A Different Kind of Conversation About the Middle East

“Step One is recognizing that this is a difficult dialogue … That’s crucially important… [And] when you realize that it’s … Continued

“Step One is recognizing that this is a difficult dialogue … That’s crucially important… [And] when you realize that it’s difficult but that you’re willing to take it on, I think that’s where the courage starts …” — Ola, Interfaith Youth Core Fellow

My previous blog posts have been on the need for a new playbook amongst Jews and Muslims in America regarding the Middle East. At the Interfaith Youth Core, we are about nurturing a new generation of leaders who can bridge the faith divide. We asked two of our best, two 2008-2009 Interfaith Youth Core Fellows: a young Muslim woman at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a young Jewish man at The George Washington University, to have a discussion about the Middle East, based both on their religious identities and the new rules I articulated in my previous post.

I think this conversation, which took place on January 5th via phone, is a model for the most senior leaders in Muslim and Jewish organizations in America.

This is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Personal Fears Regarding the Conflict in the Middle East

Ola: My biggest fear, when you’re talking about the Israeli and the Arab communities in the Middle East, is that the cycle is just perpetuating… The impact that the violence on both sides has on the youth is really disturbing to me, because that’s what keeps the cycle going. Young people particularly are very impressionable, and when they see this destruction, and this violence, and this really negative way of dealing with differences on the ground – day in and day out – it psychologically plays into their values, and they grow up … genuinely feeling (and I really can’t blame them) that the other side is pure evil, and that there’s no way to solve this but to continue on with the violence…

Mike: I think that my biggest fear is very similar to Ola’s… When I hear both Jews and Muslims talking about the situation, people are framing it as, “We can’t work with the other side. The other side is evil.” And although both sides do have very, very big concerns, you know, growing up in this type of culture where you can’t even trust the other side of the conflict as people… [and] you think the other side is all evil, as I’ve heard many people say about Muslims recently… That’s just … not a good way to help solve the conflict in the end… Another big concern of mine … is that this violence is continuing. People are continuing to die, and there really is no end in sight unless people can try to reach out to the other side in some way and try to at least get some type of understanding about the other side.

Community Fears Regarding the Conflict in the Middle East

Mike: I think in the Jewish community there are a lot of big fears about the future of Israel. The continued rocket attacks … have caused fear in a lot of Israeli communities. The rockets used to only be able to hit Sderot. Then they were able to reach … further away cities like Ashkelon, and now they can reach Beersheva, which is about fifty miles away… A lot of Israelis are very nervous that this could threaten their lives. And I’ve heard a lot of Jews in the United States say that the reason that the death toll is a lot higher on the Palestinian side is that the Israelis are taught and told to go to bomb shelters when rockets are coming, and that’s saved a lot of lives… There’s also fear… that there are going to be more suicide bombings… unless Hamas is disabled… And although I think a lot of people in the Jewish community do understand the Palestinian suffering and do… think that this is terrible that anyone is dying… they see it as a necessary evil… And as I saw on TV … Benjamin Netanyahu … was saying if Israel wanted to just kill Palestinians, it would carpet bomb Gaza Strip. So it’s pretty clear from the Jewish perspective that [Israel is] not targeting Palestinians, but rather, trying to end this terrorism that’s been happening.

Ola: Well I would say that the current fear [of the Muslim community] is just that the survival of Gaza is in danger, that it’s a small stretch of land that’s been blockaded for many months, and then on top of that, now you have air strikes, and now a land invasion that has gone on for ten days. [And] it’s really mind-boggling how variant the [numbers] are, but all [the media outlets] put … the number of dead in the hundreds, the number of injured in the thousands. Day and night this constant … firing of air strikes, and it comes from above, and it comes during the night, and it comes throughout the day, and you don’t know when it’s coming… What’s happening now is seen as a humanitarian crisis, and… even though we hear the argument that this is targeting Hamas … a lot of Palestinians… don’t really buy into the argument. They think that it’s an attack on all Palestinians, because what they see on the ground seems to contradict … reports by Israeli government officials. They see civilians dying … mosques being targeted, hospitals being targeted, and homes being targeted. And [like Eboo says in his] blog, step 1 is recognizing that this is a difficult dialogue … That’s crucially important… [And] when you realize that it’s difficult but that you’re willing to take it on, I think that’s where the courage starts… I’ll be honest with you: I don’t think I’ve ever talked directly to someone who’s Jewish, telling them, “Well, from my perspective, hundreds are dying… We hear the argument about self-defense, but… what’s on the ground seems to contradict it.” So I think that it’s a difficult dialogue to have, definitely, but that’s where things start.

