Big Sunday Gets Bigger This Year


Months ago, David Levinson, the founder and chairman of Big Sunday predicted that the citywide day of volunteerism might grow from 8,000 participants to 25,000 — now that the City of Los Angeles has joined the effort.

He was so, so wrong.

At the final gathering of the day, at the Los Angeles Zoo, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced that his office estimated 38,000 had participated. Nearly five times more people cleaned, swept, painted, cooked and helped in myriad other ways.

“This is a great partnership because we really complement each other,” Levinson says, speaking of the Big Sunday-city connection. “A funky, spunky grass-roots organization that’s been working on this for years joining with the city government. I like the fact that it’s not a response to a disaster. For some people it’s one day of volunteering. For others, it starts a long-term relationship.”

Here are some scenes from this reporter’s day on the frontlines:

8 a.m.: Hollenbeck Park, East Los Angeles

For Levinson, the mayor and thousands of others, the day kicks off with a rally. Villaraigosa, accompanied by DJ El Cucuy (Renan Almendarez Coella) of 97.9 FM La Raza welcomes a throng of volunteers.

Across the Southland, volunteers already are working in about 40 sites, says Sherry Marks, Big Sunday vice-chair and volunteer co-coordinator.

8:45 a.m.: Drive Time

After the rally, I follow Levinson back to Temple Israel, which started Big Sunday and remains the flagship location. Distracted by a phone call from a wandering group that has lost its way en route to a Heal the Bay Program, Levinson initially misses our exit.

9:30 a.m.: Temple Israel, Hollywood

Here, where it all began as Mitzvah Day with 300 volunteers in 1999, 15 projects are well under way.

9:45 a.m.: The Lobby

Racelle Shaeffer, project captain of Book’em stands surrounded by piles of books, half-filled cardboard boxes, and sorters and packers of all ages.

“We have about 10,000 books, new ones donated by publishers and others from book drives at schools, she says. “Later today they’ll be delivered to school libraries. People say that Los Angeles is a city where everyone is thinking about what they can get, but today is evidence that we also think about what we can give.”

10 a.m.: Miller Hall

The synagogue’s auditorium is overflowing with crates, diaper bags, beach bags and piles of purchases made by Gary Gilbert and his wife Judy Kirschner Gilbert, who bought 25,000 items to create 2,500 gift bags for distribution to 40 agencies. Adding to the tumult are the camera crews following the mayor throughout the day. This is his first stop after the Park.

Every inch of the synagogue seems filled with volunteers.

10:15 a.m.: The Boardroom

A dozen women are knitting tiny caps for premature babies around the heavy wooden table. The center is piled high with pastel caps and sweaters.

10:27 a.m.: The Parking Garage

The northeast section is devoted to Krispy Kreme donuts, bagels and cream cheese, not to mention coffee, orange juice, cookies, cupcakes, chips, salsa, vegetables and dip. The stock must be regularly replenished. Apparently, this sort of labor works up an appetite.

10:42 a.m.: Day School Playground

Naomi Hasak, the clothing-drive captain, directs her troops in sorting and packing boxes. A group of committed darners and sewers repairs old jeans, which will be redistributed — distressed and fashionable.

10:56 a.m.: Preschool Play Yard

Tables are covered with cookies, icing and all sorts of decorations, for the ever-popular cookie decorating project, while other volunteers make cards for the gift packets and tissue paper flower displays to be distributed to nursing homes, hospitals, home shut-ins and senior centers.

11:10 a.m.: Entrance to Parking Garage

Andy Romanov, seated at a map-covered table looks like he’s running the show, but he says he’s merely a deputy for Stephen Connors, the coordinator of 10 moving trucks and a fleet of private vehicles.

“We’ll be delivering food, gift, bags, furniture and clothes,” Romanov says.

“And even skateboards,” adds Jason Blagman, 16, a “key assistant runner” in the operation.

11:38 a.m.: The Kitchen

It’s between shifts. A meat lasagna has been assembled and packed, and a new round of volunteers is being directed by Kitchen Captain Estee Aaronson to form an assembly line for a vegetarian lasagna that will be delivered to shelters. The third shift of the day will make vegetable and chicken casseroles.

