The “Other Views” section of the Feb. 28 edition of the Detroit Jewish News ran a guest column by a 2002 high school graduate from West Bloomfield. She’s in Israel this year, studying at a Yeshiva, and wrote a piece called “The Sweet Sound of Zmirot” – a reference to her Sabbath experience at Jerusalem’s Western Wall.
What she felt at the wall, however, was dominated by an abstract interaction – not with Judaism, but with Islam and Christianity, the two Abrahamic religions which also deeply color the Old City.
What she felt was largely stirred by the sounds she had heard. As she began to pray, “From the mosque above me, perched upon the Temple Mount, comes the low, sonorous call to prayer … The sound that surrounds me takes my mind back through history, from the present conflict to the centuries before, years of oppression at the hands of Ottoman rulers; even before that. …”
As the sounds from the mosque dissolve, “a new voice arises … The bells of the churches are ringing … They seem unusually loud today, strangely menacing … I see in my mind’s eye the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and the most recent purgatory (sic) of the Jewish nation, the Holocaust.”
I first read this article at a friend’s kitchen table, sharing my irritation and exasperation at erratic intervals as I quoted from what I perceived to be an egregious immaturity and ignorance in the piece. For me, this girl had thoroughly missed the point of perhaps the most remarkable and wonderful city block in the world.
Last August, I had the chance to watch the sun set on Friday evening from the Kotel Plaza at the Western Wall. With me in my group were seven other college newspaper editors – none of us Jewish and most of us uneasy that afternoon in anticipation of what we would see after we had passed through security. In our minds, such a holy and foreign site cultivated new kinds of nerves.
But then we were there and it was a place, not like any other but still far less spiritually intimidating than most of us had expected. We saw the boys from the Yeshivas come dancing down, singing the Zmirot referenced in the Detroit Jewish News article. As we left, we heard the call to prayer echo through the Old City – a sound I thought I knew with some familiarity after a summer in 90 percent-Muslim Dakar, Senegal, but which entirely redefined itself for me as it echoed over the buildings of Jerusalem stone, illuminated by the sunset.
I was aggravated that this girl had written a piece that betrayed such distaste for other religions – that in hearing the holy sounds of minarets and church bells her first and dominant reaction was one of sadness, shaded with distaste and even contempt for the presence of two substantial and established religious communities.
In the same issue, Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, noted in another special commentary column, “Where Terrorists Hide,” that three of the eight men indicted in Florida as supporters of Palestinian Islamic Jihad: “Their arrests reveal to what extent Middle East studies is a field that serves as an extension of the region’s radicalism.” Perhaps we should be suspect of professors in our own Department of Near Eastern Studies or of Middle Eastern and North African Studies? Of students taking Arabic?
Another column registered that Israeli checkpoints are preventing some Palestinian Muslims from making the hajj to the “sacred sites” in Mecca. With “sacred sites” in quotation marks – sarcastic and completely inappropriate.
On the flip side of the issue, I read in the Daily’s online forum a response to another response to the article “Students react to, question Al-Arian arrest” (02/21/03) – about the charging of Sami Al-Arian, a former professor who spoke at October’s divestment conference, as being the U.S. head and international secretary of PIJ. The initial response had come from a student who equated those defending Al-Arian with terrorists.
To that, an anonymous LSA junior replied: “No one is questioning this except those people who see the truth, which is the most frightening aspect of it all. The exploitation of the public’s fear by the government is so blatantly obvious as to be almost morbidly ludicrous. History will look back at this era with disgust and shame at how this country treated its own citizens.”
At the same time that the Detroit Jewish News runs a “we told you so” article, others, also entirely polarized along ethnic lines, are jumping in the opposite direction, declaring a total stranger’s innocence.
The political climate here is intense; in a fascinating way so much of what we feel springs from the situation – matsav or naqba, depending on who you are and whether you seek euphemism or caricature, thousands of miles and two continents away. But now, perhaps like always, careless and hurtful words are coming out of good people – people who are our friends and family, and people for whom we want to have higher standards. A change in the zero-sum game mentality can only happen as a reflection – when we’re no longer mirroring the currents of an equally dangerous zero-sum word game.
Hanink is a former Daily editorial page editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .