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Susan Leem's picture

Human Connections Matter, Discover Israeli and Pakistani Peers

View on PakistanA Pakistani rickshaw driver waits for customers at a commercial market in Rawalpindi on October 8, 2012. (Photo by Farooq Naeem/AFP/GettyImages) My interest in Pakistan and its people didn't start with politics. Although Pakistan was far away from my Jewish American experience, from the few encounters I had with Pakistani people, I must have instinctively identified — or projected — notions I thought I recognized. Like Israelis and Jews, Pakistanis are also a people with a new country, born of turmoil and trauma (around the same time as Israel) and still under construction. Like Jews living in the diaspora, I gathered that Pakistanis abroad also care passionately about the place where they are not, and struggle to reconcile multiple identities. Their country appeared to me to be a place of contradictions that can perhaps best be described though an epic kaleidoscope fusing history and fantasy. Then there was the Pakistan depicted in the news. At some points during the 1990s, Pakistan came across as a country of stylish, modern Muslim political leaders with putatively democratic intentions, who were sometimes steeped in accusations of corruption. Then for about a decade following 2001, Western media typically focused on Pakistan as a nuclear-armed hotbed of religious extremism. It was never clear to me who truly held power, and the state often seemed to be on the verge of disaster — or embroiled in it. I confess that my knowledge ends there. But the fascination remains. "We are the real Pakistan"Pakistani students take part of a protest against an anti-Islam film after the Friday prayers in front of the Faisal Mosque in Islamabad on September 28, 2012. (Photo by Farooq Naeem/AFP/GettyImages) So when an American colleague told me that two liberal Pakistanis were interested in establishing contact with like-minded Israelis such as those from +972 Magazine, the liberal, independent blog where I write, I jumped at the opportunity. These two Pakistanis, who both live in the West, have provided me with a new window on their country. One is a United States-based scholar of religious fundamentalism. Another is one of the founders, editors, and writers of a liberal, independent blog called Let Us Build Pakistan (LUBP). From our first conversation, I felt we understood each other; surely in part because we felt like peers, who were similarly engaged and passionate about the public affairs of each country. Our conversations have the broad goal of learning more about one another's political, social, and cultural realities, and possibly sharing those realities with our readers through our blogs. Geographically scattered, we have met only on Skype. Yet even this limited channel allows me to pursue a more nuanced mapping of the socio-political environment of Pakistan than mainstream Western media offer. I find it refreshing to speak with like-minded people facing similar challenges in the country they are trying to build. For example, we are both critical of state policies we believe to be destructive. But our young societies often react to such criticism defensively. We are commonly treated with suspicion or even hostility by the political and social establishment — which perpetuates those very policies. Another realization was that all of us are deeply troubled by the alliance of religious extremists with the military establishment and political leaders in Pakistan, a phenomenon which is unfortunately familiar for me: this is precisely how Israel has established and entrenched the occupation of Palestinian territory since 1967. To this day, Israel's justification of the Occupation rests on a mixture of security concerns, religious grounds, and the notion that the internal political costs of concession are too high for Israeli leaders. The struggle against state-reinforced militarism is another towering issue for my Pakistani colleagues, just as the entrenched militarism of Israeli life is an on-going source of sadness for me. My Pakistani colleagues feel that mainstream international media has not sufficiently covered human rights abuses in Pakistan, such as the worsening assault on the Shia population, bemoaned by many Pakistanis. Similarly, we at +972 Magazine felt that crucial topics about the Occupation and other aspects of life in Israel were not being covered due to commercial or political unpopularity. Nonetheless, despite all these shared troubles, our conversations have made me optimistic. Ultimately it is our mutual commitment to universal values — human rights, democracy, and freedom of expression — that has brought us all together. We are learning from each other about the role these values can play in addressing the separate challenges we face. Beyond these universal values, I also harbor a certain hope in regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After a fresh phase of horrific faith-based violence, relations between at least parts of the Muslim world and the West seem to be at a precipice. Israel — and its relationship to Palestine — is so often the epicentre. At such a time, I feel that every constructive human connection counts.
Dahlia ScheindlinDahlia Scheindlin is an independent public opinion researcher and political strategist, as well as a doctoral candidate and lecturer at Tel Aviv University. She blogs at +972 Magazine. This article was published by the Common Ground News Service on October 2, 2012. Copyright permission is granted for publication.
Susan Leem's picture

