Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Why would someone do this? Part II

I am sure that most of the readers of this blog are aware of the “Anti-Israeli Apartheid Week” sponsored by the Muslim Student Union that takes place annually at UC Irvine which features speakers and activists who typically speak against Israeli treatment of Palestinians. I am not here to speak on the merit or lack of merit of such an effort or to speak to the very real issues raised by that situation. (There are those on all sides who would do a far better job than I would. I would encourage folks to seek the truth wherever it can be found. You Google at your own peril). I have evolving opinions about what has and what will go on at UCI but I prefer to dialogue directly with the folks involved in all sides of the issue. It is not my purpose to do so here.

Nevertheless, about 4 years ago I heard about these events. I was told that Muslim students staged an anti-Semitic Hate Week and that UCI was the worst of the worst. Irvine? Irvine was now the epicenter of the worldwide campus anti-Semitic jihad? Truthfully, I found it hard to imagine such a thing and so I went to see for myself. I am not sure what I expected to find. I teach high school. I am not Jewishly uneducated. I have an easy rapport with college kids (I think I may be a little immature somehow). I know a little about Islam. All of that would qualify me to go to UCI, as an adult to talk to young adults. That is where my head was at.

I went to UCI and there it was “The Wall” plastered with pictures, some of them bloody and all of them damning of Zionism and the State of Israel. There were a group of Jews from the community looking upset and uncomfortable and a few Muslim students, girls in hijab looking helpful and handing out flyers and a some young men with short hair and trimmed beards looking protective (some would say menacing, I wouldn’t) and mostly Asian students looking apathetic and/or clueless. I approached one of the young Muslim men and said, “Assalamu aleikkum, So, I heard about all this and I came to check it out. So what is this all about? I am an religious guy not a political guy, so talk to me about religious stuff.” The protectiveness melted right away and we began to talk. The boys talked about their sense responsibility for the Umma (Heb. Am), the community of Muslims. They talked about G-d’s love of justice. We talked about what I found offensive at the wall and why. We talked about the emphasis both Judaism and Islam puts on not just what you say but how you say it. They asked pretty insightful questions about Judaism and where Zionism fits into it. It wasn’t just a “let’s all be friends” event. It was honest talk between sincere people. I attended all of the events that week as I have for the last 4 years. I have also gone to other events, classes, lectures and get-togethers. I believe that I may be the only Jewish person to do so. It has been a good choice.

These past few years, I have gotten to know a remarkable group of very committed young people. Young Muslims dedicated to their own spiritual lives, struggling with a college party-culture which is not exactly conducive to piety, to creating a family-style home away from home for fellow students and to political activism. While the political activism is the most media-worthy piece of the pie, it is certainly not the biggest. I have been treated with a tremendous amount of respect. (The grey beard?) I have learned a lot about Islam from the students and they have learned about Judaism. We listen to one another. Some have joined us at the Shabbat table. A few have become family. (You know who you are!)

In the eye of the storm, in the midst of an admittedly difficult and contentious situation at UCI, I have come to see how much religious Jews and Muslims have in common. It turns out that the Muslim students at UCI are not cardboard cutouts, they are kids with different names, backgrounds and opinions. They do some great stuff. They make some colossal mistakes. And we Jews are not cardboard cutouts either. I have seen that when you humanize “the other”, the other humanizes you back. After a while, while difference persists “otherness” fades. The old man in the picture that my friend carries on his cell phone is not a generic “Muslim Cleric,” he is a beloved and much-missed grandfather and source of wisdom. To those who come to my house for Shabbat meals I am not just a Jew with a big beard, I am a person with a sense of humor who likes to sing. This blog is an invitation to that world.


  1. Thanks for this great article! I was a former student at UCI and I remember you coming to some of our events, and was appreciative of that fact. I didn't get to meet you in person and now I regret that fact. Please spread what you know to the greater Jewish community and those willing to listen!

  2. Tzvi Weissman is changing the world, one soul at a time. Much hipper than your average chassid, he listens carefully, and you are well-advised to listen when he speaks. Lee teaches tolerance and love for all Hashem's children, and leads by example. We are all richer for his generous sharing of his important, well-informed views herein. Please keep teaching us, Brother.