Reuven Firestone: Muslims and Jews are ‘manipulated by fear’

Interesting and relevant historical and social context:

With attacks on Jews in Germany increasing, DW spoke with the renowned theologian Reuven Firestone, about the complex relations between Islam and Judaism, and how Muslims and Jews could be brought closer together.

Deutsche Welle: There are studies that claim that the religion of Islam is essentially against Judaism? Do you agree with this theological position?

Reuven Firestone: Islam emerged in an environment in which major religions already existed. The birth of a new religion is always seen as a critique of the old religions. Its very existence is a statement that says, “Well, the old religion is not good enough; otherwise why would God reveal a new scripture that corrects or nullifies what is currently practiced?” So the followers of established religions always resent the newcomer.

At the time of Islam’s birth in Arabia in the seventh century, all established religions resented it and attacked its prophet. The Quran records their criticisms and their attacks, and it replies with attacks of its own, criticizing Jews and Christians and believers of the local religions, whom it calls “mushrikun,” or “those who join” other deities with God — i.e., polytheists.

So, yes, the Quran does contain negative references to Jews, but not only about them. It talks negatively about other threatening communities (I should add that it also contains positive references to Jews and Christians, although not to polytheists). The important point is that the Quran and the early Muslims did not criticize Jews exclusively.

We must not forget that the same scenario played out with the emergence of Christianity. The Jews resented those who claimed that Jesus was the Messiah, and especially that he was God’s incarnation. And the New Testament criticizes Jews in response to attacks on the new community.

Similarly, the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) slams the older religions that were clearly against the Israelites.

During the early phase of Islam, Muslims and Jews coexisted peacefully. When did the rifts begin to appear, and were the reasons more political than theological?

As I said, there were always tensions between Muslims and Jews over the authority of their respective faiths. It was both a political matter and a theological issue. When Islam became the dominant power, like all pre-modern and non-democratic powers, it privileged the people it identified as its own over all others. Therefore, while Jews (and Christians) were considered citizens of the Muslim world and protected by the law of the land (including religious law, the Sharia), they were given a second-class status that was defined by restrictions in position, prestige and freedom. How this actually worked out in history varied from time to time and place to place. In some situations, Jews were treated essentially as equals, but in others they were persecuted severely.

Explanations such as mine should be understood in a context. Keep in mind that minority communities were not treated equally under law or custom in pre-modern, non-democratic regimes. All historians agree that, on average, Jews suffered more under Christian rule than they did under Muslim rule.

The Prophet Muhammad’s time in exile in the city of Medina provides some great examples of Muslim-Jew coexistence, but at the same time violent conflicts marred their ties. How do you see that phase of Islam, and do the events in Medina, in which the Jewish tribe of Qurayza was said to have betrayed Muhammad, shape present day “Muslim anti-Semitism”?

The tensions, and the violent conflict that eventually broke out between Muhammad and the Jews of Medina, have become points of heavy stereotyping on both sides. A separation between the two communities has grown over the years. Jews were accused of betraying their equal religious and civil status in Medina by trying to aid an enemy intent on destroying Muhammad, and even of trying to assassinate him. As a result, the Jewish communities of Medina were forcibly exiled, and one Jewish community was massacred.

Many Jews and Christians point to this period as a prime example of what they consider the fundamentally violent behavioral norms exhibited by Muhammad that are established in Islam. Many Muslims point to this as a prime example of how Jews are, by nature, deceitful, corrupt and can never be trusted.

There are mixed accounts of those events, and we have no Jewish versions of the story. What is tragic about this is that an incident a millennium and a half ago has become a tool for some radicals in both communities to try to vilify and defame the other.

Although both Judaism and Islam are Abrahamic religions, why do they appear to be so far apart?

Actually, Judaism and Islam are essentially quite close in many ways. In fact, most religious scholars consider them closer to one another than either is to Christianity. The theology of divine unity in Judaism and Islam is understood in Christianity through the Trinitarian nature of God. Jews and Muslims agree that this is simply impossible to accept. Even the theological terminology between Judaism and Islam is quite similar. For example, iḥūd in Hebrew and tawḥīd in Arabic are linguistically related terms that refer to the same essential nature of the absolute unity of God.

