Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A mixture of thoughts

In France Interior Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie has been in overdrive trying to prevent the conflict in the Middle East from spreading to France, which is one of the few European countries to have both a large Arab population and a (relatively) large Jewish population (the UK is the other). I attended a rally in support of Israel Sunday morning in the park by a tree planted in memory of Itzhak Rabin. There were some inspiring speeches, including one from an Israeli diplomat. I have the feeling the French press is starting to understand Israel and the Jewish community a little better, but it's a slow process.

After the rally S. and I toured the main mosque in Lyon. The visit had been arranged between the mosque and one of Lyon's reform synagogues several weeks ago, and it was decided to go ahead with it, despite the recent events. It was a wonderful experience. The people were very warm, and the mosque is beautiful. Our guide explained some of the basics of Islam in a straightforward manner. I told him how to say a couple of things in Hebrew and he was so appreciative. All the visitors went away feeling they had learned something important. The synagogue and the mosque also arrange regular get-togethers between Muslim women and Jewish women. The women have discussions, or they invite a speaker. Mostly, they just get to know each other. I wish we could have more moments like that, because here too, there isn't much mixing between the two communities. Deep down I think most people want peace, mutual respect and understanding, but the radical elements put such pressure on the ordinary people. I know that Arab-Jewish discussion groups exist in Israel, too, because I hear about them every now and then when I'm riding in the car listening to Radio Judaica Lyon, but it's rare that I hear or read about them in any other media.

Following the wedding of S.'s friend's son in Jerusalem, we celebrated the "shabbat chatan" in the hotel with our friends' families. During one of the meals I left the group, who were singing Jewish songs, to fill up my plate at the buffet tables. As I walked past a group of Christian pilgrims in the other part of the dining room, one of the men made the sign of the cross over himself before eating. Meanwhile, all of the people working in the hotel were Arab. You find this mixture in other countries, too, but there's something special about it in Israel, in Jerusalem, thanks to Israel's policy of open access to religious sites. Wouldn't it be wonderful if the three religions could always co-exist in such harmony?

I read a wonderful book last year, called "Three Cups of Tea". It's about an American who survives a failed attempt to climb K2, one of the highest peaks in the Himalayas, only because of the hospitality of the local people in the northern reaches of Pakistan. After that experience, he decides to devote his life to building schools in that region. He realizes that it is most important to educate girls. Whereas educated boys move away from their remote mountain villages when they grow up, the women become the cement of the local community. They become nurses and engineers and teachers. They have fewer children. They cause the general socio-economic level to rise. But there are so many cultural and religious impediments to this process.

The Palestinians as a people have made so many tragically bad decisions. They have had a painful lack of good leaders. And they still haven't understood that they must take their destiny into their own hands. They must stop crying "Help us!" to the world and help themselves. And they have a powerful weapon: the womb. In the short run this will make them more numerous, but in the long run it will work against them, because the faster the population grows, the harder it will be for them to climb out of poverty. After September 11, 2001, when people were wondering why Islamic terrorists had attacked the United States, B., who was seven at the time, said, "Maybe they're jealous."

Anyway, I know "our" side of the story pretty well, but I know very little about the other side, about what Arab people feel and believe, as individuals.

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