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Q & A with… Richard L. Rubenstein

By Cindy Mindell

Richard Rubenstein says that the Shoah is “yesterday’s story.” The ordained rabbi and esteemed Harvard-trained scholar spent 50 years researching, writing, and teaching Holocaust and genocide studies, before turning his attention to the phenomenon of fundamentalist Islam.
Rubenstein, 86, the president emeritus and Distinguished Professor of Religion at the University of Bridgeport, wrote the seminal “After Auschwitz: History, Theology, and Contemporary Judaism” some 40 years ago. He will discuss his new book, “Jihad and Genocide,” on Oct. 24 at Congregation Beth El in Fairfield, where he is a member.
He spoke with the Ledger about how his own ideas about interfaith collaboration shifted, and how he came to write about what he understands to be the greatest threat to Western civilization since National Socialism, the rise of radical Islam.
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<b>Q: What sparked your interest in the subject of jihad?</b>
A: In the 1990s, I started noticing a shift among non-Jewish thinkers, away from Israel. For several years, I had been going to international conferences involving Jewish, Muslim, and Christian theologians. It was at those conferences that I got to know Zaki Badawi, who, when he died in 2006, was described by The Guardian as “Britain’s most influential Muslim.” He would even have tea with the Queen. I was impressed with his sophistication and very wide knowledge.
When my wife and I went to these conferences, we would gravitate toward Badawi and his wife, and would often have dinner with them. On one occasion, while we were discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he opened up and said, “But they really must go.” I said, “Who must go?” and he said, “The Jews.” His wife chimed in and said, “The Crusades, you know, the Crusades.” I got the picture and I realized that their prescription was an Israel completely free of Jews. I’d spent enough time studying the Holocaust to know that the ultimate end to this kind of thinking is genocide, if they have their way. I thought, there’s no point in getting into an argument. I thought it was fruitless to have further dialogue with him, so we stopped having dinner together.
Badawi was particularly interesting because of his relationship with the Queen and his status in the UK. Whenever there was an occasion to bring together representatives of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities for an official occasion, the British would invite the Archbishop of Canterbury; Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of the UK; and Badawi. He was not an insignificant guy and was thought of as being rather moderate.
On a couple of other occasions, I was told in conferences, oh so politely, that the Jews will have to go back to where they came from. They’re not going back, they can’t go back, they’re not wanted there. In Badawi’s case, he was saying this as a way of not really admitting that, as far as he was concerned, genocide would be okay with him.

<b>Q: How did “Jihad and Genocide” come about?</b>
A: About 10 years ago, after my experiences at the conferences, I started to seriously study Islam. While I was president of the University of Bridgeport, I realized that there was a real menace on the horizon and my first example of that came out in the second edition of “After Auschwitz,” where I have a chapter on Judaism and Islam.  In 2003, I got an email from French publisher Olivier VÈron, who wanted to do a French translation of my book, “The Cunning of History.” I agreed. He asked me to write an afterword, which turned into a work as long as the original book. The piece is basically about the problems involved in Islamic migration to Europe. In 2005, I was invited by a scholar who is doing a series on genocide to write a book. I agreed, and told him that it would be called “Jihad and Genocide,” exploring the genocidal tendencies of radical Islam.
In 2006, I dealt with some of my findings in “Pipeline to Peril,” an article published in Reform Judaism Magazine. It discusses the 1973 Arab oil embargo, when the Europeans caved in. They were told by the Arabs, “You give up your pro-Israel stance, you back the PLO” – which still had in its charter that it was out to destroy Israel – “and we will let the oil faucets be turned to high speed again.” I talk about Henry Kissinger, who writes in his memoir that he tried to tell the Europeans that, while the Arabs are the producers, we’re the consumers, and we can stop all this. But the Europeans said, “We’re not going to stop it; we’ll give them what they want.”

<b>Q: Why, in your opinion, is interfaith dialogue with Muslims impossible now?</b>
A: I was keynote speaker at the first Conference on Muslim Antisemitism in New York City earlier this month [sponsored by the two-year-old Journal for the Study of Antisemitism]. I stirred the pot because I said that I no longer have any interest in dialogue with Muslim thinkers. I said that I think it’s a waste of time because it gives them a legitimacy in the United States that they do not deserve. I was asked, “What about the moderate Muslims?” I said, “I don’t really know who they are. People I thought were moderate were not the least bit moderate.” However, I still believe that dialogue with Christians is a realistic possibility. I’ve spent 50 years in a fruitful dialogueue with Christians. Influential elements of the Christian world have shown the ability of self-reflection and self-criticism. I don’t see that among anyone all that influential in the Muslim world.
In “Jihad and Genocide,” the chapter entitled “Roots of Fury” describes the violence and vicious protest all over the world when the Israelis couldn’t take any more rockets from Gaza and went in to silence them. In London, Washington, D.C., Copenhagen, Melbourne, Amsterdam, and other cities, there were large Muslim demonstrations, with signs saying things like “Jews to the gas.” I’m not out for any kind of anti-Muslim crusade, but you can have the sweetest, nicest people like Zaki Badawi, and one day you realize they’re not as sweet or as nice as you’d thought.
I took my first course on Islam in 1953 while at Harvard, but didn’t fully appreciate what I was doing until the 1990s. I had to be faced with Islamic scholars of world-class ability who were telling me, “You’ve got to go. Go back where you came from.” This is what’s put fire in my belly, and why, at age 86, I’ve not stopped. I’ve seen too much not to understand what’s going on and not to want to speak of it. One of the things that pervades my writing is that religion is among the most important forces in the world, and nowhere do you see it expressed as viciously as in Islam.
What secular Western decision-makers and intellectuals may fail to recognize is that Israel’s Islamist opponents cannot simply be dismissed as terrorists. They may use terror as a weapon to achieve their objectives. Nevertheless, their theological opposition to both Israel and the infidel West is rooted in centuries of Islamic tradition.

<I>Prof. Richard L. Rubenstein will speak at Congregation Beth El, 1200 Fairfield Woods Road, Fairfield on Sunday, Oct. 24, 9:30 a.m.  Info: (203) 374-5544</I>

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