On Learning the Language of the Other

In order to make headway in any peace process, anywhere, learning the language that the Other speaks is vital.

I presented my work at the Engaging Sacred Values Conference, Trinity College, Dublin; its theme — the use of religious values to make peace in the middle east. Reverend Ken Newell moderated, who has his own track record of peace making. He helped negotiate the Good Friday cease fire agreement, 1998, putting an end to much of the terror attacks in Northern Ireland. At the conference, he encouraged the participants to be open to hearing other points of view, “learning another language is so much more than vocabulary and grammar, it means learning the language of religion, the language of another’s values.”

The dominant language in the middle east is that of scripture and tradition. The language of traditional and religious people of all Abrahamic faiths includes discretion, tact, and modesty.

And I witnessed some gaps in that understanding during my trip.

During my presentation at Trinity, I presented what I believe is the ultimate method of recognizing the Other in Islam and Judaism, in the language that speaks to both — interconnected Muslim and Jewish religious courts.

In the language of Islam, there can be Shari’a courts that will interact with courts of the “People of the Book,” also known as Mumin – believers from other monotheistic faiths. Jewish courts or Batei Din can interact with courts of the “Children of Noach” and Ger Toshav — righteous resident aliens. Muslim Shari’a courts and Jewish Batei Din will use this language of recognizing the other, forming an intellectual and legal basis of mutual recognition.

I also presented that this involves recalling the scriptural roots of western political science as brought down by Christians including Erastus, the founders of the English Parliament and the founding fathers of the United States. We need to question the assumption that peace will arrive in the middle east as soon as everyone here is living some derivation of western relativism.  Religion no longer marginalized, all peoples of the middle east will feel represented, making any workable peace process truly lasting.

Here was the response — “Arabs are not second class in the Holy Land… how would you like to live in Iran!… we believe in Democracy not Theocracy… Where would Christians fit in your scheme….Most religious leaders do not share your open and accepting views…We have fought for freedoms that you would undo….”

But I had other responses as well – “it is good that you challenged us… we cannot continue sitting around agreeing with each other… secularism is simply not working in the middle east… Rebecca has a point that Judaism and Islam shape all parts of life…of all the ideas I have heard, this is the most workable….”

I was also asked in private, and asked tactfully,  how I feel about gay rights. That seems to be the modern litmus test for tolerance. I welcomed the discussion, it is a sensitive and timely issue, but  I would not expect anyone to ask my underage children or grandchildren that question.

This brings me to another branch of this trip to Ireland and the UK.

My ticket back to the Holy Land was booked from the airport at Luton, a suburb of London.  Eager to network with the Muslim community, I found the Olive Tree Primary School, and made contact.

A staff member told me, “we can work with believers from all faiths”, and invited me to give a brief talk to the school children.

I found them to be friendly,  modest,  and varied – the blue eyed and fair skinned sat among those whose ancestry stemmed from the African Continent  to the Indian sub Continent. They displayed a marked cordiality – they all took the time to greet each other with the blessings that G-d fearing Muslims bestow upon each other.  They were hospitable to me, reflecting a generosity of spirit ingrained in the Islamic religion – and a hospitality that was taken somewhat advantage of by the Office of Standards in Education (Ofsted). Here is what happened.

I asked if their community had any contact with the Haredi Jewish community.

The secretary responded, “A Rabbi from Stamford Hill called to offer support after our school made the news. You see, officials from the government came to check our school. They said they need to speak to the children, separate from us…”

My wariness receptors went on high alert.

She finished the sentence: “they asked the children, ‘do you know any homosexuals?’”

But the oldest children in that school are eleven years old!

She continued, clearly hurt: “and we told them, ‘we do not want you talking to our students.’”

The claim is that the officials were simply checking the school for discriminatory attitudes.  It also showed that these officials had not learned the language of the Other. Learning that language would have made them aware that such a question could be interpreted as a provocation.

Bequeathing modest and strong boundaries to children is achievable, and it is what traditionalists do.  It’s language involves hands-on parenting,  creating a sense of acceptance in the home so that as children mature, they will not crave affection from outside. It means avoiding immodest influences from the media, as well as anyone who would raise inappropriate topics.

Is this an extremist view? The works of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov are studied widely, from Christian divinity students to Jews from the unaffiliated to the orthodox. Rebbe Nachman emphasized modesty in deed and thought as a foundation of spiritual and psychological health. Javed Ahmad Ghamidi is considered a moderate leader in the Muslim world today. He strongly emphasizes the importance of modest demeanor between men and women.  No one calls these leaders extremists.

As far as fears that traditionalists are poised to harm homosexuals?

Upon the shooting and murder of 49 people at a gay club in Orlando Florida, scores of Muslim leaders condemned the attack. Here I want to point out the use of tactful and modest language when  the Orthodox Union, which represents modern orthodox Judaism in the United States, issued its condemnation: “.…No American should be assailed due to his or her personal identity.…” (emphasis mine).

You might say, forget the sensitivities of religious people! Well, let’s take a look at the Planned Parenthood website on talking to children about intimacy, here are some quotes, see the link below:

“…you can teach your kids about respecting other peoplekeep the conversation age appropriate reassure them that it’s OK to be embarrassed about this stuff…The best way to keep your kids safe and healthy is to stay involved in their lives and to set some boundaries…”

Looks like tact is important to a lot of people. As far as effective dialogue goes,  Professor James David Audlin has quipped, “I see all too often in such ‘inter-’ dialogues where true dialogue is replaced by loaded questions that are more dogmatic assertions than honest questions respectfully asked.”

Whether striving for peace in the middle east, visiting a school in a sleepy London suburb, or in what ever circle you find yourself, try to remember to get to know the language of the Other.

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Full quote from the Orthodox Union condemnation:

https://advocacy.ou.org/orthodox-union-condemns-violent-attack-orlando-florida-american-assailed-due-personal-identity/

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Write up of the Ofsted questioning of the Luton schoolchildren:

https://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/may/15/ofsted-luton-olive-tree-school-homosexuality

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Planned Parenthood web site on tips for talking to kids about sex – if even PP acknowledges the need for tact on this subject, why in the world cannot that be acknowledged when breaching such a subject with traditionalists? The site is modest:

https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/parents/tips-talking

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Go ahead and Google : “Muslims Condemn Orlando Attack”

Reverend Ken Newell’s Book, Captured by a Vision  https://www.amazon.com/Captured-Vision-Memoir-Ken-Newell/dp/1780731035

About the Author
Rebecca Abrahamson is co-director of AlSadiqin, an organization that researches the common heritage of Islam and Judaism. AlSadiqin strives to conform in every way to sharia and accepted convention, with the conviction that conflict resolution occur in line with scriptural values that Muslims and Jews hold dear. Peace agreements that organically grow out of our scriptures and shared histories are truly the key to lasting peace. Rebecca co-hosted a conference on making the UN Resolutions for a Culture of Peace into law at the Knesset, edited “Divine Diversity: an Orthodox Rabbi Engages with Muslims”, began a column in the Israel National News service entitled Giving Voice to Muslims Who Seek Peace and has written in the same vein for the Jerusalem Post and the Jewish Press. She is married to Ben Abrahamson, who is also active in Muslim-Jewish dialogue. She is a school nurse and is busy with her children and grandchildren.
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