Dancing or Denouncing in the World-Wide Earthquake: Jews and Muslims

Dear friends,

For a YouTube video about the Muslim-Jewish event described here, see --

Sometimes the earth on which we stand begins to shake, uncontrollably. We can respond with measured concern, even fear, and reach out for help to each other; or we can respond with panic and rage against anyone we think might be responsible for the earthquake. We can try to grab on to some "immovable" strong point - or we can learn to dance, with each other, in the earthquake.

Recently, some parts of the "official" established American Jewish organizational structure have been feeling they are living in a totally unexpected earthquake (see below for its description), and some have responded with panic, lashing out at some imagined "cause."

One form that took was attacking some progressive Jews as "enablers" of anti-Semitism. Another it has taken - one I found myself dealing with in my own life this past week, not just on paper -- is attacking some Muslim organizations and trying to keep mainstream American politicians from treating them as parts of our democratic fabric.

So I will tell the story, which is both important in itself and a micro-version of the bigger problem.

In March 2007, I was invited to speak at the first annual dinner of the Pennsylvania chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), evidently because I had taken part in a pray-in to protest against the exclusion of a group of imams from flying - and maybe because I also knew and was known by Iftekhar Hussain, head of the Pennsylvania chapter.

At that point the only CAIR folks I knew were Iftekhar and Ahmed Bedir, who leads a Florida chapter of CAIR. Him I knew through the Tent of Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah, the group of Jews, Christians and Muslims, that has been meeting for almost four years and has initiated a series of multireligious projects.

They include the "Sacred Season of Shared Sacred Seasons," which this fall continues when Ramadan, the High Holy Days, Worldwide Communion Sunday, and the Feast of St. Frances are intertwined) and a book of which I'm co-author with Sister Joan Chittister and Murshid Saadi Shakur Chisti, The Tent of Abraham: Stories of Hope and Peace for Jews, Christians and Muslims (Beacon, 2006). (To buy the book with 10% discount and free shipping, go to www.beacon.org/tentofabraham and when the site askes for a discount code, type in "tent" without the quote marks.)

I respect both Iftekhar and Ahmed deeply, and know them for intelligent and peaceful people, bringing a wise and compassionate understanding of Islam to work for justice and peace in America. So I readily said Yes.

Since I knew little about National CAIR, I did some reading - especially of a major article in the NY Times on ways they were being harassed, often by right-wing organizations in the Jewish community who claimed they were associated with terrorists. But the article made clear that CAIR works with the Federal government, is respected by Federal law-enforcement agencies, and speaks out strongly for civil liberties and human rights. Not a terrorist profile. For the whole article, see ---


My careful reading of the Times article and my browsing on the CAIR Website strongly indicated that attacks on CAIR have little or no substance and are based on the kind of innuendo and strings of X to Y to Z to A that made infamous the names of Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn.

Just as I was being invited to speak, so was Congressman (and former Admiral) Joe Sestak, newly elected to Congress from a suburban Philadelphia district on a strong antiwar platform. He accepted.

And then some Jews in his congressional district complained. They urged him to renege.

So I not only said yes to my own speaking, I wrote encouraging Congressman Sestak to continue with the courage and good sense he had already shown in treating Philadelphia CAIR and its members as full members and participants in the democratic process, to be honored by him as well as to honor him.

So now let me report on the dinner itself, this past Saturday evening -- and on its aftermath - especially a half-bottomed story in the Philadelphia Inquirer and my letter to the editor about it.

Sestak did speak, both affirming the Muslim presence and activism in America and urging some changes in CAIR's positions. He received a standing ovation.

AND there was a protest band of three or four picketers, all Jewish, outside the hall, angry that Sestak was speaking. A larger number of Jews attended as supporters, including another rabbi besides me; and there was a supportive letter from one additional rabbi in the printed program, and a supportive ad from a smallish activist Jewish organization, Jewish Voice for Peace.

I spoke as a religious Jew committed to peace between Israel and Palestine and to peace between the United States and the Muslim world -- speaking to religious Muslims who strongly applauded my call for renewed dedication to a peaceful two-state Israel-Palestinian peace settlement. They strongly applauded my remarks about the need for each single one of us members of the family of Abraham to feel personally wounded when any member of the family kills another.

Former Ambassador Ed Peck gave the keynote address. Some of his family were Jewish, and were murdered in the Holocaust. Governor Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania gave a warm and warmly received speech. He is himself Jewish and has excellent relations with both the Jewish and Muslim communities in Philadelphia.

Yet the article that appeared next day in the Philadelphia Inquirer, on the lead space in the Metropolitan section, spun the event into a seeming collision between the Jewish community and CAIR. None of the supportive Jewish presences -- people, speeches, program book -- were reported in the article. Rendell's presence was barely mentioned. Peck was not mentioned at all.

And while the article reported the utterly uncorroborated assertions by two local Jews that CAIR "has connections to terrorists," it did not report that in fact CAIR speaks out strongly against terrorist attacks by Muslims.

Feeling that this kind of reporting gives credence to McCarthyesqe lies, I wrote both the reporter who wrote the story and a Letter to the Editor. The latter (nibbled a good bit around the edges by the Inquirer's editors, and with one very important missing piece) was published this morning, along with a parallel letter from a Muslim who had attended the dinner and who praised Jewish "moderates [who] represent the true voice of the Jewish community."

The piece missing from my letter had pointed out how reporting a slander without the facts refuting it is a way of giving credence to the kind of falsehood that besmirched the names of McCarthy and Cohn.

