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Close encounters

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Talking about tough subjects and relationships 
10/28/2011

Jane Charney photo 

Schmoozing is part of my job description. I go to breakfasts, lunches, dinners and events in between to meet people. I build coalitions. I form new relationships and maintain existing ones.

My job stems from the American Jewish Committee’s longstanding belief that as a small minority in America, we Jews can only ensure our full participation in society, with all the rights and privileges that go along with that, if other minority groups enjoy the same rights and privileges. That’s the impetus for a lot of our diplomatic outreach, too: In addition to working with Chicago’s ethnic and religious communities, I’ve been getting to know Consuls General from Latin American countries (those years of Spanish are paying off!).

I meet people on their ground. Sometimes, I’m the first Jewish person they meet. Sometimes, I’m the next representative of an organization they know and respect. Mostly, the setting is cordial. We discuss political issues, but rarely do we get into outright arguments.

Which leads me to the question I’ve been mulling for the past couple of months: If we have a relationship but choose to avoid some subjects (the hard-hitting topics, for example), is it truly an equal relationship?

A couple of months ago, I listened to Eboo Patel, the founder and president of the Interfaith Youth Core, talk about the state of Muslim-Jewish relations in America. He spoke movingly about the most recent collaboration between Muslims and Jews – last year’s Cordoba Center debate and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s impassioned defense of the “Ground Zero Mosque” (largely going against his party and his closest advisers). Cordoba, of course, calls to mind another era of Muslim-Jewish collaboration: the Center chose the name of the capital of the Al-Andalus Caliphate, whose rule marked the “Golden Age” of Muslim-Jewish relations in Spain between the eighth and tenth centuries when the two communities lived side by side in relative peace and made great contributions to the advancement of science, philosophy, medicine and culture.

Patel also pointed out that Jews and Muslims share many qualities: a deep connection to their history; an enduring set of values; a historical connection to the Middle East; a focus on family. The gist of Patel’s talk centered on finding safe ground, talking about successful collaborative efforts beyond the high-profile Cordoba case – such as an Iftar in the Synagogue, an increasingly popular event in which Muslims and Jews engage in their respective prayer and join for a festive meal celebrating the end of the Ramadan fast for the day.

And yet, the 800-pound gorilla remained all but invisible. Of course, Muslims and Jews have much more to talk about beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Recognizing the myriad of existing opinions on the subject, it’s easy to choose to ignore it completely, to skirt the issue. But it’s engaging in debate on the difficult questions that tests the relationship and takes it to the next level.

The situation in the Middle East, with all its nuances, is not a topic for the first meeting. It might not even be a topic for the fifth or tenth encounter. But there has to be an understanding that eventually we will reach a level of cool-headedness and mutual respect – if not complete understanding – that would permit us to actually talk about the tiny speck of land in the Middle East that so many of us are so passionate about without getting into stereotypes and hateful speech and devolving into complete chaos.

As Jews, we are taught to welcome the stranger because “we were once strangers in a strange land.” As I schmooze my way through life, I keep this maxim close to my heart. Yes, we might disagree on pretty much everything. But we can do it respectfully. And we can still engage with each other regardless of the disagreement.

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