11:50 a.m.: The Lobby

The floor is no longer covered with books. Shaeffer’s volunteers have packed almost all of them into boxes. Paper maché pots filled with tissue paper flowers are lined up ready for delivery, as are most of the gift bags assembled in Miller Hall.

11:56 a.m.: Drive Time

I leave for my next site, New Horizons, a Muslim school on Sawtelle Boulevard in West Los Angeles, one of four schools founded by the Islamic Center of Southern California. This cross-town excursion gives me a sense of the scope of the day’s ambition.

12:15 p.m.: Arrival at New Horizons School

The mayor and his entourage are leaving. Scores of people, parents at the school, and many volunteers are engrossed in decorating paper maché flower pots and tissue paper flowers.

12:30 p.m.: Principal’s Office

Anis Ahmed, the principal since 1996, explains that this fall her school had participated in an outreach program with students from Temple Israel. The shared activities of the fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders set the stage for their Big Sunday participation.

“The mission for our schools is to nurture a positive Muslim American identity. It is essential for us to reach out to other communities, to establish peace and friendship, while holding on to our culture and our roots,” Ahmed says.

12:45 p.m.: Lunch and Playground

Katie Covell, 24, who teaches a community class in world religions at her Venice home, has brought five friends with her after learning about Big Sunday on MySpace: “There are so many people my age who want to get involved. I’m meeting so many great people and the food is delicious”

Long tables are covered with platters of samosas, pakoras, many variations on potato pancakes and croquettes, curries, eggplant and noodle dishes from many cultures along with a bounty of desserts.

1:10 p.m.: Flower Pot Central on the Playground

Vaughan Rachel, a member of Beth Chayim Chadishim, is on the scene with Robin Baltic, who has been co-coordinating that synagogue’s Big Sunday activities for the past four years.

“We’ve been talking to Ramiza Subhan, the principal’s mother,” Baltic says. “We’ve spent two hours talking about the similarities between Islam and Judaism. I knew very little about Islam.”

“And I had very little knowledge of Judaism,” Subhan chimes in.

They report coming up with about a dozen similarities including having only one God, observing fast days and not eating pork or shellfish.

1:35 p.m.: Drive Time

Next stop, Figueroa School in South Los Angeles.

2:10 p.m.: Figueroa School, W. 111th and S. Figueroa streets

Parents, teachers and other volunteers have been painting murals, cleaning, planting, and re-organizing storage sheds, in addition to making tissue flowers for the Watts Senior Center, and running a flea market to raise money for the literacy program at the Alma Reeves Woods Library. A jazz trio adds to the ambiance. I arrived too late for the reptile man and the marionette show, but manage to catch the 100-person drum circle run by Chris Reid from Bang a Drum on La Brea.

3:45 p.m.: W. 111th Street.

A truck pulls up with about 60 boxes. The donated books that, this morning, were stacked in the Temple Israel lobby, have reached their destination.

4 p.m.: Drive Time

The highlight is a weekend traffic jam.

5:30 p.m.: The Zoo Parking Lot, Griffith Park

I’m milling about with tired volunteers. John Rosove, Temple Israel’s rabbi, spent the morning working with Rebuilding Together in Pasadena renovating a home for women recovering from addiction.

“What is exciting about Big Sunday, he says, “is it provides real role modeling. Parents bring their children. It’s a statement of what a community can do.”

6 p.m.: Stage in Zoo Parking Lot

In his closing remarks, Villaraigosa, who spent the day visiting projects through the city, refers to the Jewish principles of tikkun olam and mitzvot, adding that Christians have a deep belief in social justice that mirrors these ideas. Today, he says, bringing David Levinson to the stage, “Jews, Christians and Muslims; blacks and whites; Latinos and Asians are coming together.

“What I always say about Big Sunday,” Levinson adds, “is that everybody has some way they can help somebody else.”

 

Teens Team Up for J-Serve


Youngsters across the Southland and beyond banded together April 17 to participate in J-Serve 2005, the first-ever national day of service for Jewish teens. J-Serve, designed to correspond with Youth Service America’s National Youth Service Day, offers Jewish teens a way to get involved in tikkun olam projects in their local communities.

