The Zionist state is proving to be a divisive issue at the religious conference that the Saudi monarch has convened in Madrid.
The conference, the theme of which is interfaith dialogue, is an effort by the Saudi monarch to foster more cordial relations between imams in his country and Christian and Jewish religious leaders in the West. The conference is also drawing notice because Abdullah, whose kingdom includes the sites of Islam's two holiest places, denounced religious extremism during his address on Wednesday to the Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, and Jewish leaders who are participating in the conference.
Abdullah left Spain after opening the conference and is currently in Morocco. In an apparent effort to keep the Israel-Palestine issue from taking center stage, the Saudis did not include a single Palestinian Arab Muslim leader among the approximately 200 religious figures in attendance, conference participants say. And the one Israeli rabbi in attendance is listed on the program material as an American.
But after a day's worth of speeches by Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu leaders, in the middle of the fourth two-hour conference session, a government official from the United Arab Emirates urged Muslim leaders to avoid the company of Zionists.
"We have to distinguish between Judaism and Zionism," the official, Izzeddin Mustafa Ibrahim, who is listed on the program as an adviser on cultural affairs to the president of the U.A.E., said. "Zionism is a political system. Judaism is a religion."
He continued: "I can speak to pacifists but not bellicists, who are in favor of war."
Mr. Ibrahim, a Muslim scholar of Christianity who said he has met with three popes in the interests of Christian-Muslim relations, then continued: "I have only one minute left," referring to the amount of speaking time allotted to him, and finished off his statements with a broad appeal to begin a "Judaic and Islamic dialogue."
"I believe it has to start," Mr. Ibrahim said, referring to such a dialogue.
A New York rabbi, Marc Schneier, then took the lectern but did not directly respond to Mr. Ibrahim's statements about Zionism. He spoke of outreach efforts in North America between imams and rabbis.
In an interview outside the conference room, however, another New York rabbi denounced Mr. Ibrahim's remarks "as the same old rhetoric that has led to more hatred and the building of a wall between the Jews and the Muslims for the last 60 years."
"Being anti-Zionist is the new canard for being an anti-Semite," the rabbi, Jay Rosenbaum of Temple Israel in Lawrence, N.Y., said.
Later, Marc Schneier spoke with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency about Ibrahim's comment. Israel is not a political issue, Schneier told JTA. If you want to understand Judaism, then you need to understand that Israel is a core issue of our religion.
The emphasis on Israel represents a shift for Schneier, who has launched several initiatives for partnership with American Muslims, including a summit last year of rabbis and imams and a twinning program between synagogues and mosques scheduled for November. Schneier had previously tried, with mixed results, to keep Israel out of the discussion with Muslim leaders.
I believe it's an evolution in the process, Schneier said. I believe there is enough of a foundation to now bring this to the next level, in terms of tackling what I refer to as the elephant in the room. I think it has become crystal clear to me that those who are engaged in interreligious dialogue, the Jewish community, must express our support and our connection to the State of Israel as being a core religious issue.
Mr. Ibrahim's comment - "Zionism is a political system. Judaism is a religion." - is curiously reminiscent of the text of the new billboard ad placed by our organization.
We must give Mr. Ibrahim credit for putting his finger on something that most Americans, both Jews and gentiles, have trouble understanding. He needed no billboard to explain it to him.
The Saudi conference gives Jews an historic opportunity to affirm this separation between Judaism and Zionism in order to improve Jewish-Muslim relations. The problem is that people like the "rabbis" quoted in the above article continue to insist on using the venerable Jewish religion as a shield for their Zionist agenda, thus foiling attempts at peaceful interreligious dialogue.
And it is the founding of the Zionist state that has "led to more hatred and the building of a wall between the Jews and the Muslims for the last 60 years".