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Arabic: المسلمون واليهود: الاستمرار بالحوار

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This charming account nonetheless illustrates many of the flaws that often mar attempts at dialogue and how far we have to travel before real dialogue is possible.

Ms Afridi tells of her yearning for dialogue and understanding. However, she could not resist the opportunity to tell a story that puts the "other side" in a bad light. She surprised Israeli soldiers in a bar in Jerusalem, started to lecture them on her political opinions, and they all ran away. She also did not have the insight to put herself in the place of the other. Suppose that in 1966, when East Jerusalem was occupied by Jordan, a Jew had shown up in a bar full of Jordan Legion soldiers - a Jew from Israel - because there is no other Jewish country -- and had explained that they are studying the history of Jerusalem? Of course, it could not even happen, but what would have been the reaction of the justifiably astonished Jordan Legion soldiers? What would have happened to them if they had befriended this Israeli?

Dialogue also requires honesty. Ms Afridi initially represented herself as "from New York" - literally true but evidently irrelevant. Only later did she reveal that she is Pakistani. She was laying a surprise on the soldier, and got the sort of reaction that is elicited by such crazy surprises. She disoriented the poor fellow.

Dialogue requires respect for the beliefs of the other. A stranger from an enemy country in a bar full of enemy soldiers, Ms Afridi nevertheless had no second thoughts about announcing her political opinions.  What would a Muslim say to a Jew who showed up in Medina, in a place full of Wahhabi virtue police, and said "I am not sure who this city belongs to?"

Ms Afridi is amused to tell us:

I realised then, to my amusement, that he had assumed that I was an American Jew visiting my "home". 

How much contempt, perhaps unconscious, for the beliefs and ideas of the other can be put into two tiny quotation marks?

Of course the soldiers "freaked out." What did she expect? If she has not understood the reason after all these years, she has not gained much from dialogue. Still, she has worthy aspirations:

If the Jewish soldier I met 18 years ago would have taken the time to understand that I was in Jerusalem to sort out my feelings, not only about Israel but also about Palestine, we could have seen the shared commonalities in our faiths, our national loyalties, and our love for home... and perhaps even established a friendship.

I dream of a day when Muslims and Jews are closer to trusting one another as human beings, thus enabling us to continue the conversation.

How could the Israeli soldier, probably about 20 years old, have extra sensory perception to know what she was thinking? Why should he take the time to sort anything out if she sprung an unpleasant surprise on him as well as immediately confronting him with a challenge? Did it occur to Ms Afridi that she is from a country that is officially an enemy of Israel, and that soldiers may have orders about such "dialogue," or that young soldiers may have  justifiable fears about "fraternizing with the enemy?" If there was no animosity and no enmity, we would not need dialogue initiatives.

Nonetheless, if Ms Afridi had told the truth about her country of origin the first time, and had not immediately challenged the solder's ideas and announced her political opinions, perhaps it would have been possible to continue the conversation. Confrontation and surprise is not the best way to begin a dialogue. One day, Ms Afridi will perhaps learn to give Israeli Jews the same respect that she expects for her faith and her nationality, and then there can be real dialogue.

Ami Isseroff

 


Muslims and Jews: continuing the conversation

Mehnaz Afridi

JERUSALEM Perched on a bar stool in Jerusalem, I looked around at the many Israeli men in the room, relaxing, drinking beer and playing pool. I felt serene, but the tired faces of the soldiers told a different story. For them, this was an escape from their enemies who lay intimately bound to them beyond the hills of Jerusalem.

I caught the deep blue eyes of a young man standing beside me with a gun slung upon his shoulder and proceeded to order a beer. We exchanged smiles, and he decided to sit next to me.

He began to ask me personal questions. I told him I was from New York and was studying archaeology and the Bible. He asked me why I had chosen such an esoteric topic, and I reminded him that in Jerusalem it was a common topic; everyone came here to seek and understand the roots of the land.

His eyes widened as he gulped his beer, "But surely you know as a Jew that this is our ancestral homeland?"

I realised then, to my amusement, that he had assumed that I was an American Jew visiting my "home".

"Well, no. First, I am not Jewish, and second, I am not quite sure whose land this is" I replied calmly.

"If you're not Jewish, then you're Catholic, right?" he asked, downing his drink.

I took a long breath and responded, "No, I'm a Muslim from Pakistan."

He smiled, hoping that I was joking with him, "Come on. No Muslim comes here to a bar, or for that matter, to Israel. Especially not a woman!"

To prove it to him, I untied the pocket of my backpack and produced my flashy green passport that read, in Urdu and English gold lettering, "Islamic Republic of Pakistan". He took one look at the passport and shouted something in Hebrew to the others in the bar. Incredible as it sounds, in a flash, everyone but the bartender disappeared. I sat frozen on my stool, both confused and saddened by the disappearance of my former conversationalist.

Eighteen years have passed, and I have since made it my life's goal to foster mutual understanding between Jews and Muslims, so that both sides might overcome this fear of the "other". Today, working with Jews and sharing their hopes for peace has been an illuminating experience.

I have visited Munich and the Dachau concentration camp in Germany, worked with non-profits, such as the Arava Institute and Muslims for Progressive Values, that show mutual respect for Jews and Muslims, and was invited by the Levantine Cultural Centre to speak with Muslims who are embittered by the Israeli Defence Forces' policies towards Palestinians, and with Jews who mistrust Muslims because of the violent actions of Muslim extremists.

Along the way, I have found that Jewish-Muslim co-existence and trust has to be rooted in a basic mutual respect for one another's faith. Common ground exists. In both Islam and Judaism, the community looks to respected religious leaders for spiritual direction. And while there are differences in form, the two also share the central practices of prayer, fasting, almsgiving, dietary laws and ritual purity. These similarities are most evident when comparing Islam to Orthodox Judaism.

As Muslims, we are well-served by learning from Jewish history, especially how Jews survived during their tribulations, before and after the Holocaust.

Jews can help Muslims navigate in a post-9/11 world by sharing the difficulties they too faced in Europe and the United States and their attempts to overcome them. At the same time, Muslims can make a better effort to include Jews in their own communities, helping to deconstruct the negative stereotype of Jews as working against them.

If the Jewish soldier I met 18 years ago would have taken the time to understand that I was in Jerusalem to sort out my feelings, not only about Israel but also about Palestine, we could have seen the shared commonalities in our faiths, our national loyalties, and our love for home... and perhaps even established a friendship.

I dream of a day when Muslims and Jews are closer to trusting one another as human beings, thus enabling us to continue the conversation.
 


* Mehnaz M. Afridi ( http://www.mehnazafridi.com  ) teaches Judaism and Islam at various Southern California universities. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews), and is part of a series on Jewish-Muslim relations. It can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.

Source: Common Ground News Service, 5 August 2008, www.commongroundnews.org.
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

 

 

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