I recently had an unusual experience reading the International New York Times: I was inspired. Two stories and a picture did it.
One was an op-ed by the editor-in-chief of the Danish newspaper, Politiken, Bo Lidegaard, who spoke of the Danish tradition of protecting the country’s Jewish population by accepting them fully as Danish citizens. This tradition set Denmark apart in Europe during World War II, when the Danish population not only helped Jewish citizens escape to Sweden; they also safeguarded their property, which was returned to the Jewish Danes at the end of the war.
In the wake of the recent murder of Dan Uzan at the Copenhagen synagogue, Lidegaard asks: “How can we protect not only the security of Jews and Jewish institutions, but also their position as well-integrated members of society?” His answer: directly addressing the extremism and radicalization without erecting walls and barriers. In line with Danish tradition, Lidegaard notes that Jewish leaders in Denmark are among the foremost advocates of integrating the growing Muslim immigrant population – “these new Danes” – deeply into Danish society.
The second story was a news article about the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) suing the upscale children’s clothing company, Abercrombie & Fitch, for discriminating against a young Muslim American, Ms. Samantha Elauf, in refusing to hire her because she wears a traditional Muslim headscarf, the hijab – which clashes with the company’s dress code. The case, now before the U.S. Supreme Court, brings up fascinating questions of what sort of difference can be protected by law.
And the picture. It accompanied the story about Ms. Elauf, and showed her beaming as she left the courtroom. She was indeed wearing a hijab; yet the rest of her attire was the height of Western style. Abercrombie & Fitch clearly missed an opportunity to hire a young woman, who both conforms to her tradition, and knows how to make a fashion statement.
The picture was beautiful in another way. Ms. Elauf was walking between her mother (wearing a hijab and slacks) and her lawyer, Mr. David Lopez. It looked so natural, that I almost overlooked the remarkable phenomenon of a Muslim American being defended by a Latino American, working for the EEOC that was established 50 years ago to enforce workplace anti-discrimination laws passed as part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. I remember that time in U.S. history. We (I grew up in Pennsylvania) believed we were building a new society – for all Americans, regardless of religion, race, national origin. And, for all the ups and downs over the last 50 years – the system that was put in place then, is working.
Why was I so inspired? Because of the myriad brutal failures of integration in multi-ethnic societies throughout the world – from Europe to the Middle East to Asia. Here in Israel, election season brings out the worst in us, with candidates and parties emphasizing their right to represent Israel, and disparaging others’ legitimacy.
I work at a college in Israel which is dealing daily with the questions of how to create equal opportunity and respect for difference in a deeply divided society. About a quarter of the student body of Beit Berl College is Arab; as is about one of every six faculty members. Every day, on the campus, I see hundreds of our students — young Arab Israeli women — dressed in hijabs of the most amazing colors, eating in the cafeteria and studying with Jewish Israelis. Every day, thousands of our students study education, arts and social sciences — both in Hebrew and in Arabic.
We seek to make our campus an incubator for developing what is so lacking in Israel – a shared society, providing equal opportunity to all its citizens: Jewish – secular, religious and Ultra-Orthodox, Arab – Muslim and Christian – from various socio-economic backgrounds. Outside the campus, we, in Israel, are still locked in political struggles to define the character of our society, and the location of our borders. Here at the College, we seek to equip our students with tools in cross-cultural competence, so that when they leave this multi-cultural, bi-lingual campus, our graduates can make a difference. As Israel’s future teachers and principals, they can teach tolerance and understanding to their pupils. As artists and filmmakers, they can see and portray a variegated palette of Israeli society. And those graduates who enter the public sector can deal more effectively with cultural difference in their various workplaces – whether city government, the police force, or community centers.
Do we have the model ready now? Not yet: it is a work in progress. I imagine it will always be a work in progress – developed through innovating, learning and drawing inspiration from models around the world – whether in Denmark or in the U.S., or other societies wrestling with dilemmas of integration while respecting difference. Is there hope for creating shared citizenship? A careful reading of the news says – yes.