UCLA professor Judea Pearl is the
winner of Benjamin Franklin Medal in Computers and Cognitive Science,
a special award of Philadelphia's Franklin Institute, in recognition of his achievements
creating the first general algorithms for computing and reasoning with uncertain evidence, allowing computers to uncover associations and causal connections hidden within millions of observations. His work has had a profound impact on artificial intelligence and statistics, and on the application
of these fields to a wide range of problems in science and engineering. (Franklin Institute)
Paving The Path To Dialogue
Understanding between Muslims and Jews.
-- Judea Pearl
First came an "Open Letter From Muslims to Jews," signed by dozens of
leading Muslim scholars and intellectuals in the West, calling for "Peace,
Dialogue and Understanding Between Muslims and Jews."
The letter, which was initiated by American University professor Akbar Ahmed
and formally presented by Oxford University professor Tariq Ramadan at
Cambridge, England, stresses the Quranic acceptance of Jews and Muslims as
one nation (Ummah); elaborates on commonalities of contemporary beliefs,
rituals and values; celebrates shared memories of positive historical
encounters; and ends with a call for "concrete outcomes in Muslim-Jewish
relations in different parts of our shared world."
Second came an impassioned plea from the Saudi King Abdullah, for a dialogue
among Muslims, Christians and Jews, the first such proposal from the
custodian of Islam's holiest shrines and a nation that bans non-Muslim
religious services and symbols. Abdullah said that Saudi Arabia's top
clerics have given him the green light to hold meetings with "our brothers"
in Christianity and Judaism, "so we can agree on something that guarantees
the preservation of humanity against those who tamper with ethics, family
systems and honesty."
Israel's newspaper Yediot Ahronot
had subsequently reported on March 30,
based on a phone call from the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, that Israeli
rabbis will soon be invited to an interfaith conference initiated by the
The official Jewish response to these proposals has been wholeheartedly
enthusiastic. Responding to the Muslim letter, the International Jewish
Committee for Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC), an umbrella committee
representing major Jewish organizations, has issued a welcoming call for
dialogue between Muslims and Jews titled, "Seek Peace and Pursue It," and
IJCIC's chair, Rabbi David Rosen, encouraged Muslims to develop the dialogue
"in the pursuit of a world made better through our efforts."
As to King Abdullah's proposal, my understanding is that all chief rabbis in
Israel, and there are many of them, are currently busy packing for an
adventurous trip to the Arabian Peninsula.
Oddly, when I was asked by the initiative organizers to respond to the
Muslim letter, I felt somewhat reluctant; it seems that all the media
excitement caused me to take a sober look at the enterprise of Jewish-Muslim
dialogue, with which I have been involved for almost five years.
My first thought landed of course on the positive symbolic value of having a
visible dialogue going, regardless of its content. I therefore commended the
authors for opening a new channel of communication between Jews and Muslims,
and endorsed the letter as "a welcome first step toward the goals of peace,
understanding and mutual respect."
But then I asked myself, how would an average Jewish reader react to the
content of the letter? It became clear that the letter would evoke two
immediate reservations, if not objections: First, it is totally void of
self-criticism and, second, it skirts the thorniest of all issues: Israel's
right to exist.
The question then became not whether a dialogue is a good thing to have
(this I take as an axiom), but whether unconditional embracing of an
invitation based on certain premises constitutes a tacit endorsement of
those premises, with which one may disagree: In our case, the two premises
in question are, first, that Islam is in no need for reform or introspection
because it is already a pluralistic, nonexpansionist, Jew-respecting,
violence-minimizing and human-rights-protecting religion and, second, that
peace can somehow be achieved without Muslim acceptance of the legitimacy
and permanency of Israel.
The concept of reform is a sensitive one in conversations with Muslims.
Understandably, no person, let alone a community leader, would engage in an
interfaith discussion only to listen to a sermon on how his or her religion
should be reformed. Reforms, as Jews would surely recall, emerge from
internal debates, not external criticism. Dealing with reform is especially
hard for Muslims, since they are instructed to view the Quran as the final,
perfect and immutable word of God.
