Towards Jewish-Muslim Dialogue by Trude Weiss-Rosmarin

Trude Weiss-Rosmarin (1908 – 1989) was a Orthodox Jewish-German-American writer, scholar, and feminist activist. She co-founded, with her husband, the School of the Jewish Woman in New York in 1933, and in 1939 founded the Jewish Spectator, a quarterly magazine, which she edited for 50 years. She was an influential critic of the Christian- Jewish dialogue. She was also a critic of Rabbi Steven Riskin’s first years at LSS, which she perceived as modernizing away from traditional synagogue practice.

One of her little discussed books is Towards Jewish-Muslim Dialogue (Sept 1967), written right after the Six Day War. The journal Tradition accepted that the victory was God’s hand in history, but we should avoid open messianism. In contrast, Weiss- Rosmarin was cautioning that victory does not occur on the battlefield but in the winning of the peace afterwards.

She affirmed that Israel is a successor to the ancient Jewish states in the Middle East, but bemoans how it is presenting itself as an outpost of the West. She considers as proof of this Western exclusivism the attitude of the European born elite toward the immigrants from Arab countries, treating them as the “second Israel” and judging them by Western mores. Israelis have to become integrated into the Arabic middle Eastern society around them.

A product of Europe and its civilization, Zionism was caught up in the notion of the superiority of Western, i.e., European civilization. This notion caused the Zionists – ad Jews as a whole – to look down upon the Arabs and their ancient culture in the manner the British looked down upon “colonials.” The Jews came to Palestine with the determination to make the country an outpost of Western civilization and to “civilize the Arab nations.” The unequivocal cultural identification of the Yishuv with the West and the failure to support Arab nationalism in its post-war struggles with the Allies disabused the Arabs of the hope, expressed by Feisal, that the “Jewish cousins” were cousins by Arab definition. (6-7)

If Zionist movement and Jews generally had been more humble in their encounter with Muslim civilization (and the “Second Israel”) and if they had not come to Palestine waving the flag of “Western civilization,” Israel might well have benefited from Arab tolerance and humaneness.(9)

If henceforth Jews will assign to Jewish-Muslim dialogue the importance that is its due, the Arabs, in whose nationalism religion is as important as it is in Jewish nationalism, will eventually-and perhaps sooner than cold-headed realists will dare expect-rediscover that the Jews are their cousins, descendants of Abraham’s eldest son, Ishmael, who was Isaac’s brother. (44)

If the young State of Israel is to survive and prosper it must become integrated into the Arab world and be accepted by its neighbors. The crucial challenge confronting Israel is how to conclude an alliance of peace with the Arab nations. We believe that with a complete reorientation, especially a muting of the insistent harping on the theme of “Israel is an outpost of Western civilization” the Arab nations would accept Israel on the basis of the kinship which unites Jews and Arabs. (40-41)

Weiss-Rosmarin advocates the return and revival of Hebrew and Israel to its Near-Eastern roots. A complete reorientation to see Judiasm as part of the Arab world.

If there is to be “dialogue” between Israel ad the Arab countries, Israel will have to project a new image of herself-the image of a Semitic brother-state in the midst of Semitic brother-states. Instead of proclaiming itself “the outpost of Western civilization,” Israel should emphasize that Hebrew is a Semitic language and a sister-language of Arabic. The setting of the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud is not Europe but the Near East-its deserts and its fruitful regions. The biblical ideal of feminine beauty is not the Western dream. It is “the dark and comely beloved” of “Song of Songs,” who is swarthy as “the tents of Kedar” and –as Arab tents are to this day.(10)

Our prayers for the end of Exile and for the Return plead: “Renew our days as of old.” The renewal in the State of Israel should be a renewal of Jewishness in the traditional pattern of Hebrew civilization which was born, matured and produced its choicest fruit in the Middle East among kindred Semitic neighbors with kindred mores and, after the birth of Islam (622) in cross-fertilization and symbiosis with a kindred religious civilization. (11)

She cites the works of the Jewish Islamisists on the Judeo-Islamic similarities and synthesis. We lived together for more than a millennium. Islam is monotheism and law. We both have oral traditions and diverse schools of legal reasoning. But she adds her own observations on the similarities of the modern trajectories. We have the same problems of Madrasas and Yeshivot wanting to keep modernity and secular education out. Judaism and Islam both had secular nationalisms rise up to create modern states. She even paints a picture of common suffering.

