Jewish News - August, 2006
ABOUT THE MIDEAST IN THE MIDWEST: How Chicago Jews and Muslims, part of a
dialogue group here, dealt with each other about the conflict over there
By Pauline Dubkin Yearwood
The war between Israel and Hezbollah is raging, and a roomful of Jews and
Muslims are sitting around talking about it.
Are they arguing, yelling, calling each other
names, pumping their fists in a "hooray-for-our-side" display?
None of the above.
These particular Jews and Muslims- there were
several Catholics in the discussion as well-are members of a highly unusual
group believed to be one of the only ones of its kind in the country. It's a
shining jewel in Chicago's multicultural crown and, its members say, an example
of how dialogue even on the most contentious issues can flourish and be fruitful
in an atmosphere of trust, respect and friendship.
Three years worth of work led up to the
unscheduled August meeting in which members of the Chicago Coalition for
Interreligious Learning: Catholics, Jews and Muslims Working Together, met to
discuss the Middle East situation. The group, a project of the Chicago Chapter
of the American Jewish Committee, began in 2003 as a response to the Sept. 11
terror attacks and, more specifically, concerns that textbooks used in Muslim
religious schools in the United States were fomenting hatred towards other
an AJC board member who had been involved for years in multicultural and
interfaith outreach efforts, was concerned as well, and contacted a friend at
Skokie's IQRA International Educational Foundation, one of the country's leading
publishers of Muslim textbooks. He told her that the textbooks hadn't been
revised in 20 or 30 years and agreed that some were "pretty bad." Star suggested
that he might get some help in revising them from the AJC, which had worked with
the Catholic Church in revising its textbooks to be more favorable to Jews.
"I was thinking about the best way to help
him out, and I said, 'I'll try and get some people together and put together a
group to look at one another's textbooks,'" Star recounted in a recent
interview. Two Muslim and two Catholic textbook publishers expressed interest;
there are no publishers of Jewish textbooks in Chicago, but Star enlisted
several local rabbis to help.
"We looked at one another's textbooks," she
says. "We found that Catholics are especially sensitive to what goes into their
textbooks about Jews, and they consult Jews. We Jews tend to ignore other
religions in our textbooks. I call that a sin of omission. We all learned from
Shortly afterwards, "the group decided that
the real problem was not really the textbooks, although they should be redone,
but the teachers. You have to train the teachers and they can teach even if they
have to use really old, bad textbooks," Star says.
That was the impetus for the formation of the
coalition, a group of educators and others in education-related fields whose
membership currently numbers 21. Members represent Adas Yehuda V'Shoshana/Northbrook
Community Synagogue, the Archdiocese of Chicago, IQRA International Educational
and Research Foundation, Kazi Publications, Liturgy Training Publications,
Northbrook Islamic Center, Solomon Schechter Day Schools, Beth Emet the Free
Synagogue and the AJC's Chicago Chapter. Star has continued to be the group's
leader and members credit much of its success to her energy and dedication.
In a mission statement, the coalition lists
among its goals "Encourage relationships of mutual respect among teachers and
students in teaching and learning the truths of the Abrahamic faiths"; "Promote
opportunities to learn about the Abrahamic faiths through educational
interchange among teachers and students"; and "Provide information about local
religious schools, agencies and places of worship that are sites for
interreligious learning." Respect for and understanding of each religion,
including members' own faith, was paramount, members agreed.
The effort to create a mission statement took
two years and involved many revisions and much discussion, Star says. But when
it was finished, "it was the foundation for everything we've done since."
It was not just the mission statement that
was important, but the time and effort spent working on it, coalition members
say. Member Hyma Levin, director of education emerita at Beth Emet Synagogue in
Evanston, says that since she has been involved in interfaith efforts for years,
"people sometimes call and ask me if I will sit on a panel with representatives
of the three (religious) groups. That is a difficult experience. Three people
come together who don't know each other and each wants to support a particular
idea or stance or get their points made. I find it very awkward."
Her experience with the coalition has been
just the opposite, Levin says. "We started out kind of sublimely talking about
education and textbooks and we evolved into something pretty sophisticated. It
happened because we came to know each other. We don't always agree, but we do
have respect, fundamentally, for each other."
That respect was crucial for what was to come
The coalition was set to meet in early August
to discuss and plan for two workshops, in October and January, to which
religious school teachers and administrators would be invited. But Star thought
there was a more pressing imperative: talking about the situation in the Middle
East, where war was raging.
It was a risky decision. The group had always
avoided discussing anything that involved politics or the conflict in the Middle
East and had focused narrowly on its educational mission. But Star, in a
personal statement she wrote and sent to all members of the coalition, explained
why she felt the discussion was necessary.
