A New Paradigm For Muslim-Jewish Dialogue

A New Paradigm For Muslim-Jewish Dialogue

At least we are finally beginning to understand what we are up against.

As the war in Gaza has taken its toll and the U.S. conducts a sustained bombing campaign against ISIS in northern Iraq to save the Kurds, the battle lines in the Middle East are clearly drawn. On one side are Islamist fundamentalist, jihadist and terrorist organizations including Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS and al Qaeda; and, on the other, a de-facto alliance of “moderate” Middle East nations, including Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and the Palestinian Authority headed by President Mahmoud Abbas.

This remarkable shift in the strategic alignment in the Middle East has happened so abruptly that many people in both the Muslim and Jewish communities have not yet fully comprehended it. Many American Jews have not yet fully assimilated the fact that Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt — not to mention the Palestinian Authority — are essentially on the same page as to how to resolve the Gaza crisis and should be encouraged to work more closely together. At the same time,  Muslims in the West who have lately been indulging in harsh anti-Israel rhetoric over events in Gaza are operating on outdated perceptions that Muslims in the Middle East have already largely discarded.

First, this is not a war between Israel and Arabs. This is not a war between Muslims and Jews. Rather, it is a war between moderation and extremism; modernity and medievalism; civilization and barbarism. Yes, some of the non-state groupings in the terrorist-fundamentalist crescent have their own differences; for example, Hezbollah is Shia and has fought in Syria against the forces of ISIS, which seeks to recreate the Sunni-dominated caliphate of 1,000 years ago. Yet all of these groups share an absolutist vision of Islam based on imposing an extremist version of Sharia law on their often-unwilling subjects. In the areas of Iraq and Syria taken over by ISIS, non-Muslims are faced with an existential choice: convert or die. In ISIS territory and Hezbollah-controlled southern Lebanon, women are stripped of their rights, freedom of speech is non-existent and moderate and secular Muslims are also at risk. In the thuggish world of Hamas, the people of Gaza are used as pawns and collateral damage. Their suffering and death is used to make Israel look bad. 

For weeks now, the contours of this new strategic paradigm have been obvious to anyone willing to face reality. Since the beginning of the Gaza war in early July, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates have been strongly critical of Hamas, often blaming that movement more than Israel for the war and for the desperate plight of the civilian population of Gaza. Indeed, these countries have seemed to be quietly rooting for Israel to take Hamas down a notch so as to make it possible to broker a deal for the government of Mahmoud Abbas to take over Gaza.  

One question is why we see a disconnect between the pragmatic position of the Saudis, Egyptians, Jordanians and the Fatah wing of the PLO on one side and the anti-Israel drumbeat from many Muslims in the West. Why do grassroots Muslims in Europe, North and South America, Australia and South Africa, unlike their co-religionists in the Middle East, fail to grasp the basics of the conflict? I would distinguish between those extremist Muslims in Europe who are consumed with hatred not only of Israel and the Jews but also of Western civilization itself, and the majority of European and American Muslims who believe Islam can and should be reconciled with democracy and modernity. Shocked by the images of destruction from Gaza, it is understandable that moderate Muslims charge Israel with over-reaction.

Yet these concerns pale before the grave threat that the reinvigorated jihadist groups pose to civilized world. At this perilous moment, moderate Muslims the world over need to stand up and state clearly that there can be no compromise with the jihadist forces. Ultimately, it is critical that this battle be waged within the Muslim world, with moderate Muslims refusing to allow jihadists to hijack a faith whose prophet came to deliver a message of peace.

The good news is that Israel and the most powerful of its longtime Arab adversaries have come to a common understanding of the peril to their very survival from resurgent fundamentalist Islamism. I plan to initiate a dialogue next month with Muslim friends and suggest that moderate Muslims everywhere take a clear stand against the jihadists. Without a doubt, it is high time for the Muslims marching and even rioting in the streets of Paris and London to take a sober lesson from the playbook of their fellow Muslims in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. Tides are changing in the Mideast, and the future lies with the forces of moderation, not extremism.

Rabbi Marc Schneier is president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and co-author with Imam Shamsi Ali of “Sons of Abraham: A Candid Conversation About the Issues that Divide and Unite Jews and Muslims” (Beacon Press).

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