Wednesday, September 12, 2007

With holidays, a vow for better Jewish, Muslim relations: Boston Globe

With holidays, a vow for better Jewish, Muslim relations
Pledge follows rift surrounding mosque
By Michael Paulson, Boston Globe, September 12, 2007

A group of local Jewish and Muslim leaders have signed a joint statement urging better relations between the two communities, which have suffered a serious rift over each other's response to controversial remarks by onetime leaders of a large mosque under construction in Roxbury.

The cautiously crafted statement, which is being released to coincide with tonight's start of both Rosh Hashana and Ramadan, commits the leaders to "strive to address disagreements and community concerns in ways that promote reconciliation rather than conflict."

That pledge appears to be a response to the mosque dispute, in which the breakdown in relations was so bad that it led to litigation, much of which was dropped in May. The statement also decries "all forms of terrorism, racism, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim prejudice, or any other form of discrimination or stigmatization against any racial, religious, or ethnic group."

The statement includes the signatures of 20 individuals from each faith.

On the Muslim side, it includes the leaders of every prominent local Muslim institution, including five imams. On the Jewish side, where community institutions are under pressure from an Israeli advocacy group called the David Project to be skeptical of the motivations and backgrounds of Muslim leaders, the statement was signed by a number of prominent lay leaders but not by the staff who run mainstream organizations.

Among the Jewish signers are eight former presidents of the Jewish Community Relations Council and Combined Jewish Philanthropies, as well as several prominent business people active in the Jewish community and Rabbi Ronne Friedman of Temple Israel, who had broken off his congregation's partnership with the Muslim community over the mosque controversy. The statement was also signed by the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis, which is sending it to all of its members, and by the Muslim American Society, which is sending it to all area mosques.

The statement is being criticized by the David Project, which cites concerns about the Muslim signers' affiliations. The David Project had been the leading critic of the Islamic Society of Boston's plans to erect a mosque at Roxbury Crossing, asserting that some of the mosque's founding leaders had made remarks that were anti-Semitic or supportive of terrorism. In response to those assertions, the Islamic Society filed a lawsuit in 2005 against the David Project and two media outlets, saying that those allegations were defamatory, but dropped the suit in May after a suit challenging the mosque's construction was also dropped.

David Project president Charles Jacobs, reiterating the assertion that was the central issue in the defamation case, said in an e-mail yesterday: "Regrettably, the evidence that both the leadership of the Islamic Society of Boston and of the Muslim American Society have been supportive of organizations and individuals who themselves support terror, anti-Semitism, and/or hate speech is abundant and continues to grow. We believe that the wiser course is to defer statements of this sort, laudable as they may seem, until the ISB and MAS answers those questions."

But the signers said they thought it was important to start talking now. "The statement calls on leaders and followers in both communities to renounce terrorism and hatred and calls for the building of bridges, and I find it hard to disagree with that," said Rabbi Eric Gurvis, the president of the Board of Rabbis and the rabbi of Temple Shalom in Newton. "Those who point fingers and say, 'You can't trust this one, you can't trust that one,' that's part of why we've got conflict all around the world to start with. At some point, we have to at least start to talk to one another."

M. Bilal Kaleem, executive director of the Muslim American Society's Boston chapter, said the letter was welcome in the Muslim community. He rejected the criticism from the David Project. "In working toward this statement, Muslim leaders and Jewish organizers very much expected that there would be strong attempts by some to hurl accusations in order to sabotage any attempts at dialogue, cooperation, or increasing trust between the two communities," he said. "And, indeed, if there are concerns, we feel that the best way forward to increase trust is for leaders from both communities to regularly meet and dialog and frankly raise with each other any questions they have, in addition to getting to know each other as fellow citizens."

Michael Paulson can be reached at

To read the complete statement, click here
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