United Synagogue Youth’s (USY) Far West Region put more than 100 teens to work in food pantries and soup kitchens in Los Angeles, Redondo Beach, San Diego, Las Vegas and Phoenix.

Tayla Silver, a Palos Verdes high school senior and the region’s social action vice president, researched and coordinated numerous volunteer opportunities for USY members in order to give them a more personal experience with this year’s educational theme of homelessness and hunger.

“It’s important for us to have hands-on experience in … projects to see how organizations work, and why our participation makes a difference for the people we’re helping,” Silver said.

She donated her time at Project Chicken Soup in Los Angeles, a Federation program that provides kosher meals and groceries to homebound AIDS patients. The volunteers started at dawn preparing meals, and then spent the afternoon delivering food and groceries, in addition to visiting with the recipients.

“I think it was incredibly valuable for us to help people face to face,” Silver said. “Meeting the people we were serving raised our awareness to a much higher level.”

In Redondo Beach, USY joined forces with the South Bay Federation’s Arachim, a program that provides eight- and ninth-graders with a series of opportunities to perform mitzvot. Fifty teens from five South Bay synagogues worked with SOVA packing Passover boxes and stocking shelves at a local food pantry.

Ami Berlin, youth activities director at Congregation Ner Tamid in Palos Verdes, was delighted to have her USY chapter participate.

“Our kids need to see that there are people who need help in their own communities,” she said. “This project made that a reality.”

Spinning Wheels for a Good Cause


 

Some people kiss the soil of Israel when they come to the Holy Land. Last month, Audrey Adler didn’t so much kiss the dirt as inhale it.

Adler and a handful of other Angelenos participated in a charity bike ride for Alyn Children’s Hospital in Jerusalem through some of the toughest terrain Adler has ridden.

A mountain bike racer and triathelete who trains in the Santa Monica Mountains, Adler took the off-road leg of the bike ride from the Negev desert up to the Dead Sea and on to Jerusalem, where 250 yellow-clad riders from around the world swept into the parking lot of Alyn hospital on Oct. 28. This year’s ride raised nearly $1 million for the hospital, which has a new residential wing and rehab center for children with chronic respiratory disease. Christopher Reeve visited the hospital last year and was a supporter.

“When you see these kids you just say, ‘OK, I’ll do whatever you want,'” Adler said. “These are kids who were born with difficulties, kids who were victims of terrorist attacks, kids that just had fluke accidents.”

Adler, a self-described workout maniac who teaches spin classes for women at her home studio, and also leads classes at the Spectrum Club and Sports Club/LA, didn’t let a shattered wrist bone from a snowboarding accident last February stop her from training for the five-day, 240-mile ride (300 miles for the on-road riders). It started at the Ramon Crater in the Negev, traversing dusty desert mountains in 100-degree heat and stifling humidity.

Riders stayed overnight at kibbutz guest houses, and Adler was inspired by visions of men going to minyan at the crack of dawn with tallit and teffilin over their lycra shorts and yellow jerseys.

“It was like I died and went to heaven — that I could ride on a supportive ride that didn’t ride on Shabbos, that catered to my every need with three kosher meals a day, and I was out there with other maniacs like me that were Jewish and Israeli, but total fiends like myself,” Adler said.

This is Adler’s second year riding in the 5-year-old event, and this year she got corporate sponsorship from Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, whose Californian and Israeli divisions kicked in $5,000 for her ride. In addition, Coffee Bean donated a 200-gram souvenir canister of coffee to every rider.

Adler also got $5,000 sponsorship from one of her training clients, Richard Crane, a 61-year-old Jewish man who didn’t have much to do with Judaism or Israel until he met Adler.

“I go out with him on weekends on very long bike rides, and I talk to him about Judaism and I explain things,” she said.

Many of her students are shocked when they find out that Adler, a vivacious talker who doesn’t have an ounce of fat on her and has a fashion sense worthy of her other identity as an interior designer, is in fact a 45-year-old Orthodox mother-in-law.