In view of these constraints, what the Muslim letter is presenting to us is,
in effect, a progressive reform strategy that we might as well call "stealth
reform," namely, reform cast as reinterpretation of the sacred scriptures.
The strategy invokes a simple recipe of dealing with contradictory texts in
the Quran: texts that conform to accepted norms of modernity are to be
considered central, universal and intentional, while those that deviate from
modern norms are contextualized to specific events in seventh century Arabia
and marginalized from modern discourse.
Before we dismiss this strategy as self-deceptive or disingenuous, we should
be reminded that identical strategy has been used to great advantage in the
Jewish tradition since the time of the Mishnah. Its most explicit expression
is encapsulated in the Talmudic saying:
Kol mah Sh'Talmid vatik atid
l'horot lifnei rabbo, kevar n'emar L'Moshe B'Sinai (Translated: "Whatever a
seasoned scholar is destined to innovate before his master was already
revealed to Moses at Sinai") (Yerushalmi, Pe'ah 2.4). In other words, the
Talmud bestows divine power unto the capacity of the human mind to reason
The secret of this "stealthy" strategy lies in its power to usher in reform
without challenging the divine origin of the scriptures; modern
interpretations, however creative, are given equal chance to compete against
extremist, literalist interpretations that accord universal validity to
morally outdated texts. Stealth reform worked marvels in the Jewish
tradition (e.g. no child was ever stoned for disobeying his parents,
Sanhedrin, 71) and, if it worked in the Muslim world, we would be the last
ones to quibble with its logic.
However, the effectiveness of this strategy depends critically on finding
authoritative spiritual leaders who are willing to implement it in practice
and turn it into the ruling philosophy of religious education. In other
words, progressive interpretations of the Quran would become credible if
sustained and reinforced by educational and jurisprudence institutions such
as, for example, Al Azhar University, in Cairo, the most prestigious center
of Muslim learning in Sunni Islam. Unfortunately, the leaders of these
institutions, including Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, grand imam of Al-Azhar
University, often support literalist interpretations that depict Jews as
despicable, eternal enemies of Islam, and these interpretations are the ones
that are currently gaining momentum in vast areas of the Muslim world.
It seems reasonable therefore to suggest that the Muslim letter would do
more good if sent to Grand Imam Tantawi and other Islamic leaders in the
Middle East who, evidently, have compelling reasons to object to the
conciliatory interpretation espoused in the letter.
The Israeli-Palestinian issue is more subtle. Though the Muslim letter tries
hard to avert controversial topics, it admits nevertheless: "At the core of
the Muslim-Jewish tension lies the Israeli-Palestinian conflict" and
proposes: "A peaceful resolution that will assure mutual respect, prosperity
and security to both Palestinians and Israelis, while allowing the
Palestinian people their rights to self-determination."
Readers familiar with the history of Israel's plight for a two-state
solution would notice immediately the asymmetrical language in which the
proposed resolution is cast. Whereas the rights of the Palestinian people to
self-determination are affirmed explicitly, the rights of Israelis to the
same status of self-determination are left undeclared, vulnerable to future
assaults by enemies of co-existence.
In my response to the letter, I therefore expressed hope that the next phase
of the dialogue "will bring Muslim and Jewish leaders closer toward a
position of symmetry and reciprocity, and boldly acknowledge the historical
rights of both sides to self-determination in two, equally legitimate,
equally indigenous, and equally secured states."
I am thoroughly convinced that such acknowledgment, benign and neutral as it
may sound, would do more for world peace than theological accounts of shared
prophets and common rituals. And if King Abdullah's conference manages to
sprout such acknowledgment we will indeed be facing the dawn of a totally
new era in the Middle East.
What I am still unable to determine, though, is whether entering a dialogue
in response to an asymmetrical invitation has a better chance of restoring
symmetry than insisting on symmetry at the onset. Let us hope that the
Jewish delegation to King Abdullah's dialogue will find some of the answer
Judea Pearl is a professor at UCLA and president of the
Foundation, named after his son. He and his wife Ruth
are editors of
am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words
of Daniel Pearl, winner of the National Jewish Book
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