Dec. 2, 2004
The day the imams went to shul

By URIEL HEILMAN
NEW YORK

It's not every day that a group of Muslim clerics from Arab countries goes to a Conservative rabbinical school to study Torah.

But on Tuesday, the imams went to shul.

They were joined by several priests, academics, and government officials from Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia as part of an interfaith trip to New York organized by the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development. They met Tuesday morning with rabbis from the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative movement's rabbinical school, and later visited the Drisha Institute, a women's educational center for Jewish studies, where they participated in a beit midrash study program led by an Orthodox rabbi.

"This is the first time I met any religious Jews," said Ali Abed Alaish Ali Alamad, an assistant to the chief justice of Jordan's supreme court, who came with his boss on what was his first trip to the United States.

Alamad, who said his parents lived in Jaffa before fleeing to Jordan in 1948 during Israel's War of Independence, said he did not expect any trouble back home for meeting with Jews or Israelis.

"I told my friends before coming here that I come to a conference to respect religion," Alamad said.

Organized by Stephen P. Cohen, founder of the peace institute and a national scholar at the Israel Policy Forum, the delegation was slated to spend the week in New York and Boston meeting with Christian, Muslim and Jewish religious leaders, academics and the U.S. representative to the United Nations, John Danforth. There were no meetings scheduled with any Israelis.

After New York, the group was slated to go to Boston, where their visit was to include a stop at Harvard University's Hillel building on Shabbat morning for worship.

The meetings with Jews on Tuesday were filled with pledges of brotherhood and repetition of the need to step up dialogue efforts and not let religious or political extremists dictate the agenda of the Middle East or interfaith efforts worldwide.

"We have to send a message to the world-not just Israelis and Palestinians," said Ambassador Sallama Mahmoud Shaker, an official in Egypt's Foreign Ministry. "It has to be from us to the very young boys and girls in school."

Rabbi William Lebeau, dean of the rabbinical school at JTS, said the meetings this week were only the beginning. "We need to keep up this dialogue," he said before a luncheon of tuna-fish wraps and egg salad arranged for the group and a few JTS students.

Outside the carefully orchestrated sessions with JTS officials and Orthodox rabbis and students at Drisha, many of the Arab visitors laid the blame for extremism and the lack of peace in the Middle East on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

"Basically, the policy of Sharon is the most enemy of the Jews and us," said Hamid bin Ahmad Al-Rifaie, a Saudi scientist and assistant secretary general of the World Muslim Congress.

When asked about blood libels against Jews in Saudi media, which have appeared as cartoons in state media and as films on Saudi television depicting Jews using Christian and Muslim blood for ritual purposes, Rifaie laughed and said, "This is true."

He explained that it is true as metaphor. "This is Arabic language," he said. "There is a deeper meaning: You drink my blood-you shed my blood."

Rifaie also denied the prevalence in Saudi Arabia of Wahhabism, the Islamic creed practiced in the Saudi kingdom, which has been described as the Muslim equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan. "There is nothing in Saudi Arabia that is so-called Wahhabism," he said.

"We must be as brothers and as one family," said Hamdi Moh'd Murad Murad, professor of Islamic Sharia at Balqaa University, in Jordan. "We are from the same basics and the same origins."

He allowed that there are some who preach versions of Islam that do not espouse the notion of brotherhood but said they were exceptions.

"Maybe there are some opinions by some learners, but they do not represent the people generally," Murad said. "There is a misunderstanding and unjust understanding if someone says for example that Osama bin Laden is translating Islamic opinions. It is not another opinion in Islam. It is outside of Islam."

Murad did not explain how this squared with broad popular support for Osama bin Laden in the so-called Arab street.

The group mostly steered clear of political issues during the official programs, talking instead of the need to work together to combat poverty, improve dialogue efforts and correct the public misrepresentation of their respective religions in their respective countries.

But politics inevitably seeped in-which was fine, said Sheikh Izzeddin Al-Tamimi, chief justice of Jordan's supreme court.

"In meetings like this, religious objectives mix with political objectives," he said. The goal, he added, is "to know each other so they know what thoughts we carry in our minds and hearts-so we know them and they know us."