I have just returned from a week in Jerusalem and yet again tensions are high surrounding the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, and this yet again threatens relations between the two great monotheistic faiths of Islam and Judaism.
The gap of understanding is highlighted by right-wing rabbis encouraging Jews to visit the Temple Mount. The suggestion that Jewish visitors are being “humiliated” in being prevented from praying there and being limited to the Western Wall is astonishing to me.
The conflict creates painful discourse regarding the respective religious histories with Jewish and Muslim “scholars” queuing up to de-legitimise the historical validity of the other side. In addition, there are many difficult issues which seem to suggest that reasoned discourse is impossible, for example regarding what remains of Jewish communities in Muslim countries.
Many Jews are familiar with negative images from the Koran if only because these are used frequently in the ongoing propaganda wars between Zionist and anti-Zionist groups. Yet many Jews are unaware that within Jewish sources there are also many negative stereotypes about “the other”, the most radical perhaps being a view in the Palestinian Talmud that non-Jews do not even exist.
These sorts of jarring views are sadly common place in almost all religious literature and as a consequence religion has all too often played a negative role in this conflict.
Yet despite all this, there are more moderate voices in all these faiths. Moreover, Judaism has traditionally had tremendous respect for Islam as a pure monotheistic faith and this is recognized even nowadays in the plethora of groups trying to improve Jewish-Muslim understanding.
Judaism and Islam have a lot in common. They both have written scripture (Bible and Koran) and also oral tradition (halacha and sharia). The study of this law is also considered a value in both religious traditions and their legal, mystical and philosophical systems have significantly interacted over the centuries and learned from each other.
In addition, these traditions see their role as applying to all spheres of life, which means that inevitably they are political to a greater or lesser extent. It is not at all surprising then that when meetings of Rabbis and Imams are arranged they find they have much in common.
I’d suggest that there are deeper links as well. Judaism and Islam both exist outside the mainstream Western intellectual discourse which lies at the heart of liberal democracy and the modern nation state. This has a number of profound implications. Both religious traditions have to address the conflicts between their world views and modern democracy.
Additionally, in countries where Jews and Muslims are in a minority they face prejudice based on common misunderstandings which means that anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are in fact two sides of the same coin. It therefore does us no credit as Jews (whether religious or secular) when we repeat or accept negative stereotypes of Islam.
The way to address these misunderstandings is to learn more about each other’s religious traditions as well as our own and there are books such as Rabbi Reuven Firestone’s "An Introduction to Islam for Jews" which are well worth reading to address this.
Rabbi Firestone suggests that worthwhile dialogue requires “focus on text study and social responsibility projects” and this is reflected in initiatives such as the Center for Jewish-Muslim Engagement. There are, of course, many examples in Israel where Jews and Muslims co-operate and work together, a recent example being a course to train Jordanian paramedics at Ben-Gurion University.
To develop these relationships further, Jews and Muslims need to be more aware of the nuances within their respective traditions. There was a furore when Ken Livingstone invited Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi to London leading him to produce a detailed justification of his actions based around the need for dialogue.
Firestone says that Sheikh Al-Qaradawi is a “moderate conservative” whose views are very influential lying between radicals and Westernised Muslims. Whilst his better known pronouncements do jar with Western sensibilities, one can readily find analogous statements from rabbis.
This raises a question for Judaism itself which until recently did not have political power. Now that it does, through religious parties in Israel, what lessons can be learned from other religious traditions, especially Islam which is so similar, to use this power responsibly?