In mid-January, seizing on the spirit of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s memory, Imam Omar Abu-Namous of the New York Mosque hosted Rabbi Marc Schneier of the New York Synagogue in a dialogue entitled "Muslims and Jews: A Conversation."
It was a return engagement: The rabbi had hosted the imam some months back at his synagogue. I was asked to moderate both programs.
Despite the commonalities between Islam and Judaism — one God; the Patriarch Abraham; the Prophets Joseph, Moses, David, and others — there are sharp differences between the two faiths.
Clearly, one or two dialogues cannot possibly bridge such a gap. This is particularly true where, as happened at the mosque, the participants choose to put aside the most troubling issue that divides us — the Arab-Israeli conflict — lest it threaten bridge-building at such an incipient stage.
Of course, the press frequently looks for something. One newspaper covering the event suggested it was "disingenuous" to leave the Arab-Israeli conflict to the side. Such criticism overlooks the fact that dialogue works best when the participants first can talk about what they share, gaining each other’s confidence and respect, before tackling the tougher issues.
Trust isn’t built in a day, and indeed, mutual trust is not always advanced even when hot-button issues are placed to the side. It certainly was not advanced by the imam — who is no Jew-hater — in his use of the tiring canard from decades ago that Muslims cannot possibly be anti-Semites because Arab Muslims are Semites themselves. This was not the environment for that kind of semantic game.
But talking about "disingenuous," one nameless woman who used that word — rudely, I must say — felt the need to challenge the imam in his own mosque over what some might see as nearsightedness on the issue of anti-Semitism in the Muslim community — just as Jews, by the way, can be nearsighted about Jewish Islamophobia.
It may be that the imam’s answer — that anti-Semitism in the Muslim community isn’t as Jews perceive it to be — is flat wrong. But how is dialogue advanced when the host of an ecumenical event is openly berated by a guest rather than addressed privately? And what does such conduct communicate about the rest of the Jews in attendance?
More important, despite and after her insults, which the imam handled with grace, two Muslim women came to where the woman sat, embraced her, and consoled her in her moment of obvious emotional upheaval.
Similarly, after the event ended, a reporter for a Jewish newspaper challenged me for seeming to call only on Jews in the audience when Muslim attendees also had their hands raised. It was hardly my intent to ignore the Muslim questioners, but more important, a Muslim minister quickly came to my defense, answering that Jews visiting the mosque "should be the ones to have their questions answered."
These are only anecdotes, but these personal encounters show that it’s through collegiality and sensitivity that relationships are built.
Let’s consider the other good that came of the dialogue. Perhaps ’00 Jews who had never been in a mosque — and an equal number of Muslim worshippers from this and other mosques — were received with graciousness by a clearly gracious leader, in the tradition of Abraham.
They heard him clearly say that Jews, whom he described as his "cousins," were not "infidels," and that his religious belief was that on "the Day of Judgment" God would judge each of us according to his or her religion. What more could we hope that the imam describe to worshippers at his mosque?
The imam explained, too, that radical fundamentalists, who he claims have abandoned the teaching of Muhammad, are victimizing Muslims as well. He responded affirmatively to Rabbi Schneier’s request to join him in denouncing anti-Semitism in the Islamic community if it rears its head in the future.
Consider this: Every person I spoke to before the program — they were mostly Jews — communicated to me in some way that it was risky business, even physically risky, to go to a mosque, even in the middle of New York City, for such a program. Many said it to me flippantly, but I know there’s no such thing as a totally flippant remark.
I guarantee, however, that not one person who actually attended the event felt that way by the time the program ended.
As I introduced the event, I told the crowd that I had brought a three-minute egg timer to encourage concise answers by the two clerics, since clergymen tend to labor on with their answers. I explained, in the presence of King’s son, Martin Luther King III, that no one would have been foolish enough to use such a device to shorten the wondrous remarks of the iconic civil-rights leader. Nor could they have: As we continue to see, not even an assassin’s bullet could stop King’s heroic message of reconciliation among brothers.
Perhaps this dialogue event, held in King’s honor, and the possibilities that will stem from it, can help prove that point better than anything.