"If we truly believe in what we have said and
done for the last three full years, then we must have the courage to take the
risk, seize the moment, as difficult and troubling as it may appear for us in
our own communities, and show that we can, we will, we must keep working
together without interruption to further our goals of teaching our children how
to accept the very existence as well as the value of 'the other'; how to listen
to 'the other'; how to build relationships of trust and respect; how to work
together in difficult situations to make this a better world," she wrote.
Her statement "came from my heart," she says.
So on Aug. 6, a small group of Jews,
Catholics and Muslims came together first to dip a toe, then to jump in to
troubled waters. (A number of other coalition members were away on vacation.)
Star's bold gamble paid off, all who were
there agree. "It was an example of the best, really great dialogue," she says.
"The conversations we had that day were amazing. People were comfortable and you
could say what you wanted to say because we had these relationships of
understanding. We know how to listen to the other and they knew how to listen to
"When somebody said, the children in Lebanon
are suffering, I said, what about the children in Israel?" Star relates. "People
want to drive them into the sea. There was no anger, but a lot of sorrow."
Media coverage of the war came in for much
discussion. A Muslim member said that a widely credited e-mail was circulating
in his community stating that Israeli youths had been writing messages of hate
on the bombs that Israel dispatched.
"I said, do you really think the Israeli army
is going to drag kids in to write messages on the bombs?" Star says. "Why would
Israel do that? It is so outrageous. We got into the subject of stuff going
around the Internet. Just because it came to you doesn't mean it's true. How do
we know the pictures we see weren't staged? We got into all of that."
The conversation "roamed around," Star says.
"Muslims and Jews both said they were getting pressure from their communities.
People would say to them, why are you wasting your time, you're off the wall,
everybody (on the opposing side) should be shot and so on. The Muslims didn't
realize we could be pressured too."
The conversation lasted for more than two
hours, and Star made no attempt to stop it. In fact, the October workshop was
postponed because there was no time left to discuss it.
There were no "conclusions." "We all admitted
we can't solve the Middle East problems," she says. "But we can be sensitive to
each other's feelings. Interreligious learning means we understand that all of
us are made in G-d's image, and we have to do what we can do here. People have
said it was the best conversation we could have. It cleared the air."
Fadel I. Abdallah, an educator and writer
with IQRA, also sees the discussion as beneficial. "We are friends, almost like
family, in the coalition," he said in a recent phone conversation. "We discussed
this with less emotion" than might have been expected. "There was a little bit
of emotion in the beginning, but then we calmed down." Abdallah, who is of
Palestinian descent, says all the participants realized from the outset that "in
a war like this everybody is the loser, even those who will win the so-called
battle on the ground with weapons, eventually they are the losers."
Abdallah said he felt "depressed" by the
situation at first. "It seemed to me what we were doing was very limited. We
cannot influence the solution, the political outcome. You feel helpless. You
feel like what you have been doing for the past three years is almost
His belief on the Middle East situation in
general is that "we cannot really continue doing this, the tit for tat, 'I am on
the right side and the other side is wrong.' People should cool down and put
their heads together for the benefit of everybody."
He does believe that "Israel is there to
stay. I think I represent the majority of the people (in his community) in
believing that. 'Throw Israel into the sea,' "wipe it from the map'-that is just
rhetoric that comes when people are upset. It doesn't lead to anything. Power
based on military force doesn't last. Militarism just creates more militarism.
We have to really change the attitudes."
He says that many Arabs support Hezbollah
because the governments of most Arab countries are not seen as legitimate
governments. "They support any organization that will do any little thing that
can be perceived as improving their situation," he says; there is a "political
vacuum" that Hezbollah and Hamas have rushed in to fill.
"Unless things are really strengthened in a
way that will give people hope, it is going to get worse."
Like the rest of the members of the Chicago
coalition, Abdallah believes that such groups-multiplied on a national and
perhaps international level-could be the avatars of that hope. "I think more of
what we are doing is needed, on the grassroots level," he says. "That's really
the only thing I have for hope."
Dr. Laleh Bakhtiar, production director of
Chicago's Kazi Publications, says she is "basically against war for any reason.
If you practice the golden rule"-which she says is an important part of all
three religions-"you won't have war, you won't want war."
Coming from that perspective, Bakhtiar says,
she doesn't believe in "taking sides. I feel like everybody's wrong. We just
shouldn't have wars. We have to figure out a way to communicate with each other
so that we don't have wars." That, she says, was the perspective she brought to
the coalition meeting, in which she expressed the view that "the blame game can
go on and on. There's no end to it."
"There's no reason people should say that
Israel doesn't have a right to exist. That's just not so," she says. "They need
safe borders, but on the other hand they need to give up the land they've taken,
give it back to the people."
