As an alumnus of Yeshiva University, I am concerned by the news that the school’s search committee has now chosen a new president to lead Modern Orthodoxy’s flagship institution. The committee’s choice is Rabbi Ari Berman, an Orthodox rabbi who until recently has been living in Israel.
Particularly worrisome to me are a couple of lectures, available on the website YUTorah.org, in which Berman crudely labels the Mideast conflict as a war between Judaism and Islam. He quotes from the controversial writer Bat Ye’or, whom he inaccurately describes as a “scholar of Islam,” though she is perhaps better known for her intensely Islamophobic pronouncements and her claims that all Muslims embrace the notion of violent Jihad. Peter Beinart has likewise raised these concerns in a new Haaretz essay.
What I find most disturbing about Berman’s lectures is the way they appear to associate all Muslims with the claims of only a few radical extremists. In these lectures, he repeatedly makes declarations along the lines of Muslims believe this or Islam says that. This type of rhetoric is both inaccurate and highly offensive. Claiming that all Muslims believe in violent Jihad, as Bat Ye’or does, is as absurd as claiming that all Jews believe in committing violent crimes against innocent Palestinians.
As a still recent former member of the Yeshiva Student Union, the four-member student council representing the undergraduate student body, I got to witness firsthand the toll of Y.U.’s financial crisis. With grim financial prospects, it is easy to see why students and the Y.U. administration are eager to see fresh leadership. But despite Y.U.’s fiscal woes, it is still the flagship institution for an entire movement in Orthodox Judaism.
Members of the Modern Orthodox community have a moral responsibility to defend our major institutions from bigotry and ignorance. Judaism is not at war with Islam, and any talk along those lines only encourages the worst elements within us. Regardless of one’s view on the Mideast conflict, we can all recognize the inherent wrong in attributing a minority’s extremist views to an entire people.
I encourage my fellow alumni to listen to Berman’s comments, read his source sheets, and think seriously about who we want to lead our most prized institutions. It is well documented that Islamaphobia is on the rise in the U.S., and many American Muslims have recently been the targets of hate crimes and other forms of discrimination.
Instead of finding ways to separate our two religious communities, we should be finding ways to bring them together. The late Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein, whom I had the privilege to study under while at Yeshivat Har Etzion, was a strong proponent of interfaith dialogue between Jews and Muslims. Following a tragic event in which Jewish extremists in the West Bank set fire to a mosque, Lichtenstein was one a of a number of rabbis who afterwards visited the victims and presented them with new Qurans in a tremendous display of Kiddush Hashem, or sanctification of God’s name.
Let us honor the legacy of Lichtenstein and our other great Modern Orthodox leaders by following in their message of tolerance and empathy.
Our community deserves better and I only hope that together our mutual indignation can pave the way for honorable leadership.
Aryeh Younger is a writer and JD candidate at the The Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law. He has previously studied analytic philosophy and international law at St. Anne’s College, Oxford, and holds a BA in English Literature from Yeshiva University. His articles have been published on a variety of topics in The Nation, The Daily Beast, The Jerusalem Post, the Forward and other major news outlets.