About a month ago, I was invited to speak at the first annual dinner of the Pennsylvania chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), evidently because I had taken part in a pray-in to protest against the exclusion of a group of imams from flying -- and maybe because I also knew and was known by the head of the Pennsylvania and the Florida chapters.
I know them for intelligent, peaceful people, bringing a wise and compassionate understanding of Islam to work for justice and peace in America. So I readily said Yes.
Since I knew little about National CAIR, I did some reading - especially of a major article in the NY Times on ways they were being harassed, often by right-wing organizations in the Jewish community who claimed they were associated with terrorists. But the article made clear that CAIR works with the Federal government, is respected by Federal law-enforcement agencies, and speaks out strongly for civil liberties and human rights. Not a terrorist profile. The whole article is here.
My careful reading of the Times article and my browsing on their Website strongly indicated that attacks on CAIR have little or no substance and are based on the kind of innuendo and strings of X to Y to Z to A that made infamous the names of Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn.
Just as I was being invited to speak, so was Congressman (and former Admiral) Joe Sestak, newly elected to Congress from a suburban Philadelphia district on a strong antiwar platform. He accepted.
And then some Jews in his congressional district complained. They urged him to renege.
So I not only said yes to my own speaking, I wrote encouraging Congressman Sestak to continue with the courage and good sense he had already shown in treating Philadelphia CAIR and its members as full members and participants in the democratic process, to be honored by him as well as to honor him.
Sestak did speak, both affirming the Muslim presence and activism in America and urging some changes in CAIR's positions. He received a standing ovation.
AND there was a protest band of three or four picketers, all Jewish, outside the hall, angry that Sestak was speaking. A larger number of Jews attended as supporters, including another rabbi besides me; and there was a supportive letter from one additional rabbi in the printed program, and a supportive ad from a smallish activist Jewish organization, Jewish Voice for Peace.
I spoke as a religious Jew committed to peace between Israel and Palestine and to peace between the United States and the Muslim world -- speaking to religious Muslims who strongly applauded my call for renewed dedication to a peaceful two-state Israel-Palestinian peace settlement. They strongly applauded my remarks about the need for each single one of us members of the family of Abraham to feel personally wounded when any member of the family kills another.
Former Ambassador Ed Peck gave the keynote address. Some of his family were murdered in the Holocaust. Governor Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania gave a warm and warmly received speech. He is himself Jewish and has excellent relations with both the Jewish and Muslim communities in Philadelphia.
Yet the article that appeared next day in the Philadelphia Inquirer, on the lead space in the Metropolitan section, spun the event into a seeming collision between the Jewish community and CAIR. None of the supportive Jewish presences -- people, speeches, program book -- were reported in the article. Rendell's presence was barely mentioned. Peck was not mentioned at all.
And while the article reported the utterly uncorroborated assertions by two local Jews that CAIR "has connections to terrorists," it did not report that in fact CAIR speaks out strongly against terrorist attacks by Muslims.
Feeling that this kind of reporting gives credence to McCarthyesque lies, I wrote a Letter to the Editor. It was published, albeit with perhaps the most important piece missing - the one about McCarthyesque lies.
Yet this is perhaps the most important fact about the whole affair. For this event does not, unfortunately, stand alone. Recently, in California, Senator Barbara Boxer "rescinded" an award for active democratic citizenship she had given to a CAIR worker, after pressure from some limited parts pf the Jewish community. When there was a rousing protest against her rescinding the award, she retreated into silence.
Why is this sort of thing happening?
Especially since the Israeli government's 2006 invasion of Lebanon and its abject failure, especially since the discovery that if military force is the only choice the Israeli government makes as a way to protect Israel, then Israel's heartland cities like Haifa can come under attack - there is a spreading sense of dislocation, earthquake, panic among the officials of some American Jewish institutions. Their assumptions of invulnerability begin to unravel.
One response might be to rethink the assumption that military domination is the wisest path to security. But most of them have found it easier, at least in the short run, to circle the military wagons and press on with more of the same.
Slander is a quasi-military response if in fact you cannot use outright violence (and American Jewish institutions, short perhaps of the Jewish Defense League and its heirs, cannot). Slander is intended to terrorize at the political and psychological level, to make people shut up. (In the old Jewish phrase, "l'havdil" - let's be clear this is not the same thing as the terrorism of blowing up a pizzeria.)
If the troubling folks shut up, maybe the earthquake of change will go away.
For some in the official Jewish institutional structure, it means attacking progressive Jews as enablers of anti-Sermitism. For others, it means attacking not only CAIR -a Muslim group that condemns the use of terrorism by Muslims - but also any American politician who treats CAIR or other Muslim groups or for that matter the newly bubbling Jewish peace groups as legitimate parts of the democratic process.
For Jewish Republicans, that attempt at shutting people up has the added benefit of trying to frighten and defeat some politicians who (like Congressman Sestak) oppose the Iraq war in part because they have a broader view of how to deal with the Middle East.
Of course I am not saying that I always agree with CAIR, or that Muslims and Jews should only listen to each other and encourage each other. We must also argue, debate, dialogue, wrestle with each other -- in both directions.
For instance: CAIR strongly condemns terrorist actions, but not whole organizations. To many American Jews, this unwillingness to make a blanket condemnation of Hamas or Hezbollah seems contradictory, if it really opposes terrorism -- because most US Jews, and the US Government, define Hezbollah and Hamas as simply terrorist groups.
But CAIR points to the complex reality in which both groups are simultaneously woven of strands that include social-service organizations with schools and medical clinics, etc.; political parties; friendship groups and ethno-religious communities; police forces; and military / terrorist agents. Much of the non-military parts of this complex, in both organizations, meets real needs on the ground, and much of it is woven into Palestinian or Lebanese society.
To me this view roused some interesting echoes of my own criticisms of parts of the so-called Left that attack Israel - the whole society or its whole government - instead of condemning specific aggressive and oppressive policies and actions of the Israeli government.
There will be enormous value in pursuing such discussions with each other, once more learning deeply what it means to stand in the shoes of "the Other," dancing in the quaking circle of reality.
So I am hopeful that the CAIR dinner was a spark of light. Far from showing irreparable conflict between the Jewish community and CAIR, in fact the dinner showed that a seriously peace-committed part of the Jewish community can work with a seriously peace-committed part of the Muslim community, despite the existence of some violence-supportive people in both communities.
That is the truthful and the important story.
And that is the future we need to create.