Fanning the flames

Today, dear Israel, you are standing on the back of another people. A people who have become a broken mirror image of yourself. They dream your dream, fear your fears, and suffer your pains. Just like you they drink from the wellspring of their grandmother’s tears and they nourish their souls on their grandfather’s scars. Just like you, they are rooted in holy soil, and they too are inheritors of an unholy land.”

– Roi Ben-Yehuda, Israeli journalist and thinker

My good friend Roi Ben-Yehuda, an Israeli, recently wrote a “tough love letter” to Israel. It’s a piece that has gotten him both support and criticism from his own people. It’s also already been published, and quite publicly discussed. However, I think it’s a phenomenally important piece of writing, absolutely worth sharing again.

Rarely does any person – of any nationality or creed – recognize that their independence day may symbolize less freedom for someone else.

Last year, Roi and I were strolling the streets of New York City, hashing out our proposed solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. George Bush wasn’t listening, for sure. Of course, neither was Hamas. But there we were, an Israeli and a Muslim, a man and a woman, working through our most unlikely Manhattan Peace Accords.

I’ll admit now what I didn’t admit to Roi then: this was a tough conversation for me. It’s an issue that – like it does for so many – frustrates me. I remember exactly where I have been every time major movements have been made toward peace in the region. However, I better remember where I’ve been every time that already fractured chance at peace has been shattered by a resurgence in violence.

Something Roi said during our walk remained with me. He shared a powerful analogy I’ve found applicable to so many struggles for justice, for peace and for reconciliation.

Roi talked about what would best be called an escape to safety at someone else’s expense: if you are in a burning building, you may have no choice but to jump. After all, you’ll die otherwise. But – what if the result of your leap to safety is that you land on someone else’s back? What if, after you realize that you’ve landed feet-first on another person, you stayed there? What if, finally – you thought of stepping off, but feared that once you did, the person whose back you’ve occupied might finally take this chance to retaliate? This last fear may be irrational, it may not be — but even still, it is a real fear. What would you do?

In college, I was involved in lots of interfaith initiatives. While I was most involved in the MSA (Muslim Students Assocation), even taking over as its leader when the group temporarily disbanded – I also made a point of learning what other faith groups on campus (and off) were doing. I attended lectures on struggles faced by the Baha’i community,  I joined a Catholic friend at weekly church services, and accompanied a Jewish friend to her Shabbat (Jewish sabbath) dinners. I even joined something called the “multifaith coalition” – thinking that somehow, if all of us got together regularly – we’d be able to make positive change.

9/11 was a catalyst for a multitude of conversations everywhere I went. And everywhere I went, the issue of Israel-Palestine was raised.

I wish I had known Roi during this time. You see, I was open to spending time with people of all faiths, for sure. I was open to experiencing other people’s spiritual communities. What I wasn’t open to was the possibility that my own opinions about Israel-Palestine needed further reflection. Let me explain:

During my sophomore year, a group of Muslim friends and I organized a screening of John Pilger’s film, “Palestine is Still the Issue“. We posted flyers all over campus announcing the screening, our names and the sponsoring academic departments typed in boldface beneath the film’s title. We did all the things necessary to pull off a successful event: got the best venue on campus, organized professors who supported our initiative, had placards with information posted around the room, and had a polished introduction neatly printed out on notecards.

But we made one huge mistake. Huge.

When other students on campus wanted to host a post-film dialogue, we refused. We didn’t want to be challenged. So, when local groups came to protest our screening, streaming into the back in one long line, things got heated quickly. We shouted over one another. I remember my entire body trembling with the heat of the arguments, a friend keeping me from rising out of my seat by hanging on to the beltloop at the back of my jeans. I shot her a dirty look for trying to silence me.

It was as if centuries of pain filled that room, and rose up in our voices. Fingers were pointing. Lips were trembling. People clutched flags: red, green, white, blue, black. Shaking hands held prepared statements forgotten even as they laid before the reader’s eyes.

The days following left us all fractured. Once cheerful greetings in hallways were replaced with eyes darting a brief acknowledgement and nothing more. Classrooms literally divided down the middle. Students talked back to professors. Myself included, arms crossed indignantly over my chest.

Eventually, things returned to normal. People started speaking to each other again, even if some didn’t reconnect until our commencement two years later. But even as we all started smiling at each other again, recognizing that no one had wished any other person harm on that difficult afternoon — something irrevocable had been done.

And not by those who protested our screening. No – they were right to demand that we hear them. We, the organizers, made an error. Where did we go wrong?

The mistake wasn’t organizing the screening. It was a valuable film to watch. Our mistake was refusing to accept an invitation to engage in dialogue about the issues we were raising. Our mistake was assuming that, because we felt a situation unjust, it was ok for us to silence someone else. We were defensive about our views. We felt that those who thought like us had been silenced for so long that we had to speak – and not be spoken back to.

We jumped out of a burning building and landed right on the back of constructive conversation. We stamped out any possibility of understanding and started a whole new fire entirely. 

I’ve thought of this event many times in the past several years. Truth is, my friends and I meant no harm. We were not anti-Semitic, though we were accused of being so. We behaved as we did out of passion for a cause. We were young, and, thankfully, that means we have all had time to grow.

And we have. Fatima, a friend who co-organized the event with me, and I talked about that day recently. Both of us have matured enough to realize the value of hearing the other side. After all, there’s very real pain for all involved. In short, we know the error of silencing debate that day.

Who knows? If we had not handled things the way that we had, we could have started so much more than interfaith dialogue. We could have started a move toward interfaith action – and real understanding.

Sure, neither George Bush nor Hamas would have been listening then, either. But the hundred or so people gathered could have left with hope for healing rather than having sustained greater injury.

