“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…”