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What is the point of interfaith dialogue?
Daniel Jonas
Daniel Jonas

Some weeks ago, observant readers of the press would have noted reports of a conference in Seville entitled “The Second World Congress of Imams and Rabbis for Peace”. The list of attendees was an impressive list of the great and good amongst Jewish and Islamic clergy. The chief rabbi of here, the grand rabbi of there and the dayan of elsewhere mixed with muftis, qadis, imams and sheikhs. As one participant put it, “a mass of reporters and TV camera people […] just swarmed around the most exotic dressers on view”. Surely such high-profile people meeting so amicably must be a sign that religious differences can be resolved, that Jews and Muslims (not to mention Christians) can meet, greet, eat and work things out together?

Sadly, acquaintance with the world of interfaith dialogue reveals that conferences and meetings like this have been going on for a long time, sometimes for decades. The “Standing Conference of Jews, Christians and Muslims in Europe” has been standing for about thirty years. The “World Parliament of Religions” first met in Chicago in 1893. A plethora of bilateral, trilateral and multilateral organisations exist whose aim is to stimulate and further dialogue between faith communities around the world.

Yet despite the constant round of encounter groups, declarations and awards, mistrust continues to be pervasive and prejudice and segregation, rather than friendship, are the rule on the communal ‘front line’. Organisations give speeches about the common heritage of the children of Abraham, the sibling relationships of the ‘three great monotheistic faiths’ and display beaming photographs of their luminaries shaking hands with Prince Hassan of Jordan or the Dalai Lama on their literature and websites. But, as the Islamic liberation theologist Farid Esack once put it, “Is there life after tea?” Can we get beyond politeness to make something happen for good in the real world?

Actually, the problem is not that nothing is achieved through interfaith dialogue as presently conceived. After all, people in the dialogue world know each other extremely well. Personal relationships have been built over the years which enable channels of communication to be kept open and functional. Significant breakthroughs like the Alexandria Declaration have provided religious authority for the development of the Middle East peace process. Yet beyond the occasional success, these developments are, for the most part, largely ceremonial. The relationships are institutional. Moreover, to take an active part in this world one must have an aristocratic, political or religious title, a PhD or professorship, a directorship of an organisation or that old favourite, a large philanthropic budget. Money, power and position can always buy a place at this table. Fortunately, though, this cabal of jet-setting princes, chief executives and Nobel Prize laureates are, on the whole, likely to behave reasonably and maintain a vision of the bigger picture – after all, twenty years’ hard graft can earn you a knighthood.

This top level of dialogue exists happily in its own bubble, but it is important for the authority it provides. Without the sponsorship of senior figures, clergy and lay leaders find their hands tied. When a delegation of Catholic clergy visited Yeshiva University in 2004, according to a poll conducted by the university’s newspaper, 39% of respondents felt that this infringed the teaching of the great 20th-century halakhic authority Rabbi JD Soloveitchik as expressed in an influential article a quarter of a century previously. Even when this sponsorship is forthcoming, it can often be subverted by institutionalised prejudice and simple ignorance. In the Orthodox world, with few exceptions, the idea that Jews have anything to learn from those from other faith traditions is treated with scorn. Even in mainstream yeshivas, Christianity is routinely taught to be ‘avodah zarah. In such a climate of arrogance and dismissiveness of other faith traditions it is hardly surprising that the standard-bearers of soi-disant “Torah Judaism” should justified in making their recent misconceived and counterproductive attacks on Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ eloquent plea for mutual respect, “The Dignity of Difference”.

In Sacks’ own mainstream modern Orthodoxy in the UK, despite his own apparent openmindedness, lip service is paid to religious tolerance and coexistence. Whilst two members of his ‘cabinet’ have responsibility for Jewish-Muslim and Jewish-Christian relations and can be seen on the conference circuit, the United Synagogue’s idea of dialogue appears to be a one-way process: not so much a conversation as it is a lecture about the greatness of Judaism, Abrahamic siblinghood and other monotheistic bromides, suitable for “Thought for the Day”, but hardly an programme fit for a religion that prides itself on being action-based – quite apart from the unintentional offence occasionally caused by unwise references to tsunamis and pagans, there being nearly as many self-described ‘neo-pagans’ in the UK as there are Jews and, perhaps unsurprisingly, who tend to take these uncomplimentary remarks as being aimed at themselves.

