On the eve of the 9/11 anniversary and with Jewish-Muslim tensions running high over the opening of the nation's first Arab-language public school in Brooklyn, the head of the Reform movement is proposing a far-reaching dialogue with a major Muslim group.
The suggestion by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of Reform Judaism, is the believed to be the first such outreach by a major American Jewish religious denomination. The group is the largest synagogue body in the U.S. with 1.5 million members.
But what makes the effort problematic is that the Muslim group Rabbi Yoffie has chosen to dialogue with is an unindicted co-conspirator in the Dallas trial now taking place against the Holy Land Foundation. The foundation is accused of raising funds for Hamas, the terrorist organization that has vowed to destroy Israel.
One of the last widely publicized Jewish outreach efforts to Muslims was made last November by Rabbi Marc Schneier, spiritual leader of the New York Synagogue. But it backfired when Imam Omar Abu Namous of the Islamic Cultural Center, who was invited to the rabbi's synagogue for a dialogue, unleashed a barrage of criticism of Israel — even questioning its legitimacy — as a stunned congregation watched. Rabbi Schneier said later that the incident "opened my eyes to the reality that we have a long way to go."
Rabbi Yoffie disclosed his efforts to open a dialogue with Muslims in a speech last Friday at the annual convention of the Muslim group, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), in Rosemont, Ill. Speaking to about 1,500 people, Rabbi Yoffie said the dialogue would "teach us about Islam and we will teach you about Judaism. We will help you to overcome stereotyping of Muslims, and you will help us to overcome stereotyping of Jews."
But Daniel Pipes, founder and director of the Middle East Forum and a counter-terrorism expert, called Rabbi Yoffie's outreach to ISNA "well-intentioned but very misguided."
"There needs to be an acknowledgement that ISNA is an Islamic organization, Wahhabi in outlook, which is deeply problematic," he said.
Wahhabi Islam is said to be the primary religious movement behind extremist Islam.
"Beyond ISNA's own character is the question of Jewish-Muslim relations and whether this can be fixed through ‘Kumbaya'-like sessions such as Rabbi Yoffie's," Pipes said, "or whether there needs to be a frank acknowledgement that there is a deep current of anti-Semitism among Muslims in the United States that needs to be addressed.
"It is not a mutual situation," he continued. "You don't see mosques and Muslim schools being surrounded by security as you do synagogues and Jewish schools. There is no parallel. And what Rabbi Yoffie did was to build his base on a parallel — saying that there are problematic texts in the Jewish Old Testament as there are in the Koran, and saying that each side has its extremists. I think that is a flawed analysis and one that will have mischievous consequences if it is widely accepted."
But Rabbi Yoffie said the leadership of ISNA has changed since its founding 45 years ago and has issued "major statements" denouncing terrorism and calling for peace in the Middle East based on a two-state solution.
"The perspective that [Pipes] represents begins from the premise that the Muslim-American community is a dangerous community filled with anti-Semites," the rabbi said. "There is a big difference between saying there are elements of anti-Semitism in a community that is basically moderate and well educated and middle class, and suggesting that the entire community is somehow dangerous. If you see the community in that sense, it does not make sense to engage in dialogue."
Rabbi Yoffie insisted that the Muslim community is "conceivably the best educated minority in America" and that there "are significant elements of that community who are untouched by extremism and who are anxious to cooperate with us and with others."
He said that at the ISNA convention he heard ISNA's American vice president, Ingrid Mattson, speak three times and she repeatedly called for Israeli-Palestinian peace and to "stop the tie between Muslims and extremism."
"She gave a speech Jewish leaders would give," Rabbi Yoffie insisted.
Nevertheless, Yehudit Barsky, the American Jewish Committee's counterterrorism expert, insisted that ISNA has not sufficiently disassociated itself from the Holy Land Foundation now facing terrorist-related charges.
"This is not the right organization and not the right time," she said of Rabbi Yoffie's outreach effort. "Had they repudiated their association with the organization or its activities, this would have been welcome."
And just last week, Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, sent a letter to the U.S. Attorney General's office criticizing its decision to send representatives to the ISNA convention. He noted that the Justice Department earlier this year had labeled ISNA a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in the U.S., the parent organization of Hamas and al Qaeda.
(ISNA issued a statement last Saturday denying it has "ever been subject to control of" the Muslim Brotherhood.)
"In light of the threat that our nation and the world in general is currently facing from radical Jihadists ... we believe it is a grave mistake to provide legitimacy to an organization with extremist origins, leadership and a radical agenda," Hoekstra wrote. "Establishing a partnership with ISNA is exactly the wrong approach at this critical juncture in history, setting a precedent that radical Jihadists should be the conduit between the U.S. government and the American Muslim population ...."
In response, an official of the Justice Department noted that several federal agencies had simply set up information tables for community outreach at the convention, including the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State, the Department of Defense, USAID and the U.S. military.
There were reportedly about 500 organizations and vendors at the convention, which was said to have attracted upwards of 40,000 Muslim Americans — the largest such gathering in North America.
Rabbi Yoffie said he was mindful of the Bush administration's participation at the convention.
"The Bush administration is hardly one that can be accused of being soft on terrorism," he said. "Pipes suggests that this is a group out to subvert America and filled with radicals. You have to ask would this administration and president, who is so outspoken on extremism, have his administration so well represented. Of course not."
Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Reform movement's Religious Action Center and director of its Commission on Interreligious Affairs, pointed out that "a senior Pentagon official spoke at the same session Rabbi Yoffie spoke at."
In a statement, ISNA said it was "very disturbed" when it learned in May that it was an unindicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land Foundation case. It said it learned the action was taken as a legal tactic for the purpose of admitting evidence in the trial and that it is "confident that its name will be removed from the list so that the organization's reputation is cleared."
"ISNA rejects all acts of terrorism, including those perpetrated by Hamas, Hezbollah and any other group that claims Islam as their inspiration," it said.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said he believed that although ISNA "is not perfect — and no umbrella organization is at all times perfect — it has spoken against terrorism" and was the most appropriate group with which to dialogue.
Pelavin said ISNA sent the invitation to Rabbi Yoffie to speak about a month ago, several months after Rabbi Yoffie approached ISNA leaders to begin developing plans for a dialogue between the two groups.
"We are still working on fleshing out how the program will work," Pelavin said. "I anticipate it will be similar to one with Christian-Jewish dialogue" that was inaugurated this year and called Open Doors, Open Minds.
About 100 synagogues and churches of different denominations were paired and their members engaged in joint dialogue programs using a curriculum developed by the Union of Reform Judaism.
Rabbi Yoffie said he anticipates that the Muslim dialogue would pair 10 synagogues and mosques throughout the country, probably including New York.
Pelavin said that since his movement began the dialogue with churches, "we have heard over the last year significant interest on the part of our congregations in this kind of structured dialogue with the Muslim community. In places where there is a large Muslim community there has been a greater desire to find constructive ways to reach out, and a lot of congregations are doing this work already."
Rabbi Yoffie's venture with Muslims is not his first into unchartered territory. In March 2006, he accepted the invitation of the Rev. Jerry Falwell to address the 10,000 students and faculty of Liberty University, which Falwell founded. Falwell, who died in May, founded the Moral Majority and is credited with transforming the religious right into a political force. In his speech, Rabbi Yoffie, who had been critical of Falwell, stressed tolerance and mutual respect.