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.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

My Signature

It’s still incredible to me that the pace of life in Israel revolves so much around Jewish life and holidays. Perhaps since I did not grow up with it and have only been living here for five years it takes getting used to, but I hope it will always be special and something that neither I nor my kids take for granted.

For the past few weeks, people have greeted one another in the spirit of the holiday seasons with wishes for a Shana Tova (a happy new year) and a gmar chatima tova (Literally: A good final sealing, idiomatically: May you be inscribed (in the Book of Life) for Good.) This is common throughout Israeli society, even among entirely non-observant people, and through every element of society. I was struck recently when listening to a particular secular oriented radio program and the hosts were wishing that to one another and to their call in guests.

In Hebrew, chatima also means signature. That got me thinking about signatures in general and about how the greeting is especially appropriate before Yom Kippur, not just as a greeting and good wishes, but as a charge and commitment.

As a child growing up in New Jersey, a place central to early American history, I learned many stories of the American Revolutionary War era. One was the story of John Hancock. Hancock was the first to sign the American Declaration of Independence. He did so in big, bold and even flamboyant letters so as to make a statement despite that the British viewed this and other similar actions of the colonies as criminal. Hancock and others were wanted criminals. But he didn’t care and used this opportunity not just to ratify the Declaration of Independence, but to make a statement in doing so.

Some 200 years later, having “borrowed” Hancock’s name and legacy as the name of a financial services company, a clever ad campaign suggested that the company had the integrity of its namesake. Similarly, the name “John Hancock” had become synonymous with one’s signature.

The season between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is one where we are to account for our sins and wrongs both between man and God, and one another, to sincerely commit not to do them again. We wish one another and ourselves to be inscribed, and sealed, in the Book of Life. But to do so requires action and commitment. Not just hollow words and following of a ritual prayer.

So too, when we sign our signature, it means that we are putting our name behind what we write. Whether the name on a check (made all the more relevant in a post-Madoff era) to vouch that the money is there (and perhaps that it’s been earned legally), on a letter or memo to a colleague or business associate giving our word and commitment to them, or on something as rudimentary as a note to school saying that your child can’t play sports because s/he does not feel well.

In short, our signature is our guarantee. We don’t literally sign a contract with God that we promise to do better, but we do that in effect through our words, thoughts, and actions. The opposite side of the coin beseeching God that we be inscribed is our “signature” that we commit to uphold our end.

Having the sincerity and humility to account for one’s shortcomings is not an easy thing in and of itself. Recognizing and understanding them is a process, especially when one has the challenge of turning over every figurative rock to reflect on such transgressions, even, or particularly those that were not intended. Apologizing and making amends for these is equally as hard, but it’s essential. Only then can we truly be forgiven, and only then can we really be accountable to make a commitment that we won’t do it again. Short of that is insincere, and though we may utter the words and beat our chest, it’s not complete.

Albeit impersonal but no less sincere, I realize that some of my writing in the past year has upset, offended or disappointed some readers. I value and appreciate the feedback (positive and negative), and truly try to internalize the constructive criticism, even when I do something as simple as butcher the grammar. So if I have hurt, offended or disappointed you at all in my past writings, please know I am truly sorry. Sometimes what I want to say and how I say it are not 100% in sync, and even when they are, there’s room for errors. But I will, and do, strive to continue to present my thoughts and insight in a way that is honest and accurate, and most definitely not offensive, unless speaking about Jimmy Carter. Sorry, I am still only human.

May we each go into the Day of Atonement with the humility and sincerity to account for the wrongs for which we are responsible, and make every effort to be sure that as we ask God to SEAL us in the Book of Life, that our word is as good as our signature. The legend is said of John Hancock when he signed the Declaration of Independence, he said, “There, I guess King George will be able to read that!”

Indeed. Let our “signature” this Yom Kippur be big enough for The King to read, and read into it the sincerity in every curve of every letter.

May you and your family be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life.