Although interfaith dialogue training is a mandatory part of the UK Reform rabbinical programme, this wholly laudable inclusion, like the interfaith activity of the United Synagogue, does little to affect the community at large. The average dinner-party conversation is far less likely to be influenced by the circumlocutory language of inter-religious diplomacy than it is by a scandal-mongering media, political spin-doctors and popular (“everyone knows that..”) wisdom, with the predictable result that the status quo of ignorance, contempt and fear is perpetuated.

By default, then, the second tier of dialogue remains the sphere of the professionals – clergy, theology students and organisational functionaries. Whilst undeniably effective at ensuring the production of religious and academic papers, seminars and conferences it remains the province of those for whom it is part of their daily responsibilities. Unfortunately, for the vast majority of the pastoral clergy, interfaith dialogue comes a long way behind the more immediate needs of the congregation, particularly if it means going up against the received wisdom of communal security needs – and nowhere is this more true than in the Jewish community.

The amount of column inches, organisational budget and effort communal devoted to combating anti-semitism in the UK and around the Jewish world has never been greater. Debate about the nature of the problem and how to manage it goes on at all levels, both inside the community and outside it. A robust and time-tested infrastructure has developed around the reporting and escalation of incidents, together with a system of consultation and lobbying that is the envy of other faith communities and ethnic groups. During the nail-bombing campaign in the UK, the Board of Deputies provided leadership and police liaison expertise for other targeted groups not normally known for their ability to co-exist with each other, notably the gay and Muslim communities. But although this is an undeniably effective method of fire-fighting and crisis management, it is less concerned with the reduction of the intercommunal prejudices that cause tension and sometimes go on to manifest themselves emotionally, verbally and physically. It is as if the fire brigade were unaware of the significance of flame-retardant upholstery or the the importance of correct precautions for the safe transportation of petrol.

Clearly, then, there is a case for the re-envisioning of interfaith dialogue. Religious and ethnic prejudice flourish in an atmosphere of segregation, ignorance and mutual mistrust. They require the dehumanisation of the ‘Other’ and the creation of convenient groupings. How often have we heard the phrases “The Muslims want…” or “The Jews are…”? We ought to know better. Despite the aspirationally monolithic, rose-tinted and historically inaccurate language of the ‘umma and the dar al-Islam or Torah Judaism, klal yisra’el or Yidden, there is virtually no such thing as a single, unified Muslim or Jewish standpoint. The old joke (“two Jews, three opinions, four committees”) is just as true of the ‘other side’. What we need, then, is to encounter these others, to understand who they really are and how they live, love, eat, pray, argue, think and believe. Yet how many of us can count members of other faiths as our friends? Do we visit their houses and places of worship or they ours? Can we even eat with them? Wouldn’t we like to think that at that dinner-party conversation, when a sententious uncle is holding forth about the iniquitous behaviour of the Yahoods, someone is thinking to themself, or even saying out loud: “I have a Jewish friend; his name is Daniel and he’s nothing like that. What you’re saying doesn’t make sense.” If we cannot challenge stereotypes from our own experience, we are truly divided.

The purpose of dialogue activities, then, must be one of humanisation, to widen our own knowledge of and familiarity with other faith traditions. Interpersonal encounters are key – there is no substitute for personal experience. There are obvious safeguards: clearly evangelisation and intermarriage are significant concerns to everyone involved, but this hardly constitutes a problem as much as it does a shared interest. More to the point, it is invariably the case that the encounter with other religions forces us to attempt to understand who we ourselves are. Peculiarly enough, interfaith dialogue actually stimulates our desire to learn about our own religion. We are compelled to educate ourselves, to learn about our own background and traditions if we are to be able to successfully explain them. This is why dialogue is so often left to the professionals – we feel unequal to the task of teaching others about our beliefs. There is a synergy here which can help drive internal educational priorities. So what concrete action we can take to make this humanisation happen on the ground? It is certain that the first and most obvious priority must be the creation of a new tier of dialogue: that of the grass-roots.

