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Correspondence: Arthur Waskow Responds to Avi Beker

To the Editor:

Avi Beker's article focusing on that aspect of Muslim theology that denigrates Judaism -- as if it were the major cause of friction today -- ignores the long history of relatively peaceful and respectful relationships between Islam and Judaism, and downplays the relationship between contemporary Muslim appeals to ancient denigration of the Jews, and contemporary struggles with the State of Israel.

He cites one oral tradition quoting Muhammad denigrating the Jews without citing others praising them, and acts as if hostility to the State of Israel is rooted in ancient anti-Jewish teachings -- rather than assessing the possibility that hostility to the State of Israel calls forth references to those ancient texts.

One would never know, from his article, that there had been the period in Andalusia in which Jews, Christians, and Muslims freely and peacefully learned from each other. Nor would one know that the multireligious conference to which he refers that is about to happen in Madrid is happening there precisely because the King of Saudi Arabia specifically referred to that Andalusian history as the reason to meet in Spain. (I happen to know because I have been invited to the conference, and the king's invitation mentions that history of peaceful and glorious dialogue among the Revealed Religions.)

It is far more likely, given the history, that the political and territorial conflict between Muslim communities and the modern State of Israel has revived old denigrations of Judaism, than the other way around. To the extent theological assertions have become important to the conflict, Jewish as well as Muslim theology must face this question. So long as dominant Jewish theology asserts that only the Jewish people, descendants of Abraham through Isaac, is entitled to the Promised Land, it also undermines the possibility of a theological as well as political rapprochement between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples, and between Islam and Judaism.

At the theological level, both peoples need to affirm that God promised the Land to two different peoples, the descendants of Abraham through Hagar and Ishmael as well as through Sarah and Isaac; at the political level, both peoples need to affirm that in international law -- what both traditions might recognize as our generation's attempt to carry out the Covenant among God, the Children of Noah (all humanity) and all living-breathing life-forms on earth -- -- Israel and Palestine are each entitled to sovereignty and peace.

Shalom, salaam, peace --

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Rabbi Arthur Waskow is the director of The Shalom Center and the author of Godwrestling - Round 2 and a dozen other books on Jewish thought and practice, as well as books on US public policy.


Avi Beker responds:

To the Editor:

Arthur Waskow tries in his letter to dismiss what is regarded today by leading scholars as the worst manifestation of anti-Semitism since the Nazis. In sharp contrast to Waskow’s claim, the problem is not restricted to "one oral tradition," but, as pointed out by Abraham Geiger in 1833 (long before the Arab-Israeli conflict) and many other contemporary scholars, the Koran is replete with anti-Semitic verses, most notoriously, the ones equating Jews with "pigs and monkeys." Even little children, when interviewed on Saudi TV, know that the anti-Jewish stereotypes are not a matter of oral tradition but, in their words, were delivered by Allah "in the Koran." The fact that there existed a relatively tolerant oasis in the Muslim world (a fact that itself is up for debate) in one location and at one time in history in no way disproves Islam’s broader record of demonizing Jews.

It is therefore not encouraging that Waskow goes to Madrid under the banner of a moral equivalency arguing that both Jews and Muslims "face the same problem." While he can differ in his political views from policies of the current or previous Israeli government, he cannot ignore the major difference between the status of Muslims in Israel, who enjoy political, civil, and religious rights, and a country like Saudi Arabia, which remains the only state in the world to ban all non-Islamic religious practices on its soil, not to mention the severe lack of political and civil rights.

The fact that the Saudis have decided, because of image problems and inter-Muslim concerns, to host the interfaith dialogue in Madrid should not lead Jewish and Christian representatives into an ostrich-like attitude that ignores Muslim anti-Jewish teachings and their theological foundations. The Saudi Royal family and its government should not be absolved of its responsibility, in the words of the former Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid, of using its petrodollars to impose the theology of fundamentalists Wahabbism on the Islamic world and encourage anti-Western hatred. As described in a study by Freedom House, the Saudis are even active within the United States in financing publications containing hateful rhetoric against Christians and Jews. The study points out that this Wahhabi literature "presents Jews as falling permanently under God's curse and often as less human." The sad legacy of Middle Age theological polemics must be soberly confront before there can be true co-existence among the three "Abrahamic religions.”

Avi Beker is the Goldman Visiting Professor at Georgetown University at the Department of Government and the former Secretary General of the World Jewish Congress. He is the author of The Chosen: The History of an Idea and the Anatomy of an Obsession.

By Arthur Waskow