INCITEMENT WATCH: MUSLIM DIALOGUE? DON'T BOTHER
This June the Woolf Institute in Cambridge announced that the Jewish philanthropist Richard Stone had, through his family's Stone-Ashdown Trust, facilitated the donation of £1 million to fund a Centre for the Study of Muslim-Jewish Relations (CMJR). The centre's director, Dr Edward Kessler, was understandably delighted. "As far as I know," he was quoted as saying, "there is no centre that is examining the encounter between Muslims and Jews… We are really pioneering the way."
Let me congratulate the CMJR on its good fortune, and set before it some of the singular difficulties I believe it faces as it decides how best to spend this endowment.
Judaism was not founded as an expression of hostility to other monotheistic faiths, nor does it depend for its contemporary existence on such a discourse. If a Centre for the Study of Jewish-Pagan Relations were to be established, I can well imagine that pagans - for instance, Baal-worshippers of the sort that Elijah and Jeremiah railed against - would demand a thorough review of Jewish sacred texts, and the deletion of passages critical of (for example) child sacrifice. This would no doubt create for us Jews a deep moral dilemma: how far should we go in modifying what we preach in order to enter into a meaningful dialogue with those who practise child-sacrificing paganism and who demand that we respect their views by modifying ours?
Of course, I am describing an imaginary nightmare. It's true that some passages of the Talmud are critical of Jesus of Nazareth. Even these, however, do not exhort us to persecute Christians, let alone (Heaven forbid!) to kill them. And the same goes for Muslims. We seek no converts from Christianity or Islam, neither do we seek dominion over them.
But the same is not true of Islam. In times past, the Koran could only be studied by readers of Arabic. Today there are a number of authoritative paperback translations, invariably annotated so as to explain the complex background to its composition. Having read the Koran in an authoritative translation, any fair-minded reader would be unable to deny that it preaches violence - not just in an historical setting, but also in a contemporary context. This is not just my view. It is the view of Muslims themselves - both those who practise its ethic of violence and those who recognise this ethic for what it is and reject it.