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Our Own Worst Enemy: Jewish Islamophobia

Ilene PrusherFilmed at Limmud Conference 2013

Think all Muslims hate us? Think again. Jews – and most people in the Western world – have let fearmongers and extremists paint a picture of Islam that is out of touch with reality. In fact, our fear, our ignorance, and our arrogance, may be the biggest detriment to peace. Not only do most Muslims not hate Jews, but many see a kind of kinship that you would never have expected if you only read the front-page news. Don’t drink the Kool-Aid – listen to this talk on Jewish Islamophobia: Our Own Worst Enemy.

Ilene Prusher is an award-winning journalist and novelist living in Jerusalem. Her first novel, Baghdad Fixer, was published in November 2012 by Halban Publishers in London. She is currently a feature writer for Haaretz and the author of the Jerusalem Vivendi blog. Ilene was a staff writer for The Christian Science Monitor from 2000 to 2010, serving as the newspaper’s bureau chief in Tokyo, Istanbul, and Jerusalem, and covering the major conflicts of the past decade: Iraq and Afghanistan. A graduate of the Columbia University School of Journalism, she has reported from conflict zones and developing countries throughout the Middle East, African, and Southeast Asia. Ilene is a contributor Time, and her work has appeared in publications such as The Washington Post, The New Republic, Moment, Tikkun and The Jerusalem Report. She also teaches writing workshops and journalism courses.

When I was growing up in America, there was an elephant in the room that we didn’t mention. Or in this case, in the car. As soon as we veered into a black neighborhood, one of my parents did what almost all white people did – one of them suddenly locked the doors. There was a perception that these places were dangerous, and so they locked the doors. Mom and Dad, if you’re watching, or if you watch this afterwards on the JDOV website, I hope you’ll forgive me for saying this, but it taught me a lot about black and white in America. At the same time, one summer in the late 70s, when I was a child, we had an African-American kid come and live with us for about two months, it was part of a program called the Fresh-Air Fund, and in our lily white neighborhood on Long Island it was a pretty bold and unusual step. So Mom and Dad, that summer when James lived with us, you also taught me a lot about unlocking doors.

Today, we lock our doors in a different way. I live in Israel now and I’ve spent about 15 years of my life there, and about 20 years overall as a journalist working not just there, but in different countries in the Arab world, also in Afghanistan, in Central and South Asia, a bit in Africa and East Asia as well. And what I’ve realized by living where I’ve lived, and travelling where I’ve travelled and then coming home sometimes to a Shabbat meal or shul event of the sort that Shoshana just mentioned, I’ve noticed how people react to what I do, and my bottom line can only be, that most of us are terrified of Muslims. This troubles me deeply. And I mean Arabs included but currently even more so Iranians because the government in Israel told us live in fear of Iran’s bomb, and this general amorphous mass of Muslims in the world – only about 20% of the world’s Muslims are Arab. And the amount of ignorance is kind of astounding. And what I sort of notice and not just in Jewish world but in the general western world, they are often not that interested in knowing about them until something incredibly violent happens or maybe it’s a special on a women and her life behind the oppressive veil.

So what I want to talk about today is in part just my life, what I do as a journalist and then coming home. And I find it really troubling when, for example, the kids, teenagers, of my friends in Israel will sometimes come to me and say, so Ilene you go to Ramallah, and you’ve been to Baghdad, and you talk to Arabs? Isn’t that scary? Isn’t that dangerous?

And I can’t tell you how many times when I’ve gone off to somewhere or lived somewhere as a journalist, coming back from Turkey and Afghanistan people would say, well it must be easy for you right because you learnt some Arabic so you can talk to them? So apparently most people don’t know about Turkish or Farsi or Dari or Pasto or Urdu because it’s okay to be clueless.

And then people often ask me to remind them, well are we talking about Sunnis or Shiites? And some people, for example in Jerusalem where I live, don’t know that the Palestinians next door are Sunni or that most Iranians or Shiite. Because the underlying question seems to be, what do I need to know about who among them is the most threatening towards me?

