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Posts Tagged ‘Jewish Muslim dialogue’

It has been an interesting week. In the aftermath of a summer that began with the ill-timed and ill-begotten Presbyterian resolution to divest from some companies that invest in Israel, followed by the horrifying war between Israel and Hamas, I find I am spending more and more time speaking to non-Jewish groups about Israel. In addition, because of the editorial I co-wrote in July on the Gaza conflict with my friend, Dr. Parvez Ahmed, I find I am one of small group that actually interacts with Muslims. The editorial made first page of the Huffington Post. Parvez and I both lament the tensions and realize our responsibility to model a different way to engage in interaction. What made this week interesting is that in two speaking engagements, I saw the poles of the Israeli/Palestinian problems – one that was discouraging and one that was hopeful.

On Sunday morning I was asked to speak at First Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee. I was one of two speakers and my task was to present the Israeli perspective on both the most recent conflict as well as the overall issues with the Palestinians. The other speaker, presenting the Palestinian perspective, was a member of the “Students for Justice in Palestine,” a student group not only on the Florida State campus, but many campuses across the country. I had heard of the group but never interacted with it, as my only reason to go on campus is when I am a guest lecturer for a class. The speaker was a young woman, a Christian, whose grandparents lived in Palestine until 1948, when they were forced to leave.

I was asked to speak first. I said it was hard to give a single Israeli perspective for two reasons. First, there are a lot of opinions within Israel about the conflict and how it came to be. The official position of the Netanyahu government is different than the editorial pages of Ha’aretz, for example. Second, the problem is very complex, despite many people’s attempts to force it into simple axioms. Different people, depending on the narrative they wish to convey put the start of the problems at different times, 1967 (aftermath of the Six Day War), 1948 (Declaration of the State of Israel and the resulting war), 1916 (Balfour Declaration). I suggested that to understand the conflict one had to realize there have always been Jews living in Palestine, not a majority of the country, but they have always been there; and that the modern increase in Jewish presence leading to the eventual creation of Israel has its beginning in 1894 – when Herzl witnessed the Dreyfus trial.

To summarize the Israeli perspective I stressed three things. First, that one must not conflate the Palestinian people and Hamas. Hamas is a terrorist organization but the Palestinian people have legitimate needs and grievances. Second, that the death of civilians especially children, was deeply tragic; third, that I oppose attempts to delegitimize the State of Israel but I disagree with much of the policy of the current government. I ended my 15 minutes by saying once again it is a multi-layered problem that should not be reduced to simplistic statements.

Then it was the young woman’s turn from the SJP. She gave a moving account of her grandparents’ story, how they were forced to leave their home in Palestine in 1948. This clearly drove her emotions as she then proceeded to continually condemn the “Zionists” for taking Palestinian land, for driving out the people, for destroying what she described as a lovely kind of utopia where Jews, Christians and Muslims all got along. That was only one of her historical mistakes. She showed no real acquaintance with the history leading up to 1947. She stated that Jews were only 1 third of the population of Palestine in 1947 yet got 56 % of the land under the UN partition plan. While technically true, much of that land was the Negev desert. Most of the partition plan awarded each people the land where their population was the most concentrated.

During the question and answer period, it got worse. She stated that Hamas had the right to do whatever it wished as it was fighting for the liberation of an oppressed people. No acknowledgement of its anti-Semitism or its religiously radical agenda that brands it outside the pale. She advocated a one state solution, but offered no way how to get there.

I was faced with a choice. Do I go into direct debate with her, contradicting her “facts” and allegations? Or, do I just try to state very reasonable embracing positions, emphasizing my sympathy for the deprivations of the Palestinians. I chose the latter. I felt at that point I did not need to speak to the Presbyterians, but to her. She needed to see and hear a Jewish leader who was not a chest thumper, but who would give a reasonable, balanced presentation. To correct all of her facts (I did offer a couple of corrections) would have made it seem like the older man being condescending to a young woman. That was a no win path.

Yesterday, Thursday, I had a very different experience. The director of the interfaith office at North Florida University in Jacksonville, where Parvez teaches, asked if we would speak at a weekly gathering they have called “Difficult Conversations.” Having read our editorial, she felt we might be able to model how a Jew and Muslim can speak about the Israeli/Palestinian issue. She said usually 30 to 35 students and faculty attend and she thought that might go up to 40.

First, I met Parvez for lunch. We had our usual conversation about the latest in Philadelphia sports. This week we relished an Eagle victory to open the season. We then went to campus to attend the event. When we walked into the room it was already overflowing. In the end 65 attended, double what they usually have. The crowd was diverse racially and religiously. We spoke about our friendship, how that relationship allows us to speak honestly about issues. We stressed that we find much common ground as we are sensitive to the sufferings of each other’s people. We talked about not trying to prove a narrative, but to try to understand the other person’s perspective – why someone feels the way they do. We spoke about the uselessness of shouting at each other and chest thumping. Most of all we emphasized the need to form relationships, friendships.

The students were wonderful in their responses and their questions. It was clear they heard and appreciated the message. What moved me the most was that the presidents of the Muslim Student Association, and the Jewish Student Association, both came. Neither had been to this forum before. Neither had met the other before. When the session was done I found the two of them exchanging phone numbers and deciding to have lunch together. Parvez and I both encouraged them to seek a better path. They agreed. As we left the event Parvez said to me, “Jack, today we had a victory.” I agreed.

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo tells of the declaration of blessings and curses from the tops of two mountains. The blessings are to come from the top of Mt. Gerizim, the curses from the top of Mt. Ebal. The tribes are divided into two groups, with one on each mountain. A valley yawns as a gulf between them. This week I took a turn on the top of each mountain, one of curse and one of blessing. I pray that one day, if more of us can spend time on the mountain of blessing, we can bridge the gulf.

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