For a long time, I have recognized that interfaith dialogues do not exactly represent an open forum for genuine intellectual discourse, mainly when it comes to challenging the issue of the supremacist ideology of Islam. But if there was any doubt in my mind, the event that I recently attended confirmed it.
The forum took place on December 4th at the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Buffalo, New York. The featured guest speaker was reform Rabbi Klein-Katz, a resident of Israel involved in interfaith dialogue for many years. The two organizers were the Westminster Presbyterian Church’s Rev. Dr. Thomas H. Yorty and reform Temple Beth Zion’s Rabbi Harry Rosenfeld. There were somewhere between 20-30 people in the audience, mostly church members but also a few others from the Jewish community.
Rabbi Klein-Katz shared his personal experiences working in Israel. I found his presentation to be entertaining and captivating. He shared a few experiences teaching Judaism in a convent in Israel and discussed the challenges of dialoguing mostly with Christians. Highlighting the need to allow friendly and civilized exchanges, the rabbi told the story of Ambassador Michael Oren, who last year during his presentation at UC Irvine was interrupted by a mob of Muslim students. The rabbi praised the president of UC Irvine for intervening and finally forcing the “fundamentalist extremist” Muslims from the hall. To underscore the clichés often used in interfaith dialogues which highlight the prejudices that we all share, the rabbi talked about his grandmother who immigrated to the U.S. from Romania. She spoke in Yiddish, using disparaging language against non-Jews in phrases like “those drunken Goyim.”
He then opened the discussion for the audience. The first speaker related a story from long ago, in which his pastor stated that the Christians have done more damage to humanity than any other group or religion. In response, the rabbi argued that all religions have a shared responsibility in causing harm to others, especially when they are in a position of power. He stressed that Jews up to now have had no power, but now that we have Israel, we too bear our own share of bad behavior.
The next attendee complained about Israel building 1,500 new apartment units. His complaint was politically motivated, he admitted, but he nevertheless felt that he had to raise the issue. The rabbi reacted in full agreement.
Pastor Yorty spoke about the attempt of the interfaith community in Buffalo to engage Muslims in a trialogue. Challenges driven by “the politics,” he complained, get in the way.
Then came my turn. I first discussed my mother’s experience as a child in Seget Transylvania. Especially during Christmas time, she and many other Jewish kids used to hide for fear of retribution, blamed and threatened for “killing Jesus.” I wanted to put the rabbi’s grandmother’s story in perspective. There was an obvious reason why Jews had a negative view of the non-Jews. It did not appear out of nowhere.
I expressed my full support for dialogue with Christians amid continuing and genuine reconciliation. I also shared that in Akko, Israel, I lived among Christians and Muslims, but didn’t learn much about Islam as a student in Israeli schools. The rabbi asked if I learned about Christianity. I answered that I learned Christian history in the context of European history and how it related to Jews in every period.
And then I shared my interest in Islam for the past few years. I agreed with Rev. Yorty that “politics” get in the way of dialogue — because Islam maintains a supremacist political ideology. I wanted to share a quote, which is part of the document of the Muslim Brotherhood and their mission in the U.S.:
a kind of grand Jihad in eliminating and destroying the Western civilization from within and sabotaging its miserable house by their hands and the hands of the believers so that it is eliminated and God’s religion is made victorious over all other religions.
I was about to read this quote as Rev. Yorty stood up and stated that now he would take the place of the UC Irvine president and asked me to keep quiet because he did not want to discuss politics. I asked if he was refusing to let me continue. This he affirmed. I then left the room. My husband and a friend who had joined us then followed.
Two issues surfaced which highlight the hypocrisy behind this one small event and many other interfaith dialogues. First, by silencing me just before I was to read the quote from the Muslim Brotherhood, outlining their destructive mission, Rev. Yorty frustrated any hope of honest discussion about anyone’s valid concerns with the political ideology of Islam. At the same time, however, the reverend seemed to have no trouble allowing the previous attendee to express his dismay at Israel’s building housing units in its own land. It would seem that the pastor and his Jewish partners have no issue with having Israel thrown under the bus, and using it as a scapegoat. Obviously, for them, building units in Israel did not belong in the rubric of discussing politics.
The second issue is the lack of intellectual honesty demonstrated by organizers of interfaith dialogues who attempt to stifle any frank discussion on Islam. How can liberally minded individuals, including Jews — who like to think of themselves as “progressives” — decline to challenge the misleading worldviews we hear reinforced over and over again? Isn’t intellectual dialogue the foundation of philosophic discipline? How can those who consider themselves intellectuals indulge those who prohibit open and honest debate?
Discouraging the legitimate scrutiny of dangerous ideologies — especially those which would infringe on our very survival and our liberal democratic system — is intellectual bankruptcy. By establishing the outright condemnation of dissent in any form as a requirement for interfaith dialogue, the reverend, and likeminded organizers, in effect abandon the purpose of critical inquiry.
For too many years since 9/11, courtesy of the mainstream media, academia, government, and interfaith activists, we have heard deceptions and obfuscations regarding Islam. Many times, during interfaith gatherings, members of the audience or the organizers find it suitable to bash Israel, but persistently avoid raising the underlying cause for the Arab-Israeli conflict: the political ideology of Islam.
Those who challenge the countless lies on issues of paramount concern to the Jewish people and to freedom-loving citizens — issues that have everything to do with our survival — are labeled as bigots and Islamophobes. By claiming that he was taking the place of the president of UC Irvine, the reverend implied that I was like one of those “fundamentalist extremists” Muslims, while, in effect, he proved to be like the Muslim mob. In the same way they prevented the Israeli ambassador from delivering his presentation, the reverend blocked me from stating my legitimate concerns over the Muslim Brotherhood. While the Muslim mob displayed a vile belligerence, I introduced my statement in a most polite and cordial way. But that did not matter in the least. The reverend did not want to be confused with facts. His intellectual position appeared to be so weak that he could not allow anyone to challenge it.
In her column on Imam Rauf, “Jihad Chic: Imam Rauf’s ‘Gift of Reconciliation,’” the author Phyllis Chesler writes: “The propaganda campaign in favor of Islam is intense, subtle, clever, elegant, vulgar, massively well-funded, and incredibly well coordinated[.]” In her last column on the anti-Israel propaganda, Chesler concludes: “We need the equivalent of a series of Stuxnet viruses in the war of ideas. Nothing less will do.”
It is a moral imperative for interfaith dialogues to be an open platform for communicating candidly, without equivocation, on issues including Islam’s perilous supremacist doctrine and anti-Israel propaganda. Their bitter reality should not be ignored. Real healing can take place only in the spirit of genuine inquiry, transparency, and the fearless pursuit of truth, wherever it may reside.