Always the Stranger

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On  April 11, Northwestern Hillel’s Executive Director and JCUA Member Michael Simon spoke at JCUA’s 2016 Freedom and Justice Seder: The 11th Plague – Standing Against Islamophobia. In celebration of Passover this week, we are honored to share his inspiring presentation in full.

michael-simon-e1461693855910By Michael Simon

I am the Executive Director of Northwestern Hillel, the center and catalyst for Jewish life at Northwestern.  We work to enrich the lives of Jewish students so that they may enrich the Jewish people and the world.  But beyond those lofty goals, we work in the day-to-day, here-and-now of campus.  The rhetoric related to issues of diversity and inclusion, of Israel and Palestine, of intersectionality and marginalization, of power and privilege – all have become more intense and more strident in the past couple of years. What drives me in my work, in general and also, particularly, in working with Sister Tahera on Muslim-Jewish and other interfaith and intercultural initiatives, is to fully bring myself and ourselves to conversations that put the particularism of Jewish identity into tension with the universalism of being human.  How do I bring my full self, flaws and inconsistencies and all, to this or any table?

In a moment, we’ll drink the 2nd cup of wine.  Traditionally, this comes at the end of the maggid section, in which we ask the four questions and tell the story of the Exodus.  In this section we also talk of four children:  one who is wise, one who is wicked, one who is simple, and one who does not know how to ask a question.  When I was younger, I wanted to be the wise child.  I saw myself as the good one, the one who always tried to do the right thing.  But I’ve found myself drawn more and more over the years to an idea expressed by Rabbi Israel Salanter in the 19th century, that “We each have all the four children within us.”  We have a desire to fight bigotry and a streak of bigotry.  A desire to stand up against injustice and a desire to just stay quiet and hope no one will notice.  A need to scream at authority and a lack of knowing even where to begin.

michael-and-tahera-e1461696132408A couple of weeks ago, a member of the Chicago Jewish community who happens to be a Northwestern alum wrote to challenge the very premise of this event.  He asked, “Are you perhaps also ‘standing’ against radical Islamic violence directed at Christians and Jews?”  I responded that I do, indeed, stand against such violence – terrorism – done by Muslims against not only Christians and Jews but also other Muslims and many others, done by Muslim extremists who justify their actions through a twisted and hateful reading of their religious precepts.

I reminded this person that I have my own experience with terrorism – my intended fiancée was murdered by the Hamas terrorist bombing at Hebrew University in 2002.  I understand – viscerally – the need to stand against terrorists and those who honor and support them.

4-e1461696801337But my keen appreciation for the need to defend the security of Jews (both individually and communally) does not prevent me from standing against Islamophobia.  If anything, it drives me to stand even more fervently against those who would attack, demonize, and marginalize any individual Muslim, and the Muslim community as a whole, because of a pre-conceived bias or even hate.

The Torah enjoins us not to oppress the stranger in our midst, “since you know the soul of the stranger, having been strangers in the land of Egypt.”  My friend, comedian Yisrael Campbell, in a “sermon slam” a couple of years ago, said the following:

36 times it says in the Torah to welcome the stranger.  We suck at that.  36 times.  3 times it says we don’t mix milk and meat.  3 times.  We know from that we don’t own milk and meat.  We don’t benefit from milk and meat.  We don’t eat milk and meat and we don’t cook milk and meat.  We know from that that we don’t cut an onion with a