So I want to make a claim now that I think might annoy people. And it’s this. Our fear and our ignorance and occasionally arrogance, is the biggest detriment to peace. Marx said that religion was the opiate of the masses. I think that FEAR, at least in the Jewish state, is the opiate of the masses. Fear is such a convenient, useful tool. Our Prime Minister back in Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, I think, sometimes views the Muslim world through the binoculars of fear, and binoculars is the apt metaphor, because you use binoculars to view something very much from far away, because you can’t see it up close.

This is obviously a wider issue not just one in the Jewish world. Here in the UK, a study released in September by the BBC and ComRes, said that “a Quarter of young British people do not trust Muslims.” That’s even just the people who will say that to a pollster in an interview. The Pew Research Center in Washington discovered a similar trend: 40% of Americans say that, among Muslim-Americans there is a great deal of support for extremist thinking. But when Muslim-Americans are polled, only about 20% of them said yes there is a tendency among some people among us for extremist thinking.

So, basically our estimation is at least twice the amount of theirs in terms of getting a reality check on how many people really support an extremist or radical or fundamentalist thinking.

So in Israel we see similar attitudes. And these polls are coming out all the time, and they’re often showing a worrying trend. Polls show a high number of Israelis saying they wouldn’t want an Arab living on their street or moving into their building or learning with their child in school – and if somebody is really interested in learning Arabic, there’s often an attitude of oh, ‘It’s good to understand the enemy.’ And if perhaps your son or daughter shows a proficiency, then that’s good she’ll get a good job in the army.

So after many years of living and reporting in the Middle East, I’m here to tell you something. Unlike what most fear-mongers are trying to tell us, they don’t want to wipe us off the map – not the majority anyway – and they realize we have a right to a little place under the sun, as long as Palestinians get their half a spot on the map as well.

I want to tell you about a man in named Malik Jan. He was my driver, he was only a little bit literate, and we worked together for many months when I was reporting there. And then one day, I was in the car with him and no one else was there, and he asked me, Ilene, you’re Jewish aren’t you? And I was kind of floored because I was keeping my Judaism in my pocket, which I thought was the best thing for my own safety. And I was sort of surprised, so I said, yes, how did you know that? And he said well, first of all, I noticed you’re always taking a day off on a Saturday. Which was a new thing for me at the time about 12 years ago, but I had started keeping Shabbat and yes I was taking Saturdays off. But I was surprised that a driver in Afghanistan would notice that, and put 2+2 together.

But then he continued and he said, “But it’s not just that. I knew you were different. I knew you weren’t like the other Americans around here. You’re more like us. You’re like us, I see it.” And to him, by being a Jew, I was somehow closer to him, by region, by way of life, by religion, and somehow I was different than another general white Westerner, whatever that might be, and I found that fascinating. And then I went on to learn that actually he’s a Pashtun and many Pashtuns hold a kind of legend or belief that their descendants of one of the lost tribe of Israelites.

Let me tell you just one more story. This one is about a woman named Amal, who I met in Baghdad. Amal, by the way, means hope. And we started working together at the height of the war in Iraq in about May 2003, a little more than 10 years ago and, one day we were sitting in the car, we were going off on a story, I was getting to know her, jotting down things she says and, as she’s talking I wrote down my observation of her, “wears sword necklace.” Very quietly. And then a minute or two later, she kind of craned her neck, somehow read my rather sloppy notes, and she said, no the point isn’t just that it’s a sword. It’s the sword of Ali, and it’s a symbol of justice.” Well boy was I glad that she noticed that, because there I was, about to get it wrong as we often do, and in the worst way. I saw a sword, she sees, justice.

What I didn’t mention about Amal is that she also teaches English literature at one of Baghdad’s best universities, so I got to sit in on class of hers one day and watch her teaching Shakespeare’s tragedies, quite impressively so, and it turns out that she did her masters thesis on the plays of Harold Pinter – a nice Jewish boy from London some of you here may have heard of.

