In the USA, where I am living and teaching for a few months this fall, I am experiencing one of the most deeply divisive and disruptive moments in contemporary American history. And it has turned violent, with bombs sent last week to Democratic politicians and television journalists, a clear result of the incessant incitement by the most dangerous of American presidents, and culminating with the massacre by a white supremacist of 11 Jews while praying in their synagogue in Pittsburgh last Saturday. While many people I know here are in deep despair for the future of their country, I also encountered people who persist in promoting hope over hatred, love despite loss, and encouragement rather than enmity.
On my Facebook feed, I read about interfaith gatherings which were attended by thousands of people in towns and cities all over America. Many were organized in Reform and Conservative congregations, led by rabbis, priests, imams and leaders of other religions, in compassionate and creative ceremonies, which mourned the loss of innocent Jews who were killed when praying on a beautiful autumn Shabbat morning. At these gatherings, the religious leaders who spoke poignantly expressed over and over again a commitment towards working together to forge common bonds of cooperation and caring for all citizens of this land, and especially for minorities such as Jews and Muslims, who are under constant and rising threats due to the growth of Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia during the last two years during the Trump era of rampant racism and xenophobia.
Yet, for me, the most important gathering was the one I attended two nights ago in Riverdale, the Bronx, the northernmost borough of New York City, where I am currently living with my wife for a few months (to be near our daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren). The gathering was called “United for Peace” and it was organized by my friend and colleague, Professor Mehnaz Afridi, a Pakistani-American Muslim professor who teaches at Manhattan College, a small Catholic college in Riverdale. In addition, she directs a center there called The Holocaust, Genocide and Interfaith Education Center, where among other things she does research on the Holocaust and other genocides and teaches courses on Islam. A few weeks ago, she hosted me to speak there with a Sufi Muslim friend, where we talked about our work in Israel over many years in peacebuilding through interreligious dialogue.
In addition, Professor Afridi has published a superb book entitled The Shoah Through Muslim Eyes, which should be required reading for all Jews and Muslims who care about their history and their present situations. (See my review of her book on my Huffington Post blog).
I asked Professor Afridi why she initiated this inspiring gathering against hatred and she replied succinctly and persuasively:
I organized the rally because I wanted to show my love, support and respect for the Jewish and African American community. I work in Riverdale and work with so many who were present. I wanted to have a night where we did not indulge in politics and just held each other in hope, love and peace. As a Muslim it is my duty to speak up for one another and stand with all human beings who are in pain.
Why support for also the African American community? Because just last week, on October 25, 2018, another racist hate crime took place in America, Two African-Americans were shot and killed by another white supremacist in Louisville, Kentucky. It appears that most hate crimes in America are committed by white supremacists, not by Muslim or other immigrants.
I also asked Rabbi Barry Dov Katz, the rabbi of the thriving synagogue in Riverdale known as CSAIR (Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel of Riverdale), who was one of the speakers at the gathering, why he responded positively to Professor Afridi’s invitation to speak and what his main message was. Among other things, he told me:
Religious leaders in Riverdale have worked hard to create relationships between our communities. From the day she arrived, Prof. Afridi has been part of this effort. Still, Prof. Afridi’s offer to bring the community together at a time of great pain for the Jewish community brought tears to my eyes. Being there, hearing words of comfort and inspiration from leaders of many faiths, surrounded by so many good people, was inspiring.
And I asked him to share with me his message of peace to the crowd of several hundred people that gathered at this important demonstration of empathy and human solidarity because I thought that it was particularly relevant and appropriate for the moment. This is what he said:
The Psalmist, when confronted by people who are full of hate, who direct sharp arrows at innocents, proclaims, “Ani Shalom– I am peace!” My message at the rally was that in the face of an attack motivated by anti-Semitism and anti-Immigrant sentiment, we need to be people who stand up for something different, who say, “I am peace.” We need to push back at the politics of division and partisanship. And we need to strengthen each other as we work to create something different in our country so that we can all say, “We are peace.”
Contrary to the incessant incitement via verbal violence on the part of the most reactionary and repressive president the United States of America has ever known (and the same can be said unfortunately about the Prime Minister of Israel), religious and cultural leaders have the responsibility to lift up voices of healing and hope that we pray will also lead to societal change, and they are carrying it out more and more in the public square these days, with dedication, commitment and compassion.
In response to the morally meaningful messages that these people shared, I can only say, “Amen”! With religious and cultural leaders like these—and many others throughout America, Israel and around the world—hope can prevail over hatred.