November 18, 2009
Look and Listen for those Seeking Peace
This is a response to David Suissa’s column “We need ‘A street,’ not J street”
We live in challenging times, to be sure, as conflicts brew all over the globe. Some of these conflicts are old and well-known, like the Arab-Israeli conflict, and some are newer and less well understood, like the American military occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. However, in all of these conflicts, there seems to be an undercurrent of one theme: if only those who preach hatred and death would come around to a more sensible point of view, then we could potentially end some or all of these conflicts. In a column a few weeks ago, David Suissa argued that J-Street was an unoriginal and lackluster organization offering tired and worn out slogans. While I find it hard to imagine how such a smart and informed writer as Suissa would want to make such direct and ill-founded comments without attending the important and impressive J-Street conference personally, the second part of his essay, where he bemoans the lack of an “A-Street,” namely an Arab organization that calls for peace and security, is something that I want to address. I think that if Mr. Suissa looked a bit harder into the fabric of Muslim and Arab society, he would find some organizations that meet his criteria. I want to point out few in particular.
In a recent LA Times article, we read about Muhammed Khatib, a young Palestinian peace activist who has been defending his village of Bilin from the security barrier in a nonviolent and peaceful manner. He was very honest that his way of protest is not gaining tremendous support from his fellow Palestinians, but that has not stopped him from continuing his protests, each and every week, for as he said, “Nonviolence is our most powerful weapon.” I believe that we should be working to support these kinds of voices. In a region that has not had much success with nonviolence, Khatib is a shining light and deserves our help. Another example comes from my good friend and colleague, Ronit Avni, and her organization Just Vision. Following her enlightening first film, “Encounter Point,” where during the preproduction research she worked to discover and track over 180 Palestinian and Israeli NGOs working on the ground for peace, every day heroes who the media chooses not to cover in favor of the more sensational violent extremists, Ronit has a new film coming out soon called “Budrus,” where she shares with the world the story of another nonviolent Palestinian movement to try and stop the security barrier from dividing up a village. Yet another Palestinian activist is leading a nonviolent group of Palestinians and Israelis, with representatives of both Fatah and Hamas participating, to end the violence. The lead subject of her film acknowledges Israeli security concerns but recognizes that it need not be a zero sum trade-off. He therefore organizes his community to prevent the destruction of their property and lands without arms. Like the more well-known Bereaved Parents Circle, a growing group of Israeli and Palestinian families who have lost a loved one to violence, there are more and more Palestinians and Israelis who are seeking a different path, a holier road to end the conflict: nonviolence and peace, reconciliation over war, hard conversations over bombs. It doesn’t mean that they are not calling for resistance, for if we are truly honest with ourselves, which is a huge factor in this equation, then we need to acknowledge that all occupations will be resisted and the Israeli occupation is no different. It is just harder because it is our people. We can only deny the truth by ignoring the truth for so long. In Bilin and Budrus, Palestinians are working to create exactly what Mr. Suissa is looking for. I would urge him to visit these villages, interview these leaders, talk to Ronit Avni and report back to us.
And closer to home, we are dealing with the Ft. Hood tragedy and the impact of that horrible act on our country, including on the Muslim-American community. I have been in touch with my Arab and Muslim colleagues, offering them support and friendship in this challenging time. Our one-on-one friendships and strong interfaith ties is what helps us support one another in these challenging moments. Stereotyping is a huge danger in response to these kinds of horrible acts, and as Jews, we know all too well how dangerous linking the act of one member of a people to all the people can be. Again, in response to Mr. Suissa looking for prominent Muslims and Arabs who are not on the path of war and violence, I hope that he saw a recent article by another friend and colleague of mine, Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC). In response to the Ft. Hood massacre, Salam wrote a piece for Huffington Post, an open letter to fellow Muslim-Americans. I want to share some of what he said, for he is employing language and rhetoric that is seeking to present an alternative view for his fellow Muslims. He says, “A moment of truth has arrived for us. We now must demonstrate, beyond the condemnations and condolences, that we are working for America, not merely taking seats on the margins of our society. Are we an integral part of the American fabric or are we simply visitors to America?” These are bold and profound questions, ones that go far beyond any simple rhetoric that decries a tragedy, seeking to deflect what he knows will be the onslaught of attacks from this shooting. Salam is being bold and is calling for Muslims to seize the moment for peace and forward thinking. “This loss was our loss. Those Americans who were killed at Ft. Hood dedicated their lives to defend our democracy.” In standing with the victims of this tragedy, the American soldiers and civilians who were brutally gunned down, and not with a member of his own people, also a soldier in our Army, Salam is showing a courage that Mr. Suissa is looking for. There is no justification of the murder, no veiled support, no blame of anyone else. He then goes on to say some pretty remarkable things, and remember he is doing this as a national leader of a very prominent Muslim-American organization. “It is time to determine what is more relevant to the world at this painful moment—the handful of violent extremists or the overwhelming majority of mainstream, moderate thinking Muslims. Right now, one person who opened fire at Ft. Hood is relevant to American society and his image invokes fear and harm.” Just as when a Jewish person commits an act of terror or violence, and our natural inclination is try and find a way to separate ourselves from that person, even as our heart breaks, I imagine that Salam is feeling the same way, knowing how the world will identify all of his people will this one deranged act of a sick and troubled individual.
But, a paragraph near the end of his essay is really what moved me the most. “We have only one option available to deal with ideologically motivated violence: the Islamic theology of life must overcome the cult of death. No more justification for violence against the innocent or the defilement of jihad in order to lead young men and women to their death, while Muslim leaders sit on their hollow thrones.” If that is not a statement of peace, as well as a challenge to his community, I don’t know what is. It is easy to say that nobody is trying, that there is “no partner,” that one side or the other only wants war and violence. It is easy to point fingers, sardonically try to undermine those groups trying to work for a peaceful path, ignore those individuals and groups who are trying to make a difference and sit back satisfied. I offer these examples for all of us to think about when the article is written or the speech given that says “there is nothing new under the sun.” There is new, there are agents of change, there is hope: seeing them and lifting them up against the darkness are the job of the peacemakers. And we will continue to do so.
Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the senior rabbi of Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center