Stop Building Bridges between Arabs and Jews

Imagine if Israel had embraced the Jewish refugees from Iraq, Yemen, Morocco, Iran, and other countries throughout the Arab and Muslim world. I mean, if Israel had really embraced us – inviting us to lead the government instead of sweep the streets. Diplomatic conversations could have been conducted in Arabic and Farsi, instead of the intermediary language of English. And while the relationship still would have been complex, it also would have been familial instead of foreign.

Since I was a teenager, I have attended a plethora of Arab-Jewish and Black-Jewish bridge-building programs that completely ignored the fact that there are Middle Eastern Jews and African Jews, among other Jewish nationalities and ethnicities. In these gatherings, progressive Jewish leaders of European heritage twisted themselves into pretzels, trying to conjure up points of connection, while failing and even refusing to recognize the glaringly obvious points of connection already in place.

At one such gathering, in the mid-1990s, a Black Jewish friend and I listened politely throughout a program on Black-Jewish relations, which said not one word about Black Jews. At the end, my friend asked the program facilitator where he saw someone like her. As he looked straight at her Black Jewish face, he proceeded to explain to her that Jews are white. “Look at my skin!” my friend said, exasperated, holding up her arm to the facilitator’s face.

It was both infuriating and fascinating to witness this interaction unfold. People start off with a preconceived notion, I realized in that moment, and impose it on the situation before them, rather than allowing the situation before them to challenge their preconceived notion. 

Around that time, when I was the program director of a local Hillel, and attending the national conference for Hillel program directors, I wanted to pull my hair out during a workshop, as leaders of European Jewish heritage yet again twisted themselves into pretzels, brainstorming innovative Passover seders (ritual retelling of the story of Exodus), to engage students who were bored by the same-old, same-old ritual from Central and Eastern Europe. When I raised my hand and suggested incorporating the Passover seder from Egypt – where Passover itself took place – as well as incorporating any of the tens of other lively Passover seder rituals from around the world, I was dismissed. 

After a full weekend of these repeatedly frustrating interactions, I’d had it and stormed out. Several program directors who had witnessed thse recurring exchanges got up and followed me out the door, saying, “Loolwa, we get it now. We see what’s happening. You shouldn’t have to do all the work. We want to advocate for you.” And so we created a little Hillel program director Jewish multicultural uprising – this being way back in 1994. 

But that’s another story for another time.

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