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Washington Interfaith June 2013

21/06/13 13:58:05


There are probably few cities that exude the sense of empire like Washington DC. With its classical buildings and sculptures, its grand road (the National Mall), its magnificent monuments and centres of influence (the White House and the US Capitol) radiating off the main wide avenues, it makes a definite statement of power and history. It’s hard not to be awed by this elegantly designed city, boarded by the Potomac River, conceived by President George Washington in 1791 and planned by Major L’Enfant, a French artist, engineer and friend of Washington. The city was built to impress and it does  with its enforced height restrictions, landscaped parks, wide streets, open spaces, vistas and impressive structures.

Being in Washington in the early summer was a special delight and being there for a Jewish-Muslim mission was a rare and unusual pleasure. I was part of a delegation of Muslim and Jewish leaders from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa invited by the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.  Our agenda included meetings with State Department officials, Jewish and Muslim Congress members, people engaged in Jewish-Muslim Dialogue in Washington and New York, breakfasts at Embassy Houses and a visit to the Islamic Centre of Washington DC.

The meetings were engaging and challenging, the breakfasts in the stately embassy residences were as sumptuous as their surroundings, the long corridors of power were awesome (although I particularly liked the awe-inspiring mezuzah on Florida Congress-woman Debbie Wasserman-Shultz’s door) and the baseball match was all footy to me. Notwithstanding the hype, it was the people who had the greatest impact. I am not only referring to the superstars – the inimitable Rabbi Marc Schneier (founder and president of the Foundation) and Imam Shamsi Ali of New York (one of the “500 most influential Muslims in the world”), our gracious and generous  Ambassador Kim Beasley (who spoke about the role of religion in Australia and the West today) and the Congress members.

I am also thinking of the participants, of Adli Jacobs from South Africa, secretary general of the Call of Islam, a journalist and a mentsch. I was impressed by his down-to-earth approach, his open heart and his wide-open mind. I am referring to Professor Abdullah Saeed of Melbourne University, a quiet, thoughtful and realistic individual and a friend of ours. I am thinking of the brave young Y.U Rabbi Sarna and Imam Latif who travelled from New York to share their experiences about confronting anti-Semitism and Islamophobia on campuses. I am also thinking of the Imam of Washington’s Islamic Centre who invited us to a kosher lunch at his mosque (a first) and then to observe the prayers in his mosque. It was the first time, I have actually been to a Muslim service and despite some discomfort (there is something awkward and voyeuristic about standing and watching others pray) I was struck by the similarities, the separation of men and women, the responsive pieces, the silent amidah-like reflective prayers said while standing. I was moved by the warm welcome of the Imam and the courage it takes to open your intimate spiritual space to others. I am finally thinking of all my fellow participants who shared so freely of themselves.

There are two stand-out experiences from this trip; the visits to the residence of the South African ambassador and the Holocaust Museum. Ambassador Ephraim Rasool not only stood at the door with his wife Rasheida, personally welcoming each of us to his home, but spoke with passion, eloquence and clarity about Jewish-Muslim dialogue.  Being a Muslim from South Africa where the relationship between  Jews and Muslims is especially fraught, his words were particularly resonant: “With a purity of motive, a purity of intention…an honest dialogue can begin.” For that to happen he said: “We must start with an exploration of common values.” Essential to this process is not to allow the extremists to define our attitude to each other and importantly to divest ourselves of the pursuit and title of being the greatest victims. “There can be no conversation, only accusations between victims. Victims can’t make peace. They carry too many wounds.”

The path of dialogue and co-operation between Jews and Muslims is not an easy one, there are obstacles on both sides; militancy and suspicion abound. There is a lot of fear in our Jewish community about Muslim extremism. It is certainly  not unfounded, after all the most common and brutal acts of extremism and terror across the world are carried out by young Islamic men. We cannot however allowfear to drive us and we dare not tar all Muslims with the same black brush. I hope that our shule will find the courage to engage in a twinning exercise with an Islamic community in Melbourne; I pray that we will find a willing partner.

The Washington Holocaust Museum is a national museum, the official US memorial to the Shoah. It is adjacent to the National Mall aptly placed on Raoul Wallenberg Plaza. It is a place of generous austerity, impressive in its presentation, wrenching in its confronting pieces. It draws you into the darkness but it illuminates.  However most illuminating for me on this day was being led through the Museum with a group of Muslim leaders and clerics. The response of Adli Jacobs will long remain with me: “I sacrificed my youth for the struggle against apartheid.” This struggle, he said, was against “the inability of people to be human” and this, he added. has “everything to do with being Jewish” for Judaism as this Museum illustrated, was about the struggle to remain human in an inhuman world. Adli added that he thought many Muslims simply failed to grasp the importance of the Shoah to the Jewish people.

We have a long way to go in building bridges between the Jewish and Muslim communities but I came back from Washington with a little more hope in my heart. The immemorial words of Martin Luther King Jr inscribed on the walls of the King Memorial in Washington stay with me:

“If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional, our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation. And this means we must develop a world perspective.”

Rabbi Ralph Genende
June 2013

Mon, 17 May 2021 6 Sivan 5781