Fortunately, there are numerous models open to exploitation. In the field of Jewish-Muslim relations, triangulation on shared problems such as employment conditions, dress codes and the use of public space has previously been a route to good relations. Ironically enough, this has been most prevalent in the ultra-religious world, where co-operation has long been occurring – the Muslim-Jewish Forum in Hackney being a good example. Even on campus, a historically antagonistic environment fuelled by the gesture politics of student unions, the dialogue organisation Alif-Aleph UK has set up encounter groups to circumvent the normal atmosphere of mutual recrimination and build a network of personal contacts. Shared interests such as the arts and music can act as platforms for dialogue, as shown by the popular festivals, exhibitions and concerts organised by the cultural organisation Cultural Co-operation. Even competitive sports can contribute to this – the Maimonides Foundation and Arsenal Football Club have run a programme of joint Jewish-Muslim training and matches for 8-12 year-old schoolchildren.

The question remains, however, as to the follow-up across the wider community. Without the mobilisation of the more mainstream community organisations and a menu of shared activities promoting interpersonal and interreligious familiarisation, the dialogue world will remain a self-perpetuating, self-selecting group of moderates and do-gooders. It would be a comparatively simple task to set up a twinning programme for synagogues, mosques, churches and (strangely neglected despite the entirely unobjectionable monotheism of Sikhism) gurdwaras, with the advantage of strengthening local links and improving the latest political buzzword, ‘community cohesion’. Even local government can be of help in this process as it is, after all, something in which its officials actually have experience, as opposed to their cack-handed ‘multiculturalist’ interventions and the clumsy official verbiage of “Winterval”.

What is needed is the allocation of time and funding, over and above the hobbies of elderly philanthropists, however clear-sighted and praiseworthy. Communal organisations need to prioritise interfaith dialogue now – with the prospect of being able to reducing their security needs in the future. In short, even if the benefits of interfaith work are not immediately self-evident and of intrinsic importance, it can be decisively argued that it is in our own self-interest in the long run. In France, legal measures against the hijab were paralleled by those against the kippa, the Sikh turban and the ‘ostentatious’ cross – in the alleged interest of even-handedness. Restrictions on one can be seen to impact all.

It is clear that the idea that “there’s nothing we need from the goyim other than for them to leave us alone” is rooted in our own sense of insecurity. It is time to treat this as a barrier, not a badge of honour.Genuine religious coexistence is in everyone’s interest, so interfaith dialogue ought to be everyone’s business. For those of us who have jobs outside the community, it is presently a time-consuming hobby – no less fun for that, but clearly not a priority for the community as a whole. Just as it was for the Sanhedrin, familiarity with other faiths – and confidence in dealing with their adherents – must not be left as an esoteric speciality of the professionals. It must become a competency for all members of the Jewish community.


Peace for all by: khalil @ 08:15:08 am on June 6, 2008.

In this age of enlightenment and information,we all have to keep away ideological and secterian differences.I believe A man is more important than Beliefs.Interfaith dialogues is good approach to understand differences and find commonalities but I suggest interfaith dailogue should be promoted at grass root level.By people to people contact at all levels,we can achieve goal of mutual respect and tolerance.

Thank you by: Stephen Shashoua @ 11:35:53 am on August 7, 2008.

I wholeheartedly agree with your words. You seem to understand the difficulties we have within the field and the hopes of where many of us feel it should go. You may be interested to visit our websites www.threefaithsforum.org.uk and www.3ff.org.uk, where we have been focussing more on work with young people in schools as well as bringing interfaith off the \"island\" and into the public sphere.
Thank you again,





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