Last week I was sitting in the painting class I am taking in New York City when a girl stumbled in, looking confused. Having been new to the class the day before, I figured I would help her out. We started talking and she seemed nice enough. Then she said she came from Kuwait. Nervously, I started fiddling with my Magen David necklace. She was Arab and I was a Jew, and suddenly I felt I had to choose my words more carefully, as the conversation certainly felt more tense now.
She must have seen my necklace too, because she asked me whether there had been a Jewish holiday recently. No, I answered, confused.
But she had seen the flags and the people on the street, just a couple days before. Oh, that was the Celebrate Israel Parade. She did not respond. I found myself filling out the sentence nervously, about how every ethnic group here in the US has their own parade, as if I was justifying the Parade for her, to avoid a confrontation and discussion of Israel. Okay, she said, showing neither positive nor negative emotion, and then turned back to her painting. I felt relieved.
Taken away from the stress of the conversation, I wondered to myself why I had felt the need to elaborate, to try to justify the parade. The girl had inquired about a Jewish holiday and had not shown me any reason to believe she was anti-Semitic or anti-Israel. But due to how I had perceived her, as a non-Jew, a Kuwaiti, an Arab, I, the Zionist, who was never afraid to speak up for Israel among my liberal Jewish friends, was suddenly backing off in front of a stranger.
I told myself that if I had just not been put on the spot, I would have shown more pride. Maybe I would have mentioned how I had felt at the parade. But I’m not so sure. I think my behavior in the conversation speaks to a larger theme in interfaith relations.
A tradition at the Center for Jewish Living at Cornell is to have joint events with the Muslim group on campus. At least once a semester, the two groups get together for ice cream, s’mores or another sweet treat. As expected, the groups do not socialize that much at the events. Except for about two or three members from each group, most people only talk with their respective groups.
But there were times when one could not avoid at least introducing oneself, such as when two people reached for the same ice cream. Often, these conversations felt forced. I recall speaking to someone at one of these events, where our entire conversation revolved around our favorite ice cream flavor. Ten minutes of chocolate versus vanilla. Now, I’m not disparaging those who enjoy talking about food, but it was very obvious that we were both trying to stick to something that was the least likely to bring up any problem. It felt forced and fake. It would probably do more harm than good to launch into a debate on the Arab-Israeli conflict, but I wish we could have at least scratched the surface of deeper things, such as religion and being a minority on campus.
The idea is that the relationship is so fragile that we must be careful not to damage it. But I would argue that a relationship built on such caution that one can only talk about ice cream flavors because one is so afraid to offend the other party is not a real relationship.
This past semester we did not end up having a joint event. There had been a couple emails from both groups, but ultimately, neither party was committed enough to make anything happen. The relationship we had been so careful to protect clearly did not exist.
So, what are we so afraid of damaging?
Relationships are built on honesty and the acknowledgement that there may not be agreement on everything. This principle must also hold true for interfaith relationships. If a relationship is built on not addressing the conflict, will it just break once someone happens to mention it?
Franz Kafka once wrote:
Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion.
There is no use wasting time on interfaith work that is simply meant to make oneself feel good. If one is unwilling to deal with the struggle that comes with interfaith relationships, perhaps there is a better way to spend one’s time. But if one acknowledges all the problems that will arise in these relationships and still wants to proceed, I say, go ahead!