Northwestern University Medill News Service - October, 2006

Want to change religious stereotypes? Start with school textbooks

by Beckie Supiano
October 11, 2006

Esta Star is not someone you would expect to find editing Muslim textbooks.

Yet Star, vice president of the Chicago chapter of the American Jewish Committee, found herself doing just that. And she didn't like what she saw.

"They were really dreadful, full of stereotypes of Jews, and of Christians as well, but mainly Jews -- from the Middle Ages," Star said.

The experience led Star in 2003 to form the Chicago Coalition for Interreligious Learning.

It all began when a friend sent Star an article from the New York Daily News chronicling prejudicial content in textbooks used in the city's Muslim schools.

The article mentioned that the books were printed by two publishing houses, one based in Chicago -- IQRA International -- and one in New Jersey.

The New Jersey publisher was quoted in the article as being unwilling to take responsibility for the books' content.

However, the Chicago publisher said the offending passages were out of date and promised to correct them. He was Abidullah Ghazi, executive director of IQRA International Educational Foundation -- and an acquaintance of Star's from previous interfaith dialogues.

Abidullah Ghazi and his wife, Tasneema, write the books IQRA publishes.

"There were no books available for Muslim children in Western countries"

when IQRA began in the 1960s, said Tasneema Ghazi, director of curriculum development.

After reading the article, Star called Abidullah Ghazi and offered to help change the books.

"He was just thrilled, practically jumped into my arms," Star said.

After looking at the books, Star had an epiphany: why not bring together a group of religious educators of different faiths and work to improve understanding among the traditions?

Star shared her idea with the Ghazis and with her friend Sister Mary Ellen Coombe, associate director of the Archdiocese of Chicago's Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. Both of the Ghazis and Sister Coombe became coalition partners in the new organization.

To begin, group members examined each other's textbooks. Catholic schoolbooks had undergone major revision in the 1960s as part of the reforms of Vatican II, and this process served as a model for the coalition's work.

Although removing bias from textbooks is important, the group has broader aspirations. Coalition partners say they are not only working to eradicate prejudice; they want to replace it with something better -- authentic relationships.

The coalition sends representatives from the Catholic, Jewish and Muslim communities to speak at education events affiliated with their religions, in addition to giving workshops for educators.

"You can fix a book," Star said, "but the real thing is the teachers."

There are hundreds of parochial schools in Chicago, not to mention the religious education programs at every synagogue, mosque and church. Reaching out to religious educators in the city is a daunting endeavor, but the coalition is beginning to receive support for its work.

Star has learned that the coalition, which recently achieved non-profit status, might receive a grant for its workshops.

The coalition's next workshop, scheduled for Jan. 22, will have three segments: a description of each faith, a presentation on interreligious learning and an interfaith teaching demonstration on the topic of Noah, who appears in the sacred texts of all three traditions.

There is a good dynamic among the coalition partners. They have moved beyond dialogue, as Star is fond of saying. Now the group is trying to help other religion educators from different faith traditions do the same.

"In a comfortable setting, you can say controversial things," Star said.

Chicago Jewish News - August, 2006

TALKING 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 religions.

Esta Star, 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 one another."

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 next.

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 us.

"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 irrelevant."

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, partners, colleagues."

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 approvingly.

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.

Jonathan Schwartz, 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 work."

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."