Rabbi Dr. Alan Brill, associate professor in the graduate department of Jewish-Christian studies at Seton Hall University in South Orange, was among more than ‘0 Jews at the interfaith conference convened by Saudi Arabian King Abdullah in Madrid earlier this month.
Though he received his invitation just a week before the hastily arranged conference on July 16, the Teaneck resident said he suspected the Saudi monarch had been mulling such a move.
Rabbi Dr. Alan Brill says the Saudi-convened interfaith conference in Madrid was "a good start."
"King Abdullah said in mid-April that he wanted to reach out to Christians and Jews," said Brill in a phone interview after his return. "And then in June, he had a conference with Muslims in Mecca, telling them that they need to learn to be more open to others."
Despite such short notice, the July 16 to 18 gathering drew close to 400 representatives of Western and Eastern faiths. It was the first time a Saudi monarch had included rabbis in a religious conference. Abdullah also broke a taboo when he met with Pope Benedict XVI last year.
Brill, 47, who has Orthodox ordination, a doctorate in Jewish mysticism, and a background in interfaith dialogue, said the Jewish invitees were pleasantly surprised when their request for kosher food was granted by the Saudi embassy.
"The fact that our needs were met says an implicit religious liberty was occurring at that conference," said Brill.
Conspicuously absent were Israeli delegates of any faith, save for Rabbi David Rosen formerly a chief rabbi of Ireland who was listed on the program as "American." The Anti-Defamation League was invited but declined to attend.
Brill noted that at least half of the participating Jews were Orthodox, including a representative of Britain’s chief rabbi. "At this point, almost all interfaith dialogue with traditional Catholics and traditional Muslims is done with traditional Jews," said Brill. "That has been the case for at least half a dozen years."
However, the decidedly modern Orthodox bent of the delegates represented a significant departure from the fringe anti-Zionist Neturei Karta chasidic sect that last September sent a group of supporters to meet with Iranian president and Holocaust denier Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
According to the New York Sun, the sect originally did receive an invitation, but it was revoked upon the strenuous objection of other Jewish invitees.
"This is the first time [an Arab entity] has realized that Neturei Karta is not representative of Jews," said Brill. "They never understood that until now. That itself has major implications for the future."
As for other implications for the future, Brill is cautiously optimistic.
"At the end of the conference, there was no call for any standing committees, no commitment to future mutual projects," he said. "We would have wanted that to happen."
The conference had begun on a more promising note, as Brill gained access to a Saudi government minister for a one-on-one discussion.
"He gave me a strong positive feeling about change from within," said Brill. "They know they have to be open to other religions and cultures and they know they have to learn how to communicate with others. He said that his goal is for Saudi Arabia to become more like Morocco."
Though he was skeptical of the government’s ability to bring such ideas down to the grassroots level, Brill was impressed with the coverage the conference received in the Saudi media. "This was the first time there was a positive image in their press of Jews and Westerners. It’s a good start."
Abdullah opened the conference by speaking of a shared divine mandate for peace and prosperity for "the children of Adam," reported Brill, who noted that Saudi Arabia, dominated by the Wahhabi movement of Sunni Islam, does not allow any public worship outside of Islam. Nevertheless, "it was a big step for a Wahhabist not to refer to people of other religions as falsifiers or heathens, but as children of Adam."
Following the speech, the Jewish delegates gathered for afternoon prayers. "I was very pleased about this made-for-display mincha minyan," said Brill. "If the king is going to start dealing with the West, he will have to learn to tolerate our prayers and our religion. It was a diplomatic move made clearly without having to say a word."
He was left with contact information for Muslim clerics from a variety of countries, and the impression that there is sincere desire among the Saudi leadership to become more open to other cultures and religions. He was disappointed at the lack of concrete steps, which might have included a pledge to remove inflammatory rhetoric from school textbooks.
"If they call for another meeting, we will start asking for progress reports. And if they have it next year in Saudi Arabia, then we will know there was a major accomplishment."
This article "Teaneck man back from Saudi-led conference" incorrectly stated that "the Anti-Defamation League was invited but declined to attend." The Anti-Defamation League was not invited to the conference and so could not have declined to attend. Also, the group Neturei Karta was incorrectly described as chasidic, but it is, rather, haredi and "Litvish." [Added 7/31/’008.]