Local Wounds Opened By Mideast Conflict


It can be frustrating or awkward “to see people involved in a peace walk one week and the same people involved in an anti-Israel protest the next week,” said Rabbi Micah Kelber of the Bay Ridge Jewish Center, a small Conservative synagogue in the midst of one of the nation’s largest Arab communities.

The center took part last month in the Children of Abraham Peace Walk, in which participants — about 100 Jews, Muslims and Christians — visited the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge and then walked four miles to the Park Slope Jewish Center. To Rabbi Kelber and others, the walk offered a brief ray of hope that peace and tolerance between Jews and Arabs are, indeed, possible.

But only days after the event came the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier by Hamas militants, followed by Israel’s incursion into Gaza. Some of the same Arab residents of Bay Ridge who had participated in the peace walk once again took to the streets, only this time in opposition to Israel.

The story illustrates some of the tensions — and, according to Rabbi Kelber and others, some of the complexities — that exist in the relationship between Jews and Arabs in the area, especially in light of renewed conflict in Gaza and Lebanon.

In many cases, those tensions have surfaced at demonstrations around the city as members of both communities have rallied on behalf of their brothers and sisters in the Middle East. In other cases, they’ve emerged privately, in homes throughout the city and in dozens of Arab-owned and Jewish-owned shops and restaurants, where business owners and their customers engage in conversations over the day’s news.

Pro-Palestinian groups have organized rallies in front of Aroma, the new Israeli-owned café in Soho. And last Friday, a demonstration in front of the Israeli Consulate in Midtown drew about 1,000 people.

On the other side of the spectrum, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations sponsored a rally in front of the Syrian mission to the United Nations, attracting an estimated 700 people.

Despite the polarizing nature of the rallies, some people are trying to use these public events to promote notions of justice and fairness.

Rabbi Simkha Weintraub, rabbinical director of the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services, showed up at the Presidents’ Conference rally with a homemade sign, “Yes to Israel’s Self-Defense, No to Collective Punishment,” reflecting his belief in “a third way” to approach this conflict — a path he feels would bolster Israel’s security while recognizing the humanity of its Arab neighbors. Some of his friends “smirked” at him, Rabbi Weintraub said, but he received no hostile reactions from any of his fellow Jews or from any of the Arabs at a nearby counter-demonstration. “Somewhere we need to figure out how to give human beings what they need — food, clothing, toys, hope — and to develop relationships,” he said.

Wael Mousfar, president of the Arab-Muslim American Federation, the group that organized last week’s protest in front of the Israeli Consulate, said that while his group accepts Israel’s right to exist, others at the demonstration may have felt differently.

“Some people’s expressions might be more extreme than others,” he said.

But rallies are “an expression of frustration and dismay” at the massacre of innocent people, he said. “It is very hard to be positive in that context.”

As the events in the Mideast continue to boil, papers throughout the city are also focusing on the local reaction.

A Lebanese-born storeowner in Astoria said Israel claimed to want peace but was ignoring the same desire among Lebanese citizens. “Destroying our nation for two soldiers is not peace,” the storeowner told the Queens Tribune.

But Shlomo Meirov, 24, an Israeli-born real-estate agent in Flushing, told the Tribune that “Israel is doing the right thing.” Moreover, it should continue its actions, he said, because they “will eventually bring peace and less terrorism.”

Despite the tensions and differences of opinion, in some quarters efforts to build trust and understanding between Jews and Arabs are continuing.Rabbi Robert Kaplan, director of intergroup relations and community concerns at the Jewish Community Relations Council, said global issues “certainly seep in” to cross-cultural work. “But we’ve been successful in the past — during the second intifada, during the Iraq war — in maintaining relationships,” he said.

The JCRC along with other Jewish organizations have worked to organize an informal dialogue group, the Muslim-Jewish Network.

Rabbi Weintraub is also involved in a similar dialogue project. His group’s purpose is “to create a safe place for people to bring up whatever issue they want to bring up,” said the rabbi. “Not only do I need to bring up the depth of my feeling about how horrible all this is and how pained I am,” he said, “I need for people from the ‘other side’ to hear my feelings and to express understanding.”

The discussions have gotten so intense at times that some participants have to leave the room to gather their thoughts or, in one case, to pray, Rabbi Weintraub said. But there are also moments when Muslims and Jews connect, he said, noting that it was a Muslim man at a meeting last Sunday who brought up the shootings last week at the Jewish Federation in Seattle, where a Pakistani Muslim gunman killed one woman and injured five. Rabbi Weintraub recounted how the man discussed his fear of how the “madness” in the Mideast could spread beyond that region if reasonable people did not take action.

Similar emotions and concerns surface during the groups organized by Marcia Kannry, a Brooklyn resident and the founder of the Dialogue Project.

The project is now running seven or eight “circles,” including one group in Park Slope focused on Israel and Palestine. “It’s not easy to keep people in dialogue” at moments like this, said Kannry, a former regional director of the Jewish National Fund.

Part of the trick, she said, is to have people discuss their personal experiences, rather than politics, and to encourage others in the group to reaffirm what they just heard.

One member of the Park Slope group is Faozia Aljibawi, 30, an American woman whose Palestinian parents moved from the West Bank to New York in the 1970s.

Aljibawi, a graduate student in psychology at Touro College, said she has remained with the group during the past two years, despite the difficulty of some of the discussions and criticism of her involvement from other Arab Americans. As a result, she has learned to share her feelings with Jewish friends and acquaintances, including a former Israeli soldier, and to recognize the humanity of Israel and its supporters.

Sometimes the connections can seem almost miraculous. According to Rabbi Kelber, during Shabbat services last week in Bay Ridge an Arab member of the community came to the synagogue and “davened with us,” telling congregants that he believes “there will come a time when all of us realize we’re praying to the same God.