By Eli Saperstein, Opinions Editor
YU’s new Presidential Forum series, an initiative in which Yeshiva University president Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman will engage with the global leaders and voices who are shaping today’s world, kicked off on October 21, 2021 when Yeshiva University welcomed Sheikh Mohammed al Issa to the Wilf Campus. Dr. Al-Issa spoke privately with Rabbi Berman and some close friends of Yeshiva University over lunch before addressing students from Yeshiva College, Sy Syms School of Business, the Graduate Program in Advanced Talmudic Studies (GPATS), Yeshiva University High School for Girls, and the Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy (MTA) in Belfer Hall’s Weisberg Commons. The event for students was conducted in association with the Rabbi Arthur Schneier Program for International Affairs of Yeshiva University, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and the American Sephardi Federation.
The Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre named Dr. Al-Issa one of the most influential Muslims globally in its 2020 edition of “The Muslim 500: The World’s Most Influential Muslims.” In addition Dr. Al-Issa received the inaugural “Combat Anti-Semitism” Award from the Combat Anti-Semitism Movement and the American Sephardi Federation for his contributions to the fight against anti-Semitism and racism. Dr. Al-Issa has been a staunch ally and friend to the Jewish people and is helping the two people come together in unprecedented ways.
Rabbi Berman began the program for students by introducing Dr. Al-Issa and by explaining his role and the importance of that moment in history, saying, “the visit by Sheikh Mohammed al-Issa to the flagship Jewish university, reflects the enormous opportunity today of reconciliation not only between nation states but between peoples.” Berman also further noted, “Today we have an opportunity to not only come together to bury our past but build our brighter future.”
After Rabbi Berman’s opening remarks, Malcolm Hoenlein welcomed Dr. Al-Issa, thanking him for visiting Auschwitz and fighting against Holocaust denial. Hoenlein noted that Dr. Al-Issa is the senior-most Muslim leader to visit the Nazi concentration camp and has publicly spoken out against antisemitism.
Dr. Al-Issa spoke to the audience through a translator, noting the “shared responsibility” between Jews and Muslims in steering a world that is so focused on science, technology, and knowledge back to one based in values. Dr. Al-Issa explained, “Universities need to teach values so we can apply technologies in the right way and not cause division.” Dr. Al-Issa shared with the audience that this belief can be learnt from what happened in Nazi Germany as Nazi Germany did not lack culture, knowledge nor an education system, they lacked the values to guide their advancements and their resultant crimes shook the human conscience. He also spoke about the power of language and how words can be used both to heal and harm. He stated, “We may have differences, but we must have love for one another and come together.” Dr. Al-Issa added that “Diversity should be a tool used for better understanding and better relationships, and not a tool to make people grow apart.”
Following Dr. Al-Issa’s remarks, Rabbi Berman and Dr. Al-Issa engaged in conversation on Dr. Al-Issa’s influences, with a few pre-approved questions submitted from students. The dialogue included a discussion on Dr. Al-Issa’s accomplishments, views on the Middle East, and how his family life shaped him into becoming the transformative person and leader he is today.
As the event came to a close President Berman asked, “What do you think prevented an event like this from happening earlier in history, and what do you think changed to make this event possible today?” Al-Issa responded with a smile, “Maybe I didn’t receive an invitation before” his answer was met with a resounding round of applause from the audience.
The university presented Al-Issa with a gift honoring his achievements in furthering Jewish-Muslim relations and there were opportunities for students to have pictures taken with Dr. Al-Issa and Rabbi Berman.
At the conclusion of the event, Rabbi Berman teased several new initiatives such as a potential exchange program in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia.
This is only the most recent event regarding YU’s global outreach initiatives. YU has engaged with different Islamic leaders and countries over the past year. Rabbi Berman visited Dubai for Yom HaShoah in April 2021, where he spoke and met with various Muslim leaders. Sheikh Abdullah bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, who is the undersecretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for Political Affairs of the Kingdom of Bahrain, spoke at YU on October 5, 2021.
Rabbi Berman noted that this event gave Dr. Al-Issa an opportunity to speak directly to the young Jewish leaders of the world of tomorrow. Berman elaborated, “For them to be in dialogue with you and hear your message of reconciliation, so that when they move into their positions of influence and authority in the future—they will be informed and inspired to move this conversation forward.”
The Rabbi Arthur Schneier Program for International Affairs of Yeshiva University shared their thoughts with the YU Observer, saying, “We were delighted to have the secretary general of the Muslim World League, Sheikh Dr. Mohammad Al-Issa, visit Yeshiva University. Our program is determined to build cross-cultural bridges and we feel that Sheikh Dr. Al-Issa’s meeting with President Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman was a successful step in the process of reconnecting the Jewish and Muslim communities in peace. The two peoples have a deep-rooted connection with one another which has been forgotten by so many and we are very pleased to be a part of the re-shaping of this narrative. It was also an honor to have Rabbi Arthur Schneier at the event, bringing his decades of global diplomacy to stage and promoting the reparation of the bridge that Jews and Muslims share.”
Students shared their thoughts on the event with the YU Observer. A student (SSSB ‘23) who wishes to remain anonymous stated, “For a country that has traditionally sanctioned and supported terror to take such a huge step toward peace is incredible. To be part of an event which is one small step on this road to peace is humbling.” Another anonymous student (SCW ‘23) noted, “There was a noticeable silence on the topic of Islamophobia. While for various reasons I would hesitate to equate Antisemitism with Islamophobia, it is important that when both sides come together and are working on building a relationship it needs to be more than just about being nicer to Jews.”