Tuesday, October 30, 2007

YDN Coverage!

It was only a matter of time for something so awesome -- check us out here in the YDN!
"It’s too easy to dehumanize a people you either don’t know or feel threatened by,” Avins said in an e-mail. “JAM is one of many efforts to bring the human back into the equation."

Shabbat Services

Having basically gone AWOL from JAM for the past few weeks, I figured it would be a good idea to at least attend the Shabbat services and, due to my recently increasing affinity towards the Slifka Dining Hall, the dinner afterwards. So Usama, Umar, and I walked down to Slifka and met Jeremy and Jason who proceeded to take us upstairs and began explaining how the services would go. The best way to learn something is to actually experience it, and I feel that I learned a lot from just having two people explain in their own words how a religious service goes. We took a quick tour through the prayer book that was to be used, and the requirements for the service were explained. We also got to look at an authentic Torah, which I had certainly never seen before. I had always thought it was a book, but was surprised to see that (and bear with me here) first of all, it was a scroll; secondly, so much care and work went into producing one; and finally the level of respect it was given. It reminded me a lot of how Muslims respect the Qur'an.

The service itself was very interesting. And although I was a relatively ignorant observer, not once did I feel uncomfortable or unwelcome. People kept telling me when the page was switched and where they were and so on. It was on the whole, a rather enjoyable experience, although I wasn't taking active part in it. Unfortunately, we left about 20 minutes into the service proper to pray to pray our own evening prayer, Maghrib. The three of us shuffled out as discreetly as possible and began looking for a suitable place to pray as the echoes of the service began to fade behind us. We came to a seemingly unused room and found a corner with some space, laid down our jackets, and proceeded to begin prayer. At that point I noticed that there was another Shabbat service taking place in the room beneath us. It didn't bother us though, because we had to pray, and had already found a nice spot. Usama lead the prayer, and I strained to hear his voice over both services.

Halfway into the third rak'ah, however, I had the epiphany that there were essentially three prayers in Slifka all calling out to the same God. What at first seemed to be a cacophony of Arabic and Hebrew, became a melodious mixture of the two prayers when I realized that despite the social, political, and ideological strife between the adherents of our faiths, and despite our traditions, our modes of worship, and our cultures, we are all essentially the same. For me, prayer has always been a direct connection to God during which I am conscious of Him peering into my essence. At that moment, it felt as if all of us, Jews and Muslims, stood before God, open as books, humbled before Him. I felt a bond of human brotherhood on a place deeper than race, nationality, or even the earthly manifestations of religion.

Given that the conflict between Israel and Palestine is primarily a political rather than a religious one, I think that we can only really begin to understand each other though religion rather than history. And if we look at all the conflicts today between people who claim to be of two such faiths, it should be apparent that such a conflict over the most base of material things, land, is truly superficial when compared to our common spirituality. If only the war-mongers, the legislators, and the ignorant could be blessed with such a an experience and come to this realization. Perhaps then we could move towards each other to achieve a lasting peace between two not-so-different peoples.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Religions of Justice

"Neither Islam nor Judaism is a religion of love; both are religions of justice.”

These were (approximately) the words of Dr. Mustafa Abu Sway, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Islamic Studies at Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem (pictured), as he spoke to a group of students over dinner a few nights ago. I must admit, I was struck at first by this sentence, as I certainly tend to think of such love-related sentiments as hesed (Hebrew for "compassion" or "loving-kindness") as cornerstones of Judaism. The more I digested Dr. Abu Sway’s words, though, the more they made sense. Though I cannot cite the exact passage, I have often read or heard the idea that G-d’s justice is a balancing act of mercy and judgment: too much judgment, and we will crumble under the weight of G-d’s punishment, yet too much mercy and we may sow our own destruction through misdeed. Love is therefore an integral part of justice, and it is channeled so as to be most effective.

Speaking of justice, however, I must voice a discomfort with a topic popular in “peacemaking” circles. When dealing with coexistence one often hears of Golden Age Islamic Spain as an example of the potential for living together in harmony – indeed, this era was the subject of Dr. Abu Sway’s speech at the Divinity School (which I admit I could not attend). I, too, have made use of this idea: I bought a T-shirt in Cordoba, Spain with a 3x3 square of mixed-up crosses, Stars of David, and crescents, and writing that reads, “The secret is the mixture.” I get way more (positive) comments when I wear this shirt than for any other article of clothing – and I don’t think that’s just due to my lack of fashion sense. The problem I have with citing this or any other example of Jews living in peace with others between the years 70 and 1948 CE is that the best one can say about these periods is that the non-Jewish rulers treated their second-class Jewish citizens better than other rulers did. My knowledge is limited, but I am sure Jews did not enjoy complete equality or universally-good treatment in Golden Age Spain. I do appreciate the value of stories or examples to give hope, but mentioning those years to support the idea of Jewish-Muslim coexistence thus seems similar to arguing that since Arabs in Israel have more rights than they would in almost every other Arab country, they should stop complaining (I am guilty of using this argument, as well). The problem with everything I’ve just described is that all these circumstances demonstrate relative justice. But I believe the justice of which Islam and Judaism speak is absolute justice. The Torah commands, “Justice, justice you shall pursue” (Deut. 16:20); it does not say, “Pursue being just a little better than the guy next to you.” We must seek to be just on an objective scale.

