Repairing a broken heart is never easy, especially when fear runs deep. Too many elders within my Jewish community feel exhausted thinking about finding a solution to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict and finding peace between the Jews and Muslims of the world.
As a young Jewish American who has studied in China, taught English in India, and has friends all over the globe, I am honored to work with Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, a passionate supporter of interfaith dialogue, who the BBC calls the “world’s leading authority on contemporary Islam.”
I had the opportunity to speak on February 8 to my local Jewish community, at the Har Shalom congregation in Potomac, Maryland, about the need for interfaith dialogue.
This became the most eye-opening experience I have ever had at a synagogue. As a patriotic Jewish American with more than 100 relatives living in Israel, I seek to make friends for Israelis, friends for Palestinians, and friends to help repair the world. It was shocking to discover just how cynical and fearful my grandparents’ generation (who made up most of the audience) has become with the prospect of seeking Jewish-Muslim peace.
Developing strong friendships with Muslim and Jewish friends convinces me that our similarities outnumber our differences, I told the 80 or so congregants.
“The values my Muslim friends were raised with are so similar to the values I as a Jewish American was raised with… and their hopes and dreams are so similar to my own hopes and dreams… our common humanity is real.”
My friendships with my Muslim and Jewish friends are interfaith dialogue in live action. “Interfaith is not accepting everything the other person says,” I told the congregation. Interfaith dialogue is listening to the other person while opening minds and healing hearts. I myself have felt strengthened by witnessing dialogue between other faith groups, for instance when Dr. Ahmed was the first Muslim ever to speak at a local Sikh temple. Interfaith dialogue succeeds daily at my university, American University, where I serve as a senator representing the undergraduate student body.
“As Jewish Americans we have to stand up and defend our Muslim brothers and sisters!” We have to do what we know is right and work toward dispelling people’s fear of Islam, I told the congregation. Through dialogue and friendship with our neighbors we can dispel fear of one another. The “9/11 Mosque” controversy and the anger that followed highlights the need for all of us to actively engage in dialogue. I was surprised by the audience’s reaction.
“You are brainwashed,” an older man declared. “You can’t have a conversation if only one side wants to talk,” others averred. Another man asserted that I “don’t understand reality yet,” while yet another countered them by saying “our generation hasn’t had success in resolving these issues, thank goodness our children are idealistic.”
Although my speech focused on the need for Jewish-Muslim dialogue, it was painfully clear: For too many older Jewish Americans only one thing matters- the fight for Israel’s preservation. Too many in my community have given up on dialogue altogether.
“We had such high expectations (for peace with the Palestinians),” an elderly woman lamented while referring to the failed 1990s Israeli-Palestinian peace process. “Our hearts are broken.”
More than cynicism was at play: Many in the congregation were afraid. My grandparents’ generation has been hurt and let down so many times in the past, With Rabin and Arafat in the 1990s and with Abbas and Netanyahu today. Many older Jews are afraid to take a chance again. As one congregant said, his voice choked up: “Israel is a tiny country surrounded by one billion (Muslims). Israel isn’t looking for friendship. Israel is looking for survival.”
Many in my Jewish community are afraid to have dialogue because they are afraid of failure. Afraid that failure would pry open their hearts again and they would feel the same pain they felt before.
The remedy for healing the broken heart of “scorned lovers” is trying again to love. The truth is that it is in the best interest of Israel and the Jewish community to have friends, and the only way to make friends is to talk and get to know one another.
One of my Muslim friends said getting to know me had “completely changed (her) view of Jews, of Israel”, and that she”never had thought it was possible to have so much in common with a Jew.”
And if we could make friends we would be bringing security to Israelis, security to Palestinians, and we may finally be able to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace so that the Jews and Muslims of the world can finally get to know one another. And we could finally prosper together.
The alternative path is that of ignorance and hate. We need to oppose Islamophobes. Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer are two notable examples who are often interviewed on major news networks, and who publish dishonest hate literature about Muslims and Islam. They are the faces of bigotry and hatred and pose grave dangers to race relations and peace, I told the congregation.
Islamophobes embody dishonesty. While they call my mentor Dr. Ahmed a “stealth Jihadist” they conveniently forget that Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel says Dr. Ahmed “needs to be heard”, that world-renowned Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks says Dr. Ahmed is “one of the great religious sages of our time”, and that even the Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren says Dr. Ahmed has done “more than any single individual I know to improve the relationship between Muslims and Jews in this country and around the world.”
The generalizations regarding all Muslims erase all Muslim individuality.
Islamophobes work against interfaith efforts not because of facts based in reality but because of a malicious desire to spread fear and hate amongst the most vulnerable people.
When the extremist Anders Breivik shot dead 68 people in Norway a few months ago, he later told the court he was protecting Europe from “Muslimization.” Breivik quoted Robert Spencer in his manifesto 162 times and also found inspiration from other Islamophobes, I told the congregants.
The writings of these anti-Muslim misinformation experts are, according to terrorism consultant Marc Sageman, “the infrastructure from which Breivik emerged.”
My generation’s hearts are intact and it will be up to us to take a part in creating vitally important friendships, increasing understanding and laying the foundations for peace. Because only once peace and understanding are achieved, can we, like a scorned lover returning to love, finally heal our broken hearts, and, once again, love. Repairing a broken heart takes time, but we have to try.