Mideast Fighting Strains Fragile Interfaith Ties


For more than three decades, Rabbi Allen Krause has believed in the power of interfaith and intercultural dialogue, especially between Jews and Muslims.
In the aftermath of Sept. 11, the head rabbi of Temple Beth El in Aliso Viejo offered to have members of his congregation guard local Muslim day schools, he stood alongside other religious leaders to publicly decry a vicious assault on a Yorba Linda Arab American high school student and he invited a Palestinian to address his congregation to talk about the hardships of living in the territories.

However, the interfaith ties that Krause and others like him have carefully cultivated are now being tested as never before. Against the backdrop of Hezbollah rockets raining on Israel and Israeli bombs exploding in Lebanon and Gaza, friends are splitting into two sides. In mid-July, several Muslim members of Common Ground, an Orange County interfaith group Krause helped found, declined to attend a scheduled meeting, because they “might say things they might regret,” he was told.

Krause’s experience is not unusual. As war in the Middle East rages, one of the casualties has been the fragile ties between Muslim and Jewish interfaith and other groups. Already weakened by the failed peace promise of Oslo and the second intifada, in recent weeks Muslim-Jewish relations have hit their lowest ebb in more than a decade. The increased strain has re-sown the seeds of mistrust in some interfaith group that enthusiasts hoped to have forever banished.

To be sure, a few Muslim and Jewish groups have redoubled their efforts to bridge the growing chasm. The Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) will soon announce a sweeping interfaith collaboration with a yet-to-be-named Muslim group, said PJA Executive Director Daniel Sokatch.

Wilshire Boulevard Temple, which has a longstanding relationship with the Islamic Center of Southern California, soon plans to open a Center for Religious Inquiry that would invite members of all faiths, including Muslims, Jews and Christians, to discuss and examine the world’s major religions, said Rabbi Stephen Julius Stein. A new outfit named L.A. Jews for Peace recently held two peace vigils outside the Israeli Consulate and sent a representative to a large anti-Israel peace protest co-sponsored by Muslim and other organizations, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

Overall, though, Jewish-Muslim relations are strained, and tensions will likely worsen before getting better, predicts Rabbi John Rosove, senior rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood.

“I think the current state [of Jewish-Muslim relations] is non-existent and will be even more alienated in the near future,” he said.

Rosove, once a major proponent of the Jewish-Muslim Dialogue, quit the now moribund group soon after Sept. 11 when, he said, several Muslim participants savagely criticized attempted to de-legitimize Israel. The dialogue, founded in 1998 amid great expectations, lost considerable Jewish and Muslim support over the years, including the withdrawal of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and CAIR, because of internal arguments over the Middle East. The group has not convened a meeting in more than a year.

David Lehrer, president of Community Advocates Inc., a Los-Angeles-based human relations organization that promotes civil rights, said he favors Jewish-Muslim dialogue. However, “unrelenting” anti-Israel attitudes he believes are shared by the majority of Muslim-American leaders makes that dialogue all but impossible.
“I think it’s incumbent upon us to find moderate Muslim voices. They’re out there; they’re just not leading the Muslim organization that Jewish organizations have traditionally dealt with,” said Lehrer, who served as the ADL’s regional director when the group quit the Jewish-Muslim Dialogue after Sept. 11.

On the other side, Reed Hamzeh, an L.A.-based attorney and regional director of the Arab American Institute, a civil rights group, believes that Israel’s actions in Lebanon are stoking anti-Semitism as well as anti-Americanism in the Muslim and Arab worlds.

“I’ve spoken to many Jewish-American friends,” said Hamzeh, whose parents were visiting Lebanon when the bombing began there. “We are in agreement that Israel’s actions are not in the best interest of Israel, the Jewish people and for the prospects of peace in the region, which should be everybody’s desired goal.”

