By Larry Gordon
How does a man who has dedicated so much of his professional life to fostering better relationships between Jews and Muslims and between Jews and African-Americans end up spending a chol ha’moed Sunday morning with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, in his office in Ramallah?
Perhaps if you live or experience life like Rabbi Marc Schneier of the landmark Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, then a Sunday in Ramallah is not all that unusual. The rabbi spent Pesach in Israel, but the seeds of the meeting were apparently planted earlier.
First, the reader needs to understand or temporarily place oneself into the perspective of Rabbi Schneier. I will go out on a small limb here and say he does not see Muslim-Jewish relations in a fashion that is reflective of the daily dose of news that we are subjected to and consume. Somehow he is able to apply an unusual brand of eternal optimism, and where situations look hopeless, he sees them as hopeful.
It was in the rabbi’s presence that day that Palestinian leader Abbas first made his widely publicized comment about the Holocaust, stating it was perpetrated against the Jews by the Nazis and was the worst possible crime of the modern era. The news surrounding the comment was that in all his years in the spotlight, Abbas did little more than cast doubt on the veracity that such a Holocaust ever took place. Additionally, he is known to have done his doctoral thesis at a Russian university on subjects that included doubt and denial of the Holocaust, a position that civilized people everywhere reject.
So here they were, the rabbi and the PA President, a few days before Abu Mazen was to announce his unity agreement with the internationally recognized murderers and terrorists who run Hamas, speaking with sensitivity about the Jewish experience in World War II.
I asked Rabbi Schneier in the aftermath of what occurred if he was feeling used by Mr. Abbas. The rabbi said that this was not his first meeting with the PA president; he had met with him back in November in Ramallah and had sat with him to discuss issues several times in New York over the years. So, in the rabbi’s estimation, no, they are not strangers to one another, this was not a publicity stunt, and he did not feel used in any way.
“I was not there to get involved in the peace process,” Rabbi Schneier says. He adds that Prime Minister Netanyahu does not consult with him on matters relating to the peace process and, for that matter, neither does Mr. Abbas. But the rabbi believes in peace between people, even if, as is the case here, their leaders cannot seem to get along or see eye-to-eye on matters.
But then just the other day, after Mr. Kerry unfortunately blurted out the remark that he wished he could take back about Israel becoming an apartheid state, that sorrowful and inaccurate sentiment was regurgitated by both Mr. Abbas and his former chief negotiator, Saeb Erakat. They both pounced on the Kerry misstatement as if it were Washington’s official policy. And I guess that is one of the spots where I have to disagree with Rabbi Schneier’s approach. I think he gives too much credence to Mr. Abbas’s pronouncements that seem friendly and peaceful, but lets the hurtful comments, like those about apartheid, just slide away.
On Abbas’s Holocaust-denial history and his characterization and recognition of the reality of the Holocaust last week, I asked Rabbi Schneier to reconcile the two positions. His response was that he perceives the Abbas position on the Holocaust as one that is evolving, and he welcomes changes.
The rabbi is certainly on the mark in numerous other areas and he does singular and outstanding work in areas of Muslim-Jewish relations, as well as on black-Jewish relationships. He cites, for example, the attempt to ban shechitah, ritual slaughter, in places like Denmark, which is a situation he is dealing with currently. “This is an issue that affects both Muslims and Jews very directly,” he says. I asked whether policies like these in places like Denmark and other European countries are directed at Muslims or Jews, and his response is that they are directed at both. Though, he adds, since Jewish populations in these countries are dwindling and the Islamic population is increasing, it might be safe to say that for the most part it is directed more at Muslims than at Jews.
It always struck me as particularly odd that some of the European countries that once had little regard for any human life—in particular that of Jews—is now so punctilious and squeamish about the ritual slaughter of animals for food and the performance of the religious rite of circumcision. This just might be a classic case of a little too little, much too late.
But this is about the things we have in common with people in different parts of the world who, when exterior differences are stripped away, are to a great extent just like us. Through Rabbi Schneier’s Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, great strides have been made over the last 35 years in bringing together people with disparate backgrounds.
Outside of the so-called territorial claims that exist between Arabs and Jews in Israel, Rabbi Schneier shared an experience at an interreligious conference he attended that was underwritten by the government of Saudi Arabia. He says that one of the Islamic clerics at the event explained that it is virtually impossible to forge a successful relationship with Jews, because Jews believe that they are superior to all others and that they are the elite, chosen by G‑d, above and beyond any others whom He created.
Rabbi Schneier says that he explained that the Jewish view of this idea of closeness is misunderstood and that our belief is that yes, we were chosen by G‑d and handed the mission of delivering the idea of monotheism to the world.
While Rabbi Marc Schneier continues to stay the course and steer Muslim-Jewish relations in a good direction, there are leaders like Mr. Abbas who, unfortunately, speak out of both sides of their mouths. It is nice for Jews and Muslims to find common ground like shechitah and the like, but we also need to be careful and on guard against being exploited and used to create a divide between Israelis and Jews elsewhere. Making a distinction between Jews and Israelis seems to be a key element in the ploy currently being perpetrated by Mr. Abbas and his associates.
There is no question that Jews and Muslims have lived side by side and have gotten along well for many years. It is the disingenuousness of wrong-thinking leaders that brings things to a stalemate and brings progress toward peace that everyone can benefit from to a screeching halt.
The rabbi understands that real freedom and independence starts with the people and ultimately manifests itself with representative leadership. But as we have all seen over the last few years, there is no real freedom or free elections in the Arab world. The much-touted Arab spring has turned into a freezing Islamic winter with no way out.
Our news headlines say that things are spiraling downward in the Middle East and in particular in the area of Israeli-Palestinian peace. Rabbi Marc Schneier nevertheless views the glass as half-full and sees silver linings in all the disappointing news emanating from the area. Yes, he says, peace talks may have broken down for now, but, as a result, last week Mahmoud Abbas acknowledged for the first time the reality of the Holocaust and its unique tragedy for Jews.
For the rabbi, the deep-thought motivations or, if you prefer, manipulations, are not all that important. Marc Schneier sees progress—that is, slow progress, which he says is much better than none at all. v
Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at email@example.com.