On “Tolerance”

“The connotations of ‘tolerance’ are deeply problematic. Allow me to elaborate on this point: the root of the term ‘tolerance’ comes from medieval toxicology and pharmacology , marking how much poison a body could ‘tolerate’ before it would succumb to death. Is this the best we can do? Is it our task to figure out how many ‘others’… we can tolerate before it really kills us?….I don’t want to ‘tolerate’ my fellow human beings, but rather to engage them at the deepest level of what makes us human, through both our phenomenal commonality and our dazzling cultural differences. If we are to have any hope of achieving anything resembling a just peace in the future, that examination needs to include both the greatest accomplishments of all civilizations, and also a painful scrutiny of the ways in which the place of privilege has come at a great cost to others.”

Omid Safi, in the introduction to the fantastic Progressive Muslims: On Jusice, Gender, and Pluralism

In his 1997 commencement speech at DePaul University, Elie Wiesel made a complementary remark:

I believe… that intolerance is the enemy of learning, and it is the enemy of progress, the enemy of humanity. Now what is the opposite of intolerance. Not tolerance. Tolerance is a word that has a condescending tone. “I tolerate you.” The opposite of intolerance is respect. We must respect one another, not in spite of our differences, but because of our differences.

Engage. Examine. Respect. Peace.

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Looking for Change in the State of the Union

This post was originally published by the Yalla Change Campaign. View the original here!

Last night, Barack Obama delivered his third State of the Union address. While the speech focused on the economy, it was bookended by twin references to the Navy SEAL operation that killed Osama bin Laden. The President’s speech reminded Americans of the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and of draw-downs in Afghanistan. In a populist tone, Obama addressed many of the economic concerns plaguing the nation. He spoke of reinvigorating American manufacturing, aggressive tax reform, the daunting cost of higher education, and reforming American energy policy. His call for long-overdue, comprehensive immigration reform was encouraging, though the contradictions between last night’s rhetoric and the President’s previous actions were apparent. Promising to sign the DREAM Act, or a similar piece of legislation, he also reminded Americans that “there are more boots on the border than ever before.” There are also more deportations than ever before.

Obama clearly intended to present himself as a strong Commander-In-Chief, in an effort to refute Republican charges of his weakness in foreign affairs. He warned that he would “take no options off the table” to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Reference to “our iron-clad commitment to Israel’s security” earned him a bi-partisan standing ovation. He used cavalier, aggressive language in his allusions to ongoing drone strikes, saying, “from Pakistan to Yemen, the al Qaeda operatives who remain are scrambling, knowing that they can’t escape the reach of the United States of America.” In a move to circumvent charges of anti-Americanism, he said, “ anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they’re talking about.” While this is clever election-year rhetoric, it ignores the facts on the ground: American foreign policy, including drone strikes, unilateral support for Israel, and a history of hypocrisy regarding democracy promotion, tarnishes the US’ reputation in the eyes of Arab and Muslim peoples.

Those concerned with civil liberties, America’s relationship with the Arab World, and the issue of Palestine found little to celebrate in the President’s address. Also striking were the issues of which President Obama made no mention, including his Administration’s failure to close Guantanamo Bay, theassassination via drone attack of American citizen Anwar al-Aulaqi and his family, and his recent signing of the National Defense Authorization Act, which grants the government right to indefinitely detain American citizens. President Obama acknowledged that “a wave of change has washed across the Middle East and North Africa.” It is up to us to remind him, and all of our elected representatives, that change is also needed here at home.

To learn more about the Yalla Change campaign, visit our website.

A State of Denial: Candidates, Consequences and the Road to Peace

This article was originally published in the January 2012 edition of The Kenyon Observer

In an interview with The Jewish Channel last month, Republican Presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich described the Palestinian people as “invented.” When questioned during a presidential debate a few days later, Gingrich continued to make misleading remarks, including “The word ‘Palestinian’ did not become a common term until after 1977,” insinuating that Palestinian schools foster terrorism.

These statements are untenable and reflect long-standing falsehoods propagated since the founding of the state of Israel. In the early twentieth century, approximately 93% of the land that makes up modern day Israel was inhabited by Palestinian Arabs. In fact, when a delegation of Viennese rabbis were sent to Palestine to investigate the possibility of establishing a Jewish state there, they wrote back to Theodore Herzl, saying, “the bride is beautiful but she is married to another man.” Since then, the bride has been involved in a dangerous affair with the United States failing in their self-appointed role as marriage counselor.

