Gaza War Tests Interfaith Ties On L.I.
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Gaza War Tests Interfaith Ties On L.I.

Muslim and Jewish leaders hash out a hard-won joint statement after harsh ‘open letter’ against Israel threatens longstanding friendships.

They bent, but they didn’t break.

Rabbi Michael White, spiritual leader of Temple Sinai of Roslyn, L.I., has known Dr. Faroque Ahmad Khan, a founder of the Islamic Center of Long Island in Westbury, the largest mosque in Nassau County, for more than a decade. The two men have spoken many times before each other’s congregations — sometimes even on the freighted topic of Jerusalem — and see each other several times a year.

Through hopeful times in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and through the roughest patches, they have maintained a working friendship — rare in Jewish and Muslim circles — crossing a bridge of religion and culture. So when Rabbi White, whose 900-family congregation is one of Nassau’s largest Reform temples, read an “open letter” written during the war by Khan and two other Muslim leaders he knows well, it landed like a left to the ribs.

Another Jewish leader who also works closely with the three Muslim leaders, David Newman, director of the Long Island office of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, said he read the letter, which was highly critical of Israel, and “felt betrayed.”

Particularly hurtful was their comparison of Hamas’ rocket and tunnel attacks against Israel to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943.

“We told them that these analogies are not appropriate and that we can’t continue our relationship if this is how they feel,” Newman recalled.

Rabbi White said he told the Muslim leaders that the “use of that rhetoric was out of place.”

Given the way the war in Gaza was playing out — with Israel under withering criticism for the number of civilian deaths in Gaza and the Jewish community trying to counter claims that Israel’s response to Hamas rocket fire was disproportionate — the letter could have dealt a blow to a longstanding relationship.

But in a sign that Jewish-Muslim coexistence is still possible, even in a time of crisis, the two sides fell back on their friendship. And to critics of interfaith dialogue who say that it is made up only of “Kumbaya” moments, the hard-won compromise between the Long Island Muslims and Jews perhaps offers an object lesson in how delicate, but rewarding, such cross-faith relationships can be.

Crafting a new joint statement, the two sides agreed to disagree about what happened but to also voice identical hopes for the future.

Asked to comment on the interaction, Rabbi Noam Marans, director of Interfaith and Intergroup Relations at the American Jewish Committee, said in an email: “The open letter on Gaza was misguided and disturbing, but we should be able to appreciate the process that led to the positive intentions of the ensuing joint statement of the synagogue and the Islamic Center, without affirming every detail. Crises in relationships can be opportunities as well. That is certainly true in interfaith dialogue.”

Newman said he was “gratified” that as soon as he received the original letter, Khan and one of the other Muslim leaders, Habeeb Ahmed, commissioner of the Nassau County Human Rights Commission, immediately consented to meet with him. Joining him for the meeting were Rabbi Michael Stanger, president of the Long Island Board of Rabbis, and Steven Markowitz, board chairman of the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County.

After that meeting, Rabbi White had a chance to meet with the Muslim leaders, and they agreed that because of their close friendship, they would try to compose a statement about the conflict that they all could sign.

Rabbi White said he only agreed to create a joint statement because the Muslims’ initial letter, though tough, was written within acceptable bounds.

“There were fault lines that it didn’t cross, and I felt we had a basis for building something,” he said. “I love them and know that they are not mean spirited, anti-Semitic or anti-Zionist.”

Rabbi White took the first pass at the joint statement, and the Muslim leaders added to it.

“It acknowledges our differences and points of departure,” he said. “We don’t agree about who bears primary responsibility for [the Gaza war], and there are paragraphs pointing that out.”

But there is also a section in which all parties agree about their “dreams for the Holy Land: Israel and Palestine, two nations living side-by-side in peace with Jerusalem as capital for each nation.”

