Progressive Judaism and Interfaith Dialogue


Recent events have revealed an increasing gulf between progressive and mainstream Jews, especially in relation to the value of interfaith dialogue. In Melbourne, Rabbis Fred Morgan and Jonathan Keren Black reflect the progressive viewpoint.

In an attempt to understand their position, a few extracts from Fred’s lengthy speech delivered in 2009 to the Council of Christians and Jews (Vic), may help:

… I learned to apply a non-judgmental approach to the study of religions. I start from the assumption that, when people say they believe something, as peculiar and uncongenial as I personally may find their belief, it is meaningful to them.

 … ‘Operation Cast Lead’, the conflict between the Israelis and Hamas in Gaza. .. led to powerful misunderstandings…between the Jewish participants in dialogue and their Christian (and Muslim) partners… the matter came to a head with a number of letters in the Australian Jewish News (AJN) questioning whether there is any value to interfaith dialogue at all, if after so many years there is still so little understanding of the Jewish position.

 Our main concerns are self-orientated and self-motivated. As far as we are concerned, the aim of dialogue is to convince others to leave us alone to daven (pray) in peace.

 The Jewish resistance to making ourselves vulnerable is linked to the often observed fact that many Jews still retain a ghetto mentality…

 The Jewish community has become more and more vociferous about its own concerns. The Jewish concerns were decidedly non-theological. They centred on anti-Semitism, the integrity of the land of Israel and the inviolability of the State of Israel – all matters bearing on security and safety for Jews in Australia, Israel and world-wide.

 What is now clear is that many on the Jewish side of the dialogue have never moved beyond seeking security through interfaith engagement. For them, interfaith work is another avenue to self-protection. There is little mutuality… or appreciation of a belief system that is different from our own. Even as Christian participants generally show respect for the Other in dialogue, the Jewish participants are still deeply wary..

 This became abundantly clear during the Gaza conflict. Israel had been suffering for years from rocket attacks on Sderot and other border towns… Several media correspondents from the Christian and Muslim communities revealed a lack of understanding for the dilemma that Israel faced as well as for Israel’s military response to this bombardment. Given that some of the correspondents who were one-sidedly critical of Israel are active in interfaith work, the AJN published letters and articles questioning the value of interfaith dialogue.

 As one regular AJN letter-writer put it to me in a private meeting, has dialogue resulted in fewer security men protecting Jewish schools? Do we feel any safer because of it? Indeed, a sizeable proportion of the Jewish leadership evidently asks the same question: what are the practical benefits of dialogue?; but what they mean is,

Is it good for the Jews?

Does it make us feel safer, more secure?

They would measure dialogue against quantifiable aims that are of value to the community – specifically the Jewish community, not the wider community or the community of Australia. This again reveals the insularity of the Jewish world… this insularity is ultimately self-defeating. We can never truly be secure as long as we feel insecure outside the shtetl; and without greater self-confidence our dialogue cannot do its most productive work.

The challenge for the new dialogue is to come to accept the Other with dignity, that is, to acknowledge what is precious and unique to the Other and their way of thinking and seeing the world. …

 For the Jewish community, this means moving beyond a pragmatic, politically motivated focus on security, to let go of judging the success of dialogue on the basis of the safety of the Jewish community. In place of security, it means looking to a higher goal – the religious goal of redemption, which we achieve by encountering the presence of God through an experience of the difference of Others, no strings attached.

Morgan’s views are perplexing, especially his statement,

” as peculiar and uncongenial as I personally may find their belief, it is meaningful to them.”

That’s certainly true: many times during our history, groups have meaningfully persecuted Jews, but that doesn’t make it a valid or ethical position, nor a basis for interfaith dialogue. And for someone who has

learned to apply a non-judgmental approach”

Morgan is particularly judgmental about Jews who worry about their security and that of Israel.

 Rabbi Keren Black, who in 2007 was a guest speaker at a conference entitled “One World—Many Paths to Peace”, added his wisdom:

 It is on the firm Jewish basis of developing a world of understanding and respect for difference and diversity that my inter-faith work over the past several years has involved developing a project which takes a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim into secondary schools, where they deliver the message that every faith has value, and that indeed we all share many important values.

Of course, Jews, Christians and Muslims share a great deal in common: texts, stories, characters, history as well as common values and underpinned by an ethical monotheistic approach.

Sadly, Keren Black has invested so much of his time in interfaith that he refuses to acknowledge that we do not have

common values underpinned by an ethical monotheistic approach”.

Jewish leader Jeremy Jones, in an interview in 2009 on Muslim-Jewish Relations, was more realistic:

“It is difficult to find many examples of Muslim organizations or prominent individual Muslims in Australia who do not have views of Israel as either illegitimate or most often in the wrong in the Israeli-Palestinian or Israeli-Arab conflict.

“The most significant example of public antisemitism from an Australian Muslim was a speech given in Sydney in 1988 by Sheikh Taj el-Din al-Hilaly…In a talk on the nature of Jews, the sheikh invoked a number of vicious antisemitic slurs.

