An Edah Editorial
By Rabbi Dr. Alan Brill and Rabbi Richard Marker
On Meeting a Hundred Imams
By Rabbi Dr. Alan Brill and Rabbi Richard Marker
Sometimes symbol is substance. Over 200 rabbis and imams from
over 30 countries gathered in Seville for several days for the World Meeting
of Rabbis and Imams for Peace, organized by the Hommes de Parole Foundation,
The very facts symbolize something worth paying attention to.
And when those 200 include chief rabbis from several countries
including Israel, when those imams include Shia, Sunni, and Sufi leaders from
5 continents and included Israel and the Palestinian territories, that symbolism
is something is worth paying attention to.
And when 20 rabbinical students meeting with their Moslem counterparts
in late night sessions commit themselves to finding funding to continue to meet
in the future, and Israeli dayanim signed with the Imams in Hebrew and Arabic,
substance begins to transcend symbolism.
And when, after 3 days of meetings, the group was able and
willing to agree to a public statement mandating local and regional follow-up,
affirming mutual commitment to condemn anti-Semitism and Islamophobia and xenophobia
of all sorts, to avow that the taking of life on behalf of religion is itself
a distortion of religious value, and to legitimate not only the other but the
pain of the other as a basis for mutual understanding, when there were calls
for a joint council to preserve the dignity of the Temple Mount and all religious
sites, then substance begins to triumph.
To be sure the meeting of Rabbis and Imams for Peace was not
all peaceful. There were public tensions among Moslems, there were behind the
scenes matters on the Jewish side, there were challenges to the agenda, and
there were times when the majority of attendees voted with their feet to have
more direct corridor conversation than sit in the sessions. While neither the
general American nor Jewish American press were there, press from Europe, Israel,
and Muslim countries were ever present, looking to exaggerate any pointed moments
The challenges to communication were great by definition. The
very nature of a world meeting meant that there were 5 official languages [English,
French, Spanish, Hebrew, and Arabic]. Plenary sessions provided simultaneous
translation; small group sessions couldnt. Most of those who attended
knew very few others before arriving, even of their own Tradition. Many of the
Israeli rabbis who were there under the auspices of the rabbinut had never sat
together with their Jewish counterparts. Many of the Imams had never met face
to face with their counterparts from the other major movements in Islam. Even
fewer had occasion to understand the local situation of what it meant to be
Jewish or Moslem in other parts of the world or, more poignantly, to
be Jewish or Moslem in the same place! Imagine the significance of French rabbis
and Imams speaking with each other.
Of the many who attended, we were the only rabbis from New
York who participated in the full conference. We represented IJCIC [the International
Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations], a model of internal intergroup
cooperation which has worked in interreligious settings for many years. Perhaps
that model was infectious. In Seville, while it would be disingenuous to say
that no issues of authenticity may have been on the minds of other rabbis present,
in public settings there were no such issues.
While no comprehensive solution to the Mideast conflict was
achieved, informal interactions made the conference into a genuine success.
Most participants ran out of business cards. Commitments to stay in touch, across
national borders and religious boundaries, were the norm.
A concluding symbolism: At the opening session, the room was
filled with rabbis in frock coats and business attire and Imams wearing Kameez,
Jubbas, and Jilbabs. During the dinner after the opening session, one could
see self ghettoized tables. Black rabbinic hats sat with other black rabbinic
hats, kippot with other kippot, Kufis, Turbans and Tarboushes sat with their
like. Only those few who were more experienced with this intergroup agenda sought
to sit with those of other places and traditions. By the middle of the conference,
robes and frocks were intermingling. At the concluding banquet, the formal black
hats were replaced by kippot, Moslem attire was more civilian, ties were loosened
and the tables were mixed. This intermingling doesnt guarantee that the
rabbis and Imams gathered in Seville for peace accomplished all that needs to
be done, but we surely left with a sense of guarded optimism and that
may have been the most important and lasting message of all.
Rabbi Richard Marker is a Senior Fellow at NYUs Center for Philanthropy
and a co-principal of Marker Goldsmith Advisors.
Rabbi Brill teaches Jewish Thought at Yeshiva University and is the director
of Kavvanah: Center for Jewish Thought.