With Islam’s top religious leaders publicly sanctioning suicide bombings against Jews, outraged New York rabbis plan to protest the behavior of their religious counterparts at a demonstration in front of the Palestine Mission next Monday.
“We’ve seen too much hatred emanating from those who claim to be religious,” declared Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, president of the New York Board of Rabbis, which is sponsoring a pan-denominational “major rabbinical rally” at 2:30 p.m. April 8 outside the PLO Mission to the United Nations at 65th street and Park Avenue.
Rabbi Potasnik said the rally is meant to demonstrate Jewish unity and issue a challenge to religious leaders from other faiths — including Catholics and Christians — to unequivocally condemn the mounting suicide bombings of innocent Israelis attending Passover seders or sitting down for coffee at a restaurant.
“This is to say that we who feel that religion and decency go hand in hand are challenging those to stand with us in countering the threats against our people,” he said.
The NYBR is also calling for its 700 members to urge their congregants at services this week to e-mail or fax the White House to continue its support of Israel. It is meant as a counter move to a pro-Palestinian campaign under way, said executive director Rabbi Doniel Kramer.
Rabbi Potasnik said he was particularly frustrated with local Islamic clerics who are failing to come out publicly against the sanctioning of suicide bombers in Israel. “The silence out there is maddening.”
He was referring to the recent declaration of Islam’s arguably most respected religious leader, Sheikh Mohammad Sayed Tantawi of Egypt, who during the week of Passover declared that Palestinian suicide bombers were holy.
Only two months before, Sheik Tantawi hosted what was hailed as a groundbreaking peace conference for religious leaders in Cairo that culminated in the signing of the Alexandria Declaration — where 20 prominent religious leaders signed a statement that “the murder of innocents -supposedly in the name of God — is sacrilege of His holy name and disgraces the religion worldwide.”
But on March 21, Sheik Tantawi, the former rector of Cairo’s prestigious al-Azhar University, praised the Palestinian suicide bombers.
“Anyone who blows himself up among aggressors who destroy houses and kill women and children, while defending the honor of our brothers in Palestine is holy, because he blows himself up in the heart of an enemy who is raping his lands, disgracing our honor and killing people,” according to published reports.
“If the suicide bomber is in an Israeli town, and it is proved that there are aggressors there and he blows himself up, killing men, women and children, he is also holy, because he cannot distinguish between them,” he said, adding, that bombers should not intentionally detonate “among the weak [women and children] because it did not conform to the tenets of Islam.”
The disconnect between the sheik’s signing of the Alexandria Declaration and his March 21 statement last week is jarring, say counter-terrorist observers who say he is providing religious validation to the young Palestinian men and women who are blowing themselves up in order to kill Jews.
But Sheik Tantawi is not alone.
On Monday, Egypt’s official mufti said that suicide attacks on Jewish settlements were one of the highest acts of martyrdom in Islam.
“The suicide attacks carried out by fighters in the Israeli settlements are acts of martyrdom — they are one of the highest forms of martyrdom,” Ahmed al-Tayyeb was reported as saying according to the semi-official Egyptian daily newspaper, al-Ahram.
As Egypt’s official mufti, Tayyeb is responsible for issuing fatwas, or religious opinions, on Islamic issues.
“Their influence is enormous,” Daniel Pipes, an expert on Islamic terrorism, told The Jewish Week.
He said the Islamic clerics are a major factor in legitimizing and institutionalizing the concept of suicide terrorism — turning into a form of “brave martyrdom” in Islamic Arab culture.
“There’s an entire ideology and social structure for it,” beginning with childhood and school textbooks, summer camps and television shows, he explained. “It’s part of the war effort” and “it requires the legitimization that comes from religious authorities.”
Even moderate Islamic clerics have been co-opted by the Muslim terrorist factions, said Yehudit Barsky, director of the division on international terrorism for the American Jewish Committee.
They won’t stand up and denounce it because of intimidation and other factors,” she said. “From outward appearances it looks like there is wall-to-wall agreement that suicide bombings are holy, and even the supposed mainstream clerics are acceding to this position.”
But International interfaith expert Rabbi David Rosen, a co-signer of the Alexandria Declaration, condoned Sheik Tantawi whom he called “arguably the most important Muslim cleric in the world.”
Rabbi Rosen, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, noted that Sheik Tantawi hosted the summit of 20 religious leaders in Alexandria, was the first signatory to the declaration, and “played a key role in getting the Palestinian delegates to accept the text and sign it.”
Further, Rabbi Rosen compared Tantawi’s troubling distinctions about which Jews can be legitimately killed with how Israeli rabbis provide religious justification for the killing of innocents in Palestinian refugee camps.
“His reasoning is similar to that of most Israeli rabbis who give halachic justification to the unavoidable collateral killings of innocents when Israel bombs Palestinian refugee camps to hit their targets,” he said.
Rabbi Rosen said the key term here is “innocent.”
“It’s similar to the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist. It all depends on what side you’re on.”
But more disturbing to some was an exchange on last Sunday’s WABC Radio’s “Religion on the Line” program, where a show that was supposed to be about Easter turned into a denunciation of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, even as Jews were being blown up in Haifa.
Co-host Rev. Byron Shafer, a Presbyterian representing the Council of Churches of New York, told a stunned caller to the weekly Sunday morning religion show that Sharon was a terrorist and largely to blame for the violence. “Susan from Queens” told Rev. Shafer and co-host Father Paul Keenan, representing the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, that she took exception to comments they made about “both sides [Israelis and Palestinians] being intent on revenge.”
Rev. Schaefer responded: “I think the leadership of both sides is more focused on vengeance than on anything else.”
When “Susan” countered that Israel is “right now intent on self-defense and survival,” and noted numerous terrorist attacks, Rev. Shafer responded, “It’s atrocious, of course. But can you see it all? The plight of the Palestinian people?”
Later, Rev. Shafer called Sharon “a partner in terror” and his policies trigger the terror.
When “Susan” tried to present the generally accepted history that it was Arafat, not Sharon, who refused a peace offer at Camp David, as the reverend contended, he broke off the conversation. Father Keenan was largely silent.
Rabbi Potasnik said he was disheartened by the lack of support of his radio partners for Jews in a time of crisis. He said it was inappropriate for them to discuss Middle East policies on Easter.
“We’ve seen several times those who indulge in these obscene and immoral equivalencies, who equate the arsonists [Palestinian suicide bombers] with the firefighter [Israel].
Rabbi Potasnik said the reactions by his Christian colleagues are “a sad commentary on the lack of support some people have during a tragic period.”
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