And this is perhaps the most important fact about the whole affair. For this event does not, unfortunately, stand alone. Recently, in California, Senator Barbara Boxer "rescinded" an award for active democratic citizenship she had given to a CAIR worker, after pressure from some limited parts pf the Jewish community. When there was a rousing protest against her rescinding the award, she retreated into silence.

Why is this sort of thing happening?

One response to finding one's self shaken by an earthquake of change is - panic. Not reasoned and measured concern or even fear integrated into an effective response, but unreasoning and often self-destructive panic. And one form THAT takes is lashing out against anyone perceived to be connected with the earthquake. Lashing out through slander intended to delegitimate anyone who suggests another way of dealing with the earthquake.

Many Americans responded in this way after 9/11. The Iraq War and the suspension of many age-old civil liberties and human rights - habeas corpus, the right to an attorney, the right to know what charges are being made, the right not to be tortured - were "justified" and enabled by that panic.

And - especially since the Israeli government's 2006 invasion of Lebanon and its abject failure, especially since the discovery that if military force is the only choice the Israeli government makes as a way to protect Israel, then Israel's heartland cities like Haifa can come under attack - there is a similar kind of spreading sense of dislocation, earthquake, panic among the officials of some American Jewish institutions. Their assumptions of invulnerability begin to unravel.

One response might be to rethink the assumption that military domination is the wisest path to security. But most of them have found it easier, at least in the short run, to circle the military wagons and press on with more of the same.

Slander is a quasi-military response if in fact you cannot use outright violence (and American Jewish institutions, short perhaps of the Jewish Defense League and its heirs, cannot). Slander is intended to terrorize at the political and psychological level, to make people shut up. (In the old Jewish phrase, "l'havdil" - let's be clear this is not the same thing as the terrorism of blowing up a pizzeria.)

If the troubling folks shut up, maybe the earthquake will go away.

For the American Jewish Committee, this took the form of attacking a slew of Jewish progressives, many of them creators of life-filled and rejuvenating forms of Jewish cultural and spiritual renewal, as "enablers" of anti-Semitism because they do not share the notion that the State of Israel is the be-all and end-all of Jewish life and future.

For others in the official Jewish institutional structure, it means attacking not only CAIR -a Muslim group that condemns the use of terrorism by Muslims - but also any American politician who treats CAIR or other Muslim groups or for that matter the newly bubbling Jewish peace groups as legitimate parts of the democratic process.

For Jewish Republicans, that attempt at shutting people up has the added benefit of trying to frighten and defeat some politicians who (like Congressman Sestak) oppose the Iraq war in part because they have a broader view of how to deal with the Middle East.

Of course I am not saying that CAIR is perfect, that I always agree with it, or that there is no point in Muslims and Jews not only listening to each other and encouraging each other but also arguing, debating, dialoguing, wrestling with each other - in both directions, neither just Jews nor just Muslims insisting on their own perceptions as the only reasonable ones.

At the dinner itself, there were certain phrases used by one of the CAIR speakers that troubled me. I began a conversation about them, and will continue.

Aside from phrases, there is one outlook of CAIR's that has led to criticism. CAIR strongly condemns terrorist actions, but not whole organizations.

To many American Jews, its unwillingness to make a blanket condemnation of Hamas or Hezbollah seems contradictory, if it really opposes terrorism - because most US Jews, and the US Government, define Hezbollah and Hamas as simply terrorist groups.

But CAIR points to the complex reality in which both groups are simultaneously woven of strands that include social-service organizations with schools and medical clinics, etc.; political parties; friendship groups and ethno-religious communities; police forces; and military / terrorist agents. Much of the non-military parts of this complex, in both organizations, meets real needs on the ground, and much of it is woven into Palestinian or Lebanese society.

Indeed, there is considerable evidence that inside Hamas, at least, there are different sub-groups with competing views and policies about terror and violence. Careful ethical challenges to the use of terror could actually help strengthen the peaceful forces. So CAIR's view is that to condemn the whole organization outright, as distinct from specific terrorist actions, is to demonize all its parts instead of trying to peel away the disgusting actions that CAIR does oppose.

To me this view roused some interesting echoes of my own criticisms of parts of the so-called Left that attack Israel - the whole society or its whole government - instead of condemning specific aggressive and oppressive policies and actions of the Israeli government.

Perhaps there is some way to condemn specific actions while naming, but not condemning, the organizations that are partly involved - as I do when I condemn particular actions of the Israeli government, naming it while not attacking the government as a whole.

There will be enormous value in pursuing such discussions with each other, once more learning deeply what it means to stand in the shoes of "the Other," dancing in the quaking circle of reality.

What does NOT help is slander and intimidation. The earthquake in which we all live is frightening, and we are more likely to survive and grow by dancing in it together rather than trying to scare others into leaving the dance floor.

So I am hopeful that the dinner last week is a spark of light. Far from showing irreparable conflict between the Jewish community and CAIR, in fact the dinner showed that a seriously peace-committed part of the Jewish community can work with a seriously peace-committed part of the Muslim community, despite the existence of some violence-supportive people in both communities.

That is the truthful and the important story.

And that is the future we need to create. Dancing together, in the earthquake.

Shalom, salaam -- -
Rabbi Arthur Waskow
Co-author, The Tent of Abraham;
Director, The Shalom Center www.theshalomcenter.org

For a YouTube video about the Muslim-Jewish event described here, see --


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