Bridging Religious Divides
By Dow MarmurColumnist
Ominous signs that the promising Arab Spring may be turning into a harsh Arab Winter are reflected in the toxic relations between Muslims and Jews in the Middle East and around the world.
People who live in the diaspora are often prone to import the radicalism of the countries in which they’ve their roots. Therefore, continued tensions between Jews and Muslims are bound to affect Canada, too. Reports of unrest on university campuses and elsewhere are troubling indicators.
That’s a compelling reason to welcome with enthusiasm and hope the initiative of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding (FFEU). In cooperation with Muslim and Jewish representative bodies in different parts of the world, the foundation has this year again initiated interfaith twinning events that involved thousands of members of both faith communities.
Participants seem to have managed to avoid pious and vacuous declarations by engaging in genuine face-to-face encounters that brought together people from very different backgrounds, not just to be nice to each other but to do hands-on work together. Thus, for example, in Toronto as in other cities in North America, Muslims and Jews organized projects to feed the hungry and the homeless in their locality.
The initiatives of the Canadian Association of Jews and Muslims deserve special attention and support. Joint projects make it possible for participants to get to know each other. This in turn helps them to free themselves from prejudices and stereotypes fostered by unscrupulous propagandists with agendas of their own.
The president of FFEU is quoted as saying that the result of this year’s encounters “reinforces our efforts to build a global movement of Muslims and Jews committed to communication, reconciliation, cooperation and understanding.”
And the organization’s chairman said: “There was a moment in time when some thought that bringing together imams and rabbis wouldn’t be productive. But I’ve had some of the greatest and most rewarding experiences of my life promoting dialogue. The fact that year after year more Muslims and Jews are joining the conversation speaks volumes.”
My own experience of interfaith work, including Muslim-Jewish dialogue, bears this out. I’ve learned that the more we come to appreciate the religious commitment of the other, the more we deepen our own. But to get there safely we must avoid the traps of engaging in empty public relations gestures and distance ourselves from the duplicity of those who want to appear conciliatory to the world while promoting hatred in their own communities.
To help make sure that leaders live up to their public statements, Christian counterparts should be involved in the encounters. Christian anti-Semitism is almost as old as Christendom. Through the ages it has often been much more virulent than its Muslim equivalent. Yet things are very different now. Today, most Christian denominations have learned to reach out to and appreciate Jews without seeking to subdue or convert them. The resulting growing mutual trust, reflected in fruitful cooperation, has greatly enhanced the standing of both Judaism and Christianity.
In order to preserve and develop its promising achievements, Muslim-Jewish dialogue needs the participation of Christians to act as witnesses and catalysts to help separate the political situation in the Middle East from the challenge of living in peace with each other here. The pioneering work of the Three Faiths Forum in the U.K. can serve as a helpful model.
Instead of vainly seeking to fight proxy wars between Palestinians and Israelis in the Canadian media and universities, we must discipline ourselves to live up to the teachings of our respective traditions by being good neighbours, thus serving faithfully both God and the country in which we live.
Dow Marmur is rabbi emeritus at Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple. His column appears every other week.