Mike: Definitely. I think part of the problem is Hamas. I think that Hamas purposely hides in civilian areas. So they’ll fire rockets from a crowded city block, and then when Israel comes to bomb, civilians end up getting killed. And I think that in the Jewish community a lot of people don’t understand why … if Palestinians really want peace … they [have chosen] a terrorist organization that was involved in killing thousands of Israeli civilians, purposely targeting civilians, attacking pizzerias, and attacking restaurants and nightclubs and busses? Why would the Palestinians then choose that organization that also ends up killing Palestinian civilians? Why would the Palestinians then choose [Hamas] to represent them, to be their politicians?

Ola: First, I would say that I can’t really speak on behalf of the Palestinian people, because I’m not a Palestinian citizen who could vote, and I don’t really know what it’s like to live there and all the things that are going through somebody’s mind when they decide to choose a government like Hamas’s government… But what I can say is … the history of this small piece of land is so intensely debated, and when you look at the history … as told by a lot of Palestinian historians – or pro-Palestinian…versus pro-Israeli, they’re like completely different narratives of the same historical events… [O]ne of the fears [for Muslim communities in the U.S.] is one of the same fears I mentioned for the communities overseas. [H]ow do you break out of the mentality that’s been prominent for many, many years, because the communities here, for a large part, are kind of extensions of the communities abroad. [But] the demographic is not homogenous, and I think it’s important to realize that not every Muslim who lives in America is die-hard passionate and really … involved in the Palestinian conflict… On the flip side of that, there are a lot of non-Muslims who are Palestinian, or of Palestinian origin, or Arab origin who are very passionate and involved in this issue. So I think that… as a leader of a Muslim organization, it’s important to know your constituents… So my biggest challenge would be to reconcile all these different voices and these different backgrounds. Then adding a dialogue with the Jewish community on top of all of those internal differences? [T]hat’s a challenge for any leader in the Muslim community when facing this topic.

Mike: Yeah I think a lot of the Jewish community’s concerns are very similar to what Ola said about the Muslim community. There’s a lot of disagreement … about the best course of action. A lot of Jewish people feel that Israel is being too aggressive. A lot of Jewish people think that Israel should be even more aggressive… There are some people who are very religious who believe that the West Bank and Gaza and even parts of Jordan and Syria are supposed to be part of Israel. And then there are some Jews who aren’t very religious who feel that … an Israeli state within the 1967 borders is where we should be, because that’s politically the most important thing, and for safety it’s the most important thing. So there a lot of different ideas about how the conflict should be playing out, and I think that plays a role, a lot, with interaction with the Muslim community in the States. There are just so many different organizations that deal with the conflict in the Middle East that have different opinions… The Union of Progressive Zionism is very into peace and working with Palestinians and working with Muslims in the States, whereas the Zionist Organization of America is much more Right Wing. And that’s just one example. I think one of my concerns is that this continued violence [and] god forbid, if there’s terrorism… a lot of Jews in the United States are going to feel as if they cannot reach out to the Muslim community … and that will break down the dialogues… and also that Muslims are going to feel, if Israel’s continuing to defend herself, that they can’t reach out to Jews.

Ola: I’m not the person to be a conspiracy theorist … and whether it’s perceived or real, I’m not really sure, but there’s this overarching sentiment [in the Muslim community] that Muslims are the underdog in America, whether you’re talking socially, culturally, and especially, politically. Muslims feel like they don’t really have a voice, particularly in the foreign policy of the U.S., and they feel like the U.S. policy since the creation of Israel … has been biased and skewed towards Israel. And so there’s this fear that the U.S. can’t play a mediating role.

