For My Palestinian Student, Teacher and Friend

(I posted this on the Facebook page of a friend who happens to be a devout Palestinian Muslim. Its intention is that our friendship serve as an example to others of her friends and mine of possibilities that exist in this growingly divided, hateful, chaotic and violent world, even at its epicenter. I have changed her name to “Mudarris,” which means “teacher” in Arabic.)

I’ve been wanting to write this for a while now, but decided to wait until the right time. My understanding is that Mudarris will be leaving to go back to Jordan at the end of the month, so I think this is that time. I hope, Mudarris, that you find it appropriate, otherwise you can delete it.

Mudarris was my Education student in three classes, and one of my best. In addition to her intelligence and decency, she always seemed to take to and agree with my philosophy of teaching and I always admired the things she wrote and said. But I’m not writing this to commend Mudarris, as remarkable as she is; that I can and will do privately. I have something more to say.

Mudarris and I have become friends, and in addition to substantial agreements on an approach to teaching, I think we have substantial agreements on an approach to living. I am Jewish… and an atheist. To me those things are irrelevant to the values one exhibits in one’s dealings with people and issues. Maybe I should tell you a little about myself before I continue.

I wasn’t raised with either a sense of religion or of nationalism (of any kind). In the 1960’s I was dramatically changed as a person. I became an activist against war and for civil rights and social justice. It became important to me to surround myself with a diversity that had been missing, and to be consistent, without blinders, regarding my principles. As such, I began to learn about the plight of the Palestinian people and came to support their struggle for justice.

It was common practice during those times for radical political organizations to set up tables of literature for passing students. Learning in college was not about what happened in the classroom then, it was about finding our place in and our potential impact on the world. As I remember it, a new manifesto or constitution had just been published by the PLO, and I wanted a copy for our table, to show students, who were disproportionately white and quite possibly Jewish at the time (until we closed down the campus to force open admissions), that they would not find the words “drive the Jews into the sea” as any kind of current and official position. So I went down to the PLO headquarters near Grand Central Station and introduced myself and my mission to the representative. Given that they had just been printed, he had only one copy. And he gave it to me (this was before affordable copy machines) on my promise to return it, having just met me and knowing I was Jewish, but apparently appreciative of my purpose.

I have never forgotten that gesture. I have, ever since, debated and written about “the Palestinian question,” fought against anti-Islamic prejudice and discrimination, and dreamed of and worked (albeit in small ways) for a world in which we, the “seed of Abraham,” the Semites, would rediscover our common roots and bonds, histories of oppression and aspirations for our children. I once organized a luncheon for the victims of a hate crime right around the corner from our College after 9/11, and demonstrated at the site of the mosque that was proposed near Ground Zero that met with so much ignorant opposition. It is painful for me, as a Jew, to hear the stereotypes and lies that have followed my people for millenia being perpetuated because the government and too many people of the Jewish state have acted so inhumanely and uncharacteristically based on the tenets that we are supposed to believe in. It is equally painful for me, as a human being, to hear the stereotypes and lies that have been cast at Muslims, also for centuries but of course especially now because of those who have acted so inhumanely and uncharacteristically based on the tenets that they are supposed to believe in.

From the time that my ancestors were driven from their homeland, not for the first time, by the Romans, we have suffered characterizations ranging from “Christ killers” to “money grubbers” to a secret conspiracy of evil that rules the world. These myths of bigotry, like all myths of bigotry against any persecuted peoples, were used to justify atrocities, including the exile, the Spanish Inquisition, the pogroms and ultimately The Holocaust. Muslims, based on other myths of bigotry, suffered the Crusades, their own pogroms, exiles and attacks, and ultimately the likes of “Shock and Awe” throughout the Middle East and roundups and persecutions in America. We should understand one another. In fact, we should be united.

I understand that there is a fine line between “terrorists” and freedom fighters, as there was in Ireland, and, for that matter, America when it fought the British. I also understand the reality and legitimacy of feelings of rage, desperation, powerlessness and limited options, and that bombs and drones, kill lists and black sites are terrorism, too, in fact the most egregious. Nonetheless, there is a line, there has to be.

