Deeds That Heal and Deeds That Kill

A number of Syrian families have settled in Toledo, Ohio.  An NPR reporter went to visit one of them.  He found that when the family arrived, they discovered a furnished apartment and neighbors who volunteered to help them with their needs:  shopping, caring for the children and so on.  How ironic!  The family arrived from a refugee camp in Jordan facilitated by Hayas, a Jewish organization, and the apartment was furnished and the volunteering initiated by local Christians.  And the family is Muslim.

This is the nature of America.

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The Make A Wish Foundation has been granting the wishes of seriously ill children for 35 years.  They ask “If you could be anything, go anywhere, or meet anyone, what would you wish for?” Last year they granted over 14,000 of these wishes.

When I saw the “60 Minutes” article on this organization, I was impressed and elated to see so many people volunteering their time and money to meet the wishes of many sick children who would otherwise never have a chance to live their wish. This is the essence of a deed that heals.

This, too, is the nature of America.

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After the Second World War there were many trials of former members of the Nazi party and SS troops.  At one of the trials, three SS men were questioned about why they did what they did.  The first one said that he had orders and had to follow the orders.  The second said that if he didn’t follow the orders, his comrades would kill him.  The third one said that from his early childhood, he was taught that the Jews are the enemies of the German people, enemies of humanity, they are polluting German culture and exploiting Germany for their own purposes, that they were a lower race and they should be separated from the German population. And he said that this motivated him to do what he did without hesitation.

Something similar is happening in our generation.  Children in some parts of the Muslim world are taught that Israelis and the Jews who support them are threatening the rights of Palestinians by depriving them of their land.  A vivid example of this shows a preschool child with a knife in her hands saying that she would like to stab a Jew with a knife “because he stole our land.”  And the adult who is filming her praises her strength and says “God willing, my dear.”

This frightens me.  When the minds of children are poisoned like this, those who teach children to hate an entire people and to kill them in the name of their god should be charged with crimes against humanity. If we continue to allow this to happen, I fear for the future.  If hatred towards “the other” is the prevailing lesson taught to children, they are robbed of their childhoods, they are robbed of their futures, and then the entire future of humanity is uncertain.

Let us not be complacent. Let us keep ourselves informed and make everyone in our circles aware.  And let us all speak our wishes for peace at every opportunity.

This, too, is the nature of America.

The essence of the matter

In a recent radio interview on NPR’s “Here and Now,” David Folkenflik, NPR’s media correspondent based in New York, discussed the difficulties of reporting the news from the Middle East. He points out that coverage is “incredibly fraught…It goes back decades…on back to the Bible for many people. I think it is also essentially seemingly insoluble…Israel doesn’t want to deal with Hamas…and Hamas has stated that it wants to, you know, wipe Israel off the face of the earth. You’ve got two enemies which seem inclined not only to not want to strike a decent bargain, but not want to acknowledge the legitimacy of the other in doing so. So the coverage of this means that….the idea of fairness…kind of goes out the window: it’s two competing narratives which are irreconcilable and therefore a strict adherence to what you can prove and show and facts on the ground is probably the safest bet for reporters there.”

In describing problems that reporters face in covering the news, Folkenflik may have unwittingly brought to light the words that highlight the existential essence of the conflict: “Israel doesn’t want to deal with Hamas…and Hamas has stated that it wants to, you know, wipe Israel off the face of the earth.” I wonder, when the cry is raised for Israel to “negotiate a truce,” what exactly is it that they might be negotiating about? Funeral arrangements?

My blog is dedicated to the idea that words are important, that words can heal and words can kill. Folkenflik emphasizes that reporters should report only what they see. But often this is not so simple. If a reporter is on the street and sees two people wrestling, one on top beating one on bottom, what does he report? When bystanders rush in to intervene, the reporter watches and later interviews them. One of the interveners says “Oh, the guy on the top, he was brutal, beating the guy on bottom! So unfair, that man was clearly weaker than he!” Another says “The guy on the bottom — I saw the whole thing, he started it when he attacked the other guy with a knife! It was just out of the blue, he was walking by and pulled a knife on him. It was a miracle that he didn’t kill him!” The words the reporter uses to tell this story can leave the reader clueless as to the context, and helpless to resolve the conflict.

Often reporters in war zones are young, and have never focused intensively on the background of the conflicts they are covering. They go in “tabula rasa,” clean slate, with the intention of being impartial, reporting only facts. But facts do not make good radio or television or even good print stories. And without the understanding that a deep knowledge of history of a conflict conveys, the “human element” that every reporter adds to his or her stories strikes the reader “context free,” leading them to believe that a story rich in detail is also rich in context.

So this all leaves me wondering: does Hamas really represent the average Gazan? Dr. David Pollock, a Middle East expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, recently commissioned a poll of Gazan residents. To his surprise, the poll reported that the average Palestinian family man was interested in peace and a steady job in Israel. This is some solid context demonstrating that extremists who manage to grab power and headlines are not necessarily representative of the people they purport to represent and defend. And often those average people are the ones who pay the price of extremism.

(This posting received special assistance from my executive editor, Cindy Harris)

What a World!