In one reflection of the changing climate, a longtime Jewish member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) blasted the group’s local chapter for planning to honor an activist whom he characterizes as an anti-Israel propagandist. Joel Bellman, press deputy to County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, sent a blistering e-mail on July 20 to the ACLU questioning the local chapter’s intention to honor Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) at the ACLU’s 43rd annual Garden Party in September.

“I guess I’m extremely pissed off, because MPAC has been extremely successful in packaging its message in very soothing and moderate tones,” Bellman said. “But when you strip away the dainty and decorous language, their positions are almost indistinguishable from anti-Israel, anti-Jewish attitudes found in much of the Muslim and Arab world.”

This is not the first time that Al-Marayati has been the focus of controversy: In an interview just after the Sept. 11, attacks, Al-Marayati suggested that Israel could be behind the terrorists. He later apologized for his comments and said they were taken out of context.

Al-Marayati, who said Bellman’s attack caught him by surprise, also said his group supports a two-state solution, denounces terrorism and reflects the outlook of moderate American Muslims. Yet Al-Marayati says that now more than ever, Jews and Muslims need to work together on issues of mutual interest such as hate crimes, civil rights and the separation of church and state, despite their differences about the Middle East.

Sande Hart, the Jewish co-founder of the Orange County-based Spiritual and Religious Alliance for Hope (SARAH), a four-year-old women’s interfaith group, also believes Jews and Muslims need to talk to one another as never before. Unfortunately, she said some Jewish and Muslim members no longer want to interact for the time being. Two Christians, no Muslims and just two Jews attended the group’s most recent meeting. Typically, two to three Muslims, five Jews and several Christians come to the interfaith gatherings. Hart said both Muslim and Jewish SARAH members told her they needed “space.”

“Our common ground is a little smaller than it was three weeks ago,” said Hart, who vows to patch-up relations among the group’s members.

Like their Jewish counterparts, many Muslims fear that events overseas could poison relations locally. They have expressed surprise at what they characterize as the “ferocity” of Israel’s strikes against Lebanon and Gaza.

Orange County resident Osman Umarji called Israel’s military campaign “vicious,” and said it nearly claimed the life of a close friend, who, in attempting to flee from the fighting in southern Lebanon , crossed a bridge with his mother just moments before Israeli bombs destroyed it.

The former president of the Muslim Student Union at UC Irvine — a group often at odds with pro-Israeli student groups at the university — said he thought Israel’s war in Lebanon would galvanize pro-Palestinian forces and breathe new life into the divestment movement at UCI and other campuses.

“I’m sure the discussion will intensify, and more Muslim and Arab students will get involved in educating people and speaking out against the atrocities Israel’s committing,” said Umarji, now an engineer at Broadcom Corp., a global leader in semiconductors for wired and wireless communications.

For Hussam Ayloush, Israeli “aggression” is personal. The executive director of the Southern California chapter of the CAIR said he grew up in Lebanon and left in 1989 during the civil war. Coming to America to study, he eventually settled in Southern California. Now married with three children, he said he returns to Lebanon once every couple years to visit family members, including a brother who lives in the capital city of Beirut.

Soon after Israel’s air campaign began, Ayloush said he fell out of contact with his brother and his parents for four long days (His parents were in Lebanon visiting their son). Scared for their safety, Ayloush said he barely slept. He checked e-mails incessantly and watched the news round-the-clock. Although relieved when he finally reached his loved ones, he said he knows their lives continue to remain in peril.

“We would be fooling ourselves if we didn’t realize that this new conflict will increase hatred among Arabs, Muslims and Jews. It’s not going to just increase anti-Semitism but also Islamophobia and anti-Arab feelings,” Ayloush said. “That’s a tragedy.”

But not all hope for continued dialogue has been dashed. Despite the July disappointment, Temple Beth El’s Krause persisted with his group, and after some heart-to-heart talks, the Muslim members have agreed to attend a mid-August gathering, much to Krause’s satisfaction and
relief.

