Jews: Surround a Mosque…

RIng of Peace in Oslo 2One life rescued saves the world. One life taken destroys it.

Just one week ago, after Shabbat came to an end, more than 1,000 Norwegians of all faiths came to Bergstien Street to surround a synagogue in Oslo. The organizers were Muslims. Pictures showed a chain of human beings, arms outstretched and holding hands. Thomas Holgersen Daher Naustdal, an event organizer, insisted that the human ring of peace was intended to demonstrate “that if you want to commit violence in the name of Islam you will have to go through us Muslims first.”

There were, naturally, grateful reactions from Jews and Jewish communities. And then, there were (inevitable?) reports that the entire event was staged, created by a media capable of ruthlessly playing on people’s fears and exploiting their hopes.

Were there actually more than twenty Muslims present, some asked? Were some inside the gates and some outside? Were some difficult to identify because they were not wearing clothing that would clearly identify them as Muslim? Come to that, clothing doesn’t necessarily prove a thing, so… were any Muslims around at all?

How were we to assess the fact that protesters spoke not only about the dangers of antisemitism but about those of Islamophobia? Reportedly, demonstrators chanted, “no to anti-Semitism, no to Islamophobia.” What were Jews to conclude? Were those demonstrators willy-nilly equating a merciless cultural pathology that had cost the lives of millions of Ring of Peace in OsloJews with something that could not begin to compare?

To save one life, Talmud tells us, is to save the world. If we believe that, then a single Muslim showing up at any synagogue with holy intentions may well be, in our book, doing her best to save a life. If the only non-Jew present in Oslo had been Naustdal, coming to stand, as he said, “against all types of hatred, violence and particularly in this case anti-Semitism, both within our own ranks and from society as a whole,” that’s a life-saving intention.

Just a short while ago, Jews could have shown up to support the single time allowed Muslim students for the recitation of the call to prayer from the Duke Chapel belfry. Right now, tomorrow, or next weekend, Jews could create their own ring of peace around a mosque in this country – maybe in Chapel Hill, where the community is mourning the brutal murder of three Muslim students.

I could imagine Jews stating, proudly, that they are present to fight all forms of hatred, from antisemitism to Islamophobia because the latter also kills.

If such Jews said: “we get your grief and we get your pain and we understand why you are afraid,” I would hope that we would not be accused of minimizing the pain we are witnessing by honoring and remembering the pain we have ourselves known.

We should be inspired by the Muslims who showed up in Oslo, regardless of number.

Imagine a world in which, every week, we showed up to protect one another. Imagine if we announced, day after day, that we must stand for peace and for life: Together. Imagine if we did not concern ourselves with “how many” but rather with hearts, with meaning and with intentions.

We might save a life. We might save the world.

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Written for Sarah (with her permission)

Sarah McCurry
Sarah McCurry

She graduated UNC Charlotte in 2012. She was an irrepressible student. Precocious, and very funny. She described herself as a little wacky.

She had a droll way of speaking about herself; One day, she came to me with notes on a major project she had started for another class. She made wry comments about feeling overwhelmed.

I asked her to explain the project. I looked at her notes.

“Sarah,” I told her with mock sternness, “this is completely out of control.”

She sighed. “I knew you would say that, Dr. Thiede,” she said. “I just knew it.”

“Let’s get to work,” I said, and we did. We spent about an hour tightening up the project’s parameters, finding out what she really wanted to say, and making sure she could demonstrate that she knew a thing or two.

Sarah majored in German and International Studies and she minored in Judaic Studies. She took courses in Judaism and in antisemitism with me; she researched the Holocaust. She decided to study abroad in Germany. Before she left, I asked her to keep in touch.

One day, she wrote me this:

Germany is amazing and awesome.I never want to leave, but the reason I’m emailing you is because of an incident that has left me shaken. I don’t know how to react or why I’m so unprepared. This past weekend, two of my friends and I rode the S-Bahn into Stuttgart, and as we were nearing the Hauptbahnhof, all of a sudden this guy stands up and begins yelling (swearing) at this woman, and begins to push her and he punches her twice, saying she can go to hell with the Jews, and he ranted fuck Jews, etc.. The woman was scared and kept saying to him it’s no reason to get upset… There were about eight other grown German men… not one of them batted an eyelash, just ignored it as if it wasn’t happening. I wanted to do something, I was tiny compared to this guy and I was paralyzed with fear and rage and turned to my guy friend and told him to do something. He got up and walked back there, guided the lady to sit with us… I know we’ve studied this, and I know hatred of Jews still exists, but it left me unprepared for that, and I’m unsettled and somewhat ashamed that I sat there.… nobody did anything or said anything. I’m stunned that this could be tolerated in Germany of all places.

