Opinion

How Not to Speak About Islam

A lazy and dangerous lecture by the likely next president of Yeshiva University.

Members of the Islamic and interfaith community gather for a news conference on Thursday, Aug. 18, 2016, at City Hall in New York.
Mark Lennihan, AP

Earlier this month, a search committee proposed that Yeshiva University, the citadel of American Orthodox Judaism, choose as its next president Rabbi Ari Berman. I’ve met Berman only once. I debated him at his former synagogue, The Jewish Center in Manhattan, and although we profoundly disagreed, he couldn’t have been more pleasant. In fact, given that some at the Jewish Center would probably rather not have given me a platform, I owe him a debt of gratitude for having taken part at all.

Berman might do a good job running YU. I’m not qualified to say. But before he gets the job, students and faculty there should read a lecture he gave two years ago. Because it typifies the casually bigoted, intellectually lazy way too many American Jews talk about Islam.

The lecture, which Aryeh Younger, a recent YU graduate, brought to my attention, is entitled “Hamas vs. Israel: The Battle between Islamic and Judaic Conceptions of Teshuvah.”  

In it, Berman tries to explain the conflict between Israel and Hamas theologically. He makes two core points. First, that Islam forbids Muslims from accepting non-Muslim rule over formerly Muslim land. Second, that because Islam conceives of teshuvah (defined as repentance or more literally “return”) in personal but not national terms--because Muslims are not theologically obligated to return to any particular place--they can’t understand Zionism, and thus view it as illegitimate.

The problem with these arguments is that they require a knowledge of Islam that Berman doesn’t appear to possess. In the source sheet that accompanies his derasha, he offers 37 citations to buttress his argument about Judaic notions of repentance. For Islam, he offers two. One is the Hamas Covenant. The second is a book by the Egyptian-born Jewish writer Bat Ye’or. In the lecture itself, Berman also cites a conversation he had with a Palestinian student at Hebrew University. 

Intellectually, this is embarrassing. The Hamas Covenant is a good source for understanding Hamas. It’s a lot less useful for understanding Islam as a whole. Berman quotes the Covenant as stating that, “Palestine is an Islamic Waqf consecrated for Muslim generations until Judgment Day.” But if the Hamas Covenant proves that Islam doesn’t permit the relinquishing of land, how does Berman explain the fact that Saudi Arabia, a Muslim regime every bit as theocratic as Hamas, publicly offered to recognize Israel within the pre-1967 lines? How does he explain the fact that Riyadh’s offer was endorsed not only by the Arab League but also by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which represents 57 largely Muslim countries around the world? If the Hamas Covenant represents Islam, surely those proposals do too.

Berman’s other source is a book by Bat Ye’or, who he calls a “scholar of Islam.” That’s a stretch. Bat Ye’or, the pen name of Gisele Littman, an Egyptian-born Jew now living in Switzerland, has never held an academic position. Her work—which stresses the historic persecution of Jews and Christians under Muslim rule and the impending Arab takeover of Europe—has won praise from commentators fearful of Muslim extremism. 

But when I contacted Joel Beinin, the Donald J. McLachlan Professor of Middle East History at Stanford, who has authored books on the Jews of both Egypt and Iraq, he replied that, “no reputable historian takes Bat Ye’or seriously.” 

When I asked about her claim that Islam does not accept the legitimacy of non-Muslim control over formerly Muslim land, Beinin noted that Muslims have accepted just that. After all, Muslim rulers once controlled Spain, Sicily, the Philippines and large parts of northern India. ISIS and Al Qaeda may be willing to wage war to recover these territories. But the vast majority of Muslim governments, and Muslim people, coexist with the non-Muslim governments of these territories just fine. 

Then there’s Berman’s claim that Muslim Palestinians find it hard to accept Zionism because Islam lacks a conception of teshuvah as national return to a particular place. That may be true. But there are other, rather important, reasons for Palestinian opposition to Zionism that Berman leaves out. 

Without Zionism, it’s unlikely roughly 700,000 Palestinians would have become refugees in the late 1940s. Without Zionism, it’s unlikely millions of West Bank Palestinians would now live as stateless non-citizens, without free movement, under military law. 

That’s not to say Palestinians bear no responsibility for their sometimes self-defeating response to the Zionist project. And it’s not to say that Zionism hasn’t brought great blessings to the Jewish people. Both Berman and I believe it has. But suggesting that theology makes Palestinians anti-Zionists requires overlooking the Palestinian experience of history. And it doesn’t explain why Palestinian Christians generally oppose Zionism too.

Berman’s lecture is all too typical. Since September 11, it’s become commonplace to hear Americans with no background in Islam—no academic or religious training, no familiarity with its texts—expound on the meaning of concepts like “jihad” and “sharia.” If American Jews heard gentiles with no background in Judaism declaiming this way about our tradition, we’d be irate. If these commentators displayed not merely ignorance about Judaism, but hostility, we’d call them bigots.

I’m not claiming that Rabbi Berman harbors any malicious intent. But university presidents should not lecture on subjects they know little about, and rabbis should not defame other religions. As Jews, we know from bitter experience where that can lead.