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Imam Omer +
Rabbi Benjamin

“It does not have to be this way!” New hope for peace at home – and in the Middle East – from two men who agree: “The land itself belongs to God.”

Benjamin Scolnic is Jewish.  Omer Salem is Muslim. Now that you know this central fact of each man’s life, you also know how to fill in the rest of the story, right?

Wrong. Contrary to all the stereotypes, these two share a collegial, respectful, fascinating relationship that could teach us something profound about the way forward in the U.S. today.

These two are the real deal!  They write things with titles like “The Road Map to a Culture of Peace in the Middle East” and “Implementing a Workable Two-State Solution.” And they are well-schooled in navigating many tricky differences that exist on the road to more sustainable peace in the Middle East – and in their own home country. As a leader at the same synagogue for 35 years, Rabbi Scolnic acknowledges that “I know how hard communication with others is [even] when we agree with each other!”

Learn from these pro’s how to talk, even when you disagree about something as small as, say, World Peace!

 
  
  

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Meet Omer Salem.

Omer is a doctor, an honest-and-bold-and-provocative scholar (author of 3 books and ten scholarly articles), and a self-described “blessed,” and “god-fearing” Imam, Sheikh, Ustaz (trained in Islam and Islamic law) and (surprise!), a Zionist sympathizer.

Rabbi Ben on Omer.  Omer has found himself but few have found him. Omer is an enlightened Muslim scholar who has taken an unusual and difficult path without much support from anyone. He thinks so out-of-the-box that people sometimes react negatively because they don’t understand what he is trying to say. He is also often described as intelligent, ingenious, and kind.

Meet Benjamin Scolnic.

Rabbi Scolnic is a Jewish “Pulpit Rabbi” an “Enlightened Bible-reader” and a “socially liberal democrat” – self-described as a “family person” and “people-lover” and “punster” (in no particular order) – not to mention a serious author (no joke, of eleven books and ninety scholarly articles! Are these guys having some kind of a competition!?)

Omer on Rabbi Ben. Rabbi Scolnic is kind, but also honest and not afraid to speak his mind. He is a diligent scholar and sincere religious leader – inspiring a congregation in Hamden, Connecticut where I had the privilege to give a talk about Islam. He is unafraid to collaborate on joint projects with both his friends and detractors.

A Little More About Omer & Rabbi Ben’s Unorthodox Friendship. In the words of Rabbi Scolnic, “I wish that I could say that Omer read one of my books and was so impressed that he looked me up. Actually, he lived in my area and walked into my synagogue after services and we connected immediately.”  As Omer clarifies, he took the initiative to visit the synagogue that day to gift the Rabbi a copy of his new book on the Holy Land (Israel-Palestine): “He not only welcomed the effort, but he invited me to give a well-attended talk at his congregation. I later invited him and to give a talk at a masjid where I worship.”

Rather than come alone, Rabbi Scolnic “came to the masjid with an entourage of twelve Jews” who were “warmly welcomed by the Muslim congregation.” [Omer later admitted, though, “I have experienced difficulties from conservative / adamant Muslims because of reaching out to Jews.”]

And that, as you could say, was just the beginning of their story.  Since that time, they’ve spoken at length, and had fun opportunities to co-author material that invites an opening of hearts in both directions (including “Does God Speak in one Voice?” in the Jerusalem Post).

The differences between these men extend beyond just the religious realm – touching on some of the difficult socio-political questions facing the U.S..  When it comes to issues of gender and sexuality, for instance, they do not see eye to eye – but “disagree with respect.” As the Rabbi notes, “I am quite happy to talk about such things but i insist on civility and respect for other opinions.”

Their Talk: “It does not have to be this way: A conversation with an Imam and a Rabbi that might just leave you a little more optimistic about humanity.”  

They write, “Our world and our society are so divided, so angry. Nobody knows how to talk across significant divides. Exactly what we need is to learn how to talk to each other with respect, compassion and even humor. The theme here is showing that we can talk, that there is commonality, that our humanity unites us.”

When it comes to workshops or lunch discussions, you’ve got some good options to choose from here! (campus visits could involve some or all of what follows, depending on the length of the visit). Tentative titles and themes follow, in their own words:

  1. “Do the Bible and the Koran preach love, or hate?”

Many Muslims today are taught to hate Israel – and believe that the heart of the modern Jewish-Muslim debacle is The United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine and the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. They are informed that Israel is a pariah state that should be eliminated peacefully or by force if necessary.

In a close reading of the Torah and the Quran we find that both Islam and Judaism recognize that the land itself belongs to God. It is important to understand that historically, Islam did not see itself as supplanting – or abrogating – or replacing Judaism or Christianity but rather as supporting many of their central themes and precepts while seeking some refinement in their viewpoints.

The patriarch Abraham is a central figure in Islam and his story could serve as a possible way to bridge the large gaps between all three religions.

  1. “Is the Holy Land holy? To whom? / Can we make the Holy Land into a land that is truly holy?”

Or “Who should rule the Holy Land? Muslim and Jewish perspective of war and peace in the Holy Land.”

Or “The Holy Land between Islam and Judaism prospects for peace in the Middle East.”

Historically, Muslims and Jews had much better relations than they have today. Muslims and Jews lived in relative harmony and had significant areas of collaboration and cooperation. As a testimony to that, the only European country to end WWII with more Jews than at the beginning of the war is Albania—a Muslim majority country. Jews also had their golden years when Muslims ruled in Spain for almost 700 years. We are also told that the Islamic world, which covers a land mass (three times the size of the US) from Morocco in the west to Indonesia in the east never experienced a pogrom or a holocaust akin to what Jews experienced in Christian Europe. In general, Jews historically were protected by Muslims as they were seeking shelter in Muslim controlled land when Christians were hunting to slaughter the Jews.

