(Cross-posted from Interfaith Youth Core)
I had just taken my first bite of lunch when I suddenly saw everyone around me stand up and head for the front door. I hadn’t even heard the siren. I put my sandwich down and joined my fellow classmates filing into the bomb shelter, where we gathered for ten minutes before deciding it was safe to return.
The first thought I had when I emerged from the basement was how lucky I felt to be an American studying in Jerusalem right now, and not a Palestinian living in the Gaza Strip. I feel deep sadness for the many Palestinians in Gaza, and Israelis, who have lost loved ones in the fighting between Israel and Hamas, and I can’t help but think that this kind of struggle is not the pathway to peace.
Ironically, the rabbi who was speaking to my class just before the siren sounded was giving a lecture on the importance of struggle in Jewish spirituality. He was encouraging us to make our lives about the pursuit of justice, meaning, and truth, rather than simply the pursuit of comfort.
His talk resonated with me deeply, and it is with that attitude of non-complacency that I approach today’s most recent bout of Islamophobia. This time it has taken the form of subway and bus ads in Chicago and NYC declaring, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” I speak out against these ads not only because they insult and distort the beliefs of my Muslim friends, but because they offend my Jewish beliefs as well.
In the spirit of pursuing truth and justice, I think it’s important to first give proper and fair context to religious beliefs. What I’ve learned about jihad from interfaith dialogue with Muslims is that there are two commonly accepted meanings of jihad: an inner spiritual struggle and an outer physical struggle, both in pursuit of the divine. The idea of “wrestling with G-d” is also an important Jewish value, straight from the biblical story of Jacob wrestling with the Angel. Therefore, a sign saying “Defeat Jihad” is not only offensive to Muslims, it’s offensive to me as a Jew.
I also take issue with the ad’s language of “defeat.” Jacob did not wrestle with the Angel with the intention of defeating or killing it, but with the intention of receiving a blessing. That is a very different kind of struggle. Holy struggle is something that is meant to bring about blessings and peace, not divisiveness and hate. Therefore, Islamophobic signs about “defeating” jihad are a tactic of exactly the kind of struggle that is not holy.
It is also this sense of the need to “defeat”—rather than constructively struggle with—“the enemy” that bothers me most about the conflict in Gaza. It bothers me so much that when I recite the prayer for the protection of my friends in the Israeli Defense Forces, I cross out the two lines in the prayer pertaining to the “defeat” of the enemy. I appreciate that terrorism cannot be negotiated with, but it is the issues of the occupation in Gaza and the desires of both Israelis and Palestinians to have their own functioning societies that are at the core of the present struggle.
My deepest hope at this time is that the shared Jewish and Muslim value of divine struggle can be used a principle for the Israeli-Palestinian struggle to bring about times of blessings and peace.