Director’s Publications

To the Editor of The New York Times:
Re “ Behind an Anti-Shariah Push ” (front page, July 31):
How ironic that David Yerushalmi, a Hasidic Jew and a political force behind a nationwide campaign against Shariah, or Islamic law, seems oblivious to the profound Islamic influence upon his own Jewish religious traditions.
This is no more evident than in the life and works of Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), the great Jewish thinker, who lived in Muslim lands and wrote most of his books in Arabic. In his Mishneh Torah, his influential code of Halacha, the Jewish version of Shariah, as well as in his philosophical masterpiece “Guide for the Perplexed,” Maimonides cites numerous Muslim thinkers, and all his works clearly mirror the then-prevailing religious and intellectual trends in the Islamic world.
Mr. Yerushalmi’s obvious prejudice against Muslims and Islam is a betrayal of Jewish history.
Jacob Bender
New York, July 31, 2011
The writer is the director of the documentary film “Out of Cordoba: Averroes and Maimonides in Their Time and Ours.”

To the Editor of The New York Times:
Given the history of expulsions, persecutions and genocide that our ancestors endured in Christian Europe, we Jews should be among the loudest supporters of Palestinian statehood. Do we really expect the Palestinian refugees of 1948 and their descendants to forgo their “right of return” after 60-plus years, when Israel claimed a Jewish “right of return” after 2,000 years?
Unfortunately, many American Jewish organizations have long supported whatever policy emanated out of Israel.
It is not only a Palestinian state that is long overdue, as the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas rightly claims, but also a declaration of independence by American Jews that we will no longer be silent supporters of the Israeli policies of occupation that so clearly violate not only common sense, but also the ethical values of Judaism.
Jacob Bender
New York, May 17, 2011

To the Editor of The New York Times:
As an American Jew working to improve Jewish-Muslim relations during the last decade, I believe that Thomas L. Friedman (column, Dec. 16) is wrong when he writes that “few [Muslim] political and religious leaders dare to speak out” in public against the “jihadist minority.”
As a Jew participating in Muslim-organized interfaith conferences in the United States, Spain, Egypt and Qatar, I have constantly found openness to interfaith dialogue and understanding on the part of my Muslim hosts.
Furthermore, an objective look at the Muslim world will reveal exactly what Mr. Friedman is urging. These denunciations of extremist violence range from the many Muslim condemnations of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, to the fatwa against Osama bin Laden issued by the Islamic Commission of Spain, to the statement on Muslim-Christian relations signed by 138 of the world’s leading Muslim religious authorities called “A Common Word Between Us and You.”
We should be careful about applying a separate standard to the Muslim world concerning violence. This should be especially true for Americans, given the violence often perpetrated by our postwar foreign policy, and for Jews, given the silence of most of the leadership of the American Jewish community regarding Israeli human rights abuses in Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land.
Jacob Bender
New York, Dec. 16, 2009

To the Editor of The New York Times :
Sixty years after Israeli independence, it is time for Jews to acknowledge the painful truth: the Jewish state was born on the forced expulsion and dispossession of the Palestinian people.
As an American Jew who lived in Israel for many years, and who has worked with Muslim organizations for the last decade, I believe that our recognition of this agonizing history would help open doors to peace between Israel and Palestine, and could lay the foundation for Jewish-Muslim reconciliation.
In the third century, Rabbi Hama bar Hanina wrote, “Great is repentance: it brings healing to the world.” This ancient Jewish teaching can guide us as we seek to bring peace to what Martin Buber rightly described as “a land of two peoples.”
Jacob Bender
New York, May 18, 2008

To the Editor of The International Herald Tribune :
Roger Cohen is correct that Israel’s 40-year occupation of Palestinian territory has been a disaster, and has brought Israel neither peace nor security.
It is worth noting, however, that since 1967, a small but growing number of Jews around the world (myself included), have consistently opposed Israel’s self-defeating and brutal policies, actions that have included pre-emptive war, destruction of Arab homes and orchards, torture and political assassinations. We have opposed Israel’s occupation precisely because we believe that Jewish values and ethics forbids the oppression of another nation.
Contrary to the extremists in both communities, Jews and Arabs (and Muslims in particular) share a common history lasting hundreds of years, during which time Judaism and Islam nourished and cross-fertilized each other in numerous fields. Understanding this shared tradition can help Israelis and Palestinians trapped in their seemingly endless cycle of violence to imagine an alternative future involving reconciliation and coexistence.
Jacob Bender
Malaga, Spain, September 1, 2006