Adler’s husband, Benny (the eponymous Benny of the minyan at Beth Jacob), secretly trained and surprised her by participating in the on-road bike ride for Alyn, in honor of their 25th wedding anniversary.

“A ride like this gives athletics a deeper meaning. It took everything I’ve worked on for years as an athlete and implanted into it a soul and made it whole,” she said. “This took it to a whole other level and I want to focus on turning other people on to it.”

For more information, visit www.alyn.org, or contact Audrey Adler at www.homebodiesworkout.com or homebodies789@sbcglobal.net.

 

Yeladim


TAKE A LOOK, IT’S IN A BOOK
On Sunday, Nov. 14,
come to the second annual
Jewish Children’s Bookfest
from 10 a.m.-3:30 p.m.,
at the Triangle, Mount Sinai Memorial Park
(6150 Mount Sinai Drive, Simi Valley,
exit the 118 West at Yosemite).
Children and their families are invited to celebrate: “350 Years of Jews in America” with their favorite authors and entertainers, and participate in fun workshops.
You’ll get a free gift if you complete the following puzzles and bring it to Debra at the Jewish Journal workshop.
For more information on the Bookfest, call (866) 266-5731 or visit www.jewishchildrensbookfest.org.
350 YEARS OF JEWISH ACHIEVEMENT

“Tiby” Eisen will actually be at the festival.
1) “Tiby” Eisen’s given name is:
a. Martha
b. Thelma
c. Louise
2) The movie based on her team’s experiences is called:
a. A League of Their Own
b. Ladybugs
c. Quarterback Princess
3) From 1946-1953, she played professional:
a. Soccer
b. Football
c. Baseball
Mail your cartoons, drawings, puzzles, etc. to The Jewish Journal, 3580 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1510, Los Angeles, CA 90010. E-mail your written answers to our contests, or your jokes, riddles, poems, etc., to kids@jewishjournal.com. Make sure you write your name and address in your e-mail. See you next time!

Teleconferencing With Tel Aviv


The classroom looks like any other — Formica tiles on the floor, florescent lights on the ceiling and rows and rows of desks. But what happens in this utilitarian space located on the second floor of UCLA’s Public Policy building is anything but ordinary.

Every few weeks the regularly scheduled class, which meets in this room on Monday mornings, forgoes its usual routine to participate in a live teleconference with its sister class at Tel Aviv University in Israel.

At a recent co-meeting of the classes, a huge projection screen at the front of the U.S. classroom acted as a virtual window into the Israeli classroom. Not only could the students on both sides see one another, but each student also had a microphone. The idea behind this high-tech set-up is to have a transatlantic conversation about politics, religion and social dynamics.

"It is quite incredible for two classes to talk to each other," said Dr. Fredelle Spiegel, the director of UCLA’s Israel-Diaspora Programs and professor of the American class. "Sometimes it goes better, sometimes it goes worse, but there is always something interesting."

The teleconference always begins with a set list of questions submitted by the students, Spiegel said, but usually the conversation quickly veers away from the predetermined outline. This time the teleconference’s opening question was submitted by the Israeli students: "How can American Jews be Jewish living in a non-Jewish state?"

A UCLA student promptly raised her hand to tackle this question. "I like being in a diverse culture," she said, with a defensive tone in her voice. But, as soon as she made this statement, one of her classmates added, "I also think it is a lot more challenging to be Jewish here. You really have to make a conscious effort to remember your identity here. It is very easy to blend into American culture."

Spiegel explained that questions dealing with issues of Jewish identity are common coming from the Israeli students. She said this is because of a fundamental difference between the two cultures, which is that America is a multicultural country with an emphasis on individuality, while Israel is a Jewish state that practices what Spiegel referred to as "communitarianism."

When not delving into identity issues, the two classes usually talk politics and this teleconference was no exception. In fact, the students on both sides of the Atlantic were surprised when Rep. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys), walked into the classroom.

Both the American students and the Israelis regarded the congressman’s impromptu visit as the perfect opportunity to voice their opinions.

