Building a Basis for
Understanding the Middle East in Orange County
By Ann Pepper
L to R: Hussam Ayloush, Rabbis Heidi Cohen and Lawrence
Are "Muslim fanatics"
at the root of Middle East unrest? Is Israel racist in its
policy toward refugees who want to return there? Are there
areas of common ground that could lead to better understanding
between Jews and Muslims in Orange County? Events in the
Middle East resonate here as increasing discomfort –
even animosity – between some. Just days ago the Register
asked self-described moderate leaders in those two communities
– Hussam Ayloush, rabbis Heidi Cohen and Lawrence
Goldmark, and Sheik Yassir Fazaga – who was unable
to attend – to meet for a roundtable discussion. What
could they say to each other and to their communities in
an effort to build trust and understanding?
Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark: I think where we want to start
is with the word "peace." Anything which causes
peace to be postponed in the Middle East or here between
us needs to be addressed.
Rabbi Heidi Cohen: Just that we're able to sit down together,
recognize each other and have discussions together sends
a message to our communities.
Hussam Ayloush: To be successful we need to try to de-emphasize
what I'll call tribalism – my side right or wrong.
Instead, keeping to our shared strong values of justice,
humanity, fairness, compassion … .
Goldmark: You are dealing with American Jews who have political
views toward Israel. Views not based on religious beliefs.
There is no doubt that there are Jews who look at the Middle
East and will say: "Just bomb 'em out." But it
is nowhere near the feeling of the overwhelming majority
of Jews here or in Israel.
Ayloush: From the Muslim perspective, for us, we felt from
the beginning that this is a major misunderstanding in America
– that this is a religious conflict. Because it is
not a religious conflict. At least not for the overwhelming
majority of Muslims. Which isn't to say that there aren't
extremists who use this, make it sound like a religious
war because it is the easiest way to justify the hatred.
Rather than having to go over issues like UN resolutions
or moral rights.
Goldmark: I am not saying it is a political dispute rather
than a religious one. From the Jewish perspective, I believe
we are dealing with Muslim religious fanatics. Are you saying
that we should remove the term "Muslim fanatic"?
Ayloush: I think we need to acknowledge that these conflicts
are about legitimate political grievances. And that the
conflicts in Darfur, Palestine and Chechnya are very different
with different solutions. The conflict in the Middle East
is what, 55 or 60 years old? When did Islamism become a
leading factor in the conflict? In 1983. With the Israeli
invasion of Lebanon, which created Hezbollah. Before that,
how come the Palestinian resistance was mainly Christian?
Was that Christian fundamentalism? The others failed and
the Islamists became more popular in the 1980s. But this
is very nationalistic in Palestine. Two groups of people
fighting over the same piece of land.
Goldmark: Would you be willing to be quoted that you are
opposed to Hamas and Hezbollah's stated goals of destroying
Ayloush: Absolutely. I've been quoted as saying that. But
I add to it that all parties in the Middle East, including
Hamas, Hezbollah and Israel have committed terrorism.
Goldmark: But where I would start, what I want, is recognition
of the inherent right of Israel to exist. Period. I don't
see that on the part of the Arab/Muslim community. I'm saying,
if you have come out and said – I am opposed to the
statement that Israel should be destroyed – and your
organization holds that position, it is where we can start.
Ayloush: But for us, the issue of the 6.5 million refugees
is extremely important. Because if ... for many in the American
Jewish community ... the return of the refugees is tantamount
to the demographic destruction of Israel, I believe that
is a very racist view. That is, if Israel can find room
for a Jew from Russia who has never been there, but not
for others, someone who might still hold the key to their
homes ... .
Cohen: But how do we sit down and talk together? Earlier,
there was a discussion of security in our synagogues, our
mosques and our communities. We have common ground with
these things. We are not going to solve the issues in the
Middle East right now. But in sitting around this table
we can talk about how we coexist here in America and have
respect for each other's communities.
Ayloush: Yes. Eventually the other issues will have to be
dealt with. But I am not going to use the issue of the refugees
as a hindrance to working together on a million other things.
It has taken a long time, and I am being very frank, for
us to understand that the issue of Israel is such a highly
sensitive one for the Jewish community (in America). It
is actually more of a sacred cow than Judaism itself. Maybe
there is a fear that there is no recognition of Israel.
Goldmark: Yes! Fear of the destruction of the state of Israel.
Ayloush: And I have to understand that that is something
that has been a shadow on the discussion maybe. And maybe
there is more need for the local Muslim community to explain
that every poll and every survey that's taken shows people
have accepted the two-state solution.
Cohen: But how are we going to affect the Middle East here?
To be honest, we're not. There's a lot of money and moral
support going over there, but … we are not sitting
at that table.
Goldmark: All we know here in Orange County is that this
is a starting point. There are people here who would not
have walked into this room because one or the other of us
is here. And that shouldn't be forgotten. We are here. Together.
(Courtesy The Orange County Register)