Time has come to stress Islam’s positive side

The following is an excerpt from a speech Rabbi Eric Yoffie delivered Aug. 3 to the Islamic Society of North America’s 44th annual convention in Chicago. Yoffie is president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the largest Jewish religious movement in North America, consisting of more than 900 congregations and 1.5 million Jews.

There exists in this country among all Americans — whether Jews, Christians or nonbelievers — a huge and profound ignorance about Islam. It is not that stories about Islam are missing from our media. There is no shortage of voices prepared to tell us that fanaticism and intolerance are fundamental to Islamic religion and that violence and even suicide bombing have deep Quranic roots.

There is no lack of so-called experts who are eager to seize on any troubling statement by any Muslim thinker and pin it on Islam as a whole. Thus, it has been far too easy to spread the image of Islam as enemy, as terrorist, as the frightening unknown.

How did this happen?

How did it happen that Christian fundamentalists, such as Pat Robertson and Franklin Graham, make vicious and public attacks against your religious tradition?

How did it happen that when a Muslim congressman takes his oath of office while holding the Quran, Dennis Prager suggests that the congressman is more dangerous to America than the terrorists of Sept. 11?

How did it happen that a member of Congress, Tom Tancredo, now running for president, calls for the bombing of Mecca and Medina?

Even more important, how did it happen that law-abiding Muslims in this country can find themselves condemned for dual loyalty and blamed for the crimes of terrorists they abhor?

And how did it happen that in the name of security, Muslim detainees and inmates are exposed to abusive and discriminatory treatment that violates the most fundamental principles of our Constitution?

One reason that all of this happens is the profound ignorance to which I referred. We know nothing of Islam — nothing. That is why we must educate our members, and we need your help. And we hope in doing so we will set an example for all Americans.

Because the time has come to put aside what the media says is wrong with Islam and to hear from Muslims themselves what is right with Islam.

The time has come to listen to our Muslim neighbors speak from their heart and in their own words about the spiritual power of Islam and their love for their religion.

The time has come for Americans to learn how far removed Islam is from the perverse distortions of the terrorists who too often dominate the media, subverting Islam’s image by professing to speak in its name.

The time has come to stand up to the opportunists in our midst — the media figures, religious leaders and politicians who demonize Muslims and bash Islam, exploiting the fears of their fellow citizens for their own purposes.

And finally this: The time has come to end racial profiling and legal discrimination of any kind against Muslim Americans. Yes, we must assure the security of our country; this is absolutely our government’s first obligation. But let’s not breach the Constitution in ways we will later regret. After all, civil liberties are America’s strength, not our weakness….

….The dialogue will not be one way, of course. You will 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.

We are especially worried now about anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. Anti-Semitism is not native to Islamic tradition, but a virulent form of it is found today in a number of Islamic societies, and we urgently require your assistance in mobilizing Muslims here and abroad to delegitimize and combat it.

A measure of our success will be our ability, each of us, to discuss and confront extremism in our midst. As a Jew, I know that our sacred texts, including the Hebrew Bible, are filled with contradictory propositions, and these include passages that appear to promote violence, and thus offend our ethical sensibilities. Such texts are to be found in all religions, including Christianity and Islam.

The overwhelming majority of Jews reject violence by interpreting these texts in a constructive way, but a tiny, extremist minority chooses destructive interpretations instead, finding in the sacred words a vengeful, hateful God. Especially disturbing is the fact that the moderate majority, at least some of the time, decides to cower in the face of the fanatic minority — perhaps because they seem more authentic or appear to have greater faith and greater commitment.

When this happens, my task as a rabbi is to rally that reasonable, often-silent majority and encourage them to assert the moderate principles that define their beliefs and Judaism’s highest ideals. My Christian and Muslim friends tell me that precisely the same dynamic operates in their traditions, and from what I can see, that is manifestly so.

Surely, as we know from the headlines, you have what I know must be for you, as well as for us, an alarming number of extremists of your own — those who kill in the name of God and hijack Islam in the process. It is therefore our collective task to strengthen and inspire one another as we fight the fanatics and work to promote the values of justice and love that are common to both our faiths.

I am optimistic that we can do this. After all, there is much that we share. As small minorities here, we worry how we will fare and if we will survive in the great American melting pot. As committed God-seekers in an age of moral relativism, we are distressed by the trends that pollute our children’s lives: incredibly trashy television, high divorce rates and media images that demean and objectify women.