Avi, one of the Israeli students, said, "I don’t know if you know what we do to politicians here, but we put them in the crossfire. This is a good opportunity for us and we are not going to miss it." Both classes erupted with laughter, but then got serious when Avi asked, "What are the interests behind the connection between Israel and the United States?"

After Berman responded that the connection is based on "democracy and some sense of shared values," the Israeli students continued to fire questions at him. Dina, a soft-spoken Israeli girl asked, "What makes Congressman B. pro-Israel?" And after Berman called himself a Zionist, Irit, another Israeli student, asked, "What does it mean to you to be a Zionist?"

These questions are characteristic of the issues explored during every teleconference. While there is not always a U.S. congressman on hand to provide answers, the students on both sides of the camera’s lens passionately express their opinions in a dialogue, where no topic is taboo.

And this political forum has definitely hosted its share of disagreements.

"There is tremendous disagreement both in Israel and here about what Israel should do," Spiegel said. "I always have the few lefties who are appalled with everything and then I have the right-wingers, who are appalled with the lefties, so you’ll have arguments internationally, but also within each group. So that is kind of fun."

Spiegel said that debate and dialogue is precisely the point of the teleconference.

Spiegel came up with the teleconference format after participating in a similar discussion between older Israeli and American Jews. Spiegel and her Tel Aviv counterpart, Eyal Navel, submitted a grant to The Jewish Federation, the organization that originally funded the program. Now in its second year, UCLA has both picked up the class as a regular course and also covers the cost.

American junior Matt Tseng said the most rewarding part of the class was learning about a new culture. "I learned a lot about the American Jews and the Israeli Jews, they’re interconnected, but there is also a lot of difference." Tseng added, "I have a lot of conflict within this room myself by not being Jewish, by taking this class."

Tseng said he wished the classes could have discussed issues besides religion and politics, he said, he always wanted to ask the Israelis questions like, "What kind of music do you like?" But, he acknowledged, that was beside the point.

One of the UCLA students actually was an Israeli studying in the United States. He asked to remain anonymous because he also is an employee of the Israeli government. In this Israeli’s opinion, only the Jews in the class understood the issues at hand, while the non-Jews were, "completely off."

"They don’t know what it is to fear," he said. "They don’t know what it is to hear a bomb explosion and read the newspaper hoping not to find your friend. They do not know how this feels."

The goal of the class, Spiegel said, is to foster a greater understanding between the two cultures. "They really got a sense of the difficulties that the Israelis are going through in a way that they don’t get from a newspaper," she said. "A lot of them every quarter will say, ‘Gee, I know we read this in the books, but I didn’t understand it until I talked to the Israelis.’ And that is what teleconferencing is supposed to be."

In Search of Moderate Muslims


Khaled Abou El Fadl, a professor of Islamic law at UCLA,
estimates that two years ago he received between 30 and 40 requests from around
the country to participate in interfaith dialogues between Jews and Muslims.

Last year he received just one.

“They just vanished,” he said during an interview. “Such
invitations are a barometer of the level of dialogue, though my experience may
not be representative because of my own idiosyncrasies.”

The “idiosyncrasies” to which he was referring, if a bit
obliquely, center on the strong reactions to his urging fellow Muslims to speak
out against the radical elements of Islam that he maintains have gained
controlling influence through the “puritanical” form of the religion promoted
by Saudi Arabia.

El Fadl, 39, who was raised in Kuwait and Egypt, has been
writing critically of fundamentalist Islam for years in scholarly articles and
books, most recently “The Place of Tolerance in Islam” (Beacon Press, 2002).
But he gained international attention — and a flurry of death threats — after
publishing an Op-Ed article in the Los Angeles Times three days after the Sept.
11 attacks in which he asserted that the suicide missions were not a deviation
from mainstream Islam, but rather the result of an “ethically oblivious form”
of the religion that “has predominated since the 1970s.”

Such opinions have garnered admiration for El Fadl in some
quarters of the Jewish community, where he is praised for intellectual honesty
and bravery. Others, though, are far more skeptical.

Daniel Pipes, for example, an expert on Islam and editor of
the Middle East Forum, said El Fadl “has succeeded in fooling influential
individuals that he is a moderate American Muslim intellectual” when he is,
according to Pipes, “just another Muslim extremist.”