Teens Find Peace On and Off Stage


“We don’t care about politics; we just like each other,” says Shira Ben Yaakov, a cheerful brunette who is an eighth-grade student at Tel Aviv’s A.D. Gordon Junior High School.

Ben Yaakov is referring to Israeli-Arab friends she has met through the Peace Child Israel drama group, which meets weekly, alternating between Jewish and Arab neighborhoods. The group consists of 20 Arab and Jewish teens from Jaffa and Tel Aviv, proof that friendship between Jews and Arabs can exist, even in post-Intifada Israel.

“Even though Arabs live close to me, I have never had the chance to get to know them. I have always been afraid of Arabs as a group and now I know this fear has been unjustified,” Ben Yaakov says.

Maya Smolian, another member of the group, says she was “thrilled” to meet Arab kids her age. Having the opportunity to perform together is just another incentive to be a part of the group.

Peace Child Israel was founded in 1988 by the late Israeli actress Yael Drouyanoff and uses theater and other art forms to encourage dialogue between teens who might otherwise never meet. So far, seven groups have been formed, pairing Jewish and Arab towns throughout Israel, among them Misgav-Sakhnin, Raanana-Qalanswa, and East and West Jerusalem.

In January, the Tel Aviv-Jaffa group toured the United States, visiting Philadelphia and communities throughout New Jersey. Their hosts were Jewish families in each of the cities, as well as students from Changing Our World (COW), a teen drama and arts group with similar methods and objectives. Students from the two countries bonded quickly.

Deb Chamberlin, a singer, songwriter and co-director of COW, initiated the venture. She contacted Peace Child after two visits to Israel, where she was touched by the country and its people.

“I looked to cooperate with a group similar to my own. Once I heard about Peace Child, I knew this was the group I was looking for,” she says. “When I returned to the States, I looked to share my feelings with other people, [to] let them know what Israel is all about.”

Chamberlin wrote Peace Child’s new anthem “The Time Has Come for Peace,” which the group sang on a Philadelphia television morning show and then subsequently recorded with help from some local singers.

“We made a beautiful CD and now wish to promote this anthem as a song for global tolerance and peace,” Chamberlin says.

The group’s original musical, “On the Other Side,” was also adapted for American audiences and has been performed in Hebrew, Arabic and English. The play is inspired by the students’ personal experiences in their native Israel and addresses the sensitive issue of Israel’s security fence from the teens’ point of view. The two groups found they share many of the same challenges in overcoming barriers between cultures.

“The COW group brings together students from different backgrounds,” Chamberlin explains. “Our group consists of Latin, Afro-American and Jewish students; they study in a public school of 3,000 students, most of whom are white Christian Americans. Before meeting with Peace Child, the students would usually socialize with their ‘own kind.’ When they witnessed the beautiful friendships that exist between the Jewish and Arab members of Peace Child, they realized what they were missing. As a matter of fact, many stereotypes were broken on that tour.”

“During one of our workshops, Hiba Salila an Arab student, admitted that before coming on the tour, she was convinced the Americans would prefer the Jewish students to the Arab ones,” Chamberlain says. “It surprised her when they didn’t. Another Jewish student says COW students form a bridge between Arab and Jewish students with their love for us.”

Language was not a barrier. “Though the Jewish kids had better English, the Arab students compensated with their Spanish, so they could all communicate,” Chamberlin says. “On the bus from Washington to northern New Jersey, the students cried because it was their last journey together. We promised to keep in touch and start making arrangements for our visit to Israel. The hosting families intend to help me found ‘The American Friends of Peace Child’. Knowing there are more people willing to work for the success of this project was quite a relief for me. I delivered this baby but now a whole new future awaits it.”

The 10-day tour culminated at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, where groups of American teens joined Peace Child along with an appreciative audience of 500.

