction.

“Muzzled”? These are hard times in the world, and dialogue between people is fraught with difficulty. Bridging the gap between communities takes courage and persistence. Under the best of circumstances, misunderstandings and miscommunications abound. In this context, I was particularly dismayed by the report regarding my appearance at the meeting of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs in your March 13 article.

The caption on the picture states that I was “muzzled” and “silenced after defending a Muslim educator.” This is not true nor was it ever mentioned at the JCPA plenum.

I have never had one conversation with leadership at UJA-Federation of New York in which I was muzzled or instructed not to speak to any individual. My employment has also never been threatened at UJA-Federation. I am honored to be an employee of UJA-Federation, and I deeply believe in its mission and its obligation to be careful about its dialogue partners and its public statements on complex issues. I feel only support.

The context of my comments at the JCPA about “my job” was directed at my effectiveness in doing this work, which involves advancing Muslim-Jewish dialogue. Further, coupling the sentence about my job with the caption regarding being “muzzled” gives an even more inappropriate and inaccurate perception.

It also blurs the distinction between groups that the Jewish community should publicly distance itself from and the individuals who are struggling to bring about a solid foundation for communal cohesion and communication. There are certainly some Muslim organizations that do not have our best interests at heart, and it is appropriate and advisable to keep our distance.

During my address I only urged determination in not excluding Muslims who are striving to be part of an American dream and look to us only with support and friendship. I hope that the confusing aspects of this article don’t make the worthy and necessary goal of reaching out to the Muslim community even more difficult.

The Editors Respond:

Our news article reported that, following public comments Paley made on behalf of the embattled principal of a Brooklyn Arabic language academy, he “was ordered not to speak on the issue anymore.” Our article did not say that Paley was “instructed not to speak to any individual” or that his employment was “threatened.” The article quoted Paley as saying, with reference to the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, that “I cannot talk to Nihad Awad: It would jeopardize my job at UJA.” We stand by our reporting.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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April 10, 2009

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