2016-06-30
Can Jewish and Muslim religious leaders forge a working relationship grounded in their common spiritual ancestry? The Second World Congress of Imams and Rabbis for Peace, held March 19-23 in Seville, Spain--where Jews flourished under Muslim rule eight centuries ago--appears to have answered in the affirmative the question of whether modern-day Jewish and Islamic religious leaders can break bread together in a convivial and mutually accepting way, despite the bitter conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

The next challenge facing the approximately 300 imams, rabbis, scholars, and activists for Jewish-Muslim dialogue from around the world who gathered here will be to stay in contact with each other via telephone, e-mail, and regional meetings and to do the grueling day-to-day work needed to fashion a common agenda addressing both the Middle East conflict and universal moral issues.

The upbeat note on which the Congress ended at least gave hope that the concept of a working alliance between religious Jews and Muslims may no longer be a pipedream. After nearly four days during which the proceedings teetered precariously between expressions of mutual respect and affection between prominent rabbis and imams from around the world, and explosions of rage against Israel by an angry Palestinian delegation, the Congress of Imams and Rabbis, which was convened by the Paris-based Hommes de Parole with the financial and political support of the Moroccan government, managed to adopt a closing statement affirming that proponents of the two faiths can indeed work together for a more peaceful world.

The Seville congress, which marked only the second time in history that an international conclave of rabbis and imams has met (the first such meeting, also convened by Hommes de Parole, was held in Brussels 14 months ago) had nearly twice as many participants as its predecessor and a decidedly more activist tenor. Many attendees declared that imams and rabbis must not only meet periodically to talk and compare notes, but predicted that if they do so they can develop a collaborative program.

The closing statement, drafted by an eight-member steering committee which included both the Chief Rabbi of Haifa, She’ar Yashuv Cohen, and Imam Imad Falouji of Gaza, former Minister of Communications in the Palestinian Authority, asserted: “There is no inherent conflict between Islam and Judaism" and declared "While modern politics has impacted negatively upon the relationship, our two religions share the most fundamental values of faith in the One Almighty whose name is Peace."

Deploring “bloodshed and violence…especially when such is perpetrated in the name of religion,” the statement proscribed "any incitement against a faith or people, let alone a call for their elimination"--a statement Jewish and Israeli representatives asserted amounted to a rebuke to calls by Hamas, which has just taken over the Palestinian government, and by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for the elimination of Israel. 

In a behind-the-scenes deal to win the Palestinian delegation’s assent to the final statement, the steering committee included language calling on governments to show respect for "holy sites, houses of worship and cemeteries, particularly in the Holy Land.” This was an apparent expression of opposition to plans by the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center to build a Museum of Tolerance in a park in West Jerusalem that was once part of a Muslim cemetery. Both Cohen and Falouji said during a closing press conference that maintaining ongoing discussions between Israeli rabbis and Palestinian imams is vitally important, especially at a time that Israeli and Palestinian political leaders have broken off nearly all contacts in the wake of the installation of the Hamas-led Palestinian government.

If the often-contentious relationship between the Israeli and Palestinian delegations took an upturn at the end of the gathering, relations between the rabbis and imams from around the world were harmonious throughout the four-day conclave. Participants who had attended the First Congress of Imams and Rabbis for Peace, which took place in Brussels in January 2005, relished the chance to reconnect with friends from the other side, while the large group of first-time participants basked in a warm atmosphere of ecumenicism that included a joint recitation of Jewish and Muslim prayers and nightly group singing and strumming of exotic instruments like the oud.

While there was little participation in the Congress by imams from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf or from the most prestigious Islamic religious institution, Al-Azhar University in Cairo, there was widespread representation of both Sunni and Shia clergy, from throughout the Islamic world, Europe, and the Americas. Among those in attendance were grand muftis and heads of councils of imams and muftis in such countries as Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ivory Coast, Italy, Kenya, Nigeria, Russia, Singapore, Tajikistan, Tunisia, and Turkey. The Jewish delegation included a large contingent from Israel, headed by Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, and included  the chief rabbis of Austria, Denmark, Venezuela, Netherlands, Poland, Turkey, and Romania and of such cities as Moscow, Berlin, Vienna, Geneva, and Strasbourg.

Although the good will between Jews and Muslims was palpable, efforts to create common Muslim-Jewish ideological and theological agendas apparently were less successful. An effort by several Orthodox rabbis to talk up the idea of a Muslim-Jewish alliance based on shared reverence for the family and traditional sexual morality appeared to barely resonate with imams, who repeatedly changed the subject back to Israel-Palestine. Similarly, Jewish participants who expressed solidarity with Muslim fury over the recent Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad were clearly miffed that Muslim participants appeared unwilling to confront the viciously anti-Semitic caricatures that appear routinely in the media of Muslim countries.

Several of the more mystically inclined rabbis and imams came together to advocate the use of Sufism and Jewish mysticism to “bring the children of Abraham together under the tent of faith.” Yet that agenda sparked little interest among more mainstream representatives of both religions.

Still, most of participants clearly felt the conclave was a success, simply for having given them the rare opportunity to converse fruitfully with their counterparts from the other side. Imam Mahmoud Fantar of Tunis remarked, "This meeting is very important and hopeful because it shows the possibility of productive dialogue between Jews and Muslims and that we are ultimately responsible for one another.” Imam Abbas Ismail of Middlesex, England, said, “At this conference, Jews and Muslims are looking into each others’ eyes and asking what we can do to end the suffering on both sides. By the end, we realized that this dialogue is vital if we are ever to overcome the very serious issues between us.”

For his part, Rabbi Izak Haleve of Turkey said despite having witnessed several devastating bombings at synagogues in Istanbul that killed scores of Jews, he still believes in the efficacy of dialogue with Muslims. “Certainly we have different opinions, but what was clear at this conference is that we can learn to empathize with the Other and feel something of what he is going through.” Yet for all the heady feeling of camaraderie, there was widespread agreement among participants that the true test of the conference’s impact will be in the follow-up—or lack thereof. Dr. Ghassan Elcheikali, the New York-based secretary-general of the Universal Muslim Association of America, an umbrella body of Shia Muslims in North America, spoke for many participants when he said, “As inspiring as was the Muslim-Jewish communication here in Seville, this Congress will ultimately prove to have been a lot of empty words unless we follow through on promises to work together.”

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