Closer to home, Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam (religious
leader) of a local mosque only 12 blocks from the site of the World Trade
Center, has been involved in interfaith dialogue for years here and an advocate
of integrating Islam with modern society.

Rabbi Michael Paley, executive director of synagogue and
community affairs of UJA-Federation of New York, believes Abdul Rauf is a
positive force for moderation and a partner for dialogue. But officials of the
American Jewish Committee (AJCommittee) are skeptical, asserting that several
post-Sept.11 comments the imam made were problematic.

Understanding Them and Us

What started out as a simple question in my mind — are there
any moderate Muslim leaders in this country with whom we can dialogue? — has
turned into a more complex exploration. That’s because it speaks not only to
the ideology, politics and inner workings of the Muslim community, but to our
own understanding and expectations of that community — and of ourselves.

My limited research has found that there are only a few
leading Muslim clerics or intellectuals who have spoken out forcefully and
unequivocally against terrorism, like suicide bombings — a baseline commitment
for the Jewish community — and who are willing to engage in serious dialogue
with Jews.

Most acceptable to the Jewish community is Sheik Muhammad
Hisham Kabbani of the Islamic Supreme Council of America, based in Detroit and
Washington, D.C., an exemplar of tolerance who has spoken out forcefully
against all forms of terrorism and in favor of a negotiated settlement in the
Middle East. But he is marginalized by many Arab Muslims and has credibility
problems in that community, not unlike the way Noam Chomsky, the Jewish MIT
professor and advocate for the Palestinian cause, is perceived by mainstream
Jews.

Large Muslim groups like the Council on American Islamic
Relations and the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) are viewed as seeking to
undermine American support for Israel, accusing the Jewish State of human
rights abuses and atrocities.

Somewhere in between are people like El Fadl, criticized by
some in the Jewish community for not speaking out more forcefully, but praised
by others, particularly those who know him.

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, director of Hillel at UCLA, met
El Fadl when he started coming regularly to the rabbi’s Torah study group held
for faculty, and they have appeared numerous times together in public
discussing Jewish-Muslim issues. The rabbi said El Fadl is “heroic” because he
is willing to criticize Islam from within.

“My belief is that our community needs to hear from
Muslims,” Seidler-Feller said. “I’m not a Pollyanna, but there are not too many
of these people [Muslims willing to appear with Jews and speak out] and they
should be treated as gems. We have to be very careful, think strategically and
realize the precariousness of their positions among their people.

“What’s important is not so much what they are saying to us
but what they are saying in their own community. We don’t need them to be
Zionists.”

Seidler-Feller disagrees with critics like Pipes, and says
that by insisting Muslim leaders “meet all our criteria before we can speak to
them, the net result is that we can’t talk to anyone.”

The rabbi said he is worried about the direction he sees
Muslims students taking on college campuses and stresses the importance of
dialogue, because “we need simply to establish human contact. We need to start
somewhere.”

El Fadl said much the same as to why he believes in
dialogue. “Without it, we end up inventing each other,” he said, “and each
other’s image. Engaging in the human interaction slows down the tendency to see
each other in convenient packages. If we stop the dialogue, we just pat
ourselves on the back and go on happily.”

Dialogue, he said, makes each party accountable to the
other.

El Fadl was criticized strongly in his community, he said,
“for speaking sympathetically of a rabbi” in another Los Angeles Times opinion
piece. El Fadl wrote that a rabbi friend had offered him and his family
sanctuary after the death threats came.

Prior to the latest round of Mideast violence, he said he
was optimistic that Muslims and Jews might “reach some equilibrium in the
West.” But, after Sept. 11, “the hope has vanished. We are bad examples for
reconciliation,” he said.

His primary focus, though, has been to criticize the kind of
Islamic fundamentalism that has gained acceptance in the Muslim world.

“It is sad to note that [Osama] bin Laden has in fact won in
shaping and shifting the discourse,” El Fadl said.

Alliance or Deception?

