Friday, June 20, 2014

Jews Muslim and Hate Realistic Responses and Korach

Ibrahim Abdo, Donna Jacobs Sife, Mohamed Taha and
Kastel present Jews Muslim and Hate Realistic Responses at
Yom Limmud, Sydney June 2014
Two young Muslims, Mohamed Taha and Ibrahim Abdo, joined Donna Jacobs Sife and me on a panel at Yom Limmud (Jewish learning festival) last Sunday. Our topic: Jews, Muslims and hate - realistic responses.

Ibrahim and I reflected on the way that hatred is often masked; ostensibly it is about one thing but, in reality, it is driven by other factors. This plays out in the story of Korah’s rebellion and animosity  against Moses. Korah talks about equality  but, according to tradition, he was less motivated by an aspiration for anarchy than by personal ambition,  hurt  and a desire for the position of high priest .

While the causes of hate are murky, the impact is unmistakable. Here is a first person account from a teacher  about some of her Muslim students:
…I live in fear that the students will find out that I am Jewish. I do. I am terrified that the students will find out that I am Jewish. I am very ashamed to say this and I have never said this to anybody [teacher almost in tears as s/he relates this incident]. A few years ago, while stopping students etching swastikas onto a desk, one of the students yelled at me, ‘Why Miss, are you a Jew?’ And I said, ‘No, I am not. That is incorrect behaviour’. This is the only time in my life that I have lied about being a Jew, and I am not an observant Jew; I am not a religious Jew; but I have never considered lying or hiding the fact that I am a Jew. But this time, I know, for my survival, that I did not want my tyres slashed... I did not want – what scared me the most, more than offence on my private property, was public graffiti in the school playground stating that I was a Jew... and I was aware that, in that moment,  it was pure fear that I lied and said I was not a Jew.

Then, there is the hatred directed against Muslims. A very strong Muslim woman I know and respect, has recently stopped using public transport in Sydney after increased harassment of Muslim women on trains. This is absolutely unacceptable. My own Jewish community is not immune. There are the familiar moral panic emails about “the Muslims this and the Muslims that”. There are comments made by some, that generalise about “the Muslims”.

The fact that Ibrahim, Mohamed, Donna Jacobs Sife and I presented to a packed room of mostly Jewish people, with Muslims attending as well, speaks volumes. It reflects a thirst for coexistence on the part of the audience and the fact that our aspirations for coexistence are very realistic, as demonstrated by the goodwill of the panellists towards each other. We offered our audience a realistic response - members of different communities can come together with a common purpose, such as, opposing hatred.

Perhaps, what we need is our own version of a serious smoking ceremony. I recently learned from our Aboriginal brothers and sisters how smoke is used to cleanse unwanted energy. I later discovered that, in Judaism, the Hebrew word for smoke,עשן , consists of the first three letters of words that cover the three dimensions of reality - עולם  world or space, שנה year or time, and נפש  soul or spirit. The smoke rising from the incense ritual, elevates and heals all three aspects . Perhaps, this is why, in the aftermath of the Korah controversy, Aaron is instructed to go out among the people carrying incense . At first, he merely restrains the carnage resulting from all the fighting, but then the spiritual force of destruction itself acquiesces and the destruction stops . 

Conclusion: Hate is a powerful, consuming force. I feel it in my stomach when I see it or experience it. Thankfully, I don’t experience it often. More often, I experience the absolute delight of having made a friend, who might have been a potential enemy. This joy and goodwill is reciprocated by my many Muslim friends and by bridge- builders of many backgrounds around the world. Can it continue to be replicated? Yes!

  1. The Torah tells us that Dathan and Aviram reject Moses' invitation to talk. “The eyes of those people will be put out we will still not go up” (16:14); they chose to have their eyes gouged out rather than the ascent Moses might promise them. In this, they revealed the intensity of their hatred towards the righteous Moses and what he represented: this angered Moses greatly (Ohr Hachayim)
  2.  Numbers 16:3
  3.  Midrash Tanchuma, the appointment of Elitzafan Ben Uziel, the son of Korah’s father’s younger brother, in Numbers 3:30 offends Korah.
  4.  See Numbers 16:10, many commentaries
  5.  Rutland, S. (2010) Creating effective Holocaust education programmes for government schools with large Muslim populations in Sydney, Prospects (2010) 40:75–91, Springer Press. 
  6. Ohr Hatora, Shemot, Vol 3, pp. 103, 106, cited in The Siddur Illuminated by Chassidus, Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch 2013.
  7.  Numbers 17:11
  8.  There were two stages in Aaron’s stopping the carnage of the plague that G-d had initiated in the aftermath of Korah’s rebellion. First we are told that וַתֵּעָצַר הַמַּגֵּפָה  “the plague ceased”, when Aaron stands between the dead and the living holding the incense (Numbers 17:13). Two verses later we are told again that the plague ceased וְהַמַּגֵּפָה נֶעֱצָרָה.  The commentary Ohr Hachayim explains that the word “plague” refers to the angel of death administering the plague. The first time the text tells us the plague ceases it means that the angel was merely checked or restrained by Aaron and the power of the incense, but from the angels point of view he was still keen on continuing the plague as this was his mission from God. The second time is different.  Despite the fact that Aaron returned to Moses and that he put away the incense, the plague itself had agreed to cease.