But while justice is justice is justice, humans are merely human – we do not have the omnipotence it would take to fully comprehend absolutes. Nonetheless, Jews are instructed to “be holy, for I, the L-rd your G-d am holy” (Lev. 19:2). Though we are flawed, we still must try to be as absolutely just as humanly possible…perhaps more so. And since only G-d is truly able to judge right and wrong, we would do well to stick to what we know we can do and err on the side of hesed and mercy. This, I believe, will lead us closer to the justice Dr. Abu Sway described.

Dershowitz: Diatribe vs. Dialogue

By Jason Blau

I received two announcements that Harvard University Professor Alan Dershowitz was coming to speak at Yale Law School on Thursday, October 11th. The first was from the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism announcing the lecture entitled “Anti-Semitic Hate Speech: Incitement to Violence in the Absence of a Marketplace of Ideas.” The second was from a liberal Jewish email list to which I subscribe calling for protesters due to Dershowitz’s purported support of torture. The disjunction between these two subjects was an unfortunate portent of the evening.

Knowing little of Professor Dershowitz beyond reading The Case for Israel, I imagined that the lecture would be an unadventurous rehash of everything I had been taught since Hebrew School. I was as thoroughly surprised as impressed when he talked instead about his interest in preemptive laws, fighting words, and unearthing Thomas Jefferson’s views on incitement to violence (You can see a recording of the speech here). Israel was not the focus of the lecture, and I would claim that anti-Semitic hate speech was at most an interesting and relevant example of the kind of legal theory Professor Dershowitz proposed.

The question and answer session was Professor Dershowitz’s true time to bring his strongest and loudest arguments to bear. In a sad reflection of the reality of Professor Dershowitz’s public character, questioning immediately turned to two subjects: criticisms of his “torture warrant” idea and criticisms of his support for Israel. I will focus on the latter.

The questioners, in varying degrees of aggressiveness, all seemed to ask the same question: “How can you support an Israel that does (insert perceived human rights violation here)?” The accusations ranged from unfair immigration policies to poor spousal reunification laws to the more tried and true stories of Palestinian despondency. The responses were mainly along three lines. Taking a little liberty to paraphrase, they were “Why are you wasting your time on this when there are real human rights problems in other countries?” “How is what Israel is doing any worse than any other country?” and “The fault is clearly with the Palestinians.” The first two of these responses demonstrated what Professor Dershowitz maintains is a strong anti-Semitism in most of the criticism of Israel. I would by lying if I did not admit that not only did I find his argumentation compelling but it clearly laid out what seems so wrong with discourse about Israel today. To single out Israel for supposed violations is hypocritical and downright dangerous when it draws attention away from the serious problems facing the world.

But for as valid and as prescient as I find these responses, at the end of the day I think they miss the point. Professor Dershowitz was correct to take to task the smug superiority of the left that has an infinite capacity for outrage at a tiny democracy precariously positioned in a sea of its enemies while choosing to ignore everything else. Professor Dershowitz was correct to praise the Israeli Supreme Court for engaging in an incredible balancing act of human rights and security—and for the Israeli democracy that allows for critique and correction when it errs. However, none of this responds to what I believe is the most relevant question: where do we go from here?

As an American, I understand that I ought not to have as much input into the processes of Israeli policy making as an Israeli. But as a Jew, unlike the vast majority of Israel’s critics, I do have some standing to demand more from the Jewish State. Suppose that Professor Dershowitz is correct in asserting that Israel has done a far better job than any other nation could in regards to safeguarding political liberty (I am willing to believe this is true). Ought Israel not continue to strive for better things? Ought Jews worldwide not express their moral opinions to shape Israel into the most just nation it can be? Perhaps Professor Dershowitz would claim that such a process is already occurring. Perhaps. However, he does the dialogue a disservice with his often brash and arrogant speaking. I was extremely uncomfortable at various points in the lecture when audience members began applauding or cheering his more personal attacks. It was embarrassing to see fellow Jews so whipped up into a fervor that a woman behind me yelled “oh boo-hoo” and “damn anti-Semite” at a concerned questioner.

More importantly, the kind of arguing about Palestinian and worldwide anti-Semitism that concludes with “and thus Israel is right” just does not seem helpful to me. I am far less concerned with who is more racist and who committed more past harms than how to establish a lasting peace. And while I was impressed with Professor Dershowitz’s arguments for why Israel is great, I just do not care. The Professor gave a history of the conflict that places a lot of blame on Arafat, leaders of Arab nations, and the Palestinians themselves. Maybe he is 100% right. So what? Even if I were completely self interested, I would think that is better to move on than constantly wage the battles of the past. Suppose (as I believe is true), the terrible conditions of Palestinian refugees are largely the fault of Arab leaders who use them as a pawn in domestic politics. How does this absolve Israel of the moral obligation to treat them justly and aid their development as a nation? It is these questions that were avoided by responses that reverted to perhaps legitimate, although also perhaps irrelevant, claims of anti-Semitism.

Unfortunately for all of us, the lack of constructive dialogue is just as much due to Professor Dershowitz’s virulent critics for not asking the pertinent questions as the Professor himself for not offering pertinent responses. Professor Dershowitz came to the Yale Law School to give a speech on anti-Semitic hate speech and the legal issues surrounding incitement to violence. And yet the bulk of the discussion centered on his views on torture and his defenses of Israel. The anti-Israel crowd got a chance to lob cheap shots at a respected academic, the pro-Israel crowd got a chance to cheer on slogans while willfully ignoring complexities, and everyone lost out on the ability to discuss the merits of the lecture and the possibilities for constructive dialogue.