Sunday, March 19, 2017

Jewish and Muslim Children Unite for a Common Cause

You can also read the article here.

An interfaith meeting of young people may not strike anyone as headline news. But for those of us at the event, it was a moment to cherish and draw inspiration from, particularly in these dark and difficult times.

Accompanied by a few mothers and mentors, about 40 kids – ages 9 to 22 – arrived at the Evergreen Islamic Center (EIC), in the foothills above San Jose, California. The group, from a progressive Jewish summer camp in the Southern California city of Big Bear Lake, were greeted by an equal number of Muslim youth and parents.

Their visit was prompted by a hate letter sent to Evergreen just before last year’s Thanksgiving holiday. 

“We will not tolerate or accept racism, sexism, climate denial, homophobia, xenophobia or Islamophobia in any form,” wrote Shira Menter, a Camp Gilboa staff member and mentor, in a letter to Evergreen after she learned of the incident. “We want you to feel safe, accepted, and free to practice your religion wherever you choose to live.”

“My heart ached when I read the hateful letter you received from people calling themselves ‘Americans for a Better Way.’ We are part of a Jewish youth movement and we are part of the Jewish resistance. We will do whatever we can to protect you. The beauty of this country is that we celebrate diversity. Much love.”

Shira suggested that “it would be a good idea to have our kids interact with yours” as a
way to “build relationships between Jews and Muslims in the United States.”

To which I could only say, ‘Amen.’ About three weeks later, the meeting materialized.

One of the leaders of the Gilboa group, Yasho, defined the goals of the meeting: a) build relationships between American Jewish and Muslim youth b) gain some understanding of each other’s religion and culture c) improve the world by partnering with one another.

As the adults in the room watched in wonder, the youth, under Yasho’s confident guidance, arranged themselves in circles and over the next several hours played games, asked and answered questions (sample: “What’s the best thing you have done for your community,” “What’s your family like, your brothers, sisters, pets? Tell a funny story about them,” “What’s your favorite class, your hobby?”, “If you could change something about the world, what would it be and how?”), pondered the dangers of labeling and judging others, and identified practical steps to making the world a better place through personal acts of courage and kindness.

They were shy at first but within minutes, our prayer hall was resonant with the kids opening up to one another as if they had known each other for years. They shared ideas and challenged their feasibility, came up with ways to improve bad situations at home and school, discussed the cruelty of bullying and the importance of befriending bullied students, expressed what social justice meant to them, and listed steps to organize themselves to achieve a goal - all with humor and grace.

When Sid, a computer science major at Berkeley, suggested that everyone should follow the Golden Rule – treat others as you would like to be treated – Elliot, a precocious 6th-grader, wasn’t convinced. “What if they don’t want to be treated like the way you want to be treated?”

There was silence, followed by some giggles. It’s probably fair to say that no one in recorded history had ever questioned the logic of the Golden Rule, but then no one had to contend with an irrepressible 12-year-old genius.

“Well, just treat him well, then!” said Sid.

“How?” persisted Elliot.

Ronnie came to the rescue: “Just ask!”

Elliot seemed doubtful but decided to let it pass!

“Ignore all the hate mail you get because these people are mean and cruel. Remember that these people don’t know who you are.”
A bond has been forged. On their own, without any parental interference, Jewish and Muslim children had broken through a barrier that previously made them strangers to one another.

What about the other hundreds of thousands of Jewish and Muslim children?

“Take one step at a time,” said Ephraim. “I have made Muslim friends. I now know I can make a difference.”

Zaid echoed the feeling. “Change one person at a time and you will change the world.”

“I am Andrea and a middle-schooler from Silicon Valley. You are not alone. There are people like us fighting for you and we won’t stop.”
Yasho had distributed a special type of paper to the youth that contained seeds. “Write on your seed paper how you will make the world grow better. Take it home and plant it and whatever grows will be a reminder to you to try to change the world.” The paper itself contained this instruction: “Plant this in your garden. Keep it moist. Watch it grow!”

What did some of the youth write in their seed paper?

“Lead by example.” “Become a doctor and provide healthcare to the poor.” “Let this be the first meeting of many more meetings between us in the future.”

The laughter on the surface was tempered by concern about the country’s current direction. Mosques have been burned to the ground and Muslims have been attacked. Many Jewish Centers have been threatened and Jewish homes spray-painted with swastikas while several Jewish graveyards have been desecrated.
“Overlook the hate letter because hate cannot be fought with hate. Darkness can only disappear in the presence of light. We must defeat hate and discrimination in Trump’s America with love, unity and faith in one another.”
But witnessing this kind of Jewish-Muslim bonding in just a few hours gives hope that hate and bigotry will never be the last words that define our nation but that love and fighting for justice will.

