DAN SAID WHAT?…Distant Cousins

Guest blogger, Dan was inspired to write this piece after attending an interfaith service memorializing the Israeli and Palestinian teenagers murdered during the summer of 2014.  Although the event took place several months ago, his thoughts are relevant today.

Courtesy of Interfaith Alliance

Courtesy of Interfaith Alliance

On July 30, 2014 my brother and I attended an Interfaith Memorial Service at Manhattanville College.  The purpose of the service was to memorialize the mutual loss of life on both sides of the current conflict between Israel and Hamas; a conflict ignited by the brutal and senseless murder of three Israeli teenagers, Naftali Fraenkel, 16, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Eyal Yifrach, 19 and the horrific torture and revenge killing of a sixteen-year-old Palestinian Boy, Mohammed Abu Khieder.

All four victims were innocent of any crime or offense… real or perceived.

The Memorial was a non-political, truly interfaith gathering; there were both religious and non-religious community leaders present.  Rabbis, Priests, Ministers, Imams and various local civic leaders and politicians were scheduled to speak to the human side of the conflict and to the roughly 250 people in attendance.

A Jesuit Priest, Faculty member of Manhattanville College and co-organizer of the Memorial began with the following introduction:

“Throughout history, there have been countless atrocities carried out in the name of religion.  Here, today, let’s show the world that religion can be a vehicle of peace, compassion and understanding.”

A strong opening.  I was impressed.  There was a genuine air of frankness and heartfelt sincerity to him in particular, and to the service in general.

The Memorial Service continued with various speakers:  Rabbis, Imams, Priests and Ministers.  Each of them took a turn quoting their individual faith’s scripture parts regarding the sanctity and value placed on peace, compromise and compassion.   Around the middle of the memorial, my brother’s friend and neighbor, a Jerusalem-born Palestinian, got up to chant from the Quran.  It was beautiful and strangely familiar.   As soon as she finished, my brother leaned over to me and said, “That sounded a lot like when we read from the Torah.  We Jewish people have more in common with Muslims than any other people…”

A light bulb went off in my head, “EXACTLY!”  My mind began to race and I found it difficult to focus on the other speakers.

I thought, How have things deteriorated this far?

Muslims and Jews share a common ancestry, a common Patriarch (Abraham), similar dietary laws, a similar language and the same homeland.  We are cousins!  “Shalom Aleychem” and “Salaam Alaykum” could easily be mistaken for the same language; both mean “Peace Be Upon You”.

I became frustrated by my inability to answer a question that has plagued the Middle East for decades in the 10 minutes that had passed since my bother’s left-hook of an observation.

And so I refocused my attention to the Memorial Service just as a Presbyterian Minister, a denomination with no particular skin in the game offered an outstanding, intelligent, yet emotional, plea for prayer and more importantly, serious call to action.

Various community leaders went on to speak, sharing the minister’s sentiments and suggesting ways in which they planned to act locally and think globally; a realistic and doable task which could be accomplished by individuals from different faiths simply talking to one another in their neighborhoods.

The Memorial Service concluded with two minutes of silent prayer.  I was surprised when the Quaker representative leading it broke in with “Thank You” to conclude the ceremony.  Two minutes felt like 10 seconds.

Interfaith memorial service photo

My brother and I made the 15-minute drive home, chattering non-stop about the similarities between Muslims and Jews and our individual solutions to the crisis in the Middle East.  Our solutions were not plausible or realistic.  We resembled two infants pondering Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

Back at the house, my brother, sister-in-law, and I talked well into the evening about the Memorial Service and their neighbor who chanted from The Quran.  We said our goodnights and I built my bed on the sofa.  The sofa was comfortable, but I couldn’t sleep.

That was last summer, and to be honest, I’m still having trouble sleeping.  This Memorial Service has brought into question my typically unwavering and staunch sense of justice regarding my personal “reality” about the conflict between Jews & Muslims in the Middle East.

Do not misunderstand me; I still believe that Hamas is a terrorist organization.  There cannot be a lasting peace in the Middle East with Hamas as the ruling power in Gaza under its current charter (unwillingness to recognize the State of Israel) and leadership.

I also believe with every fiber of my being that The State of Israel does not only have a right to exist, it NEEDS to exist.  The pogroms of the late 19th and early 20th centuries across Eastern Europe are NOT ancient history.  Some Jews have grandparents who are still alive and able to share their memories and horrors of the Holocaust with younger generations.

You don’t even have to go back that far…

TODAY, there are Jews in France who have taken down the mezzuzot from their front door frames and have stopped wearing their Judaic jewelry in public, out of fear of personal, violent, acts of anti-Semitism.  Yes, in my heart of hearts, I believe now more than ever:  Am Yisrael Chai! (The People of Israel Live!).

Furthermore, it takes a lot of chutzpa for people living in the relative peace, security and cozy cocoon of a Western Democracy to judge Israel and criticize how it protects its citizens and borders while Hamas fires rockets from Palestinian homes and invades Israel’s territory through the use of an intricate and extensive tunnel system.

With that being said…

There are difficult truths, which Israel and Jews need to confront, both as a nation and as a people.

When sixteen year-old Khieder was tortured and murdered by extremist Jewish Israelis, the media questioned Israeli officials after the suspects were apprehended and had confessed to the brutal crime.  The Israeli officials stated that they were ‘shocked that Jews would commit such a heinous crime.’

When Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin was gunned down by a Jewish extremist due to his willingness to accept and work toward a Two-State Solution, Israeli officials were questioned as to why more protection was not afforded their Prime Minister in such a volatile and critical time.  Their response: ‘It never occurred to us that a Jew would commit such a heinous crime.’

In order for a lasting peace to have a chance, this ridiculous and self-righteous brand of ignorance has to end.

The bottom line is that both parties are right and both parties are wrong.

Both Jews and Muslims have carried out many horrific acts, going back well before 1948 (the year of Israeli Statehood) and both Israelis and Palestinians have a right to a safe and secure homeland.  The reality of this situation, much like the border between Israel and Palestine is not transparent.

Two days before the Memorial Service, I was at a Pro-Israel Rally outside the UN in Manhattan.

Pro Israel picture

I found myself getting caught up in the “oneness” of the event.  We were 15,000 in attendance and felt strong; we were mishpocha (family).  The heavy hitters on the podium kept repeating Prime Minister Netanyahu’s rock-star sound byte:

“Israel uses rockets to protect its citizens and Hamas uses its citizens to protect its rockets.” 

I liked it and I agreed with it, but I had a hard time SAYING it.  I didn’t know why until now.  The reason it sticks in my throat is because it is RHETORIC.  The last thing this conflict needs at this serious and critical stage is more rhetoric.

Golda Meir once said, “There will not be peace with the Arabs until they love their children more than they hate us (Israelis).”

Perhaps there’s some truth to this.  Assuming there is, let’s hope someone, very soon, adds:

‘…And Israel firmly embraces a real and lasting Two-State Solution; a shared homeland in partnership with the Palestinian People.’

And most importantly, let’s hope there are people on both sides, distant cousins, who are ready, able and willing to build trust, understanding and a lasting peace.

It’s time we moved beyond catchy sound-bytes and crowd-pleasing propaganda.  There is hard work to be done by serious people and it’s getting late.

Salam Alaykum.  Shalom Aleychem.

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