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Arab Students Meet Jews and Judaism Head On

August 5, 2010 By:
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Egyptian students Mahmoud Nounou and Sarah Shiha discuss Judaism and Israel at Temple University during a U.S. government-sponsored program focusing on religious pluralism.
Dressed in a hijab, Sarah Shiha, a 22-year-old Egyptian who hopes to one day preach the Koran on the airwaves, declares a desire to study Torah. But before her recent visit to Philadelphia, she'd never even met a Jew.

Now, after participating in a five-week seminar on democracy and religious pluralism for students from the Arab world that included several encounters with Jewish people, she said that she hopes to combine her study of mass communications, an in-depth knowledge of Islam, and a grasp of other religions to serve as a bridge between Muslims and those of other faiths.

"I can talk with anyone now," she said. "Apart from the political issues, we are humans. I respect your religion, you respect mine."

Still, changes in attitudes only go so far.

When asked if her encounter with Jews and Judaism had affected her views about Israel, Shiha, a student at Ain Shams University in Cairo, stated in crisp English that the words "Israel" and "Zionism" "fill my head with awful thoughts."

"What we see is that we had a land, and that people came and took this land. Now they want to stay here, and every day they are killing more and more of our siblings," she said, the easygoing smile dissipating as she entered tense political waters.

Most of the other 19 participants expressed similar sentiments, raising questions about whether the majority of the Arab world will ever accept Israel.

Their answers reflected both a seeming desire for openness and a difficulty at getting beyond notions about Jews and Israel that they had been taught from childhood.

The contingent represented the educated elite from Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq. The group included medical, law and engineering students, and was comprised of Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims, as well as an Iraqi Kurd, two Maronite Christians and one Armenian Orthodox Christian.

Show How Pluralism Works
The program, which wraps up this week, was sponsored by the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational Affairs; the participants were selected by American Embassy officials. It's run jointly by the Dialogue Institute of Temple University and the International Center for Contemporary Education, a nonprofit organization based in Merion Station.

The stated goal wasn't to win friends for Israel, but to enhance participants' understanding of how religious pluralism has thrived in America, and how it might translate to a part of the world that has known its share of inter-religious strife.

Over the past 10 years, the State Department has stepped up its efforts to expose Muslim students and scholars to American culture and values. This effort dovetailed with the American goal of promoting democracy and moderating Islam in the region that gave rise to religious extremism.

Juliet Spitzer, a program staff member who also serves as guest cantor at Congregation Beth Israel of Media, spent the entire five weeks with the group and hosted everyone for a Shabbat dinner.

"Many of them came with a hatred of Jews. All of them had never met a Jew," said Spitzer. "What proceeded to happen over the course of the first week was that they were bombarded with opportunities to question many of their assumptions that they had received from birth on."

The group spent time in Philadelphia, New York and Washington, D.C., learning about everything from William Penn's views on religious diversity to the Constitution. They visited churches, mosques and an Amish community in Lancaster County.

The itinerary included a Friday-night stop at Congregation Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley, where after services, the group ate with congregants. Some of them engaged in intense talks with members and the congregation's Rabbi David Ackerman.

Nour Chawaf, a 19-year-old broadcast journalism student at the American University of Beirut, said later that it was troubling for her to see the Israeli flag on the bimah; she almost left the room over it. She said that she regards the symbol as confusing. Is Judaism a religion, a nationality, a people, she wondered, and said that she received conflicting answers.

When she returns home, she said that she hopes to arrange an interfaith peace walk, modeled after an annual event in Philadelphia.

She noted that she although she's learned about Judaism over the past month, it hasn't radically altered her worldview.

"Judaism is mentioned in the Koran; Judaism is an Abrahamic religion that we honestly respect," said Chawaf, a Sunni Muslim. "This is our cause; Palestine is our cause. We consider ourselves Arabs, so we are Arabs. The issue is not changed."

Some Came With Positive Views
Organizers of the program hoped not only to push students to adjust their attitudes, but to inspire projects on the ground dedicated to interfaith dialogue, and religious and ethnic tolerance.

On a more unusual note, two other Lebanese students -- Nadine Mazranni and Ramzi Merhed, both Maronite Christians -- said that they plan to research the history of the Jewish community in Lebanon, and are hoping to document the lives of the 100 or so Jews left in Beirut. (In 1948, about 24,000 Jews called Lebanon home.)

Racelle Weiman, the Dialogue Institute's senior director for Global Education and Program Development, said she was encouraged that some of the participants wanted to learn more about Judaism. But she doubted that they would really be able to go about such pursuits in their native lands, or that they'd be able to find good information or sympathetic -- or even knowledgeable -- teachers.

Despite the fact that many of the discussions left her emotionally "bruised," Weiman said that it's vital to continue to work with young people from the Muslim world.

"If we turn away from them and write them off and don't engage them, then they are left to their teachers and what they read in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion," she said.

In a frank discussion with Shiha, Weiman -- who lived in Israel for years -- asked if the Arab world might ever welcome Israel as a neighbor.

"Because I pursue peace, I would wish that could happen, and I know that the Israeli entity won't just vanish like that. It is real, it is there, and I know that you just can't kick them out now," she said. "It is possible, theoretically, but in real life, I don't think it will happen. We could agree on the two-state solution, but people I don't think would accept it." 

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