…al-Hilaly was subsequently appointed Grand Mufti of Australia. He has never recanted his 1988 speech and has since that time voiced theological support for terrorists, particularly those who used themselves as human bombs to murder Israeli children, stated that Israel was as bad or worse than Nazi Germany, and during a Sydney rally marched alongside a person blaming Jews for killing Jesus.

 “Overtly antisemitic and other extremist literature and videos are available at bookshops serving Muslim communities, and anti-Jewish myths have been promoted by a number of imams and religious teachers.

“A report titled “Antisemitism among Muslim Youth: A Sydney teacher’s perspective,” published by the Anti-Defamation Commission of B’nai Brith Australia in May 2008, documented a series of claims of harassment of Jewish teachers by Muslim students… Muslim students interviewed for the study expressed beliefs in a variety of antisemitic conspiracy theories.

“In 2005, a senior journalist noted a disturbing phenomenon: ‘In Sydney and Melbourne, hundreds of young men are attending meetings to watch videos of atavistic hate speeches by rabid mullahs in the Middle East.’

 “Online, there is a proliferation of anti-Jewish material emanating from Australian Muslims. The web-based Mission Islam, for example, promotes the Protocols and various Muslim-authored works hostile to Jews.

“The forums of the website Islamic Sydney provide evidence of the proliferation of antisemitic myths within the Australian Muslim community.

Anti-Israeli rallies in Australia, particularly in recent years, featured antisemitic banners and chants together with printed placards comparing Israel to Nazi Germany produced by far-Left groups.”

 “When Israel responded to months of rocket and mortar bombardment from Hamas-ruled Gaza, the mainstream Jewish community in Australia vigorously argued Israel’s case in the media and public forums.  Australian Muslim groups and leaders, with few exceptions, claimed Israel was acting out of base motives, callously targeting civilians, or even embarking on a genocidal program.

 “In public pro-Hamas and anti-Israeli rallies, there were reports of demonstrators chanting ‘Bomb the Jews’ in English and English-language banners asserting that Jews deserved the Shoah. Numerous placards, banners, and speeches at Muslim-run or Muslim-supported events also proclaimed that Israel was committing crimes comparable to, or even exceeding, those of Nazi Germany.

“While in some instances responsible Muslims cautioned against using antisemitic language and offensive imagery in the course of criticizing Israel, intemperate, inaccurate, and offensive material was included in statements produced by the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils. Obviously, the Jewish leadership cannot have a comfortable relationship with a group that, for example, emailed a series of photo images that implied Israel was completely analogous to Nazi Germany.

 “The broader issue, of the acceptance by a diverse range of Muslim Australians of the Nazi-Israel analogy, poses a challenge to those committed to inter-religious tolerance, let alone dialogue or understanding.

So let’s have interfaith dialogue, but surely we should draw a line at engaging with faiths that exhibit hatred towards Jews and Israel?



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  1. If this were 1930’s Germany these Progressive Jews or I would describe as Palestinian useful idiots would be telling other Jews that the Nazi’s are only a small minority of bad apples, not all Germans are bad , we should not be stereo typing Blah Blah.
    It’s a shame these so called educated Liberals who think they have a monopoly on compassion have learn t nothing from the past they would naively lead us down the same one way Path .

  2. Michael, you’re right – these leftie Jews feel they have the monopoly on compassion by embracing ‘the other’. Unfortunately ‘the other’ they are embracing are invariably rabid anti-Semites who want Israel destroyed and a worldwide massacre of Jews. They are even brazen enough to admit it.

    Yet useful idiot Jews refuse to listen, insisting in their arrogance that they know better – that these people are innocent victims who are simply reacting to Zionist aggression or to our racism.

  3. Before becoming a Rabbi, Fred taught religious studies at the University of Bristol. He spent some time in India and I suspect was influenced by Gandhi –

    On The Holocaust

    “Hitler killed five million Jews. It is the greatest crime of our time. But the Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher’s knife. They should have thrown themselves into the sea from cliffs.” ~ George Orwell’s “Reflections on Gandhi,” Partisan Review, Jan. 1949

    As to whether the Jews should have committed “collective sucide” by offering themselves to Hitler: “Yes, that would have been heroism.” ~ George Orwell’s “Reflections on Gandhi,” Partisan Review, Jan. 1949

    Gandhi would have endorsed Fred’s sentiments at the end of his long speech – “In place of security, it means looking to a higher goal – the religious goal of redemption, which we achieve by encountering the presence of God through an experience of the difference of Others, no strings attached. ”

    So it seems it’s better to be dead but redeeomed! To me, this runs counter to the Jewish injunction to survive, to “choose life”.

  4. It would be a mistake, I think, to assume that because a person is left of centre religiously he or she is left of centre politically.
    Nevertheless, these statements quoted by Pam are very depressing. I’m appalled that a seeming tolerance for Islamic misogyny is implied. Why should we women be expected to go along with that?!
    And isn’t it odd that the Progressive movement accepts gay marriage (I believe, though I’m not sure, that the Temple carried out its first same-sex marriage very recently) yet is anxious, or at least happily willing, to flirt with Islam, which persecutes gays?
    I’m hoping that the bad old Reform stance of old towards Zionism isn’t getting a second wind in Australian Progressive circles. I know several Progressives of German heritage who are lukewarm towards Israel, and in at least one case hostile; I hope they are the exceptions and that we are not seeing a return to the non- or anti-Zionism of old.

