Tonight the UJA-Federation of New York will be hosting a Jewish community-wide event in a Nassau County (Long Island) suburb. In this season of peace and goodwill, what might this event have as its focus? One might think it would center around learning about and assisting those who are spiritually and/or financially needy. Others might think that the community might get together to learn more about Judaism, the real meaning of Hanukkah, and the concept of being a true “light among nations”. Maybe some might believe that they would learn about the state of religious pluralism in Israel. Unfortunately, all of these assumptions would be wrong.
The local UJA has decided to focus on a night of learning about the religion of Islam. In and of itself, that is not a bad idea. In fact, it is quiet noble to devote time to sincerely learning about the second most popular religion on this planet. However, the title of the event makes it appear that these members of the Long Island Jewish community have decided on a different learning objective.
Islam in the 21st Century featuring a screening of 92nd Street Y’s “Is Islam A Religion of Peace?”
The evening will involve a showing of an October 7th 92nd Street Y debate between atheist author Christopher Hitchens and Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan, which was moderated by Laurie Goodstein, religion correspondent for the New York Times. Following that video there will be a Q & A, for those in attendence, moderated by two local Rabbis, one Reform and one Conservative.
It can be assumed that Mr. Hitchens and Mr. Ramadan, both, are intelligent, sincere, and passionate advocates of their chosen viewpoints. It can also be assumed that Ms. Goodstein, as noted by journalist Danny Groner, truly intended for people on either side of the topic to at least consider the other one for just a moment.
However noble the intentions of the leadership of UJA-New York, the evening seems to be one of insincerity and offense. While many of the attendees will hopefully engage in the topic as respectfully as Ms. Goodstein desired, it is possible that many of the attendees will use this occasion to voice opinions that range from condescension, at best, to outright bigotry, at worst.
Some other thoughts come to mind when looking at this event:
–How would this same organization and its supporters stand for a local Long Island Mosque holding an event titled “Judaism in the 21st Century featuring a screening of Park51’s “Is Judaism a Religion of Peace?” If they would be offended, how might a Muslim citizen feel about the planned UJA event?
— How can the Q & A segment of this evening be moderated by two Rabbis, neither of whom have any expertise in Islam, according to their synagogue webpages?
— Are the Rabbis included to give acceptability and synagogue “legitimacy” to this controversial type of event? Are they there to attempt to moderate any radical voices of certain audience members?
— How can the Q & A portion of the event not have a single Muslim voice?
If UJA-New York and the Long Island Jewish community is truly interested in discussing complex issues within the Islamic religion, they should start by honestly discussing complex issues within the Jewish religion, U.S. Jewish communities, and the State of Israel. Once they have succeeded in these difficult series of conversations, then they could consider expanding the discussions to include the members of other religious communities.
Until that blessed time arrvies, they and their supporters should stop trying to simplistically analyze the intentions of someone else’s religion.