A TALE OF TWO RELIGIONS
Chicago Jewish News, Dec. 30, 2005
Professor Sam Fleischacker had a vision.
"Imagine Jewish and Muslim students poring over a sura of the Koran
together or a page of the Talmud," he wrote in a statement about the new
program he is launching at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
"Imagine them learning together about the influence of Islam on Judaism,
and vice versa. Imagine them discovering the similarities in Jewish and
Muslim conceptions of law and of Scripture, in theology, or in their
experiences as minorities in the West, both in the past and in the
Fleischacker's ambitious dream is now a giant step closer to
realization. Beginning with the new semester in January, UIC, along with
Chicago-Kent College of Law, is establishing a Jewish/Muslim Studies
Initiative; its centerpiece is a course available to students at both
institutions. Public lectures, one of which has already taken place, and
a theatrical performance will augment the academic program in its first
The course, "Judaism and Islam: Interactions and Intersections," will be
co-taught by Rachel Havrelock, UIC professor of Jewish Studies; Azim
Nanji, a visiting professor, religious scholar and the author of a
number of books on religion and Islam; and Sheldon Nahmod, a professor
of law and co- director of Chicago-Kent's Institute for Law and the
Fleischacker, a professor in the philosophy department, has long
envisioned just such an initiative, he said in a recent phone
conversation. "I've been concerned with Jewish-Muslim dialogue for many
years," he said. "I think that Judaism and Islam in many ways are closer
than Judaism and Christianity. They both share a strong monotheism, and
they shared a very good history until the early 19th century."
Today, he said, as is well known there is tremendous anti-Semitism and
hostility towards Israel in the Muslim world, yet "one on one I've had
very lovely interactions with Muslims, and they are very interested to
know more about Judaism." Especially since Sept. 11, "I thought such
interactions were crucial, yet I haven't found very many venues where it
takes place," he said. An exception is Chicago's Interfaith Youth Corps,
where high school students of many religions work together on social
Yet, Fleischacker said, he was looking for a different type of setting.
"Because I'm a professor I believe in intellectual work," he said.
"Dialogue breaks down because people have terrible misimpressions of
each other, false views about the Talmud, about the Koran. I think
universities can contribute something that you don't necessarily get
outside of universities."
Last year, Fleischacker chaired the UIC Jewish Studies program after
another professor left and his idea for the initiative began to come
together. "We have a very large Muslim population and also a significant
Jewish population, and I thought it might be an appropriate, interesting
thing to do," he said. With help from the Jewish Studies program, the
school itself and Chicago-Kent, the idea for the program quickly came
Fleischacker's ultimate vision is "to bring Jewish professors to teach
Islam and Muslim professors to teach Judaism -- well-trained, scholarly
people with a deep interest in the other tradition, and who are not
prejudiced. It would provide them with an opportunity to learn the
tradition itself more than they would ordinarily do and provide an
incentive for scholars in the two disciplines to get to know each other."
For students, he said, "it would provide a wonderful opportunity for
Jewish and Muslim students to work on each other's traditions together.
It will be interfaith dialogue in a scholarly setting. People will be
permitted to say whatever they like, to explore without taking political
poses-a more intense but also more open discussion, informed and guided
by a scholar who is something of an expert on both traditions."
The program was formally launched in November with two public lectures
on Jewish-Muslim dialogue by anthropologist, diplomat, writer and
filmmaker Akbar Ahmed, considered one of the world's leading authorities
on contemporary Islam. Ahmed is also a partner in a series of public
dialogues with Judea Pearl, father of slain Wall Street Journal reporter
Daniel Pearl. That type of public dialogue is something Fleischacker
would like to see more of, particularly in Chicago.
He and the other scholars involved in the initiative are hoping to bring
in more speakers and in the spring will sponsor a production of "From
Tel Aviv to Ramallah," a well-received hip-hop play written and directed
by Havrelock, the UIC Jewish Studies professor. The play looks at the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the daily lives of young people on
both sides of the divide. No date has yet been set for performance.
Havrelock, who will co-teach the course, said she hopes the new
initiative will "establish a comparative cultural context for the study
of two traditions often believed to be antithetical. By studying Islam
and Judaism together, students will learn about a long history of
conceptual cross-pollination and cultural contact between the two
As for Fleischacker, he has bigger plans that include the launch of an
informal working group among professors of Jewish and Islamic Studies,
modeled on ones that already exist between Catholic and Jewish scholars.
Ultimately, he said, he hopes for representatives of the program "to go
out to mosques, synagogues, community centers, to meet with people and
give public lectures. If all goes well we'll have a full- fledged
The benefits of that will be great, he believes. "Among the most serious
rifts in the world today is the one between Jews and Muslims,"
Fleischacker said. "Universities can play an important role in enabling
dialogue, fostering understanding and developing cooperative relationships."
"A war is just if there is no alternative, and the resort
to arms is legitimate if they represent your last hope." (Livy)
Ed Kent 718-951-5324 (voice mail only) [blind copies]