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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Please check out “A Letter to My Palestinian-American Muslim Friend” online in Mamalode parenting magazine!

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I am proud to share my 2nd essay feature in Mamalode parenting magazine.

I wrote, “A Letter to My Palestinian-American Muslim Friend” about a dear friend in my community.  It was published today.

Even if you have already read the piece on Red said what?, please take a few minutes to:

  1. Click this link to Mamalode: A Letter to My Palestinian-American Muslim Friend
  2. Like and/or comment at the bottom of the article
  3. Then please SHARE, TWEET, and PIN!

The more “unique views” of the essay on Mamalode’s site during the next 30 days, the more Mama-love I receive from them.

Thank you for your continued support, especially during this busy season!  Happy Holidays!

All the best,

Red

From Sidelines to Service

photo credit: Sarah Fedorchick

photo credit: Sarah Fedorchick

Veterans Day 2014 started out no differently than any other; with good intention and marginal action.

Each November 11th, I’d think about my grandfather Joe, a World War II Navy Veteran.

The thought was typically followed by an appreciative email or indebted Facebook post.  Some years I’d even make the old fashioned phone call.  Soon distracted by child rearing logistics and household priorities, I’d call it a day and opt out of making the 45 minute drive to pay a visit.

This time however, I had left Skootch’s red accordion at Joe’s house a few days before and much to the child’s dismay, had only the purple one at home.  So in an effort to temper a peppering five year old, the boys and I piled into the Outback and joined my grandfather for lunch.

Joe greeted his great-grandsons at the door, offered respective kisses, and held them on the landing.

“Did you see my American flag?” he asked.

It was no surprise and nice to see that despite having recently lost his wife of 65 years, Joe remembered to dress the pole he had raised between a patch of hedges adjacent to the front stoop to commemorate the holiday and a defining time in his life.

“Do you know how to do a soldier’s salute?”

My grandfather faced the flag, modeled the salute, and instructed the boys to pay the toll.  “Now you do it.”

Bubbe smiled shyly and gave it a go.  The Skootch puffed his chest, cupped his palm and looked at it.  Joe helped the effort along.  The group crossed the threshold and stopped in the front hall.

“Do you fly one at home?” he asked.  Joe didn’t wait for an answer.  “Here take these.”  He snatched a pair of parade flags from a collection stored in a nearby bucket.

The Skootch marched up to the second floor apartment, waving his new toy.  The parade was short lived.  Toddler sized penguins and a Santa Claus were performing center stage in the living room.  He dropped the flag.

My grandfather rescued it.  “No.  Never let it touch the ground.  Out of respect and honor, the American flag should always point toward the sky,” he explained.  “Let’s put it in a safe place.”  He tucked the base into a puffy coat curled up on a Captain’s chair.

Bubbe followed suit; partially to secure the flag but mostly to search for his great-grandpa’s Kindle Fire and Oreos in a nearby hutch.

On route to the cookies, he noticed a glass display case perched near the front of the hutch shelf.  It was filled with mounted, decorated ribbons laid out like a Holland tulip field.

“What are these?”  Bubbe wiped away the dust.

“Those are my war medals,” Joe said and went on to explain them one by one.

“American Campaign…

European, African, Middle Eastern Campaign…2 bronze stars

Asiatic, Pacific Campaign…2 bronze stars”

There were six in total.  He circled back to the top row.  “These are my dog tags.  I wore them around my neck the entire time I was away.  Do you know why soldiers wear two tags?”

“No,” Bubbe said.

“If a solider dies, one stays on the body; the other gets sent home.”

“Oh.  I get it.”

Eavesdropping from the kitchen I thought,

Will he ever really get it? 

When my children are grown, what will service, sacrifice, and country mean to them?

It is wonderful that we have a proud, willing veteran in our family to share experiences but unfortunately, I can count on one hand the number of service men and women we know.  Outside of my grandfather, Bubbe and The Skootch have had only the opportunity to interact with veterans or those in active duty during elementary and religious school programs.  And as Op-Ed columnist, Maureen Dowd recently noted, with “one percent of the population voluntarily enlisting in the service,” it is likely that in the future, my boys will be exposed more regularly to comic book heroes than to everyday ones.

Thankfully sacrifice, service, character, and citizenship are still being communicated in schools, through extra-curricular activities, at houses of worship and in our homes.  Still, teaching young people the value of contributing to the greater good feels piecemealed, fit in, and a vehicle for resume padding.

The potential for further disconnect in these formal settings seems imminent now that such lessons are being muscled from the spotlight by college, career readiness, English Language Arts requirements and STEM.  In my state, there is even a motion to de-emphasize Social Studies.

Israeli citizens get it.  Out of necessity, conscription exists for most of the country’s Jewish Israeli population.  Upon turning 18, men and women are obligated to serve in the military for three and two years, respectively.  As a result, my 65 year old friend can relate directly to the experiences of an active soldier as well as identify with the five year old who knows he will one day fill those shoes.  There, generations of citizens connect through collective responsibility and common experience.