Religious and Secular Identity in Berlin

Brandenburg GateHistory meets modernity at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany. Photo by Sebastian Niedlich/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0

Several recent incidents in Berlin have escalated tensions between Muslims, Jews, and the city's secular majority. Over a month ago, Rabbi Daniel Saltera rabbi wearing a kippa, or yarmulke, was beaten by four "Arab-looking" youths after being asked if he and his daughter were Jewish. Public outcry led to a large demonstration in support of Berlin's Jews, including a flash mob of Jews and non-Jews wearing kippot. Tensions escalated days later when a second incident, in which Jewish school girls were harassed by a group of youths that included a girl wearing a head scarf, led to an exchange of harsh words between Jewish and Muslim leaders, though in neither case were the attackers caught or identified definitively. After being advised to urge greater religious tolerance, Muslim leaders denied responsibility for the attacks and pointed out their own experiences of intolerance in the city. Then on Yom Kippur, two more anti-Semitic incidents took place — the first when a young white man threatened a local Jewish leader and told him to go back where he came from, and the second when a mother and her daughter were forced out of a taxi after telling the "German" driver they were going to synagogue. Diedre Berger of the Berlin office of the American Jewish Committee has now intervened, asking the German government to develop an action plan to combat anti-Semitism. Meanwhile, a contrasting alliance between Jews and Muslims has formed in the aftermath of a regional court ruling against circumcision. Government and religious leaders, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, have denounced it and announced plans to create government regulations allowing circumcisions to be performed. And in Berlin, a demonstration against the case featured Jewish and Muslim leaders "united for circumcision," according to a headline in the Tageszeitung. Religious leaders at the demonstration welcomed the chance to work together — despite current tensions — against what they consider to be the greater adversary of secular intolerance toward religion. It was against this background that public attention shifted to the global conflict over the anti-Islamic film, The Innocence of Muslims. In Berlin, right-wing nationalists announced plans to bring American pastor Terry Jones to Berlin for a showing of the anti-Muslim film, but the government blocked his visit, and the event did not take place. Observant Jews and Muslims constitute small minorities in Berlin, though people of Turkish descent number around a quarter of a million. The Jewish community of Berlin has about 11,000 active members, a fraction of the city's total Jewish population. Self-identified Christians are more numerous, but even they are greatly outnumbered by non-practicing and unaffiliated Berliners. In a city famous for decadent nightclubs and countercultural artists, religion has become a kind of curiosity. The recent "Long Night of Religions" featured open houses at sixty-five different religious organizations, ranging from Buddhist and Muslim to Quaker and Sikh. A smaller event featuring Christians in particular, the Berlin Festival of Churches (with an appearance by pop-star-turned-Christian Nina Hagen) followed two weeks later. All of these stories have received significant attention in local and national media. But "religious" issues can only be understood in the larger context of "secularized" Berlin. What other factors divide and unite Berliners? How do conflicts and alliances between religious minorities reflect dynamics within the majority? Political, economic, social, generational, and aesthetic divisions are obvious, but economic and cultural indicators suggest that the greater sources of division remain the Cold War and the two World Wars in which Berlin was a geographic and political center. Berliner Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) identified the culture of distraction as a key political feature of modern life. Debates over how to memorialize the past, renovate neighborhoods and public places, and manage economic changes preoccupy Germans ambivalent about the image and swelling budget of their capital city. It is no wonder that a city so burdened with history succeeds so well at providing diversions, from new beach volleyball venues to all-night techno parties. But without a broad discussion of German and Berliner identity, the status of minorities here remains uncertain, leading Jewish leader Charlotte Knoblauch to ask, "Do you still want us Jews?" For residents still grappling with a catastrophic modern history, the concerns of Jewish and Muslim minorities could either serve as an interesting distraction or a chance to examine the markers and dynamics of "secular" identity in Berlin.