The war "is really Iran and America," she
says. "Poor Lebanon and Israel are in the middle of it all. But the basic line
is you shouldn't have war."
She, too, believes that more groups like the
Chicago coalition could help. "I believe so much in it-go to people's homes,
their places of worship, get to know them, put a human face on it. If you look
at it in terms of theology, the Jews and Muslims are very close. The idea of the
oneness of G-d is absolutely a basic belief." Moses and the Prophets are
mentioned prominently and favorably in the Koran, and the laws of kashrut and
hallal are very similar, she says.
"It's almost like there is some genie that
comes in between these two peoples of faith who should be on the same side," she
says. "In Islam the most important thing is the belief in the oneness of G-d,
and that's also true in Judaism. How can we say we are doing any of this for
G-d? Why are we fighting?"
Dr. Abidullah Ghazi, the executive director
of IQRA, was instrumental in the formation of the coalition and has been
involved in Muslim-Jewish dialogue groups for years. An Indian Muslim, Ghazi
brings to the table not only a degree in comparative religion from Harvard
University but also a family history of interfaith efforts that goes back
several generations. Family members, all educators and scholars, were involved
in the fight for Indian independence and struggled alongside Mahatma Gandhi to
oppose the India-Pakistan partition. Today he has family living in India,
Pakistan and Jerusalem.
In the current situation, he says that since
he is not Lebanese he feels somewhat distant from that country and its people,
but "as a Muslim, I share the pain of Palestinians and Lebanese. But at the same
time the idea of throwing the Jewish people into the sea is abhorrent.
"These are very difficult problems that go
back centuries," he says. "But if we don't resolve them, then there's no future
for the Middle East. We have to change our paradigms if we don't want nuclear
war. One nuclear bomb is enough..."
Islam and Judaism, he says, are "so close
that one could be a sect of the other. Seventeen times a week (in prayers) we
send blessings on the Jews. But how can we transform those blessings from words
into deeds? And the same thing goes for the Jews. We are all neighbors,
For instance, he notes that his eldest son
has a business with three Jewish partners and another son, a doctor (whose name
is Osama, a common name in the Arab world) was recently hired by a Jewish man.
"He didn't ask him any questions about his name or about terrorism," he notes
Rabbi Gerald Teller, rabbi in residence at
the Solomon Schechter Day Schools, was not at the August meeting, but he has
been an integral part of the coalition since its beginning. While he realizes
that the meeting was a good experience for those in attendance, he doesn't think
the Middle East situation should continue to be the group's focus.
"What's most important for us at this point
is to stay away from the political situation," he says. "That's the thing that
divides, and we're trying to find things that will bring us together. The
theological brings us together, talking about G-d, the conceptual framework
around the children of Abraham."
He speaks positively of a conference the
group held in January that brought together teachers from Jewish, Muslim and
Catholic schools, including a number of Israeli teachers from Solomon Schechter
Day Schools. "The dialogue was amazing between these groups," he says. "At the
beginning I think most people on both sides felt sort of strange, because
Israelis haven't really talked to Muslims and Muslims haven't really talked to
Jews very much. But we talked about discipline in the classroom, character-
building in the classroom, and people began to share experiences. The discussion
was on a very good level."
Teller, too, believes that groups like the
coalition can do much to bring about understanding between religious
communities. He cites a coalition project in which Jewish children put on a
seder at a Catholic school, explaining the meaning of the various rituals to the
students there. Now he is helping to plan activities that will bring together
Skokie 4th and 5th graders from the Jewish, Catholic and Muslim communities.
"The kids will at least learn that the other
children are human beings and have the same kinds of lifestyles and concerns the
other children have. To build dialogue between the various groups, that's going
to be the important thing," he says.
the assistant director of the American Jewish Committee's Chicago Chapter and a
member of the coalition, credits the group's narrow focus and specific goals
with forestalling disagreements and hostilities. "We convened with a purpose: to
look for new methods of interreligious learning within religious schools," he
says. "It was not just an open-ended dialogue. When you go in with a goal and
build up trust among the participants, I think we all make a conscious effort to
check our political passions at the door when we sit down to do our sacred
Levin, the Beth Emet educator, says that
sharing pain and hurt-such as the time a Muslim member hesitantly brought in a
handful of hate-filled Internet postings circulating in his community to show
everyone-has brought the members closer, almost made them feel like a family.
When her father died last year, "I didn't expect it, but the most extraordinary
expressions came from the people in that group," she says.
"We're just regular folk, ordinary people who
believe in a world that should be a little different and who are willing to work
for that," she says. "I don't know if we can accomplish what we want to
accomplish, but we aren't giving up on it."