I am a bit sickened after reading one of the lead articles in the World Section of Tuesday's New York Times. It focuses on a fire that erupted in a mosque in the West Bank town of Luban al-Sharkiyeh. Israeli authorities are now investigating the cause of this fire. According to the New York Times, Palestinians say they are certain extremist Israeli settlers are responsible for this.
I work in the field of Intercultural Communications. Over and over again, I listen to people outside the field address my Muslim colleagues asking, "Where are the moderate Muslim voices? How come I never hear from you? Why are the terrorists making all the headlines?" In this instance, I feel like the roles have been reversed. Sadly, I will not be surprised if the investigation finds that extremist Israeli settlers initiated this fire. In December, a mosque in the West Bank town of Yasuf was attacked by arsonists. Last month, a mosque in Hawara was vandalized with a Star of David and Hebrew letters spray-painted upon a wall. I hope I am wrong, but these two prior cases force me to consider otherwise.
I am now the moderate voice responding to the questions my Muslim colleagues' receive. Let me be loud and clear in my answer: I am disgusted by this behavior and sickened by these acts. I may share some of the same religious beliefs as these fanatical settlers, but I do not share their values and love of violence. What breaks us apart is stronger than what ties us together.
People are often shocked when they hear Muslim responses to their questions. I can't count the number of times I have seen this scenario unfold. Dr. Ingrid Mattson, Director of the Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, will answer that moderate Muslims are speaking. Unfortunately, it's now time for the moderate Jewish voices to join this discussion.
It is difficult for me to understand how people do not see the larger implications of their actions. Let's assume the Israeli investigation finds out extremist settlers initiated this fire. Palestinians will no doubt be inflamed, as they should be. Chances are high there will be a retaliatory act. The Israeli-Palestinian cycle of violence continues just as indirect negotiations are slated to begin again next week.
Leaders need to reach out to the extremist elements in their communities to offer an alternative voice and perspective to the violent methods they employ. You would be hard-pressed to find a Jewish text that permits the destruction of a mosque. Rabbis should use this as a starting point to engage fundamentalist settlers within their own communities.
For exactly this reason, I am a firm believer in person-to-person dialogue. By having an encounter with someone from a different religious or ethnic background, one may experience a change in the way one feels about the "other." More of these encounters need to happen. As a practitioner in the field, I am aware of conferences and gatherings that work to promote intercultural dialogue and peace. Often, they result in changed views and long time friendships.
However transformational these experiences are, they are not sufficient to promote moderate voices outside the field. For such voices to be heard, the dialogue needs to be expanded. Moderates must project their voices to those in positions of power. Fortunately, U.S. President Barack Obama seems willing to initiate and engage in such discussions. By creating the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, he has begun to expand the dialogue by advancing the moderate voice. This will allow policy-makers to interact with moderates, which may in turn lead them to create legislation that represents this perspective.
No matter what your religious belief, there are a wide range of practices and norms. Maybe for some it's normal to deface a building. For me, it's ludicrous behavior and has nothing to do with the Jewish values that I strive to uphold. I want to make sure that others know these voices exist. These particular extremists do not represent us all. I am equally as sickened by this action, and want to see its perpetrators prosecuted.
I once heard a powerful phrase in a beautiful film entitled Land Called Paradise, produced by Muslim youth: "Hijackers stole my religion." Are they now starting to steal mine too?