“People were deeply touched by the show,” says Melisse Lewine-Boskowich, director of Peace Child, who noted that North Star, an African American teen group, and Intellectual Journey, a band of Jewish and Arab musicians working in the U.S., joined them on stage. “The tour opened many … opportunities for us and now the sky’s our limit.”

” target=”_blank”>http://www.thecowproject.com/

Sima Borkovski is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem.

 

Sowing Islamic Seeds in Students


Chairs are lined up in neat rows. Coffee is brewing, muffins arrayed. The table is thick with handouts.

One of them is Saudi Aramco World, a magazine published by Aramco, the Saudi government-owned outfit that is the largest oil company in the world.

“The Arab World in the Classroom,” published by Georgetown University, thanks Saudi Aramco on its back cover. Alongside it is the brochure of The Mosaic Foundation, an organization of spouses of Arab ambassadors in America, whose chairwoman and president of the board of trustees is Her Royal Highness Princess Haifa Al-Faisal of the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia.

If you think this is a meeting of Saudi oil executives or Middle Eastern exporters or Saudi government officials, you are wrong: It’s a social studies training seminar for American elementary and secondary teachers, held last year at Georgetown University.

It’s paid for by U.S. tax dollars, as the organizer points out in her introduction.

“We are grateful to the grant we have under Title VI of the Department of Education that underwrites these programs,” Zeina Azzam Seikaly, outreach coordinator of Georgetown’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, tells the more than three dozen current and former teachers at the seminar.

Georgetown’s Middle East outreach program is one of 18 affiliated with federally designated national resource centers, each of which receives hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal funds under Title VI of the Higher Education Act.

Much has been written about the biased nature of Middle East studies programs at universities around the country.

Less known is that with public money and the designation as a national resource center, universities such as Georgetown, Harvard and Columbia are dramatically influencing the study of Islam, Israel and the Middle East far beyond the college campus.

As a condition of their funding, these centers are also required to engage in public outreach, which includes schoolchildren in Grades K-12. Through professional development workshops for teachers and resource libraries, they spread teaching materials that analysts say promote Islam and are critical of Israel and the West.

Georgetown’s outreach and the materials it disseminates are singled out for special praise by Dar al Islam.

Its Web site lists four other outreach centers it admires: the University of California at Berkeley, Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan.

Professional development workshops like the one at Georgetown provide the most frequent paths for the dissemination of supplementary materials to history and social studies teachers, according to education expert Sandra Stotsky’s “The Stealth Curriculum: Manipulating America’s History Teachers.”

The problems with many of the supplemental materials, Stotsky said in her report, stem from “the ideological mission of the organizations that create them.

“Their ostensible goal is to combat intolerance, expand students’ knowledge of other cultures, give them other ‘points of view’ on commonly studied historical phenomena and/or promote ‘critical thinking,'” she wrote.

But an analysis of the materials convinced her that their real goal “is to influence how children come to understand and think about current social and political issues by bending historical content to those ends.

“They embed their political agendas in the instructional materials they create so subtly that apolitical teachers are unlikely to spot them.”

Among the materials Stotsky cites is “The Arab World Studies Notebook,” which has been widely criticized for bias, inaccuracies and proselytizing.

Two school districts have banned the book, and the AJC has urged others to follow suit.

“Notebook” editor Audrey Shabbas rejects the criticism.

“We’re providing the Arab point of view,” she said.

Responding to criticism that the material paints an overly rosy picture of Islam, she said, “My task is not to defend what Muslims do in the world” but to focus on the “difference between what people call themselves and what they do.”

Experts say the materials are popular because they’re recommended by the national resource centers of prestigious universities.

In an interview with JTA, Stotsky recounted that in the summer of 2002, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Massachusetts Department of Education decided to offer a seminar on Islam and the Middle East for area teachers. They accepted a proposal from Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies that “looked very promising.” One of the organizers of the seminar was Barbara Petzen, the center’s outreach coordinator.

