Made for the Media: An Orthodox Rabbi and His Congregation Flock to the Mosque
By Tuvia Tenenbom
The idea is great. The place, the Islamic Cultural Center in New York, looks fantastic. Three bottles of Coke for the thirsty, two plates of biscuits to the hungry, and numerous chairs for the tired bones who are not learned in the art of sitting on the floor welcome the herd of Jews entering the largest mosque in New York city. In addition, a number of great theatrical characters are at the ready to engage the minds of the unlikely visitors: Two Imams, a Rabbi, an Attorney, a Doctor, two Blacks, a few Whites, and countless Poland Springs on the panel’s table for the distinguished participants. Can’t beat it: PC paradise at its best. The only thing missing to complete the picture is a Yoga teacher.
This is a day of dialogue between Arabs and Jews. Organized by the Good Jews, beverage and cookies paid for by the Good Muslims, with warmest of greetings from the Good Folks of the Nation of Islam, this event seems capable of having the potential to beat the gray weather outside. The event, billed as a Dialogue between Arabs and Jews, starts a la Law and Order, with the Attorney: “Would you agree with the statement,” asks the learned Man of Law, “that Allah and God is the same?” Ceremonially, with Shakespearean craftsmanship of delivery, he prefaces his question with one humble declaration: “I am an attorney.”
This is going to be fun, I find myself mumbling with joy.
The Attorney, Joel Cohen Esq., throws this question to the learned men on the panel. (No women here, if you ever wondered. The Jews on the panel are Orthodox, and the Muslim women are on the second floor, in their own little world behind the barrier—or “mehitseh,” if you so wish.) There are a few men in this panel, but the Attorney directs his interrogatory questionings to two in particular: Rabbi Marc Schneier and Imam Omar abu-Namous. Imam Omar, who gives the impression of a nice and hospitable man, smiles at the question and softly answers: “The same.” To his left side sits Sheikh Samer al-Raey, and he kindly nods with his head for approval. Sheikh Samer, by the way, will keep doing this for the rest of the gathering, a la Black Hebrews on 42nd Street. A pretty nice sight, if you ask me. Rabbi Schneier, clean-shaven with a harsh look on his face (does he always have this look?), braves the lawyer and courageously answers: “The same!”
First hurdle is successfully overcome. The two people, thank goodness, believe in the same God. If this keeps going on in similar tempo, peace will soon descend on Arab and Jew world over.
Second question, tougher than the first, slices the heavy air in the mosque:
“Do you,” asks the sharp Attorney, “believe that Abraham, or Ibrahim, was a holy man?”
Surprise, surprise, the two men agree. And Sheikh Samer concurs.
This Trial, so to speak, is conducted by the book: The Attorney character prepared the questions well in advance and he reads them, one by one, from a notebook he’s brought with him to the event. And an audience of a few hundred, mostly Jews, listens. You can tell that most of them are Jews because nine of ten in attendance sit on chairs. Another way to figure out Who’s a Jew is the applaud patterns: Jews applaud after Rabbi Schneier speaks, Muslims applaud after Imam Omar speaks.
After more questions from the Attorney, of similar pattern and color, Special Guests approach the podium to speak. They serve as the Chorus, but one of them stands out in brilliance: a man claiming to represent the Nation of Islam, the hip-hop macher Russell Simmons. “Reverend Louis Farrakhan,” he says, “loves the Jews.” “Rev. Farrakhan,” he adds, “never spoke anything against the Jews. I dare anyone to prove me otherwise.”
That this statement has no relation to truth doesn’t really bother anybody here, and no one takes the challenge to dare Mr. Simmons. Most Jews, it seems, have a very strong need to be ‘loved.’ At one point in this gathering a woman from the audience got up uninvited, approached the panel table and begged the Imam to fight the anti-Semites of the world. “I beg you,” she pleads, “to please, please, please fight the anti-Semites.”
The Jews applaud. But the Muslims stare. And then quite a few of them leave. No, not because they got upset; they simply got bored. The heroic Jews they have been told about resemble more a lamb than a lion.