This is my perspective. My ancestors wanted a country of their own. They felt that it was God-given, that it had been taken from them, and that it was the only way they could defend themselves against eternal persecution. I would have preferred had the Allied powers carved up Germany and made half of it a Jewish state instead of a military outpost for the West. But I am not religious. There were those, Zionists in its original meaning, who believed that their Bible decreed that the Jewish state be in Palestine. I do believe that while some among the Zionist movement were imperialists, many were following an honest religious belief. They were told by their leaders that Palestine was “a land without a people for a people without a land.” It’s not very different from the European settlers who came to the New World having been told that it was largely unpopulated except by “savages” who didn’t know how to use the land anyway, and that it was their “Manifest Destiny” as ordained by God, to have America for their own.

Once they got to Palestine, they had to realize that they had been lied to. Some, like those in the Irgun and Stern Gang, became terrorists, and committed massacres and forced exiles. Some, like in the Haganah, while being the more moderate, certainly gave tacit permission for and willful ignorance of what was happening. Many of the Jewish immigrants were scared, exhausted, even barely surviving their tortures. Was it hypocrisy to allow to be done to the Palestinian people what had just been done to them, of course. Some used religious justification for retaking the land, and what happens when two peoples both believe that God is on their side and has bestowed to them the same land? Would it be moral to send many if not most of the immigrants back to Germany, Russia, etc. and return it to the Palestinians? One could make that argument, just as one could make the argument that Europeans should be returned to Europe and America returned to the Native Americans. But time, for better or worse, always obscures morality with practicality. How far back do we honor claims? So what’s the solution from my perspective?

To me, the practical solution is easy. at least easy to conceptualize, albeit not accomplish. Israel has to pull back all of the settlements to at least the 1967 boundaries, cease all acts of martial law in exchange for a permanent, mutual cease fire, supervised if necessary, and recognize a Palestinian state in the otherwise occupied territories of sufficient size and cultivatability to allow a Palestinian economy to flourish. With temporary neutral international monitoring that seems very doable. I would also make Jerusalem an international city. Again, I’m not religious, so that’s easy for me to say. People who believe that God granted them the city would undoubtedly not be so easily convinced, and I don’t have a good answer for that. Look, I’m not an historian, nor a geographer, I’m just someone who wants people to stop killing and dying, misunderstanding and hating each other, and have our children taught to and be able to live in peace. I would love to be further educated, because I am the first one to admit to my relative ignorance of other perspectives. I just want each reader to believe that everything I have expressed is heart felt and free of any agendas other than one simple one, love.

And back to Mudarris, I want to again express my respect and admiration, not only for what she has accomplished here, but for her courage and self-sacrifice in her desire to bring her gifts and what she has learned back to the needy children of Jordan and hopefully, one day soon, Palestine. First and foremost, I wish her safety and peace. However, I recognize that America isn’t the safest and most pleasant place for Muslims these days or for the foreseeable future, and I promise that I will continue to speak out, to those who support Trump and those who support Netanyahu, to Americans in general and particularly Jewish people because that is my special responsibility, against words and acts of hate or ignorance. The world would be so much better if people took responsibility within their own “families,” if Whites took the lead in educating other Whites about the stereotypes and history of prejudice that affect Blacks, so Blacks wouldn’t have to, if Anglos took the lead in educating other Anglos about the stereotypes and history of prejudice that affect Latinos, so Latinos wouldn’t have to, if Straights took the lead in educating other Straights about the stereotypes and history of prejudice that affect Gays, so Gays wouldn’t have to, if Jews took the lead in educating other Jews about the stereotypes and history of prejudice that affect Muslims, so Muslims wouldn’t have to, and if Muslims took the lead in educating other Muslims about the stereotypes and history of prejudice that have affected Jews, so that Jews wouldn’t have to. And please be aware that there are many, an increasing number of Jews, inside and outside of Israel, who do condemn its policies. It is in the tradition of the Jewish people, with this one glaring exception, to side with the oppressed, and I am proud of our tradition of commitment to education, free thinking, progressive politics and compassion (and guilt). It is my job to teach them to remove their blinders and, despite defensiveness and bias, remember that.

To Mudarris, I hope we remain friends and keep in touch across the waters. I am eager to find out about your accomplishments, which I know will be outstanding. And I hope you are happy with what I have written here, as I would like to think that our friendship provides just a little example of hope that we can all begin to see our differences as opportunities for learning and enrichment in the context of our common humanity, rather than divisions that scare and silence us, although ultimately we are just two people who had the good fortune to meet. Best wishes to you and your family on a safe trip and fulfilling futures.