Thank you, Roi, for your tough love letter to your own people. It is profoundly honest and deeply moving. It gives me hope, and for that I am grateful to you. The next time I’m in a room where voices are rising – may it be because we’re all there to ease one another’s pain with mercy, compassion, and justice.


 “God does not charge a soul with more than it can bear. It shall be requited for whatever good and whatever evil it has done. Lord, do not be angry with us if we forget or lapse into error. Lord, do not lay on us a burden such as You laid on those before us. Lord, do not charge us with more than we can bear. Pardon us, forgive our sins, and have mercy upon us. You alone are our Protector…”

Qur’an 2:286

11 thoughts on “Fanning the flames

  1. Very interesting incident but not surprising. I think you made the right choice by not indulging in a debate after the movie. You organized a movie which you agreed with. There is no obligation on your part to hear criticisms/comments on the movie unless John Pilger himself was present to defend his work.

    If someone wants to discuss Israel/Palestinian conflict you can organize a forum for the same separately but the downside of the situation is there are way too many people who have little or no knowledge on the subject but way too many thorough opinions. Such forums can only be conducted by knowledgable historians who can either answer questions or clarify misconceptions. Not all discussions lead to propagation of knowledge.

    I also agree that we should have more interfaith dialogs in this country but most of us wrongly believe religion is the reason for the IS/PA conflict. It is a driving force but not the reason why the issue remains unresolved.

    Its a shame that in this “free” country you will be labeled an anti-semite for making political statements. That is the first and last line of defense for people who refuse to acknowledge that people are suffering on both sides of the issue.

    Anyway, props to you for having the courage to be the voice of the minority and working towards finding peace. Keep up the good work hijabi! 🙂

  2. Well… That’s totally beautifully written and expressed. I simply love it, Raquel, the same way I loved Roi’s “tough letter” though it didn’t really ease my pain on the day on Nakba, becauseit’s a very emotional time for me as a Palestinian, and a very patriotic one.

    I really appreciate the metaphore Roi provided for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It makes so much sense to me. I believe that the essence of the issue is exactly as Roi explained it, though things are way too complicated now.

    What you said about the film screening incidence is really significant. It’s truely a huge problem that people have a hard time trying to listen, understand, or at least accept others views. It moves me so much though. The permanent thought I kept thinking of while reading your words is how stifled is my voice as a Palestinian living in Palestine. what I’m saying – I’m willing to engage in a really constructive debate with all sides, Israelis, Palestinians , and the whole world. BUT, Israelis, most of the time, are busy looking for more stereotypes about Palestinians that would “justify” what there governemtn and military institutions are doing to Palestinians. Palestinians themselves are busy accusing Israeli for every problem they have, busy with their inner conflicts between Hamas and Fatah…. And the world is hardly listening. Everybody is talking about hoe frustrating and how complicated this issue is, yet nobody REALIZE how frustrating this whole issue… And how frustrated I am as a young Palestinian represnting a wide sector of my generation… and it’s hard for the world to REalize the CONSEQUENCES of this accumulated frustration… that’s the real problem ,Raquel… That’s it.. And sorry if I sound frustrated… it’s just that recetly my dreams crashed on the stones of this “TOUGH” reality.

  3. If the passion of youth didn’t exist, the wisdom of age wouldn’t either. The fact that “History is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind.” (Gibbon) doesn’t help guide the individual conscience, except to challenge and forgive the past, and play out the consequences…

    I dunno… life is hard.

    Psalm 25:7
    Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for the sake of your goodness, O Lord!

  4. Why were my thoughts deleted, Raquel? I did not write lies, and since you maintain you welcome “free thought” does this mean “Moral courage” is only celebrated when people have the one-sided perspective and blame Israel/Jews ?

  5. I thought my words had been deleted… My apologies. I made a mistake and realize they have remained on the MySpace Blog. Please forgive.

    I have copied the same words below:


    I am Pro Palestinian.

    With all my heart I want the Palestinian people to succeed economically, socially, academically …and in every other way within a just and compassionate society. The purpose of life is to be kind to one another and this is what I wish for all people.

    After more than 60 years and BILLIONS of dollars have poured into the Palestinian Territories, many people still don’t have running water. Their leaders drive luxury cars and live behind wrought iron gates inside mansions. These leaders have given their people nothing but a diet of hate and the promise of paradise when strapped with explosives.

    Why do people who claim to be “pro-Palestinians” ignore the evil of Hamas, Hezb’allah, and the bombings ALL over the world in the name of Allah.
    Why do self-proclaimed “peace keepers” all but ignore Islamic intolerance, Islamic slavery, Islamic censorship and Islamic abuse and oppression of their people?

    In most of the 57 Islamic countries there is oppression and the many self-proclaimed “peacekeepers” focus blame on the only true democracy in the Middle East.

    I am PRO PALESTIAN and I advocate peace.

    Teach ALL children tolerance, acceptance and respect.

    * * *

    West Bank and Gaza, 1,586,512 refugees are administered by UNRWA. The Palestinian Authority has done nothing to improve the living conditions of the refugees. During the 1970s, The PLO threatened and killed those who tried to escape the camps.

    And when when Israel tried to improve the living conditions and housing of Palestinian refugees in Gaza and the West Bank around the same time, it was blocked by the PLO and the United Nations in a series of UN General Assembly resolutions denouncing Israel’s humanitarian actions.

    Sources: “Paul Garwood and Maggie Michael, “Palestinian refugees: championed by Arab World yet treated like outcasts,” Associated Press, December 31, 2003.

    United Nations, www. un. org/News/Press/docs/2003/gaspd274. doc. htm. Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs Report, 2000, http://www.arts,mcgill. ca/PRRN/hammarberg. html.

    Why are these facts ignored?

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