The sound that broke the barrier of segregation: Today is the anniversary of Marian Anderson singing at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday in 1939. From the day that the DAR refused to allow her to sing at Constitution Hall until this day much progress has been made, and much still needs to be done. There is always tension between the forces of progress and those who would try to retard progress by any means.

Because bad news about Israel reaches the world media so quickly and good news comes out so slowly (and sometimes not at all), I would like to introduce you to a source of good news from Israel: Michael Ordman’s “Good News From Israel” blog. Here are some recent examples from his site:

Freedom of education is the norm: Dr. Qanta Ahmed, an Arab physician visiting Technion University where Muslim students study alongside Jews, speaks out against those who would say that Israel discriminates against Arabs.

The University of Ariel in the West Bank, not recognized by the outside world and by some Israelis, has 600 Arab students, about 20% of the student body. And they are in the process of setting up a Muslim prayer room to accommodate those students.

A former Egyptian diplomat, Gamal Bayoumi, recently spoke out in favor of normalizing relations between Egypt and Israel. And a Syrian opposition activist, Kamal Al-Labwani, is also making the case for peace with Israel.

In the same world, a British MP recently stated that “Zionist gunmen and Ukrainian Nazis are intimidating Jews into settling in Palestine.”

An Egyptian actor recently recommended that people read “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” (an anti-Semitic hoax from the Czarist era purportedly describing how Jews rule the world) and stated that Benjamin Franklin warned that Jews should not be admitted to the US, citing the oft-debunked “Franklin Prophecy,” a speech attributed to Benjamin Franklin, but almost certainly written in the early 20th century.

Mighty lies ride high in the world of hate. And so we must work to seek out the sources that provide facts to highlight the real world, where truth drives out the darkness of hate.

A Letter From A Friend

A letter with a return PO box address arrived in my mailbox the other day.  “Most likely another appeal for support from a worthy institution,” I thought.  Surprise, surprise! It was a letter from Sister Gemma Del Duca, the founder of the National Catholic Center for Holocaust Education at Seton Hill. Originally from Greensburg, she has lived in Jerusalem since 1975.

The letter was in response to a note I wrote in reply to a correspondence from Seton Hill a while ago. It took several months for it to reach Sister Del Duca, who is a widely known speaker and educator, primarily teaching Catholics about the Holocaust.  My note remarked upon the coincidence that a well-known philanthropist from New York City, Dr. Ethel LeFrak, had recentlly donated a sizeable sum to the department of Holocaust Education at Seton Hill.  It so happens that I was associated with a LeFrak organization for 23 years while in New York.  In her letter, Sister Del Duca invited me to the next Kristallnacht program at Seton Hill in the fall.

Sister Del Duca’s letter was a ray of light from sunny Jerusalem. But as I researched Sister Del Duca and the work she has been doing, I soon came across voices of opposition, dark voices who label her as “The Kapo Nun,” and Israel, Yad Vashem and all other institutions that work to ensure that the facts of the Holocaust are not forgotten as “counterfeit.” These are the voices of the “radical traditionalist Catholic movement,” that I have been told is a tiny group within the Church, but still 100,000 people worldwide.

I am reminded once again how important it is to keep one’s antennae sensitized to speech that could lead to violence. When individuals like Sister Del Duca create powerful institutions like the National Center for Holocaust Education we must be aware that voices will rise up to dispute them. If we are complacent, thinking that these voices will never again become influential enough to inspire violence, we may be committing our children or our grandchildren to life in a world where such violence against many minorities in many societies is once again taken for granted.

A Harbinger of Sanity?

The headline in the New York Times was “Danish Opponent of Islam Is Attacked, and Muslims Defend His Right to Speak.” After a would-be assassin narrowly missed the head of Lars Hedegaard, a well-known anti-Muslim commentator, Denmark’s Muslim leadership chose to defend his right to speak, no matter how much they disagreed with the message and condemned his attacker.

Denmark is at the heart of Europe.  Like many other European countries, it has a sizable Muslim minority.  And Denmark’s Muslims have been at the center of a controversy about free speech that began in 2005 with the publication of an opinion piece in Jyllands-Posten that included a group of cartoons depicting Mohammed. That publication led to protests and riots worldwide and eventually resulted in at least 200 deaths according to an article in the New York Times.

What is interesting to me is that this is a situation where Muslims actively chose to accept and work within the societal norms of the country where they live.  They chose not to demand that Islam be treated differently than other religions, working within the system to express their own opinions and fully supporting the rights of a man who recently told the Danish Parliament “I don’t have a problem with Muslims but do have a problem with the religion of Islam.”

It is very encouraging to me that there are elements in Muslim society who are learning to adapt to the countries in which they live.  This is the essence of the immigrant experience.  The law of the country where one lives is the law that one must follow. Violating those laws under the banner of religious or any other imperative is simply not acceptable.

In every democratic society speech in its many forms is always considered an appropriate way to express and influence opinions.  I encourage you to notice and actively celebrate momentd like this one where opponents come together to peacefully analyze and resolve their differences and join in condemning those who would use violence no matter which side of the debate they represent.