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Prominent Push For Muslim Dialogue

Prominent Push For Muslim Dialogue

An Islamic elementary school from the South Bronx tours the Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in Lower Manhattan. Muslim students at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore invite Jewish students to a Ramadan break-the-fast banquet. A Pakistani man invites 100 Muslims and Jews to an interreligious dialogue meeting in his Washington, D.C., home.

In the days since 9-11, Muslims and Jews have reached out to each other, participating in an ongoing dialogue that has ebbed and flowed, largely depending on the political and military situation in the Middle East.

Many of the interfaith meetings, even when under the auspices of such prominent organizations as the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Community Relations Council, have been low-key events, usually off-the-radar screen of the general Jewish and Muslim communities.

This week a new local, ecumenical group enters the arena, sponsoring a speech by a prominent New York City rabbi.

Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, will deliver a lecture about the Jewish perspective on tolerance on Wednesday at the Razi School, an Islamic institution in Woodside, Queens.

His speech is sponsored by Religions in Dialogue, a newly formed, independent organization that has announced a series of events aimed primarily at members of the Jewish and Muslim communities.

While veteran observers of interfaith activities dispute the organization’s claims that Rabbi Schneier’s speech will mark the first by a rabbi in a New York-area Islamic school, they say the rabbi’s prominence (he is the founding spiritual leader of the tony Hampton Synagogue on Long Island and the upscale Manhattan Synagogue in Midtown) will draw attention to relations between Jews and Muslims here.

His speech coincides with a growth in the size and influence of the Islamic community in the United States, concern over the recent statement by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that Israel should be "wiped off the map," and over Muslim rioting in France that has entered its second week.

"Obviously Marc Schneier brings visibility to whatever he does," said Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, director of interfaith affairs at the Anti-Defamation League. "Anytime you create in the public mind [the feeling] that there can be Muslim-Jewish dialogue, you create more possibilities for it to happen."

Rabbi Bretton-Granatoor and his colleagues say the number of Muslim-Jewish dialogue activities increased after Israel and the Palestinians signed a peace treaty in 1993, decreased after the second intifada began in 2000, were renewed in 2001 after the 9-11 terrorist attacks on the United States and have experienced a steady growth in the past year.

The recent openness of the Muslim community, especially Islamic schools, to joint events with Jewish organizations is attributed to the many fears among Muslims that their entire community is being viewed as terrorists or potential terrorists by the American public. Jews, who have fought discrimination for decades, are seen as natural allies.

"We see across the country increased encounters between Muslim and Jews," said David Elcott, director of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee.

"The last couple years is when they were willing to come out of their shells" and openly meet with Jewish organizations, Rabbi Bretton-Granatoor said. "There certainly are more and more Muslim schools that are having more tolerant and more pluralistic worldviews."

However, one local Islamic educational leader who has tried to sensitize his students to the Jewish experience does not see a change in Jewish-Islamic relations.

"I don’t think it’s a trend," said Sheik Moussa Drammeh, who brought his students from the Islamic Leadership School in the Bronx to the Museum of Jewish Heritage last year to learn about the Holocaust.

Drammeh said the aftermath of 9-11 focused more attention on joint Jewish-Islamic activities.

"The new trend," he said, "is the media portrayal of the dialogue."

The Razi School, founded 10 years ago by members of the expatriate Iranian community, has 500 students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

The students’ families come from 31 countries, but most have roots in Southeast Asia, Iran and Egypt, according to Ghassan Elcheikhali, the Lebanese-born principal and a co-founder of the Religions in Dialogue group.

Elcheikhali said his school teaches "moderate views on Islam" and is not affiliated with a specific branch of the faith.Boris Pincus, a Jewish emigre from Uzbekistan who is founder of Religions in Dialogue and president of the American Association of Central Asian and Caucasian, said his research determined that the Razi School, one of the largest Islamic educational institutions in the New York area, had not supported radical positions on Israel or terrorism.

Razi was not among the local Islamic schools that used, according to a report in the Daily News last year, textbooks with anti-Semitic passages.

"They accepted my idea to [invite] a rabbi to their school" with no preconditions, Pincus said. "They understand their responsibility" to represent a moderate face of Islam. "They feel they are in a very dangerous situation because Islamaphobia is increasing everywhere."

Rabbi Schneier will give his speech to an audience of junior high and high school students, and their teachers.

"We have to work with children," Pincus said. "Children have no idea who [their neighbors] are. Only through this can we prevent the appearance of new terrorists."

"This is the beginning of long-term interreligious programming," said Pincus, who plans to sponsor a speech by an imam at a Jewish day school in the New York area later this year and calls the rabbi’s lecture at the school a model for other Islamic schools around the country.Elcheikhali said the speech "will erase or minimize the stereotypes" that Islamic students may hold about Jews or Judaism. "They will be exposed to other views. They will influence future generations.

"People usually fear what they don’t know," he said. "If you walk in the dark, you are afraid."

The principal said he encountered some skepticism from parents when he announced the speech by Rabbi Schneier and the rabbi’s topic.

"If you explain it in the right way, they accept it," Elcheikhali said. "I talk to them from the religious point of view."

Respect for Jewish teachings is consistent with Muslim theology, he said. "It is the teaching of our holy prophet [Mohammed]. This is what Islam is all about."

Elcheikhali asked the parents: "Why do you let Islam be hijacked" by terrorists and their supporters?

Rabbi Schneier, whose work at the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding has centered on race relations, said "we need to begin a conversation" with young Muslims.

The rabbi said he accepted the school’s invitation (this will be his first formal speech at an Islamic school) because "it’s a historic opportunity to begin a discussion with students."

He expects to take part in a lengthy question-and-answer period after his lecture about times of harmonious relations between Jews and Muslims throughout history.

Rabbi Schneier said he recognizes that an encounter with an Islamic institution could backfire. For example, his father, Rabbi Arthur Schneier of Park East Synagogue in Manhattan, had engaged in dialogue activities with the Egyptian-born leader of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York who returned to Egypt shortly after 9-11 and made several controversial, anti-Jewish statements.

He cited the risk of being co-opted or disappointed in past black-Jewish and Latino-Jewish dialogues.

"When I go into African-American schools, how do I know the students are not members of [Louis Farrakhan’s] Nation of Islam?" Rabbi Schneier asked.

He said the authorities he consulted assured him that the Razi School is a "centrist" institution.

"It is not only a good idea [to reach out to the Muslim community] but it is incumbent for us to do that," Elcott said. "I am absolutely convinced that the health of the Jewish community of the United States and the West depends on our ability to reach out and engage Muslims."

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