None of this gets much attention today.  

This is not to say that Jewish Muslim relations were amicable throughout the Muslim world or during the fourteenth-century history of Islam. But, it is to say that Jews experienced much less expulsions, atrocities or murder on the hands of Muslims than they ever did on the hands of Christians. According to a study by a Zionist Jew, for every Jew murdered by a Muslim, twenty-two Jews were murdered by a Christian. (Of course, one could argue that those who murdered Jews are not true Muslims or true Christians).

Nevertheless, the atrocities took place and unless we treat the causes of such atrocities, history is doomed to repeat itself.

  1. “Can we talk? A Muslim scholar and a Rabbi talk about the issues.”

Or “What unites us and what separates us? A Muslim scholar and a Rabbi talk about the issues.”

Or  “The Bible and the Koran: are they the same kind of texts?”

Or “A Muslim Scholar and a Rabbi read Genesis together”

The status of Israel has become a pivotal issue in all talks about the Middle East. Israel’s legitimacy rests, not just on United Nations resolutions or Zionist aspirations, but, for many, on Biblical narratives and the historical connections of Jews with the Holy Land. A minority of Muslims find justification for the Zionist enterprise equally in the Bible and the Qur’an and believe that the Qur’an offers divine sanction for the establishment of a Jewish state in southern Syria. However, the majority cite other Qur’anic verses and passages from the Hadith (purported records of the Prophet Muhammad’s actions and sayings), stating the exact opposite. This second, negative attitude toward Jews is expressed in sacred texts and in the body of Shari’a (Islamic law) where Jews, like all non-Muslims, are assigned a status that does not permit their becoming rulers over Muslims or over Muslim territory.

Traditionally, this has not been an issue. Under the different Muslim empires, Jews were kept firmly in their place and represented no sort of threat to the ruling order. It is only in the modern period that this has become a burning issue. Thus, the transition from the Ottoman Empire to the British Mandate to modern Israel has been as much a religious as a political clash. The Arab onslaught of 1948, by Zionists, was religiously motivated, as is modern opposition to Israel by Islamist groups.

According to “The Covenant of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas),” Aug. 18, 1988. Commonly known as “The Hamas charter” Palestine is an Islamic Waqf consecrated for future generations until Judgment Day.” A waqf is a religious endowment bestowed by God. Consequently, “neither it, nor any part of it, should be squandered: Neither it, nor any part of it, should be given up. Neither a single Arab country nor all Arab countries, neither any king or president, nor all the kings and presidents, neither any organization nor all of them, be they Palestinian or Arab, possess the right to do that. Palestine is an Islamic Waqf land consecrated for Muslim generations until Judgment Day. The view by Hamas is shared by the majority of Muslims world wide.

Militant Islamic groups, like Hamas, teaches young Muslims that to have peace Jews must convert to Islam or agree to live under Islamic rule in Palestine. To live under Islamic rule, Jews must pay Jizya, be expelled or killed.

Such teachings are diametrically opposed by the Zionist project in Palestine. The Zionists in Palestine teach their young that Jews have the right not only to live in Palestine but to rule over all inhabitants of Palestine. Also, to Zionists, there is no such thing as Palestine. The land of Palestine, to a Zionist, is the Eretz Israel; always was and always will be Eretz Israel. The Arabs are foreigners living in Eretz Israel. The Zionist project in Palestine is supported by a large segment of evangelical Christianity. Evangelical Christians do not support Jews because they share the Jewish theology or creed, they support Jews because in their books, supporting Jews in Palestine means that Jesus will come back to earth and slaughter all Jews in Palestine, except the one hundred forty-four thousand Jews who will convert to Christianity.

We believe there will be no peace in Palestine (Israel) until the above views are reconciled. Each side is hoping for peace. However, peace is elusive as long as such teachings exist. How do we reconcile the views of Hamas and Zionism? Can the Holy Land be ruled by a committee that include all three Abrahamic religions?

We would like for the discussion to be a THEOLOGICAL one—no matter the various political solutions, no matter the question of justice or injustice. In Islam, thecall for prayer five-times a day says (Allahu Akbar), which means God is Greater. God is greater than all creatures and creation including all governments and monarchies.

For both religions – Torah and Quran – agree that Qom Mousa could and should live in the holy land. So, the question is not about who gets to live in the holy land, but, who should rule the holy land? Who does G-d or Allah desire to rule the Holy Land?  what does G-d or Allah ask of us today with respect to ruling the Holy Land? 

1) If God has provided ‘no answer’ on this question, then it is up to humans—and since G-d or Allah is quiet on the subject we humans CANNOT speak for G-d or Allah.  It then becomes an ethical decision based on the morals of our religions.  

2) However, if G-d or Allah is speaking clearly on that question, we believers are bound to follow that divine desire.  How to do it is, of course, our problem, but not a question about the undergirding divine mandate.

The time-space continuum to consider: Omer is in New York. Rabbi Ben is in Connecticut.  Even though they’re both busier than you can imagine…they’ll make time to come visit YOU!  We can’t help but think any university would be powerfully impacted (the good kind of impact!) by having these two on their campus.

What the pair would need to come to your school:  Travel + $2000 for each participant.

They’d especially enjoy engaging at universities allowing engagements with students from both a Hillel Jewish center and MSA Islamic center – nice, but not required!

Contact them.

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Benjamin Scolnic | Rabbi
Temple Beth Sholom
Dr. Omer Salem | Fellow
Foundation for Religious Diplomacy