Tuesday, September 29, 2009

School's Back. Dialogue Safely.

At the end of the last academic year, I had a unique opportunity to meet with students completing a year on various academic, religious and volunteer programs in Israel. I was asked to talk with them about Jewish life on campus in the US, albeit that it had been more than 20 years since I had been a student leader on my own campus. I was worried that I wouldn’t have much to offer, and mindful that while it doesn't feel as if it’s been so long, or that I am not as young as I feel (or as the students are), I am now old enough to be their parent. Many of the students were finishing a “gap year” as part of the Jewish Agency’s MASA program (http://www.masaisrael.org/masa/english) and were interested in all kinds of information on the verge of entering their first year of college. Some students were completing a junior year abroad and looking forward to returning to complete their senior year. As a Jewish student leader at Emory University in the mid 1980s, I was involved in a wide array of advocacy on behalf of Soviet Jewry, pro-Israel activities, student lobbies in Washington and no shortage of cultural and social events. For my assignment to meet with the students this year, I was briefed about the current status of Jewish life on campus, availability of kosher food, who to contact at Hillel, etc. What surprised me the most is that while nearly across the board all the students wanted to be involved with Jewish and pro Israel activities on campus, similarly most of the incoming students were concerned about the level of anti Israel and anti Semitic activities on campus. In my own day, as I expanded my activities beyond Emory and entered the national sphere of Jewish student activities, I became aware of a phenomenon that existed on other campuses, but not on mine. Jewish students were harassed, pro-Israel events were protested, and hateful anti Israel and anti Semitic activities were common. I made a determination to preempt, and possibly prevent, these activities from infecting Emory and, as president of Hillel, established a formal dialogue with the Moslem Student Association. In truth, our formal dialogue between organizations never took root, but it was a meaningful and interesting accomplishment to hold several sessions relating to common and divergent religious practices and beliefs of Moslems and Jews, while agreeing to avoid topics that might create division. Through the course of these interactions, I became friendly with the MSA president, Ahmed, a Sunni medical student from Syria. We let our guards down and discussed politics, religion and “the Arab Israel conflict.” I don't know that we changed one another's views, but we did open one another's minds. One of the most memorable instances was when Ahmed asked me to take him to a lecture off campus by Rabbi Meir Kahane. Afterward, Ahmed said he respected Kahane and that if he were Jewish, he'd be like Kahane. Regrettably, over the years hateful anti Israel activism began to seep into and infect the Emory campus. Experiences of one of the students with whom I met this year sounded like stories I had heard from other campuses some two decades earlier. This past year Emory became one of the campuses to sink to hosting an “Israel Apartheid Week” which served to make Israel a punching bag for all of the ills of the Arab world in general, and Palestinians in specific, while not considering their own culpability in decades of war, terror, and hostility. Further, these ignorant expressions of hate and anti Semitism not only discredit Israel at every turn, but often deny Israel’s very legitimacy. Of course, while Emory did not have the long tradition of such hate fests and intimidation of Jewish students as other campuses have, Emory does have a special “asset” making the campus riper for sewing such activities in Jimmy Carter. Carter’s presidency in exile found a home at Emory shortly before I arrived. He has used this as a pulpit from which to espouse his own anti Israel bent, and share no shortage of his animosity toward, and lies about, Israel and its leaders. He has also taken academic integrity to a new low with allegations of plagiarism and a gross lack of balance or perspective in anything related to Israel and the Middle East. In meeting with the new Emory bound students, I was upset to hear that this was a prime concern of theirs. College is a time for opening one’s mind and learning. To enter college afraid that one’s inclination for supporting Israel and wanting to be involved with Israeli and Jewish activities on campus might somehow adversely impact their experience, or make them targets for hate speech, or worse, was a rude awakening. They asked my opinion about what to do, talking about my dialogue experience, interested in doing so as well. A current student spoke of a recent attempt to create such a dialogue that broke down with intolerable anti-Israel rhetoric. After all, it takes two to dialogue and if one party is only interested in shouting down the other and pointing a finger, then what’s the point. I digested their worries and assessed their questions. My answer to them was unconventional but one which, the more I consider, the more I think it’s on target. Certainly there will always be Arabs and Moslems willing to dialogue, but if the majority (or vocal minority) prevent that then I saw no point in trying to engage them. Dialogue is to create understanding, but if the other side does not want to understand, then it’s fruitless. My suggestion was to interact with people who may be more ideologically and religiously compatible. Dialogue does not need to mean suddenly loving one another and agreeing on everything, but opening one’s mind, listening, and understanding. An exchange of views, not a hate filled monologue. So my suggestion is that rather on focusing efforts to dialogue with Moslems or Arabs on campus, the students should reach out to Christians, with whom Jews share common western values and a Biblical foundation. It’s peculiar that many American Jews would run to have a dialogue with Moslems or Arabs, with whom we can have a perfectly good and meaningful interaction, but with whom we have many differences and a mindset that we are not likely to change much less effect, yet be loathe to interact with believing Christians. For Israel supporters, this is a much more logical venue, as one can understand the commonalities and differences in traditions and beliefs without having to dance around topics that might trigger a hate filled diatribe where a pro-Israel student may feel personally attacked, or threatened. Jews and Christians have many differences indeed, but a college setting is the best environment in which to learn about others. Arguably, that’s what a college experience should be. Some may be concerned about an ulterior motive, or feel threatened that some Christians are more knowledgeable than many Jews about their own faith and, in many cases, about Judaism as well. But this ought not be a reason to run away from such a dialogue but, rather, to use this educational setting to embrace it, as well as build a stronger foundation in one’s own Jewish identity as well as the framework for pro-Israel activities.

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