While the appearances President Ahmadinejad made at both Columbia University and the United Nations dominated press reports last week, there was another meeting at a chapel across from the General Assembly that the Iranian president held last week – one that got reported in a way that needs correction in the dialog in this city.
Organized by Mennonite and Quaker religious leaders in response to a request made by the Iranian delegation to the United Nations, this meeting of 140 religious leaders with Mr. Ahmadinejad was described by the New York Times as “a friendly, even warm exchange with Christian leaders from the United States and Canada convinced that dialogue is the only way to prevent war.”
The Times further reported that the Mennonite and Quaker organizers of the meeting were sorry that they were unable to find a Jewish representative to attend this “interfaith dialogue” because “those invited declined because they could not win support from Jewish organizations.”
In an age where many routinely conjure up conspiratorial images of “The Israel Lobby,” I find this description of Jewish non-attendance on the basis of a failure to “win support from Jewish organizations” incomplete and simplistic at best and disturbing and sinister at worst. The reasons for such Jewish refusal were not the result of some imagined institutional discipline, and I feel obliged as one who was approached and declined to attend this meeting to offer an explanation as to why I, and no doubt others, instinctively rejected an invitation to ” interfaith dialogue” with Mr. Ahmadinejad.
A negative response to interfaith dialogue runs counter to my nature and beliefs. As a liberal rabbi schooled on the works of the famed Jewish philosopher of dialogue Martin Buber, I believe that the fundamental nature of reality is social. We need relationship. Indeed, people are made fully “human” because we are capable of entering into dialogic relationship with other persons. As Buber wrote, “All real living is meeting.”
Buber believed that there was a value in persons talking to one another in and of itself apart from any “result” achieved. To refuse to dialogue with and encounter another as a member of a people or a religion generally permits a caricature of the other to emerge unobstructed or softened by the reality of personal address and encounter. For all these reasons, my natural proclivity is always to engage in inter-religious exchange. A negative response to interfaith dialogue runs counter to my nature and beliefs, both secular and religious.
Yet Buber has also taught me that – for all his openness – preconditions must always be placed on such dialogical exchange. Buber wrote that in genuine dialogue each partner must begin by fully affirming the personhood of the other. If such affirmation of and respect for the other is not forthcoming, then propaganda, not dialogue, emerges. As Buber himself phrases it, “The manipulator of ‘propaganda’ is possessed by the lust to make use of men.”
Mr. Ahmadinejad was not interested in real conversation, nor was he interested into entering into authentic relationship with those religious leaders who met with him.
Instead, he was concerned that news of this meeting, which the invitation had stated would be “absolutely private,” be made public. In this way, Mr. Ahmadinejad exploited these persons of faith for his own political ends.
His obscene denial of the Holocaust and his exploitation of the anti-Zionist Jews known as Neturei Karta at his Holocaust Denial Conference in Teheran last year, his sworn aim to destroy the State of Israel, and the specter of his nuclear ambitions all cut at the heart of my own historical memory and experience as a Jew as well as the Jewish ethical imperative to value and affirm life.
This “interfaith conversation” had nothing to do with encounter. It had everything to do with manipulation. The words of Martin Buber, and the distinction he draws between “propaganda” and “dialogue” – and not any institutional pressures – explain why I refused to encounter Mr. Ahmadinejad in what was billed as a “face to face interfaith conversation,” but was in reality only a smokescreen for exploitation.
Rabbi Ellenson is president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.