But when Stotsky and other officials saw the syllabus, which included the “Arab World Studies Notebook,” they requested that the course present a more balanced view of Islam. Officials wanted at least to include a book by Bernard Lewis, a Princeton University professor emeritus who is considered one of the pre-eminent authorities on Islam.

But Petzen and her colleague “ducked recent history” by agreeing only to include one of Lewis’ older books from the 1970s, rather than one of his more recent critical perspectives on Islam, Stotsky said.

Petzen could not be reached for comment.

Stotsky was further shocked when she saw the lesson plans created by some of the seminar participants. One, which required the students to learn an Islamic prayer and design a prayer rug to simulate a mosque in the classroom, crossed the line. “It’s really indoctrination to have students do such religious things,” she said.

While there is no way to know the extent to which the teachers from 20 Massachusetts schools ultimately incorporated their proposed lessons into the classroom, the assumption of the Education Department, which paid for the seminar, “is that the teachers use the material they learned,” Stotsky said.

In New York City, meanwhile, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein has barred the head of Columbia University’s Middle East Institute from lecturing to city teachers enrolled in professional development courses on the Middle East.

Klein’s move in February against Rashid Khalidi, who holds the Edward Said Chair at Columbia, was in response to “a number of things he’s said in the past,” said Michael Best, the department’s general counsel, according to The New York Times.

Khalidi declined to comment on the issue.

A spokesman for Klein said last week that “nothing has changed” in Khalidi’s status, meaning that he still is barred from lecturing at teacher-training seminars.

For Stotsky, a major problem with the teacher-training seminars is the lack of oversight.

“What teacher or principal is going to challenge [material that comes] “with the sterling credentials of Harvard?” she said.

While she doesn’t claim to have all the answers, Stotsky recommends halting public funding for professional development until there is “strong evidence that most history teachers learn something useful from a majority of workshops they attend.”

 

 


Tainted Teachings


Baklava and Bombs


Sami Michael, an Iraqi-born novelist who writes about the clash of Arab and Jewish cultures, knows what it’s like to be a part of a beleaguered minority. In Iraq, he was always labeled a Jew; in Israel, he is still known as a Jewish writer from an Arab country. The irony is hardly lost on him.

Born in Baghdad in 1926, Michael became active in the communist underground and was forced to flee to Iran in the first year of his university studies. In 1949, he was able to make his way to Israel, where he has lived ever since. To date, he has written nine novels, the latest of which is titled "Water Kissing Water" (Am Oved, 2001). Other books have included "Refuge," "A Handful of Fog," "Trumpet in the Wadi," and his best-selling novel, "Victoria," which depicted a family saga set in Baghdad and was translated into several languages. he writes all of his novels in Hebrew. In addition to three honorary doctorates, Michael has also been awarded numerous prizes, including the Ze’ev Prize, Kugel Prize and (twice) the Prime Minister’s Prize.

The following is excerpted from a recent interview, conducted in Hebrew in his apartment overlooking Haifa’s bay.

F.M. Black : As a Jewish writer born and brought up in Iraq who now lives in Israel, how do you see the situation today?

Sami Michael: It’s very bad. It’s quite dangerous, especially since we are emphasizing that we are bringing European culture to the Middle East when the Middle East has suffered so much from colonialism and they really see us like a part of the Crusaders. The two sides have really been poisoned by a century of conflict, of bloody conflict. We look at them as monsters and that’s the same way they look at us.

F.B.: Have you gotten used to this, to both sides pummeling each other?

S.M.: The truth is that it’s not a matter of my getting used to it. I foresaw it 50 years ago. If I took out articles that I wrote in Baghdad in the mid-’40s, it’s like I wrote them today. The Middle East is not ready yet, not ripe yet to accept both a Jewish and a democratic state at the expense of some of its territory. I knew it long ago. It’s not a surprise for me.

F.B.: How do you deal with it?

