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ISNA: American Muslims and Jews Together: Building a Hopeful Future

September 14, 2007

We had a family tradition that involved eating dinner and then sitting together as a family to watch the news.  My memories of this start in a particular Chicago apartment before my brother was born so my mother informs me that these memories range somewhere between my birth and the age of 3 years old.  When I got older, I would have the channel set to ABC and anxiously await my father who regularly came home with a brown paper bag filled with goodies from his work vending machine.  We’d sit in the breakfast room and eat our dinner with the local news in the background and then head off to the family room to watch the world news with Peter Jennings followed by more news and Wheel of Fortune.

I’ve watched the images of Cambodia; I watched the Afghans fight the Soviets; I watched the Iraq/Iran war; I watched the Iran Hostage crisis begin and end; I witnessed the cold war and the end of the cold war.  By the time I got married I watched images of my own being massacred, raped, bombed on a daily basis and even on occasion have seen friends on television being interviewed or read about aquaintances in US newspapers and Alhamdullilah – I saw even that come to an end.  I’ve watched so many conflicts and atrocities begin and end but one thing has always remained a constant, one thing I could count on to always be there – the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.

It is said that blood is thicker than water but unfortunately from what I’ve witnessed my whole life – blood carries no weight when it comes to land, greed, pride and supremecy.  We’ll sooner sacrifice more of our very own blood, let alone that of those we label the enemy, for the one breath that it takes to declare victory.  Such is the nature of man and so shamefully in a region that every major monolithic religion claims as holy to them we have shamefully given up even God’s words for our his cause. 

We have demonized each other to a point that Muslims and Jews often can’t even have peacefull relations at American university campuses.  This conflict is being fought not only on the ground of holy land but it’s being fought on an intellectual level.   We make heros out of nobodies because they were/are a Jew  and take the Palestinian side or because they were/are a Muslim and take the Israeli side. 

So for me this was a program not to miss:

Rabbi Elahu Stern of the first speaker of this program relayed his story of his reaction to being invited to speak at ISNA – how his googling turned up numbers of “35,000 Muslims!”  “40,000 Muslims! at ISNA”.  “I can’t even get that many Jews to listen to me!” He yelled out.  So here we sat in a full conference room, all approximately 200 of us,  at the Stephensen Convention Center listening to how he thought he was going to have an audience of 35,000 – 40,000 of us and we roared with laughter not because it was a ridiculous thought but because we can understand how one would get that impression.  He went on to tell us about all of the phone calls he had made announcing those numbers and his excitement only to get dead silence on the other end, nervous laughter or disbelief.  None of his phone calls were encouraging and he found it depressing to get that kind of response.  Eventually he said what was to come out of his mouth during a phone call was “I just don’t get it.  After the Holocoust Muslims and Jews attempted to reconcile.  50 years later people can’t remember.  If after the Holocoust you can sit with Christians how can you not sit with Muslims?”

He spoke a bit about the “Christian Jewish moment” and how it was easier as Christianity had recognized its wrong.  It was one directional but with Muslims and Jews both have to acknowledge their wrongs.  He suggested that the conversation needs to start localized – in the living room .. in schools and that it was more complicated in terms of religion than with Christianity – refering to our differences.  However he reminded us that one philosopher said that Jews can pray in any mosque but not in a church.

He said that to realize that Jewish Christian dialogue was successfull and that we need to realize that all dialogue be self critical.  That is what is needed in Islamic/Jewish dialogue .. both sides need to do this.

Samuel Fleischacker, our next speaker spoke about how he felt a kinship with Muslims more than with Christians due to being Jewish and living in a Christian world and also felt a theological kinship.  He spoke about being in Indonesia and comming back from Bali that he heard the Adhan and felt at home.

He spoke about how we share culture, religion but that we just can’t get away from Israel but that we have to say away from the subject of Israel.  His solution was that we stress our overlaps: eating as a part of holiness, modesty, rituals of marriage, rituals of death and our philosophical overlaps of Yemen, Iraq and Andulusia.

“Emphasize these first then Israel”

Ari Alexander was the last to speak from the Jewish panel and somehow I couldn’t help but be saddened: 

“I was raised to be afraid of you and you weren’t around so I was afraid of you.  I thought that if I were to meet you that you’d probably kill me.”

Ari seemed afraid as he stood there before us.  It may have been stage fright but it made what he said just sink in all the more.

Ari had spent time at the Muhala Mali Ayuk camp (Lebanon/Syria? and forgive the spelling please) teaching English while he studied Arabic.  Everyone told him not to go, the Syrians, the Lebanese but he decided to go and while he was there he wouldn’t tell anyone that he was Jewish.  It seemed on occasion that people there even thought he was a spy but for 90 days he didn’t tell anyone he was Jewish.  On his last day a little 15 year old girl approached him with tears in her eyes to say good bye and gives him a gift .. a Hamas keychain.  Ari was laughing when he told us this part and he said that he had almost burst out laughing when she gave him the keychain.  However, Ari saw it as an expressioin of love and that was when he decided that we (Muslims and Jews) had to meet each other.

“These conections need to take place deep in the Msulim world and countries all over the world.” were Ari’s words.  Ari not only speaks those words but is active in actually making this a reality.  He is co-founder of Children of Abraham, a forum for Muslims and Jews to meet and discuss.

He spoke of Dania of Indonesia a participant of this program.  Besides just meeting each other on these forums these children are encouraged to write op-eds.  Dania’s op-ed took a year to be published but the Jakarta Post took her op-ed and published it unedited.  After that she was invited for radio interviews and on one such interview she stated “I was raised to hate Jews.  That’s not right.  We can get along.”

Gulrukh Rahman was the last speaker and it was just classical:

“You think you’re afraid of Muslims?  Jews caused power outages in 120 degree weather.”

Yeah, like .. we laughed. 

I’m not sure if I had to tend to my fidgety five year old little A who attended most of these programs with me or if he kept his part short but all I have left were these words:

“The Jewish American experience should be our guiding light to Muslim Americans.”

Looking over my notes and seeing another quote by Samuel “I would love to see yeshiva’s and madrassas working together.  Jewish students taking madrassah classes and Muslim students taking yeshiva classes.”  I am reminded that the Muslim panelist did bring up some points on how Muslims and Jews have been working together in the US.

All in all I found this to be quite an informative program although I’m not quite sure that we could ever realy avoid the Palestine/Israel conflict I think that we can take Rabbi Sterns advice of acknowledging our wrongs but also remember that peace is going to come through sacrifice – not through the sacrifice of blood but through the sacrifice of pride, land, and victory.  Peace will not come free but the cost of peace is not in the form of blood.  Maybe if we can remember these things when we speak with each other in regards to the conflict .. then maybe we can actually come up with some solutions.

Peace however is not going to happen tommorow and it is up to us to stop creating this fear of each other.  It is up to us to teach our children humanity instead of instilling fear which is often a prelude to hate.  It is up to us to do some self reflecting and ask ourselves if our own views are righteous.

One Comment leave one →
  1. syed saboor permalink
    August 7, 2008 3:09 am

    American Muslims and Jews working together. Are you kidding me. Jews are the mortal enemies of Muslims. ISNA is a joke. It no longer serves as a Muslim convention, but a house of dating, zina, and a picnic for nominal Muslims. I quit ISNA. We need a better convention for Muslims, where they actually teach Islam.

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