Brian BrittBrian Britt is a professor in the Department of Religion and Culture at Virginia Tech. His most recent book is Biblical Curses and the Displacement of Tradition. He is currently a guest fellow at the Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung in Berlin working on a book about Walter Benjamin and religion. This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Trent Gilliss's picture

O Women, Won’t You Be Our Windows

Space That Sees by James Turrell"Space That Sees" by James Turrell at the Israel Museum. Photo by Lisa Motro

Jewish law requires that all synagogues have windows. We’re not supposed to pray in separation from the world; we’re supposed to pray with the world, conscious of its cycles, in a space that invites connection with them. Unfortunately, most authorities interpret this rule as permitting synagogues to have windows that never open — windows that seal congregants in an air-conditioned bubble, even on days when outdoor temperatures are moderate. Synagogues, like other houses of worship, are no different from the majority of our secular spaces. Our default building methods presume round-the-clock mechanical air circulation — windows do not open, and natural cooling designs like cross-ventilation, high ceilings, porches, and recessed doors and windows are quaint rarities. The official guided tour of Washington DC’s National Building Museum, built in 1887 and inspired by Michelangelo’s church architecture, features the building’s ventilation system literally as a museum piece. Visitors are informed that the building’s great hall was designed to “create a healthful building with plenty of fresh air” — but in step with the times, the days of natural airflow there too are gone. Like many Jews, my only visits to synagogue are during the High Holy Days, which begin next week with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. This is also one of the periods when the ubiquity of air conditioning saddens me most. It saddens me because of the sheer waste. It saddens me because I like to wear white linen to usher in the holiday and walk to services carrying nothing, rather than packing layers fit for the tundra as I do when I go to the office, the megaplex, or the airport. And it saddens me because sealed windows separate me from the signs and wonders with which nature beckons me to contemplate the very same lessons that are at the heart of what Rosh Hashanah is all about. For me, this is a holiday that is centrally about the cycles of life. On eve of Rosh Hashanah, we eat round rather than braided challah bread. We pray to be written in the book of life, recognizing that we are only passing through on this earth, that the length of our stay is out of our hands. We offer gratitude for each of the gifts with which we have been graced, apologize for taking them for granted and for any harm we may have caused, and promise to do our best to take better care. Is there a season that more aptly reminds us of these most universal of teachings? The smell of crushed leaves. The shortening of days. The air that doesn’t know what it wants to be — dry one moment, cool the next, like a balmy lake with icy flows that tickle your toes. The sky when it turns into a luminous cobalt dome, infinite but somehow also sheltering. The Hebrew sources speak of chupat shamayiim, the canopy of the heavens. Since 2001, when I wake up and see this ethereal shade of blue, a shade that appears only now, in September, the words that flit across my mind are: it’s a 9/11 day.

Desert Rainbow over the Dead SeaRainbow over the Dead Sea. Photo by Lisa Motro

Autumn invites us to surrender to the fact that all things come to an end, and to hold this truth with tenderness, with awe. So as I swaddle myself in my woolen layers — in synagogue, at work, in the supermarket — I wonder whether I am the only one who dreams of a world with open windows. Is 24/7, year-round conditioned air really a choice that we as a society actively made, or did it creep up on us? Who wants this? The AC lobby? The military industrial complex? Or perhaps this is a gender issue? For one, women are generally more sensitive to cold than men. More importantly perhaps, and here I’ll speak only for myself, my growing appreciation for nature’s cycles coincided with the acceptance and even delight I discovered when I started paying attention to the changing moods and rhythms of my own cycle. Ani Difranco begins one of her songs with these lines:

Somethin' about this landscape just don't feel right, Hyper-air-conditioned, and lit up all night. Like we just gotta see how comfortable comfortable can get, Like we can't even bring ourselves to sweat.