So after about five years of friendship, including my visits to Iraq and then continuing over email and occasionally phone calls, it happened that we were getting married in the same year, and she sent me some photos of her as a bride and with her groom. And I wanted to send her one of my wedding photos and I started looking and seeing, could I find a wedding photo where you didn’t see the kippah on my husband’s head. And I said, nu, Ilene, it’s time, you have to tell Aliyah that you’re Jewish, because again for my safety I thought it was quiet just never to mention it. So I told her. And she responded with saying, Ilene, I knew that all along and I was just waiting for you to say something. Again the elephant in the room. She said, ‘you’re my sister’. And it somehow made our relationship even that much closer.

She talked a lot about the loss that many Iraqis feel for the Jews that used to live in Iraq and contributed immensely to the cultural and creative and commercial and intellectual life in Iraq, and of course are now largely gone from Iraq.

So I continue these friendships and I have to say most of my friends and family think I’m pretty odd. Speaking of weddings, at the women’s tisch at my wedding I had a Muslim-Palestinian friend, a Christian friend from Ireland and a Jewish-American-Israeli friend each speak about light, and I think these three women from different faiths speaking about light, is probably one of the a high points in my life, thinking about a vision for peace, what peace would look like.

It’s interesting to think about… we think that we’re so far apart but there are actually perhaps more similarities between Islam and Judaism, than there are between Christianity and Judaism. When my Muslim friends get married, they sign a khutbe, it’s like our katuba. Zakkat is like tsaddaka. Haj is like hagim. Probably many of you have noticed this already. Kashrut is like hallal, but they’ll accept our meat as acceptable, we won’t accept theirs. It’s interesting. We’re good at locking our doors.

So with all these experiences behind me, I went and decided to write a book and make the narrator an Iraqi…Muslim…male. Half Sunni, half Shiite. Here I am, a nice Jewish girl from New York, writing in the voice of Nabil Al Amiri, born in Baghdad. What kind of chutzpah is that? I often asked myself that question, looking in the mirror and trying to write this book.

I didn’t know how it would fly with the critics. And I decided not to care. And in fact flew. And not only did I get some nice reviews, but really what meant the most to me was hearing from a number of Iraqis, some of whom I knew, many of whom I did not know, who contacted me and said, wow, you really got us, how did you do that? Are you Iraqi?

And you know, my four Ashkenazi grandparents, alehum hashalom, alekum is-salam, would probably throw up their hands in heaven and say, Oy, how did this girl come from our family? But no. I’m not from Iraq or of Iraqi descent, and I get asked it a lot. And I think that I was able to create Nabil by unlocking my doors and taking a chance.

We need to unlock the doors, maybe metaphorically, maybe literally. Do I mean never lock you door, or stop thinking completely about defense? No, I don’t mean that. Unlocking doors means – studying Arabic or Farsi, or Turkish or any of the languages of the countries where Muslims live. It means reading more, and with a more open mind. Do you live in a community with a dialogue group? Join it. And next time you go to Israel, maybe set aside time to expand your narrative by going on a tour with a group like Encounter or Ir Amim. Send your students to study, yes, in Israel but maybe elsewhere in the region, maybe try out studying for a semester or a summer in a moderate Arab country like Jordan or Morocco, or go to Istanbul where you can learn Turkish and study Islam, but also feel like you haven’t left the familiar comforts of Europe.

I want to go back to this point of language. How much does language matter? A lot, it turns out. A front page story in Haaretz this Friday had this headline: “Salam starts in school, coexistence program shows.” And here is the first sentence: “Surveys of fifth-grade attitudes to Arabs in 2010 and 2012 revealed growing anti-Arab extremism in the student body. The exception to that trend were students who participated in the Ya Salam program, in which students are taught Arabic at school.”

Where I live, we must contend with fences and walls and barriers and checkpoints – all of which, tragically, make it harder for us to know each other, to unlock our doors. And it will take some major leaps of faith by leaders on both sides, if we are to get somewhere with this peace process. And, if peace comes at all, it will come when we begin to know each other. It’ll come when you know that there are men like Malik Jan in Afghanistan, not just like Bin Laden. And certainly, it will take hearing more voices of women. When you can think of a Muslim and think of my friend Amal in Baghdad, before you think Ahmedinejad, then perhaps you too might begin unlocking your doors and believing that the world can be different.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License

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