BOSTON — Among Muslims and Jews — even those who are close friends — there are subjects they just don’t discuss. Zionism and the Israeli-Palestinian fight for the same land are at the top of the list.
But a small, self-selected group of Muslims and Jews, who have been meeting monthly since November, decided they were ready to ride this third rail… for one meeting. They sit in a circle at Temple Hillel B’nai Torah in West Roxbury and begin with ground rules:
- Unlike a debate, there is no need to prove ourselves right or the other person wrong.
- Speak for yourself, not for others.
- Engage by doing what works for you.
“And if it becomes emotional for you, feel free to get up, walk around, go outside for a minute,” offers co-facilitator Jeff Stone.
Among these 22 men and women, there are a few more Jews than Muslims. They launch their first attempt to talk about an issue that has divided their people for generations with introductions and a hope for the evening.
“My name is Merle Wolofsky. I live in Allston. I am a committed Zionist and I’m hoping that I can convey why I am.”
“I’m Amine Yakine from Malden. I would share with you how Zionism has impacted Arab and Muslim thinking and realities since the inception of the state of Israel in 1948.”
“I’m Claudia Harris from Roslindale. I am so proud that we are here, Muslims and Jews together, to talk for a whole evening about a topic that I have not spent a whole evening talking to Jews about because it is so painful and divisive.”
“So now, I’m going to record your definitions of Zionism, just to get some thoughts up on paper,” Stone says. He’s walking to an easel when Mohamed Khafif calls out “apartheid” from the back of the room. Several Jews wince, but they don’t challenge him — yet.
“It’s a belief that Zion is the cradle and nourishment of the Jewish people,” Wolofsky says. She and others talk about a Jewish yearning to return to Zion, the land that both Palestinians and Jews claim as their homeland.
“It [Zionism] was the hope of getting back there that kept us as a people together for 2,000 years when we had nowhere to come together, other than in our hopes and our prayers,” Wolofsky says.
“Jews and Palestinians have been traumatized by what we’ve been through and trauma usually renders people in pretty bad shape morally and behaviorally.”
“Historically I think it was a belief in a Jewish homeland,” says Nachama Katz, offering what she calls a more contemporary, political view. “Today, I think it’s a belief that the state of Israel has the right to exist.”
“Zionism, to me, it’s a contradiction,” Abdellah Benchikhi says. “It’s allowing a group of people a homeland while denying a group of people a homeland. So if you happen to be Jewish, then Israel or the land of Palestine is yours. While if you are an inhabitant of that land, then by virtue of not being Jewish, then you are no longer welcome there.”
Larry Diamond says Jews have an opportunity, now, to form a new definition of Zionism that will acknowledge Palestinians.
“Both peoples in the Middle East absolutely have a right to a homeland, and the injustices that were created, which many of you have pointed out from 1948 on, are very painful to me,” Diamond says.
Diamond and his wife, Linda Chernick, say they were shaken by a trip to Israel in 2008 trip that felt dominated by armed guards and tight security.
“We were seeing the wall and I’m thinking, ‘This is not the dream,’ ” Chernick remembers, her voice shaking. “The reality here on the ground is so far apart from the dream that maybe we have to rethink this whole thing.”
Serena Shapiro says her struggle with Zionism and Israel today stems, in part, from her history as the child of a Holocaust survivor.
“I have this part in me that knows my relatives were slaughtered because they were Jewish, and they had no place to go at that time,” Shapiro says. “But I feel like Zionism has done a lot of harm in the world today.”
Adnane Benali asks why Jews who know the pain of the Holocaust would inflict so much pain on Palestinians?
“There’s a lot of upright Jews and a lot of upright Muslims, there’s a lot of power, there’s a lot we can achieve.”
“They are going through the same trauma that you are trying to, that you are envisioning could happen to you,” Benali says, “but it’s happening right now to them.”
Wolofsky responds, arguing that Jews and Palestinians have both been displaced over the centuries, many times.
“There’s been umpteen people thrown out of their homes, it just goes back and forth,” Wolofsky says. “I just know that somewhere in this world I have as much right to exist as you do and to feel safe and secure somewhere, that’s it.”
Across the room, Marc Gurvitch weighs in on Benali’s question.
“I’m a psychiatric nurse by profession,” Gurvitch says. “When you look at a child abuser, what is their experience, they’ve been abused as a child. Jews and Palestinians have been traumatized by what we’ve been through and trauma usually renders people in pretty bad shape morally and behaviorally.”
One of the ground rules for this discussion is to talk about Zionism as a personal issue, and not to try to resolve the historic debate. But Amine Yakine says Zionism is a historic concept that will require a historic solution. He launches into a review of Jewish history in the Middle East, including discussions about where to establish a Jewish homeland.
“The idea of modern day Zionism, as it was elaborated and articulated after the Dreyfus Affair in ‘Der Judenstaat’ by Theodore Herzel,” Yakine begins. “He, in a letter to the leader of the Jewish community, I forgot his name [it was] in Odessa…”
Yakine goes on to describe political differences among prominent Jews over the years about Israel. Leslie Belay, from Jamaica Plain, says those differences continue.
“The real fight over Zionism today is among American Jews,” Belay says.
But Belay hopes to revive a definition of Zionism that will include peace with the Palestinians.
“So what should we do next, what are the next steps for us as a Jewish and Muslim community here?” asks Zouheir Yakine, the other group facilitator. He has an idea, based on the story of a leading rabbi who urged President Bush not to demonize all Muslims after Sept. 11.
“So, there’s a lot of upright Jews and a lot of upright Muslims, there’s a lot of power, there’s a lot we can achieve,” Yakine says, his voice shaking.
Some members of this group take up Yakine’s call to shift from talking about what divides Muslims and Jews to a discussion about how this group can unite as a political force. That possibility is the glimmer of hope some of these Jews and Muslims take with them as they close a meeting they describe as painful, frustrating, encouraging and difficult, but also, courageous.