Managing Editor’s note: all Contributing Scholars begin writing by answering the following question as their first post: Why are you committed to building relationships with those from different religious or ethical traditions? Their answer to this question is below.
I’m used to being the only Jew in the room. I normally take it with a grain of salt when I hear the anti-Israel, anti-Zionist, or anti-Jewish rhetoric from my students, teachers or friends. But sometimes it gets painful. Sometimes it gets personal.
Like a few weeks ago, when my best Moroccan friend insisted that “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” were in fact, true, and that Jews run the world. “Heyati,” I told him. “Heyati, do you think that if the Jews really ran the world I’d be sitting here, broke in my little Fez apartment, making barely enough money to pay for my milwi (a type of pancake) and my atay?” (Moroccan tea) “Well maybe you’re an exception!” He replied.
“Maybe you’re an exception.” Complicated words, painful words, fraught with aloneness and strangeness. Unfortunately, among my Russian-Jewish immigrant community in Los Angeles, I am an exception: I am the only Jewish person they know who speaks Arabic, who studies Islam, who has spent a significant amount of time living as a Jew in the Middle East. I am the only Jewish person who my loving, but incredibly bigoted relatives can ask “do they still live in tents?” “Are they all terrorists?” I’m used to it, but it still hurts, to hear that this faith to which I have dedicated my life is feared and abhorred by those closest to me.
In Morocco, I get similar questions about Jews, just reversed: Do Jews run the world? Do Jews control the media? I’m used to it, but it still hurts, to hear that this faith into which I was born is feared and misunderstood by friends and adopted family.
So much hate, so much misunderstanding, so many unanswered questions on both sides. What can you do when your twinned soul is at war?
In my case, I’ve tried to patiently answer questions on both sides of the religious divide. When my family asks their bigoted queries, I try to understand their questions about Islam as sincere. I explain to them how close Islam is to Judaism, how the golden age for religious co-existence was under the Muslim rulers of Al-Andalus, how Maimonides wrote his greatest work in Arabic, while living in Fez.
When my adopted family or friends in Morocco and Qatar ask me questions about Judaism, I tell them that Judaism shares with Islam many similarities: Zakat, (it’s even the same word in Hebrew!) fasting, prayer, pilgrimage and the affirmation that there is no God but God. (shahada in Arabic, shema in Hebrew)
I seek, with these explanations, to be an instrument of peace and dialogue. Where there is misunderstanding, I seek to bring love. Sometimes I fail, I lose my temper, I speak with anger. Sometimes, and those are the best times, the spark of understanding is kindled, and hope blazes.