Meeting in Madrid with Muslims -- & many others!

A Report by Rabbi Arthur Waskow and Rabbi Phyllis Berman *
July 18, 2009

The Madrid Global Interfaith Dialogue:

Dear Friends,

The two of us took part in a three-day Global Interfaith Conference initiated by the King of Saudi Arabia and sponsored by the World Muslim League.

Far beyond the frou-frou of shaking hands with two kings in a Spanish royal palace – Abdullah of Arabia and Juan Carlos of Spain, who acted as host -- the gathering is itself an important breakthrough in this work, a clarification of how far there is yet to go, and a signal that even within the conference itself, the organizers were willing to begin correcting some shortcomings when the participants pointed them out.

Before the gathering, some skeptics wondered whether this would be all hype and PR, concocted to smooth over that aspect of Islam which has carried out terrorist violence against civilians.

Even worse, the first US corporate-media coverage was a nasty piece from the Associated Press that drew on unnamed but clearly hostile sources to denigrate the Dialogue. It reported two items:

 That an ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionist rabbi (utterly unrepresentative of most Jewish thought) was to be the lead Jewish speaker. (In fact, (he had been invited but after distress was expressed jointly by American Muslims and Jews, he did not appear at all – a demonstration of the organizers' desire to reach out to the Jewish community, rather than the reverse.)

 That the presence of the universally respected Rabbi David Rosen, chairman of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations and director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, was unimportant because his biography did not note that he is an Israeli. (In fact, he made clear who he was and was actively present.)

Indeed, the Jews present included not only Riosen but also major leaders of the Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, and Jewish-renewal movements in the US, a rabbi high on the staff of the UJA in New York City, several leading Jewish experts in interfaith dialogue and action, the Deputy Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, the head of the Latin-American Jewish Congress, a conservative Jewish Republican who has for five years been involved in dialogues with Iranian religious leaders -- in short, a rainbow of Jewish life. (We are appending their names at the end of our report.)

The AP report clearly stemmed from some Jewish source that wanted to prejudice public opinion against any possibility that a Saudi initiative could be valuable or real.

But several aspects of the event make clear that indeed something real and important is happening.

First of all, this effort began with a conference in Mecca six weeks ago, in which Muslims of all backgrounds and ethnicities and nationalities came together to affirm that Islam is committed in its basic principles to dialogue, and abhors violence. That conference then called for this one.

If the Madrid event had been conceived only as a PR stunt to bamboozle the non-Muslim world, the effort would not have begun in Mecca, dedicated to clearing the heads of Muslim leaders of any attraction to violence or hatred, and turning them toward dialogue and peacemaking.

Moreover, in both Mecca and Madrid, the gatherings have included Shiites as well as Sunnis, Iranians as well as other Muslims from Indonesia to America. If this effort had been planned to mobilize a Sunni coalition aimed against Iran, a manipulative and destructive flag that present US policy has been waving in the wind, Iranians and other Shiites would have been excluded.

Perhaps most indicative, the participants' list here in Madrid includes not only Jews and Christians but also Hindus, Buddhists, Shintoists – and King Abdullah went out of his way in his welcoming talk to specify that all the world's religions and ethical philosophies must address each other in dialogue.

Why is this important? Because classical Muslim thought found it easy to tolerate the other monotheistic peoples of the Book, Judaism and Christianity, and to celebrate "the children of Abraham" – but would conventionally have rejected the Eastern traditions as polytheist or atheist or idolatrous. Reaching out to them was a breakthrough for Muslims.

(For the full text of the King's welcoming, please see – )

Beyond the mind-addicting, ultimately mind-numbing effort to hear speaker after speaker talk from a podium, with time for a limited number of questions and comments from the audience at each session, was the real juicy "dialogue": at tables at mealtimes. We found ourselves at one meal next to a high Saudi official who said that he had never been out of Saudi Arabia and that he was fascinated by the variety of human beings he was meeting. Another Saudi –a Shia leader – had never met a Jew before, and had never ehard there were jews, like us, who affirm the state of Israel and think its occupation of Palestinian lands is an abomination. A Pakistani we met wrote us after he had returned home to promise that he would work to change references to Jews in Muslim textbooks.

Just as these peole were meeting people like us for the first time, : we were meeting them – people we had never had the chance to "meet, really meet." Hundreds of participants in Madrid had just such conversations with new dialogue-partners.

One of us – Arthur -- was able in one Q & A session to explain how the Tent of Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah had learned to begin our dialogues by sharing our spiritual journeys with each other, and how the next Dialogue conference might be well-advised to set aside two hours a day for groups of eight to ten people to meet to do precisely that, thereby accomplishing far deeper face-to-face dialogue.

Through that telling, Arthur was able also to point out that it was Phyllis, drawing on the wisdom of women, who had shaped that path of sharing our spiritual journeys -- and to urge that the next such interfaith conference should draw far more on the wisdom of women as speakers as well as organizers.

He pointed this out because the program showed that from beginning to end, in five different sessions with four or five speakers each, not a single woman was scheduled.