I don’t know what to say or why emailing you, I guess just to vent. I’m so stunned and shocked, I can’t just ignore stuff like this, but I don’t know how I’m supposed to react either. I don’t want to be personal or rude, but have you ever experienced this, if so, how do you respond?

Sarah is not Jewish. But she had learned about human horrors. She cared – deeply – about the world.

I don’t have my reply to Sarah, though my computer tells me I wrote one. But now, I know, I will keep every reply I write.

Last week, Sarah called me from Houston. She told me she had been diagnosed with fourth-stage colon cancer. Sarah is 23.

She was worried about her family and her boyfriend, she said. She had lost an aunt to colon cancer two years ago; a grandparent died of the same disease. She had flown to Houston to see a particular surgeon, a specialist of some sort. He wouldn’t operate, she told me. His advice: Try chemo and come back to see him in six months if she was still alive.

She said: “I am frightened. I don’t want to die.” She said: “I’m sorry to ruin your day like this.”

No, no, I wanted to say. You called; I answered. Two human beings, connected by the simplest of facts. Two human beings, connected.

I am not going to pretend otherwise to anyone – even to Sarah. I am scared. I am scared I won’t say or do the things that would be perfect and right. I am scared because her youth hits home: Sarah was born when I was five months pregnant with my son, Erik.

Sarah’s boyfriend’s name is Eric.

We spoke, she cried. She stopped herself crying, cried again.

That night I found an internet site on gofundme (http://www.gofundme.com/duckcoloncancer). Sarah had put the site up when the first diagnosis had been made, just a few weeks before she called me. At that point, her cancer was third-stage. Sarah needed money to see more specialists.

I wrote to faculty members and asked them to spread the news. I am writing this for the same reason.

Here is what Sarah needs now: To try everything she can. This is her right. I will help with that.

To readers, then, if you can and feel so moved: Please visit that site and make a donation.

To Sarah: I will walk with you however you decide you need my presence. That’s a vow.

To the Ruach Ha’olam: Help me walk.

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The Procrustean Choice: Living with Antisemitism or Living with Racism

NetanyahuBenjamin Netanyahu flies to Europe not to grieve, but to calculate. As families are mourning their loved ones, he chooses to agitate for his political agenda. Instead of compassion, he offers European Jews a lesson. Theirs is misplaced allegiance. Israel, so Netanyahu, is the only place they can truly call home.

I’ve taught the Holocaust for almost three decades. Antisemitism has never left Europe. I don’t believe it will. Even the murder of a million Jewish children and five million Jewish adults could not do away with it. What could?

Europe was long ago infected with a cultural pathology, a virus that appears to go into remission only to return – still virulent, still horrifying, still murderous.

White Europeans may not, however, point fingers at non-white Europeans and claim antisemitism is no longer “their” issue. This is not the problem of some Muslim “other.” This disease was born in Europe. Variations on neo-Nazism are everywhere, and they find a home in a number of varied populations across the continent.

It is true: No one can guarantee the safety of Europe’s Jews.  But is Israel their home? Is it mine? What will Israel offer, should we make aliyah?

A lot better, of course, than it offers other refugees seeking asylum. Do you happen to be a black and African soul fleeing violence instead of a white, European, and Jewish one? So far, the Israeli government has managed to respond to less than 1½ percent of asylum requests from Sudanese nationals. Not a single Sudanese has been granted refugee status.

Eritrean asylum seekers face similarly awful conditions. Just four of almost 2,500 Eritreans in Israel have acquired refugee status. Some of the detainees in the Holot detention facility, where such refugees face (and freeze) in despicable conditions, have been there for six years.  Israel is hardly a safe haven for them.

Nor is Israeli society free from its own forms of virulent racism. Lehava (Preventing Assimilation in the Holy Land) is just one of many virulently racist groups whose supporters can be heard screaming “death to Arabs” in the streets of Jerusalem. Three Lehava supporters have been indicted in the arson attack against a Hebrew-Arabic bilingual school in the city.

Last January, a Druze man who had recently completed his service with the IDF reported that ten religious Jewish men had assaulted him after hearing him speaking in Arabic. He had to pay for his own ambulance to get to a hospital.