The distinction between Palestinians and other Arabs of the Levant region is demonstrable through several cultural mediums including food, dance, music, embroidery, jewelry, and more. The preservation and documentation of Palestinian identity, notably through photography collections, Traditional Palestinian Costume: Origins and Evolution by Hanan Karaman Munayyer, and the work of cultural organizations authenticate Palestinian claims to autonomy and identity. Legal documentation, including pre-Ottoman land deeds, further demonstrates this reality. The Balfour Declaration itself, a 1917 letter which paved the way for the formation of the modern-day state of Israel, acknowledges “existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” However, since the late 19th century there has been consistent and indefensible rhetoric suggesting otherwise.

Gingrich is not alone in providing a bevy of antagonistic comments on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The day before the Iowa caucuses, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum echoed Gingrich, telling a young voter that “there is no ‘Palestinian,’” saying that the residents of the Occupied West Bank are in fact Israeli.  Ironically, if this were true, it would reflect what is known as the one-state solution, in which the Occupied Territories are absorbed into the State of Israel and residents are given equal voting rights. Such an act would fundamentally restructure the Israeli “democracy,” almost certainly not in the way Santorum envisions. Texas Governor Rick Perry and House Resolution 1006 have argued that Jerusalem should be the sole capital of Israel. Front-runner Mitt Romney has threatened to end aid to Palestinians if they pursue statehood via the United Nations, similar to House Resolutions 2457, 1501, 2261 and 1475. Before withdrawing from the race, candidates Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann, made news for offensive comments about the Islamic faith and right of return (or lack thereof) for Palestinians, respectively.

The alignment of many current GOP candidates with such revisionist history dangerously damages perceptions of America abroad and inhibits its ability to negotiate for Middle East peace. Many in the international community already disregard the United States as an impartial arbiter of the conflict, and the 29 standing ovations Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu received during an address to the U.S. Congress last May leave little doubt as to why. In an “Arab Attitudes” poll conducted by the Arab American Institute in 2011, Arabs in Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Lebanon ranked “occupation of Palestinian lands” as one of their top two obstacles when asked to identify “the greatest [one] to peace and stability in the Middle East.” The Obama Administration’s cow-towing to Israeli demands likely contributed to overwhelming Arab dissatisfaction with their “handling of the Palestinian issue,” yet it ranked as the most important issue through which Americans could improve their relations with the Arab World. Continuous denial of Palestinian agency, as reflected in recent campaign remarks, damages the United States image and role in the international community, affecting our security and stability as a nation.

The effects of xenophobic, anti-Islamic, and blind pro-Israeli campaign messaging and legislation are felt domestically as well. In a December 16 Boston Globe editorial, former Senator John E. Sununu(R-NH) described Gingrich’s remarks: “His comments were a calculated — but demonstrably false — slander, designed to curry favor with a constituency for which he cares by insulting one for which he does not.” This theme is reflected in public outcry over the Park 51 project in Manhattan, (known in the media as “the Ground Zero mosque”) and more recently was demonstrated through major companies pulling their advertising, en masse, from TLC’s reality show “All American Muslim” in response to pressure from hate groups. To me, the most troubling conclusion one may draw from the flurry of misinformation propagated by politicians is this: the comments are not a reflection of candidates’ individual views, but rather are deliberate attempts to connect with voters. Pandering to constituencies is inevitable, but it is irresponsible when it coordinated bigotry of this ilk contributes to a climate of fear and suspicion of American citizens. Just last month, a University of Illinois law professor of Sri Lankan descent was brutally attacked in a bus station. His attacker mistakenly believed his victim was “Middle Eastern,” reportedly yelling, “this is my country” before jumping the victim and slashing his throat.

In a land built on religious freedom, tolerance, and plurality, GOP presidential candidates seem instead to be adopting a deeply un-American campaign strategy: discrimination and fear-mongering. Such a tactic will not lead to peace and security at home or in the Holy Land. Instead of embracing the status quo and digging heels into a process that continuously falters, GOP candidates and lawmakers alike should consider a wholly new approach: one that favors tolerance, relies on historical fact, and seeks to build trust, rather than sow fear.