Speech at MASJID BAIT-UL JAAM’E
GLEN ELLYN, IL–October 15, 2010
Thank you very much for hosting me at your beautiful services on this Jumu’ah day. I am deeply grateful to Imam Inam-ul-Haq Kauser for inviting me to participate with you and to address you on this occasion. I commend him for his leadership and his true commitment to dialogue and democracy. It is a privilege to be among you, and I look forward to a continuing exchange together with you in the months and years to come.
As you can see, I am an Orthodox Jew. I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Skokie and attended Solomon Schechter Day School, a wonderful religious institution. I went to public high school at Niles North, where I was able to continue studying Hebrew. After finishing college at Harvard, I studied at a Jewish yeshiva, or seminary, in Jerusalem in 1999 before departing for South Africa in 2000 as a Rotary Foundation Ambassadorial Scholar.
When I was in Jerusalem that year, it seemed that peace was just around the corner. Every evening, as I walked home on the promenade overlooking the city, I met Arabs from Israel as well as from Jordan. There was a new openness, a feeling of anticipation in the air. A year later, when I was in South Africa, the second intifada began, and I watched events in the Middle East from a distance, with a feeling of loss and frustration.
At that point my housemate returned to the U.S. to get married, and my landlord told me he wanted to sell the property. I took the opportunity to find new accommodation nearby, renting a room with a Muslim family in an entirely Muslim neighborhood. At first, this did not seem the most likely arrangement. Yet I got along so well with my landlady and her wonderful family that we decided to give it a try. For two years, that is where I lived.
I woke up each morning to the sound of the call to prayer from the two mosques in the neighborhood. And on Friday evening, I would walk to my Orthodox synagogue about two miles away, where I had begun leading the Jewish Sabbath prayers. I felt that I was able to be myself, a Jewish American, and to learn about Islam at the same time–to bridge the great divide between civilizations that was beginning to widen elsewhere.
When it came time for Ramadan, I felt that I could not stand to eat while my landlady and her family did without. And so I fasted with them, joining them to eat at the iftar meal at the end of every day. I participated for two years in a row, and in addition to losing a good deal of weight I also gained a great deal of insight into the peace and serenity that is at the heart of the Islamic faith. It was an experience I shall always remember fondly.
At the same time, I had finished my studies and I began work as a freelance journalist. The year was 2001, and the UN World Conference Against Racism came to the city of Durban in South Africa. I went to cover the event, and what I saw there shocked me and changed my life. I saw protests of 15,000 people–not just against Israel, which was singled out at the conference, but also against Jews, in the bloodiest terms imaginable.
A week later, on 9/11, I watched in horror as terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center and attacked the Pentagon, killing thousands of Americans and people from all over the world. What was even worse was hearing politicians and journalists in South Africa blaming America for the attacks and rejoicing at the terrible loss. I wanted nothing more at that point than to be back home, among friends and family, facing the crisis together.
Then something happened that moved me deeply. My landlady called me when she heard about the attacks. She was very, very sad and wanted me to know how sorry she was that this had happened. When I came home, my Muslim neighbors came to me and actually apologized to me, though of course nothing that happened had been their fault. They wanted me to know that they rejected what a few had done in the name of Islam.
I was quite touched, and I felt I wanted to do more to help people understand each other. I began to study Arabic with a local imam. I started getting involved in interfaith dialogue with Muslims, Christians and Jews. I studied history and even traveled to Spain to visit the old Andalusian cities where the three faiths had once co-existed. In the process, I learned how much we share–yet also that there is still much that divides us.
As a Jew, and as an American, I care deeply about the State of Israel. Observant Jews pray about the land of Israel–not just when we are at synagogue, but also every time we eat. My grandfather grew up there, after his family left Warsaw; most of those who stayed behind in Poland were murdered in the Holocaust. I have many relatives in Israel, all over the country, and I follow events in Israel very closely, as do many American Jews.
I love Israel–not just because it is my religious homeland, and not just because of my family roots there, but also because of the principle that it represents. The State of Israel stands for the idea that an oppressed people can take control of its own destiny, and build freedom and prosperity with nothing more than faith and hard work. It is the same idea that built America. That is why our two countries are so close, and will remain so.