At the same time and without contradiction, we are both beneficiaries of the blessings bestowed by this great and wonderful country. For all of its problems, America provides us with a secure sanctuary that safeguards our right to be different. And despite the prejudice that we still confront, America offers a measure of diversity and tolerance unmatched in any place or time in history.

Torture, Genocide and Jewish Silence


Jews around the world have worked hard to give life to the slogan “never again,” but there are painfully abundant signs the world isn’t listening. And, worse, a number of our own organizations have been reluctant to speak out on some of the moral rationalizations that contribute to the genocidal mindset.

An example: America’s bland refusal to bar torture in our treatment of foreign prisoners, while hardly a call for genocide, is a troubling endorsement of an “anything is justified at a time of war” perspective that is the excuse used by every perpetrator of genocide. But few Jewish groups have spoken out as the torture controversy continues.

The message of the Holocaust — indeed, the barest facts about it — have gotten lost in the clamor of world events.

A recent BBC survey in Great Britain revealed that 45 percent of adults in that country had never heard of Auschwitz. The number went up to 60 percent among those younger than 35.

In a study by the International Society for Sephardic Progress, 63 percent of Americans questioned hadn’t a clue about that ultimate death factory; again, ignorance was higher among younger respondents.

So should we be surprised that each new instance of genocide, from Cambodia to Rwanda to Darfur, is met with indifference — especially if the victims are non-Europeans?

In this country, some religious groups have demanded stronger action to end the current genocide in Darfur, but there’s been no hue and cry from the public for their government to do more, despite extensive newspaper coverage of the killings. An outstanding new film, “Hotel Rwanda,” was produced with the hope of generating that kind of mass response, but it will be seen by a miniscule proportion of the population.

The idea that genocide is going on today is a matter of indifference to most Americans, or just one more in a long series of lamentable disasters around the world.

This nation’s political leaders have failed to make preventing or stopping genocide a priority in U.S. foreign policy.

The United Nations, so quick to condemn even the inadvertent shooting of a Gaza child by an Israeli soldier, couldn’t care less about the many thousands of Sudanese massacred under their noses. The recent report of its special commission on Darfur, which under Arab pressure concluded there was no genocide, should be regarded as a war crime in itself.

The Jewish community has been more vocal about Darfur than most; the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Committee on Conscience has used its enormous credibility to try to generate concern about Darfur and some Jewish groups have spoken out forcefully.

The communal response has been much more tepid in response to Washington’s decision to carve out big exceptions in our national morality for reasons of “security” when it comes to the treatment of foreign prisoners.

During recent hearings on the confirmation of Alberto Gonzales as attorney general, the issue of torture in U.S. prisons in places like Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and Abu Grahb prison was front and center because of the nominee’s memo suggesting that the Geneva conventions are “quaint” and our own laws against torture do not apply offshore.

The torture-genocide connection should be obvious: countries that justify torture are, at least indirectly and maybe directly, endorsing a world view suggesting that threats to their nations, real or imagined, justify any act, as long as it can be classified a matter of national security.

In the case of America, the threat of terrorism is real — unlike the threat that Adolf Hitler claimed was posed by the Jews he tortured and murdered.

But tolerating torture undermines civilization and weakens the restraints that prevent genocide; it helps legitimize the ideas that genocidal leaders and tyrants always use to justify their actions.

“The torture of prisoners, or issues of what is the appropriate conduct of soldiers, are issues that should have special resonance for Jews, given our experience in the 20th Century,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of Reform Judaism (URJ). “We have a special obligation to speak out on these issues; if we don’t, shame on us.”

But few, aside from URJ, have.

Perhaps some Jewish leaders were concerned that any criticism might reflect badly on Israel, which has had its own controversies on torture. Ironically, that country — under a much more immediate terror threat — has acted responsibly, thanks to a ruling by its Supreme Court.

Again, make no mistake; America is threatened and the need for a strong and effective response to the terrorists is undeniable.

But few experts believe torture is a useful interrogation technique, or effective enough to justify the heavy moral costs or the boost our actions will give to those who use the mantra of “security” as justification for murder on a mass scale.

Jewish leaders should look at the worldwide indifference to Darfur, at the appalling lack of Holocaust knowledge in the Western nations and at America’s own casual endorsement of torture when it suits our interest — and see a real connection. Maybe then their silence might be replaced by outrage and genuine leadership.