S.M.: I’m not in a good frame of mind. I’m not a youth anymore. I already have children here. I have a house here and this is my homeland today. We’ve created a lovely country, a delightful place, and there’s a danger that it will all be lost, if not through warfare, then through an economic collapse because of the conflict.

F.B.: Do you think that the writer has an obligation to take a political stand?

S.M.: That would be a disaster. That’s what happens in the Arab countries; it kills literature. As soon as a writer writes out of an obligation, he becomes a politician, not a writer. I think that the only obligation of a writer is to be honest with himself and to obey the unknown masters and not the known masters. The known masters are the prime minister, the secretary of the Communist Party, Arafat and so on. But, on the other hand, one can’t be divorced or disengaged from the place where one’s living.

F.B.: Tell me, do you feel part of the majority or the minority in Israel?

S.M.: I’m not only part of the minority, I’m alone.

F.B.: How’s that?

S.M.: Because the Israeli left is ridiculous. The Israeli left talks for the television cameras and radio, but it has no roots among its own people. It always claims that it’s part of European culture and there’s nothing that Arabs hate more than European influences. From Europe came the Crusaders and the British, French and Italian imperialists who committed atrocities in the Middle East. And we proclaim morning, noon and night that we’re part of Europe, knowing what the fate was of the Europeans who came to the Middle East.

F.B.: So you don’t feel a part of the left?

S.M.: I can’t define myself as a part of the Israeli left because it’s a left of cliques and salons. After a month in Israel, I said to myself that I’m going to establish a country of one.

F.B.: Of one?

S.M.: I have my own personal opinions and I say to every party when it puts on a show, "Bravo." I’m very glad that my wife, Rahel, has joined my country of one. It’s a small island, very small.

F.B.: What’s holy to you?

S.M.: Human life. That’s the holiest thing. Life itself. And, unfortunately, human life is the cheapest thing here in the Middle East.

F.B.: You’ve written that you’re both inside and outside of the Israeli reality at the same time.

S.M.: That’s right. Because I came from another place, from across the border of the war. Once I saw the war between Israel and the Arabs while I was on the Arab side, as a Jewish Iraqi citizen; and now I’m in Israel and see the war from the perspective of the Jewish Israeli.

F.B.: Does it look different from here?

S.M.: I see how idiotic both sides are.

F.B.: How so?

S.M.: This is one of the richest parts of the world — in oil and minerals and quarries and what are we fighting over? Over the most idiotic things. It’s as though we’re living in the past and want to reestablish former empires — from Saddam Hussein to the rebuilding of the Second Temple, and back again. It’s the stupidest thing that could ever be. Under conditions of peace, this could be one of the most flourishing places in the world.

F.B.: Do you think that the Israeli, the sabra, is a ‘new’ Jew?

S.M.: That’s the disaster of the so-called ‘new’ Israeli and the ‘new’ Arab. The new Arab is an Arab whose ideal is a Muslim who existed 1,500 years ago and the ideal of the new Jew is the Maccabees from 2,000 years ago or 1,500 years ago. There is no such thing as a ‘new’ Jew.

F.B.: But doesn’t being a ‘new’ Jew or an Israeli mean, in part, that Jews now have the means to defend themselves? That Israel will be a refuge from anti-Semitism?

S.M.: Is it possible? Is it possible? I think that the Israeli experience shows more than anything else that this is impossible. Why? Because you are not living alone in the world. Our security doesn’t depend on our mightiness, on our force or on our ability to defend ourselves, but it … depends on our relations with our neighbors.

F.B.: So Israel has failed to provide a place of refuge?

S.M.: I think that we achieved the exact opposite of what we said, of what the founders were trying to achieve: the most dangerous place for a Jew to live today is in Israel. The difference is that here you have the freedom to die proudly! But a secure place here? That’s the biggest lie.


F.M. Black was a reporter in the Jerusalem bureau of The New York Times from 1988-1991. He now contributes to The Los Angeles Times, The Forward, Chicago Tribune and Archaeology Magazine, among other publications.

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