For the first time in my career of lecture tours in the U.S., I spoke in a mosque.

It happened on this past Sunday at the Islamic Center of Southern California in Los Angeles, headed by Dr. Mahmoud Abdel Based. Shortly before 1 PM prayers, I addressed a group of about 50 worshippers. I had been asked to speak about a journey I took, as a religious Israeli Jew, into Islam and Christianity in the late 1990s, the subject of a book I published shortly afterward, called At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden. The event was initiated and sponsored by my friends at the Pacifica Institute, an interfaith organization sponsored by the Turkish Muslim Gulen movement.

The Islamic Center is known in Los Angeles for its interfaith outreach. Jews are welcome guests there. Still, my hosts understood that my appearance would be different. This time an Israeli would be speaking. And the implicit subject was the Middle East conflict.

  • Click here to watch a video of Yossi’s talk at the Islamic Center of Southern California.

My purpose in coming to the mosque was to two-fold. First, to help nurture a religious language for peacemaking. Left entirely in the hands of secular elites on both sides, the peace process will continue to lack the religious legitimacy crucial in the Middle East. This was a lesson I learned from my late teacher and friend, Rabbi Menachem Froman, Israel’s leading reconciliation activist with Islam.

My second purpose for speaking in the mosque was to encourage the Muslim-Jewish dialogue to take the next step beyond establishing the commonalities of our faith traditions and confront the hard questions of legitimacy. Not to convince each other of our political positions but to open hearts and begin the process of listening to each other’s narratives.

And so, after speaking about what I’d learned of the spiritual power and beauty of Islam in my journey into mosques in the Holy Land, I turned to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

For both sides, I said, this is a conflict, about intangibles – existential fears, the right to define oneself as a people.

The Jewish return home, I explained, was the result of a convergence of two factors: existential need and spiritual longing for the land of Israel. So far, I said, Muslims have heard only the story of Jewish existential need. We Jews have not done a very good job in telling the other story of our spiritual longings. How there is no Judaism without the Jewish attachment to its ancient homeland.

But in returning home, I continued, we found another people with a parallel claim to the land. The Jews didn’t return home in order to deny another people its sense of home. We had no intention of causing the dispossession of the Palestinians, but that is what resulted. We need to confront the the human tragedy of the Palestinians, a people shattered into fragments – scattered in a worldwide Diaspora beyond the Middle East, in refugee camps in Arab countries, under occupation in the territories, with the final group possessing an uneasy Israeli citizenship.

What I need from my Muslim brothers and sisters, I continued, is recognition of my indigenousness in the land, that the Jews are not one more wave of colonialist invader but a native people returning home.

Many American Jews, I noted, had in recent years expressed increasing sensitivity to the Palestinian narrative. Were American Muslims ready to undergo a similar process of expanding their understanding of the conflict and begin to grapple with the question of Israel’s legitimacy?

The audience questions and comments – not only Jewish audiences, it turns out, confuse comments for questions – were respectful and heartfelt. A Palestinian woman asked me why Jews, Muslims and Christians couldn’t live together – implicitly challenging the notion of a Jewish state. I told her that I live in a neighborhood in Jerusalem where Muslims, Christians and Jews are neighbors, but that as a Jew I need there to be one part, however small, of this planet where the Jews are the majority and the sovereign space is measured in Jewish time – not at the expense of Palestinian self-determination but parallel to it.

My friend, David Suissa, president of the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and present at the talk, noted to general appreciation that, just as we are pleased as parents when our children get along with each other, God too must be pleased by what we are doing here today.

My book about my journey into the faiths of my neighbors was published in 2001, at the height of the second intifada. For years afterward I engaged in Muslim-Jewish dialogue only intermittently. It was, quite simply, too painful, Like most Israelis I was convinced that, because Israel had said yes to a Palestinian state and the Palestinian national movement had launched four years of suicide bombings, the moral onus had shifted and now Palestinian leaders needed to convince Israelis like me who supported a two-state solution in principle that we would get real peace and even more important, legitimacy, in return. I still believe that today.

But now I am ready to immerse again in the dialogue effort. That’s because, in the last few years, I have found Muslim partners, both in the U.S, and among Palestinian citizens of Israel, keen on engaging Jews in the hard work of creating place for each other’s narratives within our own communities. My friend, Imam Abdullah Antepli, the Muslim chaplain at Duke, has been tirelessly seeking within his own community partners for serious dialogue with Israelis and American Jews. Abdullah has challenged me to do no less on my side.

Especially now, with the Middle East imploding, Jews need to navigate between threat and possibility. Being vigilant against danger doesn’t preclude an openness toward those willing to engage us in the process of reconciliation. As I was reminded in the Islamic Center of Southern California, we must not allow wariness to cause us to miss openings for dialogue.

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