A Rabbi in the Mosque

As national co-chair of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, an inter-faith organization dedicated
to integrating spirituality and political change, I often speak at
unusual events, but this time was different. Complete with television
news cameras and NPR, a crowd of several hundred people created a
standing-room only crowd as Muslims joined with Christians, Jews, and
"spiritual-but-not-religious" NSPers to witness a historic event: the
first time a Jew had been invited to speak at the Denver Mosque. I was
amazed and quite pleased at the warm and enthusiastic reception I
received.

The invitation had provoked a spirited controversy in the mosque.
There were some who argued that the invitation proffered to NSP to
host me at the mosque should be rescinded. They argued that both
Tikkun and I have been strong advocates for the State of Israel, that
we reject the notion of a general disinvestment in Israel (though we
do support disinvestment in companies like Caterpillar which
specifically build equipment to tear down Palestinian homes for the
Israeli government), that we reject the call for a "One State
Solution" and instead affirm the need for an immediate creation of two
states living in peace and mutual cooperation, and that Tikkun still
believes that Israel should be a Jewish state (in the sense of giving
special priority to Jewish immigration to Israel, though we also have
advocated that the Palestinian state should have the same priority for
immigration needs of Palestinians).

The other side argued that the Mosque should not be afraid to hear a
Jewish perspective, that Tikkun Magazine had been the major source for
the renewal of an American Jewish Left in the 1980s and had been a
major role in making criticism of Israeli policies toward Palestinians
more legitimate inside the Jewish world, had been the major documenter
in the US of Israeli human rights abuses, and had provided the only
location among the Jewish world for Palestinians to tell their case to
the Jewish people without censorship. Moreover, they argued, anyone
reading Healing Israel/Palestine (my 2003 book) could see the obvious
intent to write a balanced account of the struggle that lacked all the
normal chauvinistic nationalist rhetoric that still predominates in
major sections of the Jewish world and even in sectors of the Israeli
and American "peace movement." Though these claims were responded to
by others at the mosque who pointed out that all these points, while
true, only created the platform for Rabbi Lerner to be "the most
effective, because seemingly most balanced, supporter of the State of
Israel that the Jewish people have in the U.S.", in the end it was the
side who wished to invite me that prevailed.

The event began with a chanting in Arabic by the mosque's Imam of a
section of the Koran that affirmed the need for openness to others
outside the Muslim community and a reading of that same text in
English, welcomes from the current and past presidents of the mosque,
and then I was introduced to speak. My topic was NOT about
Israel/Palestine but about the need for the U.S., to switch its
approach to foreign policy from the paradigm of domination to the
paradigm of generosity. It included a discussion of the current
dynamics of fear and how that could be changed to a new prevalence of
hope. And of course, a presentation of the Global Marshall Plan (see
www.spiritualprogressives.org) as the most effective way to build mass
support for immediate withdrawal from Iraq as well as the best
contemporary example of what a paradigm of generosity would look like
were we to implement it. After this talk, we took a half hour break so
that the hundred or so Muslims in attendance could do their late
afternoon prayers.

When we reconvened, I started by talking about the fact that most
American Jews reject the post-9/11 demonization of Muslims and the
attempts to equate Islam with terrorism or oppression. I emphasized
that anti-Islam feelings are polluting public consciousness,
facilitate imperialist wars like the one in Iraq and the attempt to
generate a war against Iran, are based on taking the worst strands of
a religious community and then identifying it with the entire religion
(as has been done by some anti-religious people who take Jewish or
Christian or Hindu or Buddhist fundamentalists and equate them with
the entirety of Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism or Buddhism), and are
dangerous to everyone because they are used to legitimate suppression
of human rights and civil liberties in the U.S. and a return to racism
that is a slippery slope (and certainly dangerous for Jews who could
easily be the next target). I made these remarks because, even though
I was there speaking for NSP and not just for Jews, in the actual
event they had invited me more because I was a progressive Jew than as
chair of the NSP. That became clear in the Q&A -- the attention was
largely on what I had not spoken about: Israel/Palestine. The
discussion was intense, respectful, and passionate. I tried to convey
the Tikkun position, summarizing much of the perspective developed
both in my 2003 Healing Israel/Palestine and my 2004 The Geneva Accord
and Other Possible Strategies for Middle East Peace
(both published by
North Atlantic Books and available on Amazon). I think people were
particularly impressed with my argument that it was unlikely that
Americans would have much direct impact on the internal debates in
Israel, but that we could have an impact on American policy, and that
the most important policy impact we could have would be to legitimate
the generosity strategy as opposed to the domination strategy,
because, as I argued, if the world's leading hegemonic power could
move from domination to generosity as the center of its strategy, then
all the hardcore domination people (what I usually call the people who
embrace the paradigm of fear? the Right Hand of God) in Israel would
find their worldview less "obvious" and the peace movement's
perspective would seem more plausible. Too long-term for you? Well,
anyone who works out a lasting settlement sooner has our blessings too!

In any event, the reaction to my talk was extremely favorable, with
several of the Muslims who had opposed me speaking at their mosque
telling me that they had never heard a Jew so willing to understand
their perspective and acknowledge their pain.

In a subsequent dinner with the leaders of the mosque and the Imam I
heard many stories of frustration as they described to me various
interfaith activities with the Jewish community in which they had
participated, only to find that the friendly atmosphere closed down
totally when they tried to get Jewish community leaders or lay people
to acknowledge the suffering of the Palestinian people. Several of the
participants in this discussion were Palestinians themselves, others
were from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt. They told me that they
truly hoped that inviting me to speak would be a first step toward
creating a deeper kind of dialogue that was open to hearing and
acknowledging the pain of the Palestinian people (for example around
the collective punishment currently being inflicted on the entire
population of Gaza in response to the vicious and unjustified violence
of a handful of unknown people who are bombing Sderot, or the
collective punishment being inflicted on the entire West Bank in the
form of checkpoints and the creation of the Wall for acts of terror
perpetuated by a small number of people, or even, some insisted, the
collective punishment that Israel had inflicted on the Palestinian
people by inviting the PLO to come to the West Bank and Gaza as part
of the Oslo process, something they claimed had never been sought or
approved by the majority of Palestinians living there. In general,
they were flabbergasted at the level of denial of facts about the
occupation that they thought everyone would know by just reading
Ha'aretz's English edition each day.

I'm hoping that as younger people assume positions of leadership in
the Jewish world, some of these dynamics will change, particularly the
wholesale denial of Israeli human rights violations that have massive
consequences for the Palestinian people for the past sixty years. Yet
I couldn't help feeling embarrassed at my own powerlessness to change
the current dynamics in large sections of the organized Jewish
community (manifested most recently in the "Conference of Presidents
of Major ?sic- Jewish Organizations" attempt to prevent Israel from
making too many concessions to the Palestinians in the current
negotiations, a move so morally outrageous that Rabbi Eric Yoffie,
president of the Union of Reform Judaism, denounced it).

So it was with both hopefulness about who these particular American
Muslims are, and sadness that I could not open the appropriate doors
to a deeper and more open-hearted consciousness in the Jewish world
that I completed my evening in the Mosque.

Blessings as we enter this secular New Year and face the challenges ahead.