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A Response to Yossi Klein Halevi: Can one Really Dialogue with Imam Rauf?

Last week, I wrote a critique of a column that appeared on the New Republic's Website by the distinguished Israeli journalist, Yossi Klein Halevi. As he promised, Halevi responded with a thoughtful and serious retort, which you will read below. One commentator wrote in the comments section that Halevi, who grew up in the USA, understandably has such a confused position because of his "liberal upbringing."  I laughed at that one. Halevi came from the hard Jewish right-wing.  He was, as he wrote in a book about his experience, Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist, a protege of the late Meir Kahane and a member of the Jewish Defense League. This proves that all is not so obvious, and one should be sure about a comment before using it in an argument.

So here is Halevi's response:

Dear Ron,

Thank you for the invitation to respond to your comments about my open letter to Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf.

You called my letter "confused" because I showed respect to the Imam and treated him as a man of goodwill even as I acknowledged that he’s made statements that offend me.

For every problematic quote of his, one can find a counter-quote that shows sensitivity to Jewish concerns and occasional courage (like identifying himself as a supporter of Israel – words that can get a Muslim cleric killed).

So who is Imam Feisal?

One conclusion – yours – is that he's a fraud, that his seemingly moderate statements are intended to conceal a jihadist agenda.

I don't believe that he is an American Tariq Ramadan. (Ramadan would never call himself a supporter of Israel, even to deceive.) If I thought he was, I would not have addressed him with the respect that I did. I would not have bothered writing him at all.

How then to make sense of his contradictions?

One possibility is the opposite conclusion of yours – that Imam Feisal is cautiously advancing a moderate agenda by making occasional radical statements intended to reassure his community that he hasn't sold out. You assume that he's only telling the truth when he sounds like a radical; but it is surely no less logical to assume that he is telling the truth when he takes risks by making moderate statements and that his problematic statements are attempts to protect himself.

Having lived in Israel through the years of Yasser Arafat’s double-speak, advocating peace in English and jihad in Arabic, I’m wary of linguistic deceptions. But Imam Feisal seems to me to be engaged instead in a complicated balancing act = in part because even Arafat’s most extravagant “peace” rhetoric didn’t approach the powerful statements of reconciliation that Imam Feisal has made.

Is he engaged in a complicated balancing act? I don’t know. But having grown up in the Orthodox Jewish community, I’ve seen my share of good men who feel compelled to make the occasional moral compromise in the name of communal loyalty and discipline.

There is another possible explanation for Imam Feisal's conflicted statements and that is that he is genuinely conflicted.

Religion is not political ideology. When dealing with a person's soul, contradictions are almost inevitable.

Consider Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, one of the most important religious figures in Israel. Yosef heads Israel's largest ultra-Orthodox party, Shas. Yet he is also one of the most lenient rabbis among this generation of leading halakhic authorities. He recently called for the death of “the Palestinians” – all of them –  one outrageous statement among many over the years. Yet he also issued a ruling permitting Israel to withdraw from holy land for the sake of peace, an halakhic position that could one day offer vital Judaic legitimacy for an agreement with the Palestinians.

So which is the real Rabbi Ovadiah? Many in Israel, especially secularists, dismiss him as nothing more than a genocialist, while his followers insist he is loving man who intends no harm to any human being and that his words were as usual taken out of context. A more nuanced approach would denounce his incendiary words while acknowledging that he may also play some positive role in Israeli life.

I use this example not to compare Imam Feisal and Rabbi Ovadiah, but to show the sometimes unbearable contradictions that occur within a believer’s soul.

Perhaps the main disagreement between us, Ron, is over how to conduct an interfaith argument, including one as bitter and traumatic as the one over Imam Feisal’s Islamic center and mosque. I believe that religious arguments need to be conducted differently than political arguments -- though Islamism has blurred those distinctions, and this rule doesn't apply to Islamists.

So that brings us back to the question of who is Imam Feisal.

Perhaps if there were large numbers of unequivocal moderates, I wouldn't need Imam Feisal as a dialogue partner. But there aren't. And as an Israeli and a Jew, I need him desperately. I need him because large parts of the Muslim world are going the way that large parts of the Christian world went in the 1930s.

Yes, Imam Feisal has advocated a one-state solution, and I’ve spent much time over the last years countering the demonization of Israel generally and the pernicious notion of  the“one state” destruction of Israel in particular. Yet he is also a Muslim who is willing to publicly engage with Jews, to unequivocally condemn suicide bombing attacks against Israelis and is open to discussing the religious meaning for Jews of our return home to the land of Israel. That is a basis for engagement and debate.

Rather than seek the telltale quote that will supposedly resolve whether he is a genuine moderate or a closest jihadist, I prefer to treat him with respect and

-- not as a tactic, as you suggest, but because that is the prerequisite for genuine dialogue.We need an approach that doesn't resort to the blinders of the left or the sledgehammers of the right.  If the result sounds “confusing,” I’m willing to live with a certain amount of disonance, at least in my religious conversations.

And on the next page, my response.