Biennial Convention of the Union for Reform Judaism

"Are you headed to Ballroom 20?" I asked a woman as she strode through the Convention Center foyer. She eyed me, assessing. "What's in Ballroom 20?"

"A Muslim woman is addressing a delegation of Jews."

"Ah. Are you with the conference?"

"No, I'm press."

She warmed up after that, and I suppose her caution was understandable. Here was a guy with no ID and a black bag asking about Islamic Society of North America president Dr. Ingrid Mattson's address to the Union for Reform Judaism Biennial Convention on the importance of Muslim-Jewish dialogue. A sensitive subject -- the sort of thing that might provoke a strong reaction from either side.

Mattson's address came as a sort of bookend to the one given last August by union president Rabbi Eric Yoffie at ISNA's annual convention in Chicago. In that speech, Yoffie had said, "To all those who desecrate God's name by using religion to justify killing and terror, let us say together, 'Enough.' No one honors a religion of peace through violence. No one honors God if they do not honor the image of God in every human being. No one gets to heaven by creating hell on earth." Yoffie praised ISNA's denunciation of terror and violence, but said that "our task is not done until the message is truly heard and others in the world join you.... Surely, here in America, as Muslim and Jew, we have a unique opportunity to reclaim our common heritage and to find the common path. Brothers and sisters, let us begin."

Yoffie received a standing ovation, but not everyone was thrilled. In his Shabbat sermon the day before Mattson's address, Rabbi Yoffie had told the conventioneers that "in the broader Jewish community, we have heard many loud voices of reaction, including the suggestion that we reconsider because of the need to maintain 'the unity of the community.' Let it be plainly said: this is nonsense....We have had quite enough of the shrill voices who profess to speak in our name and who use the slogan of 'unity' to impose their views on the moderate majority.... Some Jews, we know, have made common cause with fundamentalist preachers who describe Muslim Americans in near-Satanic terms. But if these Jews are not protesting such attacks with all the power at their disposal, they should be ashamed of themselves.... Jews have never taught hatred as an answer to hatred, and we will not begin now."

Singer Dan Nichols opened Sunday's plenary session with a couple of modern folk songs, starting with a low, thrilling, minor-key chant over acoustic guitar work that was sharp to the point of being fierce. Then he shifted to spoken word: "I saw the posters at the Golden Union Camp/ I saw the posters in the lobby of Temple Shir Shalom in West Bloomfield Michigan, Michigan/ In Jerusalem at 4 p.m./ But I wasn't prepared for what Jerusalem would sound like at four in the afternoon./ I turned to my tour guide and I said, 'What is that?' and he said, 'It's the call to prayer.'/ And I said, 'It doesn't sound like the Barechu to me.'/ And he said, 'Dan, those are mosques, all over town...'/ And I stood there for the very first time...hearing that sound in 360 swirl, and I was inspired./ It touched me./ Maybe we have things to share; maybe we have things to learn..."

To that end, the President's Message Committee was putting before the convention a draft resolution on Jewish-Muslim dialogue, which had as its principal goal the approval of an effort to promote "a new program... Children of Abraham: Muslims and Jews in Conversation ." The program was "based on building relationships through mutual understanding...

including a structured dialogue guide." The goal was for individual Jewish communities to partner with individual Muslim communities. "There exists in our community a profound ignorance about Islam," read the resolution's preamble, "along with a real desire to learn about what...motivates Muslims today."

Statements were taken, pro and con. A Jewish doctor who worked in "the heart of Arab London" spoke in favor of the resolution, saying that "Islamophobia...steeps our entire world," and that "there are huge numbers of Muslims...that are moderates."

But it wasn't all friendly rhetoric. A rather august gentleman to my left shook his head as he read the first sentence: "We live in a world in which religion is manipulated to justify the most horrific acts, a world in which Islamic extremists constitute a profound threat." (Though it was followed by, "For some, this is a reason to flee from dialogue, but in fact the opposite is true.") And a speaker from a Jewish congregation in Fountain Valley said that he liked "the very large bulk of this thing," but objected to the line, "When we are killing each other in the name of God, sensible religious people have an obligation to do something about it." "I'm aware that one side is killing the other in the name of God," he said, "but not vice versa."

"Oh, come on," said the fellow to my left with apparent frustration, but there was a smattering of applause, and the speaker continued. "I was in Israel all spring. I visited the blockhouse on the Lebanese border, where Israeli troops are doing what they must to defend Israel. I heard no animosity toward Muslims...except from the standpoint of, 'We need to defend our homeland.' I think this is a totally asymmetric situation.... If you'd care to say, 'When there is killing in the name of God,' that's a true statement. But we are not 'killing each other in the name of God.'" More applause followed, stronger now.

Rabbi Yoffie took the podium and responded. "I think the point is a valid point. The wording was more of a rhetorical device than an effort at political analysis.... I would accept an amendment that says, 'When killing is carried out in the name of God.'" No one raised a hand in opposition, and the motion carried.

Next week: Mattson's speech.

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