But even with the audience constantly shrinking, Dr. Israel Singer of the WJC, gets up to speak. When the media is around no Jewish leader is stupid enough to pass an opportunity to grab a microphone. Looking at all the Jews around him, he feels comfortable. He quotes the Bible, he quotes the Talmud, and he proceeds to give a nice Shabbat Speech to them. What does it have to do with this event? Not much in particular, but who cares.
I look at him: Doctor? “Doctor of what?” He listens to my question, takes a closer look and notices the press card, then replies: “It’s an honorary doctorate.”
Good that we got this clear.
The Imam, in an attempt to explain suicide bombings in Israel, says: “You have to understand that the Arabs are very frustrated. For so many years, with so many United Nations resolutions that achieved nothing, people are frustrated.” The few sitting on the floor, those still in attendance, clap. No Jew joins. Rabbi Schneier then responds: “We have agreed not to talk politics, and we will not talk politics. But I appreciate you, Imam Omar…”
No one applauds. A rare moment of real unity between Arab and Jew.
Will this extend itself into something bigger and better?
Rabbi Schneier really pushed for this gathering. He called everyone in the press he knows. And he loves the press. This so-called Dialogue is more for the press than for anyone else. Jews in high places, one gets the impression, like to read about themselves, but they wouldn’t take the risk of taking a stand. Doctor Israel Singer is a case in point: In response to this writer’s question, the Hon. Doctor replied: “No, I won’t discuss politics; politics is for the politicians. We should not touch politics.”
Imam Omar is not made of the same clothe; he will discuss politics—and as much and as far as you are willing to listen. When I asked if he although thought that politics should not be discussed, he said: “Of course we have to discuss politics.” When asked if he believed in the two-state solution or one-state, he smiled broadly and said, ever so sweetly: “I have come to believe in two-state solution but under one federal government.” When asked to clarify, he said: “The Jews, you see, are very afraid of the Arabs; so we will put them in one place and they will not be afraid. The Arabs will live with their own, and no Jew will be allowed to live in the Arab area. Also, no Arab with the Jews, because they are afraid. The Jews are afraid: they are afraid to be killed, they are afraid of intermarriage, they are afraid. If they want to make business, they can come to the Arab area, but only business; and then they go back to their home.”
He was asked: “One government or two?” “One,” he said, “One Government.” “How many passports,” he was asked? “One passport. One federal government.” And what should we do with the Jews who currently live next to the Arabs and the Arabs who live next to the Jews? “No living together,” he replies. Does he suggest, or approve of, ethnic cleansing, a la Serbia? He smiles. No reply needed. “What do you suggest to do with the Jews, say, who live in—“ This question is immediately cut by Sheikh Samer. The Sheikh is a smart man: He notices that this writer holds a recorder, so he figures it’s a golly good time to stop. Still, he likes Rabbi Schneier. He also likes Doctor Singer. The Jews will invite him again, “next Wednesday we meet again, in the United Nations.”
This event was not a mere insult to intelligence, it was far worse: It projected the Jews as a bunch of fearful and childish individuals, while the Muslim stood their ground with dignity. The Imam was gladly wiling to talk “politics,” but not one Jew agreed to join. The Jews were so happy that they were allowed their two hours in the mosque, and ever so glad to see reporters, that they adamantly refused to “ruin” the party. The questions posed by Attorney Cohen reminded me more of a kindergarten than anything else. It won’t be surprising if by next event, if there’s going to be one, the Attorney will ask: Now kids, do you know how to spell God?
The depth of ideas presented here was paper-thin and this “Dialogue” left much to be desired. The rush to call the media for an afternoon of a dialogue between Arabs and Jews was more than just premature; it smacked of endless desire to see one’s name in the papers for purely egoistic ends. A man who holds an honorary doctorate and parades in public with the title of doctor is not my Dream Man to solve the complex Mideast conflict. Their sad followers, who spent their Sunday in a mosque so that they’d be given a chance to beg an Imam for love, shouldn’t be anyone’s Dream Team to serve as mediators for any crisis, let alone this one. By 3:15 pm, when all was said and done, it was a clear 1:0 for the Imam.
I can see Sheikh Samer nodding his head now, a huge smile spread on his face.