In 2010, my husband Mac’s Letter to the Editor was published in The New York Times in response to the article, “The Way We Treat Our Troops” which in part offered support for a mandatory draft.  The guy was onto something.  He wrote:

“If the good problem arises where we have an abundance of young people in the military during peacetime, they could be deployed toward other national services like helping the elderly, the indigent and the disabled or for cleanup after national disasters, mentoring children and so on.  America is a terrific place to live; if young people gave something back and worked alongside other Americans from all walks of life, it would tie us closer together as a country.”

In February 2013, New York State Congressman Charles Rangel introduced a most recent version of the Universal National Service Act to the House of Representative’s Armed Services Committee.

The bill requires all persons between the ages of 18 and 25 living in the United States, citizen or otherwise to perform two years of national uniformed or civilian service.  Those choosing uniformed service may also be inducted during wartime, a national emergency, or a contingency operation.  This CrossFit junkie would add that prior to selecting a service type; able-bodied participants attend basic training in cohorts.  There is something to be said for intense, group exercise.  It fosters camaraderie, physical and emotional growth, and team pride.

To date, the bill has not moved in Congress.

Yes.  I realize the devil is in the details and that bigger government doesn’t necessarily translate into better outcomes.  Yes.  We do have a responsibility to teach our children in our families and community about service, sacrifice, and selfless giving.  And yes, I too wonder about the mandatory component of such a program in a free society.

Regardless, I think it is time to take meaningful action.

Perhaps a national service requirement will shift expectations for and alleviate pressure on high school students, change the way the college admissions process is managed, reduce some of the direct financial burden on families trying to pay for higher education, and offer guidance for college graduates looking to take the next step.

More importantly, perhaps it will build awareness and understanding for soldiers and veterans suffering trauma, make care and reentry a priority for when they return home, and simply bring us closer as a nation.

“Our debt to the heroic men and valiant women

in the service of our country can never be repaid.

They have earned our undying gratitude.

America will never forget their sacrifices.”

-President Harry S Truman

There is a way to repay veterans like Joe.

Poppie in the navy

Let us step away from the sideline to work in tandem with those on the front line in an effort to strengthen and preserve the solidarity of an already great nation.

Let us pay the toll.

A Letter to My Palestinian-American Muslim Friend

Martin Luther King Jr Quote

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Dear Friend,

Thank you for introducing yourself to me on the school yard when I was new to the community.  Had you not, I don’t know if I would have extended a hand.

When I initially saw you in the neighborhood, I avoided eye contact.  I couldn’t see passed the hijab. Your headscarf represented to me a religion of negativism and extremes, a culture of anti-Semitism, and a stifling of the modern woman.  I passed judgment, was ignorant and afraid.  I quickly concluded that we were from different worlds, and hence unable to find common ground; until we did.

Our sons’ fast friendship, much to my surprise, led to ours.  Several conversations, a few CrossFit WODs, and a shared hookah later, I learned some things.

First, your commitment to Islam is rooted in a spirituality that transcends all religions.

When I recently asked, “What did you learn from making pilgrimage to Mecca?” you shared with me along with the young people at the local mosque that in light of the experience, both positive and negative, you returned grateful for the gifts God gives us as free, healthy human beings and with an understanding that He loves us, imperfections and all.

At home, modesty, daily prayer, study, and diet are the tangible rituals you choose to demonstrate your love for God, but that love is also deeply evident in the thoughtful way in which you respect yourself, interact with others, approach parenting, nurture relationships, and care for patients.

Your words and actions remind me that we are all connected; Muslim, Christian, Jewish or otherwise.

Second, you have an open, accepting, and generous heart.

As a Christian woman raising Jewish children married to a man with a strong connection to Israel, I was worried that friendship might be tricky.  I was wrong.

From day one, you welcomed my family into your home.  You share your culture, answer questions, appreciate our traditions, and join us for holidays.  When my son swallowed a marble, you were at my door despite having worked a full day to help out and offer advice.  When I had jury duty, you spent the afternoon with my boys even though your children had busy schedules of their own.  You think of my family whenever you cook or travel, and thanks to your charming sweet tooth, my children affectionately refer to you as, “The Candy Fairy.”

The goodness that emanates from you inspires me to be better.

Third, you are an advocate for women; a role model for your son and daughters.

Your dress might be traditional, but your ideas and actions are progressive, willful, and strong.  I was moved when in an effort to understand practices, question inequities and evoke change, you approached Muslim women in the streets of Mecca and asked how they felt wearing a khimar, a long garment covering their head, neck, and shoulders, ran errands in pants to encourage dialogue, and questioned local leaders about the sanitation of the city.

Every day I watch you work tirelessly to support your family, use your education to help others, handle conflict and struggle with grace and perseverance, tackle new adventures with uncanny energy, act zany, be fun, and simply love life.

You are an exemplary, modern American woman who I am proud to call my friend.

Connection and communication helped me to confront prejudice, challenge stereotypes, and understand a culture that I knew only through media, politics and hearsay.  I have renewed hope for future generations when I see our sons playing, laughing, and treating each other as brothers.

The hijab is not a symbol, but a frame; for the beautiful person you are outside and within.

Much love,

Red

2015 BlogHer Voice of the Year Reception

2015 BlogHer Voice of the Year Reception