  5. Pope Ratbag Salam Alakum , I would say the Palestinians are doing a pretty good job of killing each other . I would take a wager that more Palestinians have killed each other than Jews or rather Israelis as you clearly distinguished have.. Maybe those Israelis that have killed Palestinians justifiably were Israeli/Arab or Druze IDF soldiers ?
    I also look forward to the Syrians , Egyptians and Lebanese continuing to do what they do best fighting and killing amongst them selves which leaves them less time to kill Jews sorry Israelis.
    I would like to see the Israelis erect their anti – Suicide bomb wall higher and longer and expect let the Palestinians keep fighting amongst themselves and continue to live in the dark ages.

    I am sure you would be please to hear the Israeli economy and tourism is going along nicely.
    I can suggest a great restaurant in Tel – Aviv next time you go there.

    Have a nice day.

  6. What seems to encourge further the Progressive Jews in their passionate engagement in interfaith dialogue is precisely the polarised attitude seen at the non Neolog Jews on the same matters. I intentionally avoided the term Progressive simply because, as a non Progressive/Liberal/Neolog Jew and do not consider myself not to be a progressive mind, quite to the contrary. And here we could find the spiritual and pseudo intellectual motivation of the Liberal Jews involved in the politics of appeasment and the “building of bridges” etc.
    They reckon that whoever is not with them – I nearly said does not doven with them, but that would be a joke – is incapable to even fathom the principles of co-existence, dialogue, simple conversation, understanding, penetrating the minds of etc. etc. of the “other side”.
    We are seen as backward, intollerant and, one of their favourites, INWARD LOOKING. They, on the other hand, are better informed, ethically better equipped to handle crisis, in fact , as they see it, crisis CAUSED also by us, the same intransigent, miopic, intollerant, inward lookig, ghetto slaves etc. Jews.
    One of the problems with them is that they do not need to be inspired by the ACTUAL mind puppeteers of anti Semitism – of all kinds – because there is already an ample literature authored by enough Jews to give this anomaly an “in house” legitimacy, Rabbis of kinds and gender included. Israelis are in it, albiet in insignificant numbers. And then they distort the numbers anyway. Funds run into hundreds of millions for “Jewish” NGO, ACRI, NIF and their subsidiaries. Thus, this monstruosity has acquired a Jewish status, farcical as it is. As a “religious Jewish” strand it could be seen – and it is in fact – in certain circles as the legitimate voice of the Jews, and that is precisely how they introduce themselves.
    Debunking all these fallacies is a job of persistent disclosures, but it needs the imprimatur, at least, of what should be representing the genuine Zionist identities. Can we really see a formal objection to the Progressive assault on all matters Zionst applied with GREATER aplomb, more sotensively and strongly articulated by the “other” Jewish communal isntitutions charged with this very function ??? !!!

    What one sees on this site, for example, is a fantastic rational expression of Jewish real concerns. Yet, I would like to see a few well known names, communal personalities joining in the necessary public displays of concerns.
    ECAJ, NSWJBD, JCCV, Zionist Councills all over Australia , AUJS, AJAC and alike, must make their presence far more resolute .

  7. Otto, I confess that I can’t make head or tail of your last remark!
    I have to make it clear that I’m an adherent of Progressive Judaism: I was expressing concern about a possible return to non- or anti-Zionism on sections of the movement, and I should hate to see this site treat Progressive Judaism or any other strand of Judaism as a football.

    • Keep confessing, because he doesn’t believe me!!

      I don’t think ‘progressive Judaism’ as you call it is the issue. The issue is the looneys that are in control of it, especially in Melbourne.

  8. Hillary of course you are entitled to belong to any group you like My guess there is a lot of criticism from Israel Advocates of the progressives is because J Street , NIF, ACJC are part of the progressive movement or closely aligned any way and most progressive Jewish groups in Australia promote visiting anti- Zionist activists.
    We have enough Israel critics all around us , we don’t need Jewish critics as well.

  9. Hilary

    …since one of the preffered ways of expresion with the more militant Progressive Jews is constant attacks against the “established”, traditional Orthodoxy in religious terms and also against the “intransigent” Zionists in the strict political area, the side affected ought to respond in kind. This is not football, but the inevitable reaction by the affected side. It not need be rough and ugly, scandalous and obscene, women with a certain degree of dedication to Judaism don’t have to turn the holliest Jewish sites into a stage of gender frivolous pantomimes, fighting to reduce Orthodoxy to their own lesser observant standards. This kind of offending ideological selfishness cannot possibly be conducive to respect. Here, I suggested, rational approaches by “those charged” with it, would restore cohesion while infusing the additionally required knowldge and respect for the SAME Jewish values which have assured our generational survival.
    I must remind the not so old adage that we are yet to see a third generation of Progressive Jews………….

  10. Leon Poddebsky

    On which planet does Morgan live?