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It's time to (re)open dialogue with Islam

By Rabbi Haim Ovadia, 2008-01-11

I am a Jew of Islam. Not an Arab Jew, mind you, since that term makes as much sense as Slavic or Baltic or Arian Jew, but a Jew of Islam. It is not only because in my family's veins runs the blood of people who lived in Iraq, Syria, Morocco, Tunisia and Turkey, nor because among my congregants there are natives of Bahrain and Indonesia.

It is true that my iPod is packed with Abdul Wahab, Sabah Fakhri and Farid Al Atrache and the Shabbat songs, and liturgy borrows freely from generations of Islamic, Sufi and secular Arabic music, but the connection runs much deeper. I am a Jew of Islam because Judaism under the rule of the crescent took a different course than that under the rule of the cross.

The Jews of Islam, although decreed by the Pact of Omar as dhimmis, or second-class citizens, never experienced the same level of hatred, anti-Semitism and persecution that were their daily bread in Christendom. They were not demonized as god killers and did not have to defend their religion in public disputations. They were not expelled en masse on religious grounds from a Muslim country as they were from England, France and Catholic Spain.

As a rule, Islam used to be much less fanatic then Christianity. The number of wars waged and the amount of lives lost by the followers of the man who said: "Love your enemies; bless those who curse you.... Resist no evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also," is mind-boggling. And that violence was not directed only against other monotheistic heathens such as Muslims and Jews but also against Christians who deviated from the norm.

The Crusades, St. Bartholomew's Day massacre and the Inquisition are just an example. The latter, founded by the disciples of St. Francis of Asissi, a gentle soul who preached to the birds: ".... My little sisters, study always to give praise unto god," targeted not Jews but Christian heretics and new converts. It did it with such atrocity and cruelty in the Old and the New World that the Abu Ghraib tortures pale in comparison.

The so called Western Civilization has just emerged from a long history of religious intolerance. The much-celebrated Nostra Etate declaration, was only issued in 1965, mere minutes ago in historic perspective. Furthermore, although it graciously "acquits" most Jews from the sin of killing Jesus and calls for peace and religious tolerance, it stresses that the Lord Christ is the only true god, and that we foster friendship in order to bring all humanity to believe in him. It recognizes that in the past, there were "some quarrels" between the church and the Muslim but urges people to forget the past and start anew.

His holiness was probably not aware of Santayana's words: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Much greater tolerance is conveyed in the 1805 Chief Sagoyewatha's address to Christian missionaries: "Brother, you say there is but one way to worship and serve the Great Spirit. If there is but one religion, why do you white people differ so much about it? Why do not all agree, as you can all read the book? Brother, we do not wish to destroy your religion or take it from you. We only want to enjoy our own."

Looking back, we should ask ourselves, what happened to moderate and enlightened Islam? Why, as Harold Bloom writes in his foreword to Maria Rosa Menocal's "Ornament of the World," there are no Muslim Andalusians visible anywhere in the world today?

Part of the answer is that when West met East in modern times, it was an encounter infused with arrogance, religious zeal and greed. The colonialist and imperialist forces looked down at and did not bother to understand the "natives;" missionaries tried to "save" lost souls, a goal that justified all means, and the spoils of the Oriental and African world were divided among the culturally "superior" conquerors. Is there any wonder that nationalist and religious forces eventually sprang to action in order to counteract that hostile takeover?

When we speak about religion, the problem of the world today is not Islam but rather religious fanatics. As of today, most of them are Muslims, but to a certain extent it is the same brand of religious zeal that in our country, a country that heralds the separation of church and state, is holding back stem cell research, fights pro-choice supporters and discriminates against gays and lesbians.

The remedy for fanaticism is to support and promote proponents of moderate Islam, to bring back the glory of Andalusia, Cordoba and Granada and to prepare a cadre of imams and Quran scholars who are willing to accommodate to changing times, simultaneously teaching Westerners about Islam. It is time to open up a dialogue of acceptance, not one that teaches our ways to others, but rather one that searches to solve conflicts and violence by drawing upon each one's own culture.

It is a long and difficult way, but history has a long breadth and memory, and it will wait. Meanwhile, we don't have to build a bridge with Islam, just open for traffic the ancient one.

Haim Ovadia is rabbi of Kahal Joseph Congregation, a Sephardic congregation in West Los Angeles. He can be reached at



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