Rabbi Marc Schneier is the founder and president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, an organization that works internationally to promote understanding and cooperation between Jews and other ethnic communities. He recently published with Imam Shamsi Ali “Sons of Abraham: A Candid Conversation about the Issues That Divide and Unite Jews and Muslims” (Beacon Press), featuring a foreword by President Bill Clinton. The book, written in alternating chapters, grows out of an unusual friendship: Rabbi Schneier, the 18th in a rabbinic line and founding rabbi of the Hampton Synagogue on Long Island, and the imam, the son of an Indonesian farmer who studied in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and now leads the Jamaica Muslim Center, both embrace pluralism, promote compassion and denounce all forms of hateful behavior.
Rabbi Schneier says that they are more united than divided in their beliefs. The hallways of the foundation’s Manhattan offices are lined with photographs of the rabbi with dignitaries and religious leaders the foundation has brought together, including a group of European chief rabbis and imams at a Yankees game in 2009.
Jewish Week: How did you and Imam Shamsi Ali meet?
Rabbi Schneier: We first met in a television studio, when we were both invited to be part of a discussion after Pope John Paul II died. My impression was that he was a very sweet man — his words came from the heart. I didn’t realize how much influence he had. In March 2008, we did our first CNN dialogue and a few months later we were part of a public service announcement with rabbis and imams denouncing anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. We exchanged pulpits, hosted visiting delegations. Shamsi signed a letter to Hamas from imams saying that it was not Islamic to keep Gilad Shalit as a hostage. In 2009, we did a press conference together denouncing the (attempted) firebombing by four Muslim men of two synagogues in Riverdale.
What’s the focus of the foundation’s work?
For the first 17 years, we were rebuilding the historic black-Jewish alliance. Now, using that model, we’ve been working globally for five years and opened our office in Paris in September. Our work is not about dialogue or expressing niceties. It’s about fighting for the other. People who fight for their own rights are honorable only when they also fight the rights of all people.
Can you describe your early efforts in Muslim-Jewish relations?
In the years after 9/11, the journalist — now my colleague — Walter Ruby invited me to speak to students at the Razi School in Queens, an Islamic day school. When I got out of the car I worried if I’d be safe. But then I learned so much. Just like yeshiva students, the boys and girls were sitting separately. We had a very respectful dialogue that went on for 2 ½ hours. These children were my epiphany. I walked out and asked myself, “If I can have such a heartfelt, real exchange with these young people, what is the conflict? No child is born a bigot — bigotry develops from what a child is exposed to.”
What do you mean by “empathetic imagination?”
It’s one of the crucial qualities for humane and compassionate living. I used to believe that the pre-eminent commandment in the Torah was to love they neighbor. Then I began to think, well, that’s not so difficult. Your neighbor is in the same community, probably the same race, ethnicity, faith. The real challenge is to love the stranger.
Loving the stranger, Va’ ahavta et ha’ger, is mentioned 36 times in the Torah — love thy neighbor is mentioned only once. Loving the stranger means really loving someone who doesn’t look like you. By truly seeing the humanity in the other, only then can we preserve it in ourselves. We have to develop such empathy. To me, that’s the essence of our work. It’s Jews fighting for Muslims, Muslims fighting for Jews.
How do you deal with the concept of the Jews as the “chosen people” in working with others?
It doesn’t mean we are superior. The concept of chosenness designates the Jews’ special mission to introduce the world to ethical monotheism. I believe that the emergence of Christianity and Islam as great world religions represents a fulfillment of that mission. While I affirm that Jews were chosen by God for a unique mission, we are not the only people to have been chosen for such a mission.
How do you deal with difficult texts, in both traditions?
One of the most humbling and valuable lessons that I’ve learned is that just as we have a written and oral tradition, so does Islam — the Oral Law (hadith) serves to interpret and explain the words of the Koran. When you look at the written law only, the Torah can be seen as a bloodthirsty tradition — an eye for an eye — but we have an oral tradition that explains many of these controversial texts. The Koran is no different — it is not to be read in a literal fashion. We would never read the Torah that way. Not to say that there aren’t fanatics.
How do you and imam see the peace process in the Middle East?
The imam and I both support the two-state solution. He has been vocal about that. We also both agree that, in terms of the peace process, there needs to be a parallel theological process. Religious leaders can help to lay a foundation for trust, and also step to support potential peace plans and say, “This is not against our beliefs.”
How do you view your achievements?
I see Muslim-Jewish relations, from an interreligious point of view, as the greatest challenge for the Jewish community. Today, we don’t have issues with the Vatican.
There are always naysayers, as there were with black-Jewish relations. I’ve been called a white Al Sharpton. But, in terms of Muslim-Jewish relations, I remind people that it took 40 years for the Israelites to get to the Promised Land — we’re not where we’d like to be, but the journey has begun. Contrast today with five or six years ago, when we had no lines of communication. I see hurdles, but unequivocally I see light at the end of the tunnel.
Are there others like you and Imam Shamsi Ali?
Many more than there used to be, but not as many as we would like.