Efforts to bring together Jewish and Muslim communities hit another snag when an imam at a major Muslim conference gave an incendiary speech in which he said Jews were to blame for the Holocaust.
The speech came during the annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America, which was attended by rabbis who have been trying to build closer relations between Muslims and Jews.
At one of the conference’s 70 sessions, Warith Deen Umar, a New York imam, spoke critically of Jews, saying that the Holocaust happened to the Jews “because they were serially disobedient to Allah.” He also said that a small handful of Jews around President Obama “control the world.” ISNA immediately condemned the tenor of the comments. This was enough for some of the Jewish figures in attendance, but not enough for the Jewish terrorism hunter who brought the comments to light.
The divide comes in the context of a broader debate in the Jewish community about how far to go in dialogue with Islamic groups. One strong view has been presented by Steve Emerson, head of the Investigative Project on Terrorism and a skeptic when it comes to close ties between Jewish groups and the major American Muslim organizations.
Emerson has argued that ISNA and other Muslim groups are not as moderate as Jewish groups would like to believe. It was Emerson’s project that released a record and transcript of Umar’s comments, and he immediately rejected ISNA’s apology.
“I think they have fooled the Jewish groups,” Emerson told the Forward. “They haven’t changed.”
But Rabbi Marc Schneier, president and founder of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and a keynote speaker at the ISNA convention, said that Islamic groups are too often condemned based on extreme outliers.
“When you have 99.999% of the people saying good things and one person saying other things, you shouldn’t magnify the words of that one person,” Schneier said. “It is time for the Emersons of the world to understand that the process has begun and that while there may be bumps on the road, the process has begun.”
Emerson shot back that “Rabbi Schneier is involved in legitimization of extreme Islamist groups for years. He wouldn’t tell a good group from a bad one, even if he got hit on his head by jihad.”
ISNA, the largest representative Muslim body in the United States, has been engaged in an active dialogue with the Union for Reform Judaism for the past two years. Leaders of both groups spoke at gatherings of their counterparts, and their joint project, Children of Abraham, formulated a guidebook on interfaith relations.
The Jewish Council for Public Affairs adopted in March a resolution endorsing dialogue with the Muslim community, and Schneier has been active in twining mosques and synagogues to encourage dialogue.
ISNA’s national convention, which took place in Washington on the July 4th weekend and drew several thousand participants, featured a senior White House official for the first time. Valerie Jarrett, President Obama’s senior adviser on public engagement and intergovernmental affairs, praised ISNA for its interfaith outreach.
Umar’s speech came during a session that was named after a new book he is touting, titled “Jews for Salaam: The Straight Path to Global Peace.” Umar, the former head of the New York State prison chaplain program, is no stranger to controversy. In 2003, The Wall Street Journal published a lengthy report about how Umar spread extremism within the prison system. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, Umar referred to the terrorists as martyrs. He also published a book titled “Judaiology” that spoke about the “inordinacy of Jewish power” and stated that Jews “play mind games” to deceive the non-Jews.
In his July speech, Umar took issue with the fact that Obama’s first choices for White House positions were Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod. Both men are Jewish, though Umar wrongly described them as Israeli. “Why do this small number of people have control of the world?” he asked.
He then moved to speak of the Holocaust, providing his own explanation for its cause: “These people were punished. They were punished for a reason, because they were serially disobedient to Allah.”
ISNA leaders were quick to issue a statement condemning his language and stressing that it does not reflect the group’s opinion of other religions.
“We would like to set the record straight and state our complete rejection of all prejudicial views and bigoted stances toward the Jewish community and any other community of faith,” ISNA’s president, Ingrid Mattson, said in a statement.
Louay Safi, executive director of the group’s Leadership Development Center, told the Forward that Umar was scheduled to speak about peace and to demonstrate how Muslim and Jewish communities can live in peace. Safi said that Umar, like other speakers, was vetted based on his proposed topic, not his past.
“We were very surprised when we heard about it,” Safi said, adding that the group will now look for ways to make sure that such mistakes do not occur in the future.
Contact Nathan Guttman at firstname.lastname@example.org
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.