Arabs and Israelis should not have begun their Madrid negotiations with talk about land or arms or recognition, Rabbi Gary M. Bretton-Granatoor said yesterday. They should have chatted first about religion.
"The failure of the talks in Madrid was that the first agenda item was politics and not greater humanity," Rabbi Bretton-Granatoor said at the biennial convention of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the organizational arm of Reform Judaism in North America.
Rabbi Bretton-Granatoor, director of the union's department of interreligious affairs, had just completed an unusual workshop on Jewish-Muslim relations. The theme of the workshop was that the last 70 years of Middle Eastern conflict run counter to a much longer history of cordiality and shared experience between Jews and Muslims.
If Jews and Muslims -- whom Rabbi Bretton-Granatoor referred to as his "Muslim brothers and sisters" -- began to understand their links in culture, religion and tradition, they might learn to trust one another, he said, and if they cannot agree about the Middle East, they can jointly attack issues of concern closer to home -- education, health care, discrimination.
Lending his voice to that proposition yesterday was Gutbi Ahmed, director of the Muslim World League office to the United Nations and North America. Although hatred divides Muslim and Jew in the Middle East, he said, that ill will need not be "the end of the story," particularly in the West.
The issues of land and statehood in the Middle East, he said, are "irrelevant to us in North America, where there are more Jews living here than in Israel and more Muslims living here than in Palestine."
Dr. Ahmed, who was warmly received by the workshop audience of about 150, said Muslims could learn much from Jews, particularly how to live as a minority in Europe and the United States.
Like Rabbi Bretton-Granatoor, Dr. Ahmed spoke of the deep religious ties between the two peoples. Muslims accept Abraham, Moses, Joseph, David and other Hebrews of the Old Testament as prophets, he said. They have great respect for the Torah, he said, and, most important, share the Jewish notion in "the oneness of God."
"Of all theologies, Muslims feel most comfortable with Jewish theology," Dr. Ahmed said.
He urged the Union of American Hebrew Congregations to endorse the formation of an organization of Muslims and Jews similar to the National Council of Christians and Jews, saying its purpose would be to foster good will, negotiate conflicts and develop educational programs.
Following Dr. Ahmed, Rabbi Martin S. Lawson of San Diego related an example of a successful interchange in his community. Following the outbreak of the Persian Gulf war, he said, an unexploded bomb was found in a San Diego mosque. The discovery prompted religious leaders -- Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Bahais and Hindus -- to meet and discuss ways to reduce the rising hostility in the community.
At the end of the sessions, he said, the group issued a joint declaration urging tolerance at home and persuaded the San Diego school system to start a program to educate children about Islam.
Like the Madrid conference, Rabbi Lawson said, the San Diego sessions began poorly when participants began talking about politics, which led to arguments and accusations. Rabbi Lawson said he quickly ended such discussions, telling participants, "We can't talk about that. That's not why we're here."
Convention delegates from Buffalo, N.Y., Teaneck, N.J., Minneapolis and St. Louis then described some of the efforts in their communities to bring Jews and Muslims together.
A rabbi from Vero Beach, Fla., said that Jews, Christians and Muslims in his area were planning to tour Israel together next year and that his synagogue is helping Muslims build their own mosque.