Mike: I think it’s funny, because I think the Jewish community has a lot of the same fears, more so in the world than just in the United States. There are a lot of organizations within the Jewish community that look for bias within the media and often find that the American press is very biased against the cause of Israel. And even beyond that, all these Jews look at all these historical examples of Jews being persecuted … whether [in] the Holocaust or the Pogroms in Russia in the 1800s or during the Roman Empire … and a lot of people feel as if a strong Jewish state is necessary to make sure Jews are safe. And the common thing I hear … especially from people who are moving to Israel [is] that you think you’re so safe now in the United States… Well, in Germany, Jews were a very strong constituency, a very powerful community. They were very wealthy, very well-to-do, and look what happened there during the Holocaust. There’s a big concern that we’re going to be discriminated against, [that] there’s a real possibility for the Jewish community to be at risk now or in the future.

Ola: I have a question for Mike, if you don’t mind?

Mike: Sure.

Ola: Okay, I’ve heard a lot of the Muslim reaction to this and … the outrage and so, I was wondering what kind of response there has been from Jewish organizations or from the Jewish community [to what is happening in Gaza], whether it’s here or abroad… Is there a deep sentiment that this is very justified, or [are] there, kind of, mixed feelings about it?

Mike: I mean, I think, Ola, I don’t know if you’ve heard this expression? But, “If you put five Jews in a room, you’ll have ten opinions.” And you know, that’s definitely true on —

Ola: You know there’s a joke… I’m sorry to cut you off, but you know there’s a joke on that joke, right? The joke about that joke is, “If you put five Jews in a room, there’s ten opinions. If you put five Muslims in the room, there’s twenty opinions”, or something like that. It’s multiplied even more.

Mike: I actually haven’t heard that. But I mean, with everything in the Jewish community, there’s varying different opinions… I think the vast majority of Jews, by which I mean 95+ percent, think that Israel is justified … that there have been, I think it’s 8,000 rockets over the last few years that have landed on Israeli cities and towns that have just devastated the communities, even though very few people have died… [F]rom what I’ve heard from friends who have been to Sderot, which … has been hit by thousands of rockets … the kids that are growing up there who are [running into] bomb shelters every several times a day, as rockets fall down on their town … are very emotionally disturbed, and it’s really destroyed the communities. As Barack Obama said, as well as many other American politicians, Israel has a right to defend herself. And the example I saw on TV, I believe it was again Benjamin Netanyahu who was saying … [that] if rockets were landing on the tiny villages that line the Canadian-American border, and they were coming from Canada, would the United States let this happen? And the answer is no. The United States would retaliate and would make sure that these rocket attacks stop, and Israel is doing the same thing. Israel is making sure that civilians are safe and that civilians aren’t going to be killed or hurt. And I think the vast majority of Jewish people in the United States and in Israel feel that the loss of life among Palestinians is terrible, but also a lot of Jews feel that the Palestinians need to get rid of Hamas… because Hamas hides itself among Palestinian civilians, so that when Israel retaliates for any rocket attacks or terrorism, Palestinian civilians are going to die. I think that a lot of Jews really want the Palestinians to get rid of Hamas… I’m wondering, Ola, what the Muslim community is feeling, as well?

Ola: If I have to sum up the two biggest sentiments in the Muslim community, I would say [that Israel’s response is] a disproportionate response to the threat that’s being claimed on Israel, and also that it doesn’t justify collective punishment … even if we all agree that Hamas is the problem. [T]he second thing would be this feeling of a lack of response from the international community, that there’s very little being said, that there’s a lot of support for this idea of Israelis having the right to self-defense, but very few people are speaking about the Palestinians and their right to life and to food and to access to health care that’s being violated.