What needs to be done to bridge the gulf between Muslims and Jews? What inspirations can be taken from the religious texts?

The tension between Muslims and Jews today cannot be resolved simply by taking inspiration from the sacred texts. Both Judaism and Islam are great and complex religious civilizations. The sacred texts have been read in a variety of ways by people through the ages. One can cite texts that inspire fear and hatred in both religious traditions, and one can cite texts that inspire appreciation and love.

The core of the conflict between Muslims and Jews is a willingness to be manipulated by fear. Fear allows people to draw false conclusions that would not otherwise be possible. All people, with very few exceptions, strive to do good and avoid evil. We must check our impulse to draw negative conclusions based on fear and rumor. Both the Bible and the Quran emphasize that one should not succumb to the fear brought about by evil, but one should only fear God.

Reuven Firestone is the Regenstein Professor in Medieval Judaism and Islam at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, which has campuses in Cincinnati, Ohio, New York, Los Angeles and Jerusalem. Firestone has written over one hundred scholarly chapters and articles and eight books, with translations into many languages. Having lived with his family in Israel, Egypt and Germany, he regularly lectures in universities and religious centers throughout the United States, Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

Source: Reuven Firestone: Muslims and Jews are ‘manipulated by fear’

Écoles juives: les hassidim sont prêts à négocier | Le Devoir

A reminder of the challenges of fundamentalism and the limits of faith-based education:

Selon lui [Alex Werzberger, le porte-parole de la Coalition d’organisations hassidiques d’Outremont (COHO)], certaines matières obligatoires au programme ne seront jamais enseignées dans les écoles juives, « point final » affirme-t-il, très catégorique. Exit le cours Éthique et culture religieuse ainsi que les cours de biologie et de sciences. « On ne veut pas enseigner la théorie de l’évolution. À un enfant à qui on a dit toute sa vie que c’est Dieu qui avait créé la Terre, on ne va pas soudainement lui dire le contraire. »

Sur d’autres sujets, comme veiller à ce que tous les enseignants embauchés aient des brevets, il admet qu’ils devront « mettre de l’eau dans [leur] vin ». « Ça doit se faire des deux côtés, réitère-t-il. Dans une négociation, il faut qu’il y ait du give and take. On a l’impression que le gouvernement fait juste take, take, take. »

Écoles juives: les hassidim sont prêts à négocier | Le Devoir.

The reminds me of this article by Patrick Martin in The Globe of some of the medium and long-term challenges facing Israel and the growth of Jewish fundamentalists:

First of all, there has been a sharp decline in the length of formal studies taken by Haredi men. More than 47 per cent of Haredi men aged 35-54 (prime working age) have no more than a primary school education. Ten years ago only 31 per cent were limited to a primary education.

The reason for the substantial decline in formal education has been a steady transition to religious studies, the Taub report states, at the expense of secondary school and academic studies. And the trend will only grow.

More than 90 per cent of Haredi men aged 25-34 chose to take religious rather than academic studies. Fifty years ago, only about half of Haredi men forsook academic for religious studies.

All this has had a dramatic economic impact. “Israel’s poverty and income inequality rates are among the highest in the developed world – and considerably higher than they were in Israel several decades ago,” the Taub report concludes.

Why illiteracy may be the greatest threat to Israel’s survival

The interfaith agreement on the ‘errant weeds’ of Christianity, Islam and Judaism

Interesting piece by Marc Ellis on extremism in all Abrahamic religions – “errant weeds” as he calls it:

But terror in the name of religion – and religious and ethnic identity – is widespread historically and today. Since most believers are not involved directly in the violence that some partake in, we shouldn’t paint with too broad a brush. The September 11th museum video may indeed walk this disturbing fine line. But to hold Islam as a religion, in its expression and in some of its core principles, innocent of violence historically or in the present is absurd.

It’s like pretending that violence in the name of Christianity contradicts Christianity and some of Christianity’s core values as they developed. Thus any violence done in the name of Christianity represents the “hijacking” of Christianity. Taking this perspective, then, through much of Christian history, Christianity has been hijacked. Perhaps we should distinguish the Christianity many Christians want today from – shall we call it – Hijacked Christianity?

