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 of tension.

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 couldn’t. 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 doesn’t 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 NYU’s 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.

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