Hopes for Jewish-Muslim Engagement

Mike: I think there’s a lot of different ways in which the [Jewish and Muslim] communities can work together … What we’re doing at the Interfaith Youth Core, and what we’re doing on our campuses is a good way for Jews and Muslims to meet and respect one another in a place other than politics. So, rather than just talking about the situation in the Middle East, it gives an opportunity to work on community service together or have a dialogue about our religious traditions… [But] I think that if we avoid politics all together … everyone knows that it’s the elephant in the room… [E]veryone tells me, especially in the Jewish community, “Great, [Muslims] are good people. We can do community service with them. We can have a dialogue with them. But we’re still not talking about the issues. We’re not talking about what’s happening in the Middle East and the things that are important to us.” So I feel like there a lot of different ways in which we can work together, and we have to be careful to approach it the right way… I think that if the … communities reach out to one another, saying, “Although we may disagree on the issue of the blockade, or the issue of terrorism (although I don’t believe that terrorism is an issue upon which we disagree), we agree on the sanctity of life, and we agree on this issue and that issue”. That’s a way of building up a dialogue… I think the vast majority of people in the Jewish community do want to reach out and do want to have contact with the Muslim community and just don’t know how to do it and don’t feel they have any partners on the other side… As leaders in our community [and] interfaith leaders, we play the important role of bringing people together. And of course we can’t bring everyone together, so I think it’s important that we lead by example… This conversation shows that Jews and Muslims can talk to each other, and it’s important that people see that and then go do it themselves.

Ola: I definitely agree with what Mike is saying – the whole kind of political/non-political schism. There’s this overwhelming willingness to work together as Jewish and Muslim communities on a lot of interfaith things, on community service … but when you bring in political conversation, all the sudden the atmosphere changes drastically… But I think it’s only normal, and I think that we could use our connections and our networks [and] community service as a gateway into the political. And really … I think starting early is absolutely key for creating what we’re talking about, this dialogue, and this willingness for Jewish and Muslim organizations to reach out to each other… Eboo was saying in his blog, you know, we’ve used the same Rule Book for decades. Well, that’s because the leaders that are in these are organizations are probably the ones who’ve been leading in the past couple of decades, and they come, some of them, from overseas, and … I’m not putting them down. I think a lot of them have been working toward changing their attitudes and perspectives, but over-archingly, they’ve had [a certain] perspective ’cause that’s the way they’ve been raised. If we want to change the way people think about this conflict you have to start young. I’m talking about, like, elementary school, when we start framing our ideas about other people… In elementary school, my first friend was Jewish. And honestly, I think if I didn’t have that encounter with her, and if there wasn’t the environment around us, supporting our friendship and saying that it was okay, I think that I would have a very different view of Jewish people in general. So I think starting early is important, and using the non-political community service networks we have [in order] to gateway into the political are two ways that we could really start thinking about making this whole dialogue thing a reality.

Reaching out to the Jewish and Muslim Communities in the United States

Mike: Okay. So I think that the case [for reaching out to the Muslim community] is a pretty easy one to make . I think it’s important to reach out to the Muslim community now, while this is going on, ’cause we risk alienating one another, not just us alienating [Muslims] but [Muslims] alienating us, as well. Permanently… I get a lot of emails from the Jewish community, [and] a lot of people in the Jewish community don’t really understand the Palestinian perspective or the Muslim perspective in general. The one I got right before this call was a video from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida of a few hundred Palestinians and Muslims in the street who were yelling at a group of about fifty supporters of Israel, saying, “Your mothers are whores” – these types of insults, and saying, “You’re murderers”, and it was a scary video, but these types of things spread within both communities. It’s important at this time, from the Jewish perspective, that [Muslims] don’t feel that we feel they are subhuman … ’cause the Jewish community doesn’t feel that, but I’m concerned that the Muslim community might think that we do feel that… [The] Muslim community [may] have different opinions, but we still share the same values. We share the same basic values of life, and of community service, and these other values that are important to who we are, [values] that are beyond politics.

