Saudi Interfaith Conferences Ends On Dispute Over "Zionism"



There are several media reports indicating the end of the Saudi-sponsored interfaith conference in Madrid ended with a dispute over “Zionists.” According to a report in the New York Sun:

…after a day’s worth of speeches by Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu leaders, in the middle of the fourth two-hour conference session, a government official from the United Arab Emirates urged Muslim leaders to avoid the company of Zionists. “We have to distinguish between Judaism and Zionism,” the official, Izzeddin Mustafa Ibrahim, who is listed on the program as an adviser on cultural affairs to the president of the U.A.E., said. “Zionism is a political system. Judaism is a religion.” He continued: “I can speak to pacifists but not bellicists, who are in favor of war.” Mr. Ibrahim, a Muslim scholar of Christianity who said he has met with three popes in the interests of Christian-Muslim relations, then continued: “I have only one minute left,” referring to the amount of speaking time allotted to him, and finished off his statements with a broad appeal to begin a “Judaic and Islamic dialogue.” “I believe it has to start,” Mr. Ibrahim said, referring to such a dialogue. A New York rabbi, Marc Schneier, then took the lectern but did not directly respond to Mr. Ibrahim’s statements about Zionism. He spoke of outreach efforts in North America between imams and rabbis. In an interview outside the conference room, however, another New York rabbi denounced Mr. Ibrahim’s remarks “as the same old rhetoric that has led to more hatred and the building of a wall between the Jews and the Muslims for the last 60 years.” “Being anti-Zionist is the new canard for being an anti-Semite,” the rabbi, Jay Rosenbaum of Temple Israel in Lawrence, N.Y., said.

An unconfirmed news report said that the discussion ” became overheated, almost leading to blows.” Reuters reported later that organizers played down the discussion between Ibrahim and Rabbi Schneier:

People said I attacked Zionism, I did not,” Ibrahim told reporters, adding that no interfaith conference would be complete without Jews….”The fact there are some discrepancies, some differences between participants, that’s normal,” said Abdullah Al Turki, Secretary General of the Muslim World League organizers.

Earlier new reports had indicated that the organizers had purposely not invited any Israelis or Palestinians in order to avoid the kind of exchange which occurred. As an earlier post on the conference discussed, one of the participants was Rabbi David Rosen, an Israeli with dual Irish citizenship who is associated with the American Jewish Committee. Forward Magazine reports on the controversy surrounding Rabbi Rosen’s attendance:

The run-up to the conference was marked by a series of disputes. One involved Rosen, who is based in Jerusalem and holds dual Israeli and Irish citizenship. After the Associated Press reported that he was the only Israeli invited, the Saudi organizers, who had purposefully not invited Israelis or Palestinians, scrambled for a few days before deciding to list him as American in the conference literature. This prompted a barbed reaction from Israel. “Practically speaking, he is being invited as a foreigner and not as an Israeli,” said Arye Mekel, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman. “If they really wanted to make this significant, they should have invited real Israeli rabbis. Rosen stressed that the organizers had never intended to invite him as an Israeli, and commended them for finding a way to keep him on the list. “When I went to salute King Abdullah, I made a point of identifying myself as a rabbi from Jerusalem, and although some people in his entourage gasped, he warmly greeted me,” Rosen said.

The Forward report also detailed other controversies surrounding the lead up to the conference:

The Saudis also had to walk a fine line vis-à-vis their own religious hardliners. In an apparent effort to satisfy traditionalist clerics, the word “religious” was dropped from the official name for the gathering, to the “World Conference on Dialogue.” In addition, while the choice of Spain as a host was officially meant to recall the golden era from the eighth to the 13th centuries when Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together in relative peace under Islamic rule, several participants said it was in fact a deliberate move to deflect domestic criticism from Wahhabi clerics. Critics of the conference pointed out that the Spanish venue was a stark reminder that non-Muslims are not authorized to practice their faith openly in Saudi Arabia, thus casting doubt on the kingdom’s real commitment to interfaith dialogue. Moreover, skepticism about the organizers’ willingness to avoid political issues was fueled earlier this month by reports that the conference’s principal Jewish speaker was Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss, a member of the anti-Zionist Neturei Karta group. Weiss was eventually disinvited after complaints from several groups, including the Islamic Society of North America. He was replaced by Rabbi Arthur Schneier of Manhattan’s Park East Synagogue. Another controversial issue was the absence of women speakers at the conference, which was publicly mentioned by several participants as a “serious problem,” according to Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center.

A Reuters report comments on the mixed evaluations of the conference:

But the conference’s final statement disappointed many. “The Madrid declaration does not contemplate holding another conference,” said Al Turki. “Whether this conference emphasizes the organization of other conferences, other symposiums in the other parts of the world, remains to be seen.” Rabbi David Rosen of the American Jewish Committee had said earlier the event would be little more than a photo opportunity unless it led to a follow-up in Saudi Arabia with Israeli Jews. But participants said getting people from so many faiths under one roof had been an achievement in itself, even if there were no Israeli Jews or Palestinian Muslims and Christians. “There is a desire for this to continue,” said Anthony Ball, an aide to the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. Images on Saudi television of Abdullah meeting Buddhists and Hindus were also unsettling to most Saudi clerics, given their Wahhabi Islam considers believers in such faiths heathens. Buddhists saw no problem.

One of the actions called for in the final conference statement appears to suggest support for so-called “blasphemy laws” The participants agreed:

To work on urging governmental and non-governmental organizations to issue a document that stipulates respect for religions and their symbols, the prohibition of their denigration and the repudiation of those who commit such acts.

Presumably such laws would be widely supported by the global Muslim Brotherhood.

A previous post noted that the U.S invitees were almost all known to be affiliated with the U.S. Muslim Brotherhood. Two of these invitees, CAIR leader Nihad Awad and William Baker presented papers at the conference. Awad and CAIR have a close relationship to Saudi Arabia, confirmed by Awad’s recent meeting with King Abdullah. Baker, as the post discussed, has a background in U.S. right-wing extremism and anti-Semitism. Despite Baker’s participation, several media reports are claiming that the conference is a sign of improving relations between the U.S. Jewish and Muslim communities:

In the end, perhaps in a sign of a changing dynamic between Muslims and Jews in the US, Weiss was disinvited because American Muslim leader Sayyid Syeed of the Islamic Society of North America protested to the Saudi ambassador in Washington and threatened to withdraw from the event himself if Weiss remained on the invitation list. Schneier is also at the conference to announce new Jewish-Muslim initiatives to take place later in the year, including a series of television commercials in time for Ramadan and Rosh Hashana in which rabbis and imams are shown together calling for tolerance, and an effort in November to pair synagogues and mosques for dialogue at the grassroots level.

Previous posts have discussed efforts by the U.S. Brotherhood to establish liaisons with U.S. Jewish organizations. Both CAIR and ISNA, both represented at the Madrid conference, have long backgrounds of anti-Semitic activities, statements, and associations.

(Note: The Conference final statement is reprinted here.)

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