Last week, the Hudson Institute and the European Leadership Network hosted a panel discussion on anti-Semitism featuring many high profile religious and interfaith engagement leaders, including Imam Hassen Chalghoumi, a renowned moderate French Muslim who maintains close relations with Jewish organizations in France.
The discussion, which took place in the Hudson Institute’s beautiful Pennsylvania Avenue offices and featured an open bar, predictably featured what some may call platitudes about building bridges between communities and fostering dialogue to fight hate. But while such “platitudes” can seem tired and cliché, it is important to remember that they became clichés, that is, repeated ad nauseam, for a reason—precisely because they contain valuable advice.
Of course, it is easy to talk about building bridges and fostering dialogue. But actually doing it requires hard and dangerous work. It often requires putting yourself in uncomfortable and foreign situations where your audience, at best, is skeptical and at worst, hostile.
Remarkably, most of the panelists at this event had put in the work to convert platitudes into action and actually have built bridges and fostered dialogue.
Most panelists agreed that it was important to focus interfaith conversations on the concrete issues that each community faces and to address particular instances of religious intolerance case by case, while attempting to put them in their broader contexts. It is far easier to work together and find compromise when an issue is narrowly defined and there is a well-defined goal in sight. Most of these panelists spoke from experience.
The imam later showed me pictures he had taken with a wide variety of religious and political leaders from both the Jewish and the Muslim communities. He told me about events he had organized to bring the two communities together to have conversations and to foster friendships. He spoke glowingly of his dream to export love and good relationships through his example and to create strong friendships that would last through difficult times.
The Anti-Defamation League’s Washington director for international relations for highlighted the Bearing Witness program as a particularly successful example of cooperation between prominent Jewish and Catholic organizations to address the history of anti-Semitism, the role of the Church during the Holocaust, recent changes in Catholic teachings, and practical strategies for teaching students about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism.
The other panelists spoke with passion about how they engaged faith leaders in various communities to help reduce sexual exploitation of children, bolster national security, and increase the civic engagement and assimilation of Muslim-American voters—all admirable causes that most, if not all, Americans would and should support.
The event was worthwhile for the exchange of good news about improvements in various areas that most people support. It is good for various community leaders to come together to develop working relationships to address issues where there is already common agreement. But such meetings, however useful, should not be considered successful “interfaith exchanges. These engagements rarely address, let alone resolve, fundamental irreconcilable differences between religions and cultures. They are palliative—not permanent.
Irreconcilable differences are—as the name suggests—irreconcilable. And while tolerance may help various cultures and religions to co-exist, it is naïve to believe that tolerance will be or even can be a cure-all.
France’s ban on full-face veils in public areas (a ban that Imam Chalghoumi said he supports) is a perfect example of an irreconcilable difference that cannot be alleviated by tolerance. The very existence of a law prohibiting any action is a societal claim that the action is intolerable. And the pervasive contentiousness in politics about such actions is ample evidence that people may disagree vehemently about what should and should not be tolerated.
Kumbaya moments arise from shared assumptions and beliefs. One such shared assumption could be that tolerance should be an overarching principle in our civics. But even the most tolerant-minded among us can quickly find themselves advocating South Parkesque death camps of tolerance. Those who preach tolerance are typically intolerant of ideologies that they view as intolerant. And so it becomes a circular argument. We find ourselves unable to be completely agnostic.
Another shared assumption could be that we should mitigate violence at any cost.
Depending on how we decide to implement this principle, however, it is possible we may find ourselves held hostage by whichever group is willing to be the most violent—forced to bend to their will, lest innocent people die. Or we may find ourselves in an increasingly totalitarian state that excuses its threats of violence as necessary to stop violence, as speech and action are increasingly restricted.
Once again, we cannot be agnostic.
In our attempts to be tolerant and to avoid violence, we must remember the things that we value enough to fight and possibly, die for. We must not forget that we viewed Great Britain’s Coercive Acts as intolerable enough to start a revolutionary war and that we viewed the dissolution of the Union as intolerable enough to endure a prolonged and bloody civil war. We cannot be, nor should we be, perfectly tolerant. We should not delude ourselves that every disagreement can be resolved through dialogue.
While it is important for us to come together and work to address shared concerns and strive to reach shared goals, it is important to remember that cultures and religions have fundamental and occasionally contradictory principles. To pretend that they are all compatible and ultimately interchangeable—just with different veneers on the same feel-good message—in addition to being a dangerous self-deception, would be to disrespect the rich intellectual, historical, and spiritual traditions that lie behind them.