Kum Bay Ya: Truths About Interreligious Dialogue

A guest blog entry by Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky
Director, Milstein Center for Interreligious Dialogue, Jewish Theological Seminary

I recently gave a lecture in Florida on Jewish-Muslim relations. I reported some of the highlights of my almost 20 years of involvement in Jewish-Muslim dialogue, with an emphasis on the past decade since 9/11. As I told that audience of elderly Jews, there is lots of good news to report. I am happy to be the bearer of glad tidings, even when there is some not such good news in the mix. I want to report what’s really happening locally, nationally, and internationally. I am fortunate to teach at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), by virtue of which I have the privilege of being involved in these dialogues. Being at these encounters, talking to real “street” Muslims, local imams, national leaders, heads of Muslim countries, gives me a perspective that few are granted. Over the past half-decade I have taken the trouble to learn some Arabic, so I can read Quran and Hadith in the original; and if I listen hard enough, feel sure that what is being translated in my earphones is what is being said to the Arabic-speaking audiences I find myself among.

This is not the place to recite the litany of countries whose leaders who have visited the synagogue at JTS under the auspices of the U.S. Department of State’s International Visitors’ Leadership Program. The really good news is that many, many Muslim countries are represented, from Indonesia to Turkey and throughout the Middle East. Nor will I list the Muslim countries I have travelled to. When I visit those countries I know that I represent all Jews to their press and their public. Whether I wish to or not, I represent Israel, and so I do. And whether I am on al-Jazeera television or Saudi Arabian television, I am treated politely, asked easy questions, translated accurately; and the interviews are carried widely among the Arabic populace.

Back in Florida this week I was quite reasonably asked: “why don’t we [Jews here in America] know about this?” This is a hard question to answer because my interrogator may never listen to the news or read a paper with international coverage. But even if they scanned the media regularly, they would run into what I now call the Kum Bay Ya problem. When I once complained to a reporter that so much good news about combating religious prejudice and about interreligious encounter went unreported, I was dismissed with, “Ah rabbi, it’s just so much Kum Bay Ya.” Having grown up singing along to Kum Bay Ya I was offended at this cynicism. I protested, “If you have a choice between people shooting at each other or people singing Kum Bay Ya, which would you choose?” I naively thought the answer obvious. At least the reporter blushed as he told me, “My editor will pick shooting at each other every time.”

We must be activists and demand that our media cover the good news of interreligious dialogue here and abroad. There is far too much positive engagement out there that remains unreported. Our job is not to sell newspapers or promote conflict. We work for interreligious understanding and peace. “Hear me praying, Lord, kum bay ya.”