“Arabs and Jews living as neighbors, each realizing their national aspirations, living with dignity, security, freedom and mutual recognition,” they wrote. “The choice for leaders of Israel and Palestine is clear, negotiate a two-state peace agreement with a new sense of urgency or condemn Palestinian and Israeli children to continued conflict: more violence, more sufferings and more deaths.

“As two American religious institutions, it is incumbent on us to voice our dreams and desire for the well being of the people of Israel and Palestine. We strongly support Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to achieve a negotiated peace agreement, and we urge our government to renew efforts to reach a two-state agreement as soon as possible.”

Rabbi White confessed that at first he was not sure how to compose such a statement.

“I was asking myself, ‘Given that this Muslim community has a prism through which it views the Israeli-Arab conflict and I have mine — is it possible to craft a statement we both can agree on about what our aspirations are?’” he said.

But in the end, the joint statement was adopted last week by the board of Temple Sinai of Roslyn just days after the board of the Islamic Center of Long Island also approved it. The center’s president-elect, Isma Chaudhry, was the third Muslim leader who signed the original letter.

“What is wonderful about the process,” said Rabbi White, “is that our joint communiqué is a universe away from what they wrote.”

In the original letter, dated Aug. 6 and written while the Gaza war was ongoing, the Muslim leaders wrote: “Currently the agenda and actions are driven by extremists, Hamas from the Palestinian side and the current Likud government from Israel. Sadly, there is now an extremist, racist ideology current in Israel that not only justifies the recent onslaught on the Gaza Strip, but actually encourages the use of enormous and disproportionate violence against civilians, which has led to the extermination of entire families. …

“In our opinion, the longstanding siege and resulting oppression of the 1.8 million Palestinians has led to the ‘prison riot’ against the ‘jailers’ who control the air/sea/land access. Unless this is rectified, we will continue to see the spirals of death and destruction. There are similarities between the current Gaza prison riot and the Warsaw ghetto uprising against the Nazis in 1943.”

At the end of the original letter, the Muslims said they were “saddened and disappointed with the near silence of Jewish leadership in North America regarding this conflict ….”

Rabbi White said that although there were “factual inaccuracies” in that letter, “it struck me as a letter that came from a deep emotional place — they were very concerned about their co-religionists in Gaza, and the letter showed that concern and anguish.”

But he found that they were “respectfully open to the concerns we expressed. … Neither of us backed down from our positions about the prism through which we view this conflict … [but] the letter was a catalyst for what became a very good process.”

In their joint statement, the parties said they “share a sacred covenant. … It is in the respectful interchange of ideas, in the understanding of deeply held but diverging convictions and the empathetic hearing of each other’s struggles and pain and yearnings and dreams that we learn and we grow. The Gaza war could have severed our sacred covenant. Instead we choose friendship and engagement; instead we choose to work to ensure that our relationship transcends our differences, not by shying away from them or hiding from them, but by honestly and respectfully discussing them, by hearing each other and affirming each other’s dignity and integrity.”

Rabbi White said it is his “hope that once we are past this, we will have serious conversations about these things. I’m more interested in the fact that we agree about shared aspirations than that we disagree with the fundamental causes.”

Khan, who is also a member of the Board of Regents of the Islamic Medical Association of North America, agreed that although there are “clear differences with what the folks at Temple Sinai and the Islamic Center feel regarding the ongoing conflict, we agree that a resolution has to come through discussion.”

Khan noted that he has been “interacting with Temple Sinai since 1991and has had programs there about Jerusalem and where we come from — common ground — and that we both need to live in security.”

Asked about the wording of the original letter, Kahn acknowledged that “sometimes it was not the best, and we are [now] sensitive to that.”

Kahn said that despite his conversations with the Jewish leaders, he still believes “the ongoing settlements, land theft and the embargo of Gaza are the major obstacles to a peaceful resolution of this conflict.”

He added that the Muslim leaders’ letter was “never meant to offend” the Jewish community, but rather simply “reflected what the guy on the street is saying.”

stewart@jewishweek.org

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