The song goes on to tie over-airconditioning with consumerism, conformism, and pollution. It ends with a call to women. “O women, won't you be our windows,” sings Ani. “Show us we are connected to everything. Show us we are not separate from everything.” Some see Judaism as an essentially patriarchal religion. Like all religions, it has many faces. The Judaism I am drawn to puts love of women and love of nature at its center. It gives us words and customs that can help us practice non-attachment and humility, to see ourselves not as masters but as stewards. Rosh Hashanah starts on the new moon. It is the darkest night of the month, but also the time when the stars shine at their brightest. We can still catch a glimpse of the show if we turn off the lights even from inside our air-conditioned bubbles, but a different sort of communion is available when we revel at the constellations while breathing with the night.
Shari MotroShari Motro is a professor of law at the University of Richmond. She is currently on sabbatical in Jerusalem, where she is working on a book based on her article "Why I Left Israel, and Why I'm Going Home."
Trent Gilliss's picture

Reading to Frankie in a Sacred Space

Abingdon Square, West VillagePhoto by Brian DeFeo

Three years ago, on the ninth anniversary of 9/11, my friend Frankie began losing her mind. The cancer steadily worked its way through her brain, though she remained conscious and aware almost to the end. This is a day for remembrances. But even on a big day, there are other things that happen, known to few. These are opportunities for quiet contemplation — a private, sacred space amid larger, more public, observations of mourning. It was Frankie’s third encounter with the disease. First, there was breast cancer. Then it moved into her reproductive organs, with long rounds of chemo and radiation. She and I volunteered at the same meditation center, and it seemed a small thing to lend a hand, especially since I was just a few blocks from her in Williamsburg, Brooklyn: picking up groceries, doing a bit of laundry. Frankie lived in a second-floor room of a brick house on the verge of ruin, run by the Addams family. Frankie was a painter who grew up in an intellectual Jewish family. One brother went mad, dying in an institution, and the second stopped speaking to her. A sister phoned intermittently from far away, talking only of herself. When I started helping her, Frankie was working on a series of stamp-sized watercolors because that was all she could manage. When I admired the tiny paintings, she said I could have one. Frankie learned I was a writer and asked me to read to her from my book. I had written a novel and, like most authors, could barely stand a word from my own pages; it felt like being trapped in traffic in a carload of people with whom I’d spent far too much time already — siblings or coworkers, all of us on a road we’d been down before. Against my better judgment, I started reading. Frankie closed her eyes and listened. Her cats, terrified of strangers, sat under the bed. I read of an Asian American family in Ohio, of a trip to China. Later, Frankie would tell people that she loved the sound of my voice. Months went by. I carried gallons of lemon-lime Gatorade up the stairs; it was one of the few things that didn’t make her nauseous. We became friends. She told me to keep writing, and I believed her. But Frankie also infuriated me. I learned that she was alone and had no money due to a series of bad decisions, which she continued to make. She was a terrible procrastinator, not wanting to do boring work though she needed the money; she wanted her mother and father to swoop in and save her though she was almost 70, her parents long dead. When she got better, she still wanted me to read from my book, but I put my foot down. “You’re a big girl,” I told her. “You can finish it yourself.” Yet the bookmark remained in the place where her cancer went into remission. I realize now that I wanted her to finish the book — for me. I wanted her to try, to make an effort. But she didn’t and, after several years, became ill again, going quickly into hospice. When I visited, we just sat. I held her hand. She would wake, greet me with pleasure, then slip away again as though under a tranquil sea. When she died, two of Frankie’s old friends came from New Mexico and, along with her health care proxy, cleared out the apartment, taking away her paintings and ashes for safekeeping. They put down the surviving cat, which was very sick and frightened. I never got the little watercolor she’d wanted me to have, and I don’t know what happened to the copy of my book. So on this day of remembrances, I have my own private one and my own sacred space: of being with Frankie in the cool autumn twilight in Abingdon Square, West Village, on our last outing together. I had signed her out of the nursing home, and we sat on a park bench across the street, watching a multitude of dogs go by. “I love this light,” she said. It’s fitting, I think, that Frankie never found out what happened at the end of the book. That way, in her mind, all things are possible, even in the face of the unimaginable. I’ve added my sacred space to the Asian American Arts Alliance’s Locating the Sacred Festival project. What's yours?
Andrea LouieAndrea Louie is the author of a novel, Moon Cakes, and co-author of an anthology, Topography of War: Asian American Essays. She is executive director of the Asian American Arts Alliance.

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