The two of us were not the only participants to raise this concern. Nevertheless, several people told us that the cultural assumptions of the Saudi organizers were so deeply engrained that such changes would have to wait at least until the next gathering. But lo and behold, on the very next morning, the session chair announced that a change had been made in the program and that a Spanish Muslim woman scholar would speak on the role of women in interfaith work.

What's more, she was no patsy. Citing historical data, she gently but firmly made clear that the inclusion of women in interfaith work was necessary for depth and success in the work.

The most fiery moment of the gathering came when one Muslim speaker, discussing Christian-Muslim-Jewish dialogue, cast doubt on whether Jewish-Muslim dialogue was possible. He also asserted that while Judaism is a religious path, Zionism is a political construct.

Jews and Muslims rose to correct him, reporting that in many cultures -- North and South America, Britain, Western Europe, Sarajevo in Southeastern Europe -- Jews and Muslims were already carrying out various forms of dialogue and shared action. That was when Arthur described not only the process but also the results of the Tent's work – including our stimulating major organizations of all three Abrahamic communities to oppose the US government's invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Moreover, Rabbi David Rosen spoke to the Judaism/ Zionism question, saying that true dialogue requires understanding the Other as the Other sees (him/her)self and that most of the Jewish community sees the connection between the People Israel and the Land of Israel as a religious matter, even when some disagree with the behavior of any political or governmental expression of that bond.

Arthur was then able to add that in the process of dialogue, not only does each partner get to hear the other, but each partner might also discover resources for changing one's own self. Thus, he said, there is growing amongst the Jewish people a reconsideration of conventional theology to ask whether God promised the land, which some call the Land of Israel and others call Falastin/Palestine, to both the families that descend from Avraham/ Ibrahim. And perhaps among Muslims, he added, such deep dialogue might bring about a reexamination of the passages in Quran that say the Jewish people has a special relationship with the Land of Israel.

These disagreements with the original speaker were met with openness: considerable applause, some doubt. The fact that Muslims themselves testified that Jewish-Muslim dialogue not only was possible but had been happening for years was clearly news to some of the more cloistered Muslims present.

And that, like the openness to changing course and inviting a woman speaker, and like the real conversations around the dinner tables, is the real testimony to the honesty of the Muslim organizers and the major significance of the gathering. Dialogue was not only talked about – it began to happen. People changed.

Changes in national and transnational social institutions do not happen overnight. Some critics of the Madrid Dialogue have suggested that absent social change and far more religious freedom in Saudi Arabia itself, Madrid means nothing. But the proclamation of a new vision for a large, broad, and complex community usually takes decades or even longer to work out. What we saw was a beginning.

Baruch hashem; alhamdulillah; Praise God! Blessed is the One Who has filled us with life, lifted us up, and carried us to this moment.

Shalom, salaam, peace –--

Arthur & Phyllis

Rabbi Arthur Waskow is director of The Shalom Center; author of Down-to-Earth Judaism and a dozen other books on Jewish thought and practice, as well as books on US public policy; co-author, The Tent of Abraham. The Shalom Center voices a new prophetic agenda in Jewish, multireligious, and American life.

Rabbi Phyllis Berman is facilitator for The Tent of Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah; former director of summer sessions at Elat Chayyim Jewish Spiritual Retreat Center; and co-author of A Time for Every Purpose Under Heaven: The Jewish Life-Spiral as a Spiritual Journey. She founded (1979) and directs the Riverside Language Program, an intensive school in New York City for adult immigrants and refugees from all over the world to the USA, emphasizing the creation of peaceful relationships among people from many religions, races, political bents, and continents.

The following is a partial list of other Jewish leaders present at this gathering with us:

Claudio Epelman, Director of the Latin American Jewish Congress;
Rabbi Joseph H. Ehrenkranz, Executive Director: Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding;
Chief Rabbi David Rosen, International Director of Religious Affairs: American Jewish Committee;
Rabbi Steven Jacobs, Rabbi Emeritus, Temple Kol Tikvah, Los Angeles;
Rabbi Marc Schneier, President, Foundation for Ethnic Understanding;
Walter Ruby, journalist, Muslim-Jewish Program Officer for the Foundation of Ethnic Understanding;
Rabbi Scott Sperling, Director, Middle Atlantic Region, Union for Reform Judaism;
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, President, National Center for Learning and Leadership;
Rabbi Arthur Schneier, Appeal of Conscience Foundation;
Professor Marshall Jordan Breger, Professor of Law, Catholic University of America;
Rabbi Alan Brill, Professor of Jewish-Christian studies, Seton Hall University;
Dr. Marc Gopin, Director, Center for World Religions, Diplomacy, and Conflict Resolution;
Dr. Steven T. Katz, Director, Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies, Boston University;
Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky, Professor of Midrash & Interreligious Studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary;
Rabbi David Lister, Deputy Chief Rabbi of Great Britain;
Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor-in-chief Tikkun magazine;
Rabbi Michael Paley, UJA-Federation, New York City;
Naamah Paley, student of Hebrew and Arabic.

[See also the text of King Abdullah's opening address, at]

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