The identity of Jewish and Muslim fate and suffering at the hands of Christians, during the Crusades and in Spain, has not received sufficient attention. It was a period of shared agony and confrontation with a common enemy. This deserves to be better known by Jews and Muslims. The shared fate of oppression and persecution under “Christianity triumphant” is a strong bond of Jewish-Muslim brotherhood. (30-31)

As practical steps, she calls for (1) American Jewish organizations to foster Jewish Muslim dialogue.(2) Jewish institutes of higher learning, especially the seminaries, should introduce courses on Islam and Arabic culture.  (The way Ignatz Goldziher and Jacob Barth, both observant Jews, taught respectively at the Budapest and Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminaries.) (3) Jewish Institutions should assign priority to hosting Muslim lecturers, the way they host Christian lecturers. (4) There should be adult education courses fostering Jewish Muslim dialogue. [42-43]

This was in 1967.

Update- Here is the full text from The Jewish Spectator

Trude Weiss-Rosmarin – Toward Jewish-Muslim Dialogue

2 responses to “Towards Jewish-Muslim Dialogue by Trude Weiss-Rosmarin

  1. I agree , she was most certainly ahead of her time and a progressive force for peace and understanding.

    I do want to say something about the ‘Orientalism ‘ of Jewish culture preventing Jews from becoming integrated in the Arab world. I feel this is becoming a cliche, and should be examined. Despite the hopes of Herzl and Weizman, Israeli culture is not exactly the high culture of Central Europe. Excluding the charedim who live in a century of their own, Israeli culture is more of a Mediterranean culture if anything. Sexually, Israel is a ‘hot’ country, far different from the more repressed sexual culture of the Midwest or Northern Europe. They are more LA than Frankfurt.

    Without pinning this down in detail, my point can be made looking at the Arab side. There are basically three big cultures. The Beirut type world, non fundamentalist, multicultural world that one used to find in Cairo and Baghdad, a Shiite world and a Wahabi Saudi world. The former never was a cultural problem. The wars were between Arab states and their big shot dictators and Israel. Those wars are now over. That leaves the Shia and the jihadists. Looking just at the jihadists they would be even more upset if Israel was Brazil or Argentina. The Pakistanis think India is not sufficiently chassidish. The Jihadists vision is focused on the desert, flat , dry , endless. They hate cities and tall buildings. They hate America. They are too monotheistic, too anti images, to a point where they blow up buddhas in Afghani mountains. They need some chasidus and varmkeit. Maybe a folksbein teayater. It’s not an imposition of classical music that they hate, it’ s a hatred of anything that is an enemy of nomadism

  2. In an email discussion, from one of the many people who continue to email me instead of leaving a comment, it came out that she supported Sefardi culture in the US. She published Hakham Faur’s earliest essays on Sefardi pride and supported Nissim Rejwan.

    She wrote a letter about Sefardi culture to Commentary:

    To the Editor:

    Chaim Raphael’s conclusion in “Jewish History and the Sephardim” [May] that “some transformation is called for in which the pride of the Sephardi heritage is given the weight it deserves in Jewish self-consciousness” must be acted upon, in order to heal the damage caused by Israel’s Western chauvinism. This proclamation of Western superiority has been, and is, a dual curse for Israel: in addition to alienating more than half of Israel’s Jews, it also estranges and is an irritant to Israel’s Arabs (approximately 600,000) and its Arab neighbors.

    It is high time for Ashkenazim to ponder George Steiner’s remarks in Language and Silence: “We know now that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz. . . . The mass murder of the Jews and . . . the destruction under Nazism and Stalinism . . . rose from . . . the core of European civilization.”

    As for stimulating pride in the Sephardi heritage, there are much more basic ingredients of the Jewish heritage than the centuries of the “Jewish-Muslim symbiosis” and Yemenite folklore and dance, though these are important. But infinitely more important is the fact that the basic Jewish texts were created in the “Orient.” I am referring to those texts which all Jews venerate and in which Jewish faith is articulated. There is, first of all, the Hebrew Bible, whose imagery, flora and fauna, seasons and calendar are those of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Near and Middle East. The prayers for weekdays, holidays, and the Sabbath which are not biblical texts were written by Babylonian and Egyptian Jews a thousand and more years ago. The additions of the Ashkenazi prayer rite are incidental and lack halakhic validity. The Mishnah; the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds; the midrashim and the vast geonic literature; the many kabbalistic texts, notably the Zohar; the Shulhan Arukh, the authoritative code of law—all these basic and truly great Jewish works are the creations of the ancestors of those who, today, are Israel’s edot hamizrach, “Oriental”/Sephardi Jews. . . .

    Trude Weiss-Rosmarin
    Editor, Jewish Spectator

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