I know that for many Muslims, Israel presents not just a political challenge, but also a theological problem. Islam, in my understanding, is tolerant towards Jews and Christians, but does not consider them as equals, and does not countenance Jewish or Christian sovereignty over land that was once ruled over by Muslims. Many Muslims want to live peacefully with Israel, and even within Israel. But many Muslims do not.
At a fundamental level, that dilemma may be impossible to resolve. Yet there is a way to find a peaceful accommodation in spite of enduring differences. On the road from Tel Aviv to Haifa, as you gaze up at Mount Carmel, you see a beautiful mosque with twin minarets. It is an Ahmadiyya mosque in the town of Kababir. It is a reminder not only of the diversity of Israel, but also of the diversity that exists within the Islamic world.
I have followed some of the debates that Ahmadiyya Muslims have had with other Muslims. I know that Ahmadiyya Muslims have often been persecuted in the Islamic world, and that there are those who attack the Ahmadiyya community simply because it has a presence in Israel. There are some in the Ahmadiyya community who have tried to defend themselves by saying that Ahmadiyya Muslims can be just as hostile to Israel.
I understand the temptation of that approach. There are Jews who believe that the best way to deal with antisemitism or anti-Jewish prejudice is to show that there are Jews who can be even more critical of Israel anyone else. But rather than appease those who hate, I believe the best way forward is to stand up for the principle of diversity as a fundamental feature of human nature that must be honored, nurtured, and protected.
Just as Ahmadiyya Muslims must find tolerance within the Islamic world, so, too, must the Jewish state find tolerance within the Middle East. Tolerance does not resolve the theological or political issues at stake. In fact, it poses new theological and political problems. Yet it is a way of moving forward without allowing our differences to destroy us, internally or externally. It may even lead to new opportunities and understanding.
The important thing to remember about tolerance is that it is a two-way street. It is not conditional: my tolerance of you does not have to depend on your tolerance of me. But tolerance is not something that can be demanded by one side if it is not something that one is prepared to share and reciprocate. In other words: we cannot demand tolerance of intolerance. That is true in the Middle East, and it is also true of the United States.
The ongoing controversy about the “Ground Zero Mosque” is a case in point. The fact that people have the right to build a house of worship does not mean that it is right to do so in a particular place. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prevents the federal government from getting involved in such decisions once local authorities have spoken. Yet I would urge those involved in the “Park51” project to build it elsewhere.
The organizers insist that they want to promote tolerance. Yet that cannot change the fact that although many Muslims opposed the 9/11 attacks, and there were Muslims who were victims of the attacks, the attacks were carried out by a few who claimed to be acting in the name of Islam. There is no way to guarantee that the project that some intend as a symbol of tolerance will not be viewed by others as a symbol of triumph.
Americans are still deeply wounded by what happened on 9/11, and will remain so for generations. We are not ready, as a nation, to turn our wound into a symbol of universal tolerance because it is, and will always be, a symbol of grief. We should be allowed to grieve in a way that is our own, that is independent of the claims the world might make of us, even if the site that was destroyed was once a place for the world to gather. It was our place.
It is not intolerant to believe that there are limits to tolerance. In fact, that is what gives tolerance its value–to know that it is not just moral relativism, where principles are cast aside, but that it is motivated by a spirit of generosity and sacrifice. That is what I have learned–not just by living overseas in a Muslim community, but living here in America in my hometown of Skokie, which is one of the most diverse places in the U.S. and in the world.
The secret to the harmony that exists among people of different faiths and backgrounds in the 9th congressional district and across Chicago is that we share many values and interests in common. More specifically, we understand that there is opportunity for all of us in a growing economy, in communities where businesses can begin and grow, where jobs can be created, and where public authorities can provide good services to all.
When jobs are scarce and public services limited, that is when people begin to divide into groups. We feel insecure, and so we seek strength in numbers, to make sure that we have access to dwindling resources. But when our economy grows, and there are jobs available, and tax revenues are high enough to guarantee good services, then we are willing to reach out to each other. That is why job creation is so important to me.
The issues that Jews and Muslims care about are the same issues that all Americans care about. In my campaign, I have emphasized creating jobs, repealing a bad health insurance law, and protecting America and our allies. I know that we may differ about how we achieve those goals, or even what they mean. Yet we must always be willing to listen to each other. Thank you for allowing me the chance to listen, and to be heard.
Shukran katheer – Thank you very much.