Rabbi David Rosen on founding the Saudi Center in Vienna: “Jews have to take risks“

Original Article published by derstandard.at October 12, 2011

German original: http://derstandard.at/1317019916376/Interreligioeses-Institut-Saudi-Zentrum-in-Wien-Wir-Juden-muessen-Risiken-eingehen

Interview by Maria Sterkl, October 12, 2011

Rabbi David Rosen is the only Jewish representative at the controversial Institute for interreligious dialogue in Vienna. We asked him why he agreed to take on this difficult job.

The decision to make Vienna the seat of the King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Centre, which will be financed by Saudi Arabia, has created a lot of commotion; many people think that you cannot name a center for interreligious dialogue after the king of a country that treats religious freedom with contempt. Foreign Minister Spindelegger’s solemn act of signing the founding treaty on Thursday will probably create further protests. We interviewed Rabbi David Rosen, who will be the institute’s only Jewish board member, asking him why he would put himself in that difficult position.

derStandard.at: Rabbi, you are the only member of the interreligious center who is officially not allowed to travel to Saudi Arabia simply because you are Jewish. Why are you still willing to be a on the Board of Directors?

Rabbi David Rosen: I know a few Jews who have actually traveled to Saudi Arabia, and I think that I will be able to as well. The Saudis can use this opportunity to show that they have serious intentions of improving the interreligious relationship; after all, they will have to provide proper accommodation for me in Saudi Arabia.

derStandard.at: Was it a tough decision for you whether or not to join the Board of Directors as the only Jewish board member?

Rabbi David Rosen: No. I was already present at the first interreligious meeting with King Abdullah in Madrid, and I was impressed by his plans to improve Saudi Arabia’s behavior towards other faiths in his country. It has been a very slow process, but I still consider it vital to support it. It is in the interest of all the different faiths to support this process.

derStandard.at: When did the idea of founding this institute emerge?

Rabbi David Rosen: The meeting took place four years ago in Madrid; King Abdullah wanted to promote interreligious dialogue. His advisors had apparently told him that it would not be the best idea to hold that meeting in Saudi Arabia because its society would not yet be ready for this kind of dialogue. So we met in Madrid instead. King Juan Carlos and the Spanish government were happy to welcome us. Back then, the concrete idea of founding this center had not emerged yet. The decision to found the center was made roughly two-and-a-half years ago in Vienna.

derStandard.at: What were the Saudis’ intentions in founding this center?

Rabbi David Rosen: To be honest, their prime interest was probably focused more on Christian churches and especially the Catholic Church, rather than on us Jews. To be consistent though, they had to include a Jewish representative, too. They ended up choosing me even though that was probably not an easy choice for the Saudis given that I am an Israeli. I know that they have been criticized for choosing me.

derStandard.at: Why didn’t the Saudis just choose a US-American Jewish representative then to spare them the criticism?

Rabbi David Rosen: They could have done that, too. I don’t want to brag, but I think there were just a lot of people who recommended me. In the end, all the positive aspects outweighed their fear of criticism. But there may be strategic reasons, too; after all, now they can basically say, “Look, this is a legitimate and respectable project; even though we can’t stand the country Mr. Rosen is from, we still chose him. That’s proof that we have an honest interest in improving our relationship.”

derStandard.at: Have you experienced criticism within the Jewish community, too?

Rabbi David Rosen: Yes, a lot actually. As early as four years ago when the first meeting in Madrid took place, some tried to convince my employer not to let me attend the meeting. I had entire newspapers against me. The critics said that I was just a figleaf for the Saudis, and that I was collaborating with the enemy. I can understand this kind of criticism and do not think it is entirely silly, but I consider it to be somewhat short-sighted. You are only hurting yourself when you refuse to work with somebody who is going in the right direction, even if your collaboration will include some problem areas. When more and more information about the plan was released it became clear that key Islamic figures would collaborate on this project, and my decision was clear.

derStandard.at: When did you choose Vienna as the center’s location and why?

Rabbi David Rosen: The decision to found the center’s headquarters in Vienna was made roughly 9 months ago. I would be interested to know why they didn’t decide on Madrid; after all, that was where the whole process started. Maybe it’s because Vienna is more centrally located. I don’t know.

derStandard.at: Some Austrians are speculating that economic interests were the reason why Austria offered to found the center on its soil.

Rabbi David Rosen: That sounds plausible. But the question remains why King Abdullah chose Vienna, considering that he already had excellent connections to King Juan Carlos and the Spanish government.

derStandard.at: Does it bother you that the interim director of the center is a Saudi-Arabian government representative?

Rabbi David Rosen: Should that turn out to be a long-term decision, it would actually be worrying. We will work out a founding document according to which the institute will be entirely independent and that it will be the board’s responsibility to guide and direct the center. Should the Saudis not comply with this provision in the founding treaty, I suppose that most of us would terminate their collaboration.

derStandard.at: Nevertheless, the center will be financed by the Saudi Arabian government.

Rabbi David Rosen: Yes, the institute’s building belongs to the Saudis and the center has been named after King Abdullah. However, that is something we are all in favor of, both the Christians and I, simply because it is definitely a positive development for Saudi Arabia to stand up for religious tolerance. And yes, there are many problematic aspects to be found in Saudi Arabia, especially for Jews. But the Saudis explained to us that the institute would help them change the anti-Jewish sentiment in their society. Now it is up to us to risk acting in good faith. We have to consider one thing: in the Muslim world, Saudi Arabia is not just any Islamic state, but the state that harbors the holiest Muslim shrine. Saudi Arabia is the bedrock state of Islam, so to speak. So if that state shows commitment to the process of religious freedom, we would be stupid not to encourage that development.

derStandard.at: How many members will be on the board?

Rabbi David Rosen: Three Muslims – two Sunnis, one Shiite – three Christians – a Catholic, an Anglican, and an Orthodox –, one Buddhist, one Hindu, and a Jew. As far as I know, the project will be a collaborative effort between Saudi Arabia, Austria, Spain, and the Vatican.

derStandard.at: What are the goals you will try to achieve on behalf of the Jewish community?

Rabbi David Rosen: For the Jewish communities it is of crucial importance to reduce biases and prejudices. We are the eternal minority and will always be the minority. Therefore, interreligious understanding is absolutely vital for us.

derStandard.at: How often will you travel to Vienna?

Rabbi David Rosen: Four times a year, as far as I know. We will set up study groups on different topics – science, medicine, society, conflict solving.

derStandard.at: Will women’s rights be one of the topics you will address?

Rabbi David Rosen: I very much hope so. We have discussed this and I haven’t seen any negative reactions. At least one woman will be on the board – the representative of the Buddhist community. Of course there are striking differences in opinion on this. But I think you could not be a credible institution of interreligious dialogue if you ignored women’s rights in particular and human rights in general.

Rabbi David Rosen is the Director of the American Jewish Committee’s Department of Interreligious Affairs. He is a former Chief Rabbi from Ireland and currently serves as the interreligious advisor to the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. He is supposed to join the Saudi-financed interreligious center in Vienna as the only Jewish representative. He lives in Jerusalem.