Soon after Sept. 11, El Fadl wrote that “[American] Muslim
leadership has failed, and it has blamed everyone but itself for this failure.”
He called on major Muslim organizations and intellectuals to draft and sign a
statement “unequivocally condemning terrorism” in “the harshest language
possible.”

Such outspoken views have caused El Fadl to be persona non
grata among many Muslims, and others, here and abroad. His car was trashed, his
house staked and the FBI and UCLA have taken precautions to protect him. Does
he feel in danger?

“I have to do what I have to do,” he said, noting that “this
is a defining moment in the history of Islam. Either it will be a player in the
legacy of humanity or it will be a strange marginality, an oddity.”

What will make the difference, El Fadl said, is “if there
are more of those willing to martyr themselves for beauty and morality than
there are those willing to blow themselves up in horrible, ugly, unbelievably
disgusting ways, like at bar mitzvahs. Unless there are [more people to make
sacrifices for truth], I fear for the fate of Islam.”

Some in the Jewish community are not swayed by such
seemingly heartfelt declarations. One critic, Pipes, bases his belief on the
fact that for many years El Fadl published articles in The Minaret, a journal
published by the MPAC, a leading organization that opposed the Oslo peace
process.

Pipes said El Fadl also contributed to the Holy Land
Foundation, which the United States closed down last year because it raised
money for Hamas, an anti-Israel terrorist group in the Mideast.

Similarly, Yehudit Barsky, director of the division of
Middle East and international terrorism for the AJCommittee, said she is
troubled that El Fadl wrote for a publication funded by a Muslim organization
hostile to Israel. She said it is difficult to assess relations with Muslims
who may say one thing to a Jewish audience and something else to a Muslim
audience.

“You can’t be all things to all people,” Barsky said.

Further, she noted that the AJCommittee was “burned badly” a
few years ago by MPAC. The group participated in public dialogue conferences
with the committee, “but after Oslo it was opposed to the negotiations and
referred to Israel as ‘the Zionist entity,'” Barsky recalled.

El Fadl said he published in The Minaret for many years
because he “wanted to reach a Muslim audience and it was the only Muslim
publication willing to publish my writings [including criticism of Islamic
fundamentalism],” he said. “But as my writing became more influential, they
banished me.”

The board of the magazine banned El Fadl in July. They claim
the issue was quality, but El Fadl said that is “absurd,” and noted that the
decision came just after his high-profile writings against Muslim leaders and
policy, particularly in response to the Sept. 11 attacks.

“Was it ideal that I published in The Minaret?” El Fadl
asked. “No. But do I regret it? No. I had no other means of reaching that
audience.”

He said that while he does not recall contributing funds to
the Holy Land Foundation, he has no apologies about giving to organizations
that aid Palestinians or other refugees — “just as Jews do for Israel, which I
respect.” He said he would never support groups that “use funds to kill
innocent civilians,” adding that critics of dialogue in the Jewish community
“assume Muslims are committed to the destruction of Israel,” thus giving the
critics the rationale to take hard-line positions.

One defender of El Fadl in the Jewish community is Leon
Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, who said it is unfair for some
in the Jewish community to indulge in the equivalent of “tzitzit checking,” or
“interpreting every expression of solidarity with Islam as an expression of
Islamic extremism, so as to elide the difference between moderate and militant
Muslims.

“We insist that Jews never break rank with Israel,”
Wieseltier observed, “but we are quick to applaud members of certain other
minorities when they break rank with their own groups.”

He called El Fadl “a brave man” and said it was “chutzpah
for Jews to criticize him.”

“The point is to talk to him, not ‘out’ him,” Wieseltier
insisted.

So the debate continues, speaking to the heart of the goals
of dialogue. Must it lead to trust and a common direction, or is it sufficient
to better understand the other?

Each side here is wary of being used, of losing credibility
in one’s own community by taking steps toward one’s adversary. But in a world
where there are 2 billion Muslims, it may be wise for the Jewish community to
cultivate those few influential Muslims who advocate tolerance and to engage
them in a conversation that could help lead us back from the ruinous path of
eternal demonization.  


Gary Rosenblatt is editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, where this article originally appeared.

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