Last Friday, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the Union for Reform Judaism, the largest Jewish denomination in the US, spoke (the full text of Rabbi Yoffie’s speech is here) at the convention of the Islamic Society of North America — the first leader of a major Jewish organization to agree to do so.
His remarks were mostly conciliatory in tone; he was outraged by the idea of profiling by police or antiterrorism agencies, fundamentalist Christian criticism of Islam, and the banning of headscarves in European public schools. And he said this:
The overwhelming majority of Jews reject violence by interpreting these [biblical] 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. [my emphasis]
Here is how I understand this:
- There are a very few violent Jewish extremists.
This is correct; they include the late Baruch Goldstein, Yigal Amir, Eden Natan-Zada, and a few others that Americans have not heard of.
- In the event that the ‘silent majority’ of non-extremist Jews doesn’t condemn them strongly enough, Rabbi Yoffie and other Jewish leaders make sure that nobody thinks that they represent normative Judaism.
- The situation is similar in the Christian and Muslim communities — although there may be a few more violent extremists there, an ‘alarming’ number — where the clergy does its best to discourage extremism and isolate extremists.
Well, that depends. In some places, for example, Britain and the Palestinian Authority, imams are in the forefront of encouraging violent extremism. Over there, normative Islam is radical Islam. But what about here in the US? In fact, many US mosques, financed by the Saudis and with Saudi-provided imams, do preach an extremist version of Islam.
Indeed, even ISNA, the group that Rabbi Yoffie is speaking to, has been accused of having a relationship to the extremist Muslim Brotherhood organization, and is an unindicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land Foundation terrorism funding case.
There is really no parallel in the Jewish or Christian communities. However, Rabbi Yoffie’s remarks seem to suggest that there is. He has spoken out strongly against Christian Fundamentalists whom he also sees as ‘fanatics’, although Christian terrorism (e.g., attacks on arbortionists) is relatively rare.
Rabbi Yoffie goes on to call for a dialogue between Jews and Muslims, “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”.
But ironically, Rabbi Yoffie has fought tooth and nail the attempts of Christian Zionists to establish a relationship with Jews (see my article, ‘Rabbi Yoffie and Pastor Hagee‘). Does he see Pastor Hagee as the same kind of ‘fanatic’ as Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman? One would almost think so.