“Don’t let Trump and his supporters bring you down. There are many people who don’t share their views. We are a Jewish Youth Movement and we will be there for you.”

“We read the hate letter that you received a couple of months ago from ‘Americans for a Better Way.’ We just wanted to say that nothing in that letter is true and if the people who wrote the letter take further action, we will support you. At our Jewish Summer Camp we talk about the importance of treating everyone fairly. Everyone is different and valued. If everyone was the same, it would be boring!"

“I am writing this letter to send my support to you and all those affected by the hateful letter you received. I am from a Jewish youth movement that is a liberal movement that fights for equality in the world. Overlook the hate letter because hate cannot be fought with hate. Darkness can only disappear in the presence of light. We must defeat hate and discrimination in Trump’s America.” 

Friday, March 03, 2017

Being Civil with Trump Supporters

(You can also read the article here.)

Like millions of Americans, I was devastated when Hillary Clinton lost the presidential race despite winning the popular vote by 2.8 million. But as days went by and reckless words from President Trump’s uncensored mind began rattling the world, I longed to engage with one or two Trump supporters to see if there was any common ground from which to look at our country as Americans and not as partisans.

The fact that I was a Muslim-American complicated the matter, given the hate-filled rhetoric from the White House. Still, I kept hoping.

The opportunity came during a gathering of a group of amateur photographers in the foothills of San Jose, California. While discussing finer points of the decisive moment, my curiosity was piqued by a fellow-American whom I will call John. John is white, in his mid-sixties and retired. He made his money in real-estate and now spends much of his time playing golf and pursuing his passion for photography. He is also a vigorous Trump supporter.

Although nervous to discuss politics, I told myself that the worst that could happen would be for John to ask me to get lost. I could live with that.

Here is a summary of our conversation.

“Do you think Trump’s policies of deporting immigrants, banning Muslims, and calling media the enemy of the people is good for our country?”

“Well,” he said, looking at me curiously, “Trump is just keeping his word. I admire him for that, don’t you? How many politicians do you know who keep their promises? And what’s wrong with deporting illegals? Isn’t it wrong for them take up jobs meant for the legals?”

Statistics prove otherwise, I told him. Besides, many immigrants do menial jobs that make life easier for Americans like him. “Look at who are serving us here! Hispanics.”

“I am sure they are legal. I have no problem with them,” John replied.

“Do you know any illegals?” I asked.

“I personally don’t know any,” allowed John, “but trust me, they are around.”

It went back and forth like this. John did not budge and neither did I. I raised the Muslim ban issue, reminding him that no one from the banned Islamic countries had committed terrorist acts in America. John was unimpressed.

“We can never be too safe,” he said. “It is right to err on the side of caution.”

“Even if it goes against our values?”

“I don’t think it does. In any case, the president is responsible for keeping us safe by any means necessary.” As he said this, I became aware that John was looking at me with more interest. Next instant, I knew why.

“Are you a Muslim?”

Here it comes, I thought, the moment of truth! For a fleeting second, I recalled what Patrick Stein, one of the conspirators said about the Muslims he was planning to massacre in Garden City, Kansas, in July 2016, fortunately foiled by the FBI: “The only good Muslim is a dead Muslim.”

“Yes,” I replied.

A pause. Then: “Well, you seem like a decent fella!” said John with a smile.

I cringed inside but outwardly I matched his grin. “Thank you,” I said with relief. I told John that most Americans who hold negative views of Muslims have never met a Muslim in their life. “You are the first Muslim I had a conversation with,” agreed John.

While I cannot say with certainty that we parted as friends, I am also certain that John and I did not part as enemies.

What my brief encounter with a Trump supporter taught me was that we should use civility not as a weapon to win arguments but because it is the right thing to do, a tough test for summoning the better angels of our nature.

This in no way diminishes the urgency to save our country from Trump’s disastrous policies, the gerrymandering, the willful policy of suppressing voter rights, banning immigrants by religion, depriving women of their reproductive options, treating media as the enemy of the people, (about which Republican senator John McCain said, “That’s how dictators get started”), rising anti-Semitism and hate crimes, and such. We must sustain the 21st-century version of the movement launched by abolitionist Harriet Tubman, suffragist Susan Anthony and freedom rider John Lewis.

But our fight to win our country back from a would-be dictator will stand a greater chance of success if we use civility for its own sake and as its own reward while interacting with our fellow-Americans who voted Trump to power.