Before we consign Israeli racism to extremist right-wing groups, we might want to consider the kinds of things coming out of the mouths of some Israel’s leaders – and as a matter of course, these days. Just this month, Naftali Bennett, Minister of the Economy, spoke about internal security concerns in the country, referring to areas with high Arab populations. “Anyone who’s gone traveling in the Negev in recent years knows,” he asserted, “that they can’t leave their car … because it will be broken into and stolen.”

Arabs, who make up a fifth of Israel’s population, are car thieves.

European Jews fleeing antisemitism will, if they make aliyah, live in a country that is home to hate speech and hate crime. They will be fleeing to a country that has been – for five decades – exercising colonialist methods to subdue and control millions of Palestinians.

Netanyahu claims to belong to a western culture that is “based on freedom and a culture of choice.”  For whom, exactly?

The extent to which any western culture has achieved such an ideal is worth questioning. The extent to which Israel presents humanity with anything close to such a thing is debatable.

I want Israel to exist. Most Jews in the world want Israel to exist. But the Jews of the Diaspora do not live in order to support Israel on any and all terms presented by Netanyahu and his supporters. The dangers faced by Jews in a Europe that is still home to antisemitism should not blind anyone to the dangers of living in an Israel that has been made a comfortable home for rampant racism.

No home we have had has ever been a safe one. That fact should not keep us from trying to create one.

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Shrewdaic Studies

Serpent and Eve 1Stained whiteboards. Walls pained yellow or sickly green. Scraped up floors and gray windowpanes. The smell of sweat and the after-odor of Chik-fil-A.

It’s my classroom, the classroom I’ve inhabited for decades, in various states and a number of universities. The most amazing things happen in that worn space, that aging, decaying structure. It’s divine.

Last week, in my class “God and Sex in Hebrew Bible,” I told my students that there is a pun going on in Genesis 3.

“The serpent is arum,” I said, “usually translated as ‘shrewd.’ But arum can also mean ‘nude.’ Adam and Eve are described as arumim after eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Are they nude or shrewd?”

Discussion ensued. A student raised a hand:

“If the serpent was the shrewdest of all the animals, if he had so much knowledge he even knew what God would or would not do if they ate, why wasn’t he punished for that?” the student asks. “Why is he only punished after he passed knowledge on to Adam and Eve?”

“Snap!” another student said. “Snap, snap, snap,” the student continued, with finger-fomented percussion.

A contribution from another quarter: “Is that whole scene between the serpent and Eve sexual? Is eating the fruit meant to symbolize a sexual act?”

I took the opportunity to tell the class that there is a midrash that claims the serpent saw Adam and Eve having sex and immediately craved a little nookie for himself (Bereishit Rabbah 18:10). The student, in turn, speculated that the sharing of the fruit with Adam might be another sexually charged act.

“I always knew the world began with a threesome,” the student said.

We all laughed.

In my classroom, my students are asked (not just permitted) to treat the text as a site for multiple possibilities, multiple interpretations. They do have to argue from the text, from what they have learned about its authors and the culture it comes from, but they are free to be creative, to speculate. We try to avoid retrojecting our assumptions; modern ideas do not generate ancient agendas. Ancient Israelites had no acquaintance with the Devil, with the capital D.

YHVH is a character in a narrative in our classroom setting. The texts we study are not the word of God but a human product. Whatever they once thought was “the original” is a product. Luck may have played a role in its transmission; certainly human choice did. The Book of Yashar once was on the best-seller list for ancient Judeans; it fell out of favor, disappeared, or was, at some point, dropped from the list of “must-reads” for later generations.

We know of a short version of Jeremiah and a long one. One is found in the Septuagint, the other in the Masoretic Text. How will my students decide which is “better” or “more important”? Why didn’t the Book of Jubilees make the cut for our canons? How about the Book of Enoch?

Once they get over all the shock value, they begin to realize: what we have of biblical literature extends far beyond any bible. It is a rich, vast corpus.

Take away the blackboards and whiteboards and smelly leftovers from fast food joints. Imagine a small sanctuary with windows looking out towards the naked, gray branches of wintering trees.

I am in conversation with congregants. YHVH is not just a character for most of us, but our questions and our freedom to ask them is equally untrammeled. Jewish tradition has enshrined the right to treat our texts as earthly products. The humanness of the authors and their characters is not just appreciated but valorized. Torah, we believe, is accessible, human, altogether ours. It is not too baffling for us to understand; it is not unreachable or incomprehensible (Deut. 30:11-13).

In any setting, I am nourished by this fact: These texts ask us to think. About ourselves, about our world, about all that is human and (perhaps) divine, too.

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