Rather than pretending to an innocent tradition, call it Innocent Islam and Innocent Christianity, perhaps it is better to think of a desired separation from Hijacked Islam and Hijacked Christianity. But then how does religion support itself, go global and play its part in the affairs of the state in a way that benefits them and their followers without being hijacked?

To preserve the sense of innocence, religion’s collusion with power is unannounced and behind the scenes. To put it bluntly, you don’t get mosques or churches in the town square without being fully corrupted and embedded in the state while pretending to innocence.

Nor do you get Passover Seders in the White House without being a power to be reckoned with.

Which means we can’t leave out Hijacked Judaism.

The interfaith agreement on the ‘errant weeds’ of Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

Jonathan S. Ostroff: Standing with Israel, but rejecting conscription | National Post

Reinforces much of the points made by Jonathan Kay (Shariah with a Jewish face), including the similarities with Muslim (and other) fundamentalism (e.g., expressions like “rampant immorality”):

Ben-Gurion and the other founders of the secular state of Israel wanted the army to be a melting pot for immigrants from all over the world. Haredi Jews did not, and still do not, want to be melted down. Living in an environment of rampant immorality and lack of commitment to Jewish observance is toxic to their youth. And yes, Haredim believe that marriage is between a man and a women; they do not want to serve in an institution that enforces the acceptance of homosexuality. Religious Zionists who consider it a great virtue to serve in the army complain that more than 20% of their youth loose their religious commitment during their service.

This is why many Haredi parents here in Canada and the United States refuse to send their sons to live in dorms in a co-ed secular universities. This is why Haredim have separate schools, separate newspapers, no television, no unfiltered Internet. They spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year on education systems that isolate their children from secular culture.

Jonathan S. Ostroff: Standing with Israel, but rejecting conscription | National Post.

Jonathan Kay: Shariah with a Jewish face | National Post

Good piece by the parallel fundamentalism of the Haredim by Jonathan Kay:

What’s worse, Haredim exhibit a level of misogyny and sexual phobia that is more commonly associated with militant Muslim fundamentalists. Public spaces in Haredi communities are rigidly segregated by sex. In extreme cases, the women even dress in Jewish burquas (colloquially referred to as “frumkas,” a play on a Yiddish word indicating piety). What’s worse, Haredim have demanded that the wider Israeli society adapt to their primitive views — insisting, for instance, that bus lines offer sex-segregated service, that advertising should be free of female faces or bodies, and that beaches maintain separate areas for men and women.

Haredi publications routinely censor out women — including, in the most appalling examples, the faces of female Holocaust victims in reprinted photos from the 1940s. The editorial policies of such publications are dictated by a board of religious censors, much like in Saudi Arabia. Haredi communities even have their own Jewish small-scale versions of the ministries of vice and virtue imposed by the Mullahs of Iran and other Muslim theocrats. This is, in essence, shariah with a Jewish face. And it is destroying Israel’s hard-earned reputation as an island of Western values in the heart of the Middle East.

Jonathan Kay: Shariah with a Jewish face | National Post.

Jonathan Kay: Judaism’s fundamentalism problem

Good piece by Jonathan Kay that all religions have fundamentalists, and the impact on women in particular:

Since the dawn of modern feminism, social liberals have sought to liberate women from the clutches of conservative Christian doctrines that keep them under their husbands’ thumbs. Since 9/11, a similar project has been underway in regard to Muslims. It is time to take a broader view toward this project. All patriarchal religious traditions that make a fetish of separating the sexes, that entertain phobic and repressed attitudes to human sexuality, that privilege group solidarity over the well-being of children, and that treat women as debased creatures who cannot be trusted to walk among us, except under wig or veil, must be subject to the same scrutiny.

Jonathan Kay: Judaism’s fundamentalism problem | National Post.

Why it’s been a good year for religion – The Globe and Mail

An opinion piece by Yoni Goldstein in the Globe on some of the developments towards more inclusive faith-based approaches in Judaism, Christianity, and, while evidence is mixed, Islam. Change is slow and gradual, but some of the examples within Judaism, and the comments of the new Pope, are worth noting. All religions have a range of opinions and approaches, and it is good to see these examples highlighted, as they reinforce our common humanity.

Why it’s been a good year for religion – The Globe and Mail.