A Dialogue as a First Step Towards Understanding
by Judea Pearl

January 18, 2004

 

Abraham, our biblical patriarch, was a master of peace making. The first thing he does as a committed mono-theist is to initiate a risky dialogue. Having barely recovered from his circumcision, he rushes over to greet three total strangers and says: “Sirs, if I have deserved your favor, do not pass by my humble self without a visit. (Genesis, 18:3)

 

My son, Daniel, was a dialogue maker too, and talking to strangers was his hobby, vocation, mission and ideology. As a journalist, he talked to peasants and rulers, Rabbis and Mullahs, carpet weavers and pearl divers — he talked to strangers the world over and turned them into friends.

 

Tragically, the last strangers he met were of a different breed — they knew no talking. Next month will cross the second anniversary of his murder in the hand of people who loathed all that he represented: truth, humanity, humor, dialogue, respect for others and, of course, Jewishness.

 

Daniel’s magic as a dialogue maker continues to connect people today, albeit by inspiration. The current series of public dialogues that my friend, professor Akbar Ahmed and I are conducting is one manifestation of Daniel’s magic and inspiration.

 

A dialogue is a statement of mutual respect, openness to listen and, above all, shared values. Fortified by respect, friendship and attention, an honest dialogue breeds courage to admit misconceptions and willingness to air hard questions.

 

In Pittsburgh, we have discussed several misconceptions that Westerners normally have about Islam, as well as misconceptions that Muslims have about Jews. For instance, Westerners misconceive the Quran to be incompatible with modern standards of tolerance and human rights, while Muslims misconceive Jews to be their enemies. In Philadelphia, as well as other cities that we will be visiting in the near future, I would like to address some hard questions that Muslims ask about Jews, especially about their relationship with Israel.

 

Muslims often ask why American Jews, the foremost champions of the separation of religion and state, identify so strongly with one political entity — the state of Israel. One immediate answer is, of course, that Jews are concerned for the safety and physical survival of five millions Jewish refugees now living in Israel, many of whom are close relatives of Jews living in America. But there is a deeper answer here, which is essential for resolving many misunderstandings between Jews and Muslims: Jewishness, owed to its unique and turbulent history, is more than just a religion.

 

For a Jew, ancestry, religion, history, country, culture, tradition, nationhood and ethnicity are inseparably interrelated. Historical narratives and the ancient landscape in which they unfolded are as much part of the Jewish experience as are beliefs in a supervisory deity or speculations about the hereafter. A revealing account of the complex ways modern Jews define themselves is presented in the anthology “I am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl,” published this month.

 

This meta-religious characterization of Jews entails an unparalleled intellectual connection to the Holy Land, the birthplace of Jewish history. The connection bears some resemblance to that which Muslims feel toward Mecca, but it is further reinforced and intensified by national ties because, unlike Islam, the Jewish religion was not written with the intention of being transported to other nations or other lands. (Proselytizing is discouraged in Judaism). It was written specifically for the Jewish nation, and meant to be practiced specifically in the land where this nation was born and shaped.

 

For example, a third of the Mishna, or Jewish law, makes sense only in the context of the land of the bible. The daily prayers, likewise, have reminded Jews three times each day, for two millenia, of their inevitable return, as a free nation, to that biblical land.

 

As a result, the collective memories and aspirations of the Jewish people today are expressed in language and imagery that are utterly dependent on this one land. To take away that land from the consciousness of a Jew would thus amount to taking away hadith, or the traditions of the prophet Mohammad, from the teachings of Islam — the landscape has become the scripture.

 

Independent of their understandable sympathy for Palestinians’ claims on that same land, Muslims will find it quite illuminating to study the anatomy and history of the Jewish love affair with the land of Abraham. The result of such study would be reassuring to most Muslims. It would refute, for example, the theory that Jews’ affinity to Israel, as well as the re-establishment of Israel itself, are motivated by anti-Islamic sentiments. Quite the contrary. Early Zionists, as well as the majority of Israelis today were secular, and were thus totally neutral vis-a-vis the religions practiced by their neighbors. From this secular perspective, common ancestry, common semitic roots, shared memories of golden ages and shared humanistic values should have the capacity to offset differences in language and religion.

 

Unfortunately, many Jews today look with bewilderment at how differences in religion are exploited to poison the vast grounds that we share with our Abrahamic cousins.

 

An honest dialogue breeds courage to communicate sensitivities. The sense of besiegement and estrangement that Muslims feel in post 9/11 world is one such sensitivity. The attachment and concern that Jews feel toward Israel is another.

 

Only by recognizing and respecting each other’s sensitivities can trust be built and accommodation achieved. I am hopeful that our meeting in Philadelphia will serve as an example of how such sensitivities can be accommodated within the mind-sets of our respective communities.


Professor Judea Pearl is the president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation (www.danielpearl.org) and editor of “I am Jewish” (2004). (http://www.jewishlights.com/books/837.html)