To the Editor of the English-edition of El Pais (Madrid, Spain):
Speaking about the urgent need for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace process, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos was recently quoted in the press as stating, “It’s time for Europe to awaken U.S. leadership.” As an American and a Jew, I welcome this call.
After the horrendous disaster of the war in Lebanon, with Hizbollah’s provocations and the rocketing of Israeli cities, and Israel’s disproportionate and deliberate destruction of Lebanon’s infrastructure, including hundreds of civilian deaths, it is long past time for outside intervention to finally end the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The good news is that there are several foundations for a just and peaceful solution: the Arab League plan of 2003, ironically issued in Beirut, the Clinton plan of 2000, the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in Taba, and the Geneva Accords. All of these plans share a common assumption: full Arab recognition of Israel in exchange for Israel’s withdrawal from all territories occupied since 1967. Israel’s belief that it can continue to occupy the Golan Heights, East Jerusalem, and large portions of the West Bank, with the continued presence of hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers living on Palestinian lands, is delusionary and will only lead to more bloodshed and more wars.
Europe and the U.S. should be encouraging the Jewish State to change its policies of occupation, rather than encouraging it to commit further aggression, which appears to be the policy of the Bush Administration. In the journey from Middle East belligerency to negotiations and reconciliation, Spain and Europe can play a vital role. Real friends of Israel will welcome this intervention.
Jacob Bender
New York City, Sept. 5, 2006

To the Editor of The Los Angeles Times :
Re: “Gaza Strip Pullout Splinters American Jewish Opinion,” Aug. 13
As an American Jew who lived in Israel for many years, I have some sympathy for the Jewish settlers now leaving Gaza.
However, we should also consider the following: 1) in 1948-49, hundreds of thousands Palestinian Arabs were forcibly expelled from Israel by the armed forces of the new Jewish State; 2) in the following years, thousands of acres of Arab-owned land in Israel were expropriated for the exclusive use of Israel’s Jewish citizens; 3) since 1967, thousands of Arab homes have been demolished in Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem by Israel for reasons having nothing to do with “security.” These facts are the products, not of Arab propaganda, but, to their great credit, Israeli historians, journalists and human rights organizations.
For over three decades, Jewish peace advocates in both Israel and the U.S. have been warning that the entire settlement enterprise, based upon messianic and nationalistic delusions, was a disaster for both Palestinians and Israelis that could never be maintained. The results of Israel’s policy, both actively and silently supported by the American Jewish community, are now plain for everyone to see.
Jacob Bender
Los Angeles, Aug. 15, 2005

To the Editor of The New York Times :
Following the mass murder of dozens of Arabs at prayer, your front page highlights the emotional pain of Israeli Jews, rather than the reactions of Arab victims (“Massacre Leaves Israelis Shamed, Sad and Scared of What’s Ahead,” Feb. 27).
I write not as an enemy of Israel, but as an American Jew who, during the many years I lived in Israel, worked as the audio-visual director of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. It is precisely because of this background and my knowledge of the history of Jewish suffering that I find the condemnations of the Hebron massacre by American Jewish organizations hollow in the extreme.
It was these same organizations and Jewish leaders who, over the last two and a half decades, consistently defended the immoral and self-destructive Israeli policy in the occupied territories and kept the funds flowing that enabled the illegal Jewish settlements to flourish. And continuing the Israeli policy of unequal justice for Arabs and Jews in the territories, we surely will not see the family home of Baruch Goldstein demolished, nor his fellow Jewish extremists expelled to Brooklyn.
There are many of us in the Jewish community, both in the United States and in Israel, who have long argued that the settlements were a barrier to peace and a time bomb waiting to explode. Tragically, the Hebron massacre has proved us right. Only a complete acceptance by Israel and the American Jewish community of the Palestinian people’s right to full self-determination will salvage the peace process and the hope that glimmered on the White House lawn last Sept. 13.
Jacob Bender
New York, Feb. 28, 1994

“The Anti-Shariah Movement and Jewish Law”
16 August 2011, www.aslanmedia.com

A front-page article in The New York Times on July 31, 2011, by reporter Andrea Elliott, described some of the personalities involved in the nation-wide campaign against what they call “the danger of Islamic law.”
One of these personalities is David Yerushalmi, a Hasidic Jew from Brooklyn, who the article describes as exercising “a striking influence over American public discourse about Shariah.” Joining forces with right-wing think-tanks, Yerushalmi has “written privately financed reports, filed lawsuits…and drafted the legislation” that aims to cast Shariah as the gravest contemporary threat to American freedom. A Web site of Yerushalmi’s organization goes so far as to propose a sentence of 20 years for anyone found guilty of observing Islamic law.
As an American Jew, I was immediately interested in Yerushalmi’s involvement in the campaign against Shariah. A documentary filmmaker by training and profession, I have spent the last several years directing Out of Cordoba , a film about the two greatest thinkers to emerge from medieval Muslim Spain, Ibn Rushd (Averroes) the Muslim, and his Jewish counterpart, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimun (Moses Maimonides). These two geniuses, both born in the Andalucian city of Cordoba, were philosophers committed to balancing the ancient Greek rationalism of Aristotle with the revealed truths they found in the Qur’an and in the Torah, as well as serving as court physicians to their local rulers in Spain and in Egypt, respectively.
Averroes and Maimonides were also judges of Shariah and Halakhah (Jewish religious law), believing that religious law was the foundation of God’s will on earth, and the basis of just and rational societies, guiding not only religious practices and beliefs of an observant Muslim or a Jew, but also the numerous day-to-day aspects of their lives.
What is striking about Maimonides — generally considered to have had the most influence of any individual on the Jewish religion over the last millennium — is the profound influence of Muslim thinkers upon his thought. Ironically, Yerushalmi seems totally ignorant of this Islamic influence upon his own religious traditions. In Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah , his great code of Halakhah, as well as in the Guide for the Perplexed , his philosophical masterpiece, Maimonides cites numerous Muslim writers, including Ibn Sina (980-1037), Al-Farabi (872-951), and Ibn Hazm (994-1064). Late in his life, while serving as the court physician to Saladin in Egypt, we find Maimonides reading the numerous commentaries on the works of Aristotle written by Averroes. Maimonides lived all his life in the Muslim lands of Spain, Morocco, and Egypt, and was steaped in the latest intellectual trends of his day.
Except for the Mishneh Torah , all of Maimonides’ books, responsa , and correspondence were written in Arabic. That over three-quarters of the world’s Jews once lived in the dar-al-Islam (Muslim lands), and that Arabic was once also the language of Jewish people, are historical facts of little use to the Ashkenazic-centric worldview of people like Yerushalmi, ignorant as they are of the heritage of those Jewish communities beyond the confines of Eastern and Central Europe, known to scholars and lay-persons alike as Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews. It is important to note that Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed was often banned in many of the yeshivot (rabbinical schools) of Eastern Europe, for its espousal of the pagan Aristotle.
We should not be surprised at all that Yerushalmi, a practicing attorney, has no academic training in Islamic jurisprudence, nor in Jewish history, and that among his legal clients is Pamela Geller, another star of the bigoted Islamophobic circus that also includes Robert Spencer, Rev. Franklin Graham, and Daniel Pipes. (Full disclosure: A Web site associated with the anti-Shariah movement, www.SheikYerMami.com, accused me of being a long-time agent of Saudi Arabia because part of the funding for my film Out of Cordoba was provided by the Alwaleed bin Talal Foundation, together with the governments of the United States and Spain. Saudi Prince Alwaleed’s foundation has also made generous donations to such dangerous and subversive institutions as Harvard University and the Jesuit Georgetown University, as well as to the Louvre Museum in Paris.)
What should be abundantly clear from all of this is that the anti-Shariah movement has no interest in either history or facts. On the former, any honest reading of the history of Western Civilization will acknowledge the vast influence of Muslim thinkers across a wide range of human disciples, be it in philosophy, theology, architecture, grammar, poetics, mathematics, medicine, or astronomy. And regarding the current debate over Shariah, the simple fact is that this a red herring if there ever was one, for there is no vast Muslim conspiracy to advance the “Shariahization” of the United States that anyone can truly identify.
There is, however, a growing movement by Islamophobic bigots, Yerushalmi included, who seek to demonize Islam and deny Muslim Americans their constitutionally protected freedom of religion. This is the real contemporary threat to American freedom. The reason I undertook to produce Out of Cordoba was to shine a light on the long centuries of cross-fertilization by Muslims, Jews, and Christians. This collaboration can still inspire us today to overcome the forces of ignorance and bigotry that have arisen again — as they did in earlier episodes in American history against Native Americans and African Americans, against Irish, Italian and Chinese immigrants, and against Catholics and Jews — and strive towards a multicultural and multi-faith America, ever expanding the frontiers of tolerance and inclusion.
Jacob Bender is the director of the award-winning documentary Out of Cordoba . He can be reached at [email protected]

Egypt’s Jewish Studies Doyen Looks Back
(Published in The Jewish Daily Forward, July 15, 2009, issue of July 24, 2009 )

“What’s a nice professor of Jewish studies doing teaching in a place like this?”
For those unfamiliar with contemporary Egyptian intellectual life, this might be the first question that comes to mind upon meeting Mohamed Hawary, a professor of Hebrew studies and Jewish thought at Ain Shams University in Cairo, a teeming school of some 180,000 students.
Hawary, 59, is considered to be the doyen of Jewish studies in Egypt. A world-renowned scholar of Judaism, the author of numerous books and articles on a wide range of Jewish subjects, Hawary is also a practicing Muslim and a proud and patriotic Egyptian. FJC recently interviewed Hawary in Cairo, where both he and this reporter were attending an interfaith conference at Al-Azhar University.
“I first developed an interest in Judaism and Israel because of the many verses in the Holy Quran pertaining to Jews,” Hawary recalled. “This led me to want to know more about Jews, the historical relationship between Judaism and Islam, but also to learn about Israel.”
It was, Hawary said, the 1967 Six Day War with Israel that ultimately moved him to turn his budding interest into a career. “Israel was the enemy, of course, of Egypt and the Arabs. But I thought it was important to know who this enemy was.”
Motivated to pursue Hebrew language and Jewish studies, Hawary received his Bachelor of Arts in 1971 at Cairo University and completed his doctorate at Ain Shams. There, he wrote his doctoral dissertation on “The Divinity of the Children of Israel, From Moses to the Babylonian Exile.”
“When I started out in the field,” Hawary said, “there were very few of us. Hebrew was not a separate department, but was studied as part of Arabic and Semitic languages.” Today, thanks to the efforts of Hawary and his colleagues, more than half of the 18 institutions of higher learning in Egypt have departments of Hebrew and Jewish studies.
At Ain Shams, around 400 students take Hebrew and Jewish studies courses. Some of these students aim for academic appointments. Many eventually find their way into positions in Egypt’s diplomatic corps, the military and, of course, intelligence work. Not surprisingly, the Arab-Israeli conflict looms large in Egypt over the entire discourse of Arab-Jewish and Muslim-Jewish relations.
Hawary said he started visiting Israel in the early 1980s, not long after Egypt’s Camp David peace agreement with Israel. At the time, he was strongly attacked in the Egyptian press for his visits. Nevertheless, he said, “Inside of me, I wanted to improve relations with Israeli academics, to help make contacts, to support the peace process.”
But now, decades after these first attempts at normalization, Hawary no longer will visit the Jewish state. “I am extremely disappointed in the policy of Israel all this time,” he explained, referring particularly to its continued expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. “I had great hopes for the peace process. I am still receiving invitations to go to Israel, but I am refusing now. It is simply not logical to continue to visit Israel as if its occupation of Palestinian lands and the Israeli settlement policy was not continuing all the time.”
There can be no warm peace between Egypt and Israel, Hawary explained, “nor should there be,” until there is a solution to the Palestinian problem.
Asked how the Arab-Israeli conflict affects his students, Hawary said, “I teach my students that they need to make a distinction between the policies of the government of Israel and Jews around the world. When we speak about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we need to make sure that this is not understood as a religious conflict. I know many Jews, in Israel, in America, in Europe, who support the right of the Palestinian people to an independent state, and I tell my students about this. It is simply not permissible to put all Jews in one bag.”
Pressed about antisemitism in the Egyptian media, such as the television serialization of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” Hawary said that both sides in the Arab-Israeli conflict have made use of negative and racist stereotypes, and all such prejudices should be condemned.

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