Ola: I think a compelling case that I would try to make to the Muslim community [regarding reaching out to the Jewish community] would be the simple fact that … what we have been doing hasn’t worked… [I]t’s an outrageous situation, and it’s not getting any better, so why don’t we try something else? The isolation hasn’t really worked. The, you know, “We’re both doing our own thing, kind of parallel but never really looking to the sides”… that hasn’t worked, so let’s try something new, and we don’t lose anything by giving it a try. I think something else to think about is … really facing prejudices that we grew up with from both communities, because there’s no escaping it. Like I know that I have biases. I know that I sympathize with the Palestinian people. I see that they’re – in my eyes – I see that they’re suffering. And I actually visited Jerusalem a couple of years ago. It was a very, very brief visit, but it really depressed me because I loved Jerusalem… I felt like it was a city with just such a rich history, and you could see in the Old City that the different religious groups, although they were separated, they were like right next to each other, and they’re intermingling. And then you see people walking in the streets… that there’s almost no distinction. And outside those Old City walls there’s a distinct difference between West Jerusalem, which is mainly Israeli, and East Jerusalem, which is mainly Palestinian. I think it was like a physical manifestation of historical and cultural divides that exist. And those divides, I think, carry into the international communities of Palestinians and Israelis, like the ones here in the U.S. And I think just coming to terms with that history, and realizing that it exists, and saying, “Well, we could continue to re-tell the history from one side and be content, or we could … take a chance and look at the other side.” I wouldn’t ask anybody to … erase what they believe and believe something completely different, but to just be willing to look at the other side… You might not agree 100% with that different perspective, but it changes things dramatically just when you see that the other side is human, too.

Ola: Before this all happened [with Gaza], we had a couple interfaith things lined up [on campus]. We have an interfaith build and Interfaith Week. On top of that, we have another Day of Service coming up on … Martin Luther King weekend, and that is actually kind of spearheaded by the NC Hillel on campus. I’ve been working with their Rabbi to plan and to outreach with the MSA and several other groups, and its focus is like purely doing community service. So I think even though that doesn’t relate to the Gaza situation specifically… I think for most groups at UNC it’s been mostly an indirect “Let’s use interfaith dialogue to build the relationships”, and like Mike mentioned in the beginning, “Let’s hold off on the political.”

Mike: Yeah I think we’re in a very similar situation at GW… [T]here are a lot of concerns with jumping into politics at this early stage… I’m worried that we’re not really at the stage where we can talk about it directly. Obviously, I want to continue the interfaith work we’ve been doing, continue to dialogue, continue our speakers … so that the connection continues. The one thing that I would consider doing is more Jewish-Muslim only programs, not to exclude, but having programs between the Jewish Student Association and the Muslim Student Association on campus… I’ve sort of been holding off, because I wanted to continue programs that involve everyone, that include many different communities, because having a lot of different perspectives and programs is very beneficial. But with this ongoing situation, I would consider doing a program or two that’s specifically between the Jewish and Muslim communities, because that’s probably the place where the biggest divisions exist, and it would be great to get large groups from both communities involved. [One person came up with an idea] to do a Jewish Student Association/Muslim Student Association paint ball game. I successfully vetoed that idea. I think that, could, um, end up hurting the relations between the communities inadvertently. But we have been considering doing, like, a broomball game or some other type of sports competition that doesn’t involve firing balls of paint at one another.

Mike is a sophomore at The George Washington University studying international affairs with concentrations in International Politics and Conflict and Security. He is a fellow with the Interfaith Youth Core, chair of GW Interfaith Action, on the executive board of the Jewish Student Association, and on the Board of Directors of Interfaith Action in Sharon, Massachusetts. Ola is an International Studies and Political Sciences senior at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Ola is the current president of the Muslim Students Association, coordinates with Project Downtown-Durham, an urban poverty initiative, a homeless shelter, and writes for the Muslim American Public Affairs Council publication, Iqraa.

The content of this blog reflects the views of its author and does not necessarily reflect the views of either Eboo Patel or the Interfaith Youth Core.

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  • ltraubman

    Thank you both for saying “yes” to listening to one another.

  • pearlbrandes

    Two brave young souls–Mike and Ola. I am heartened by your intelligence and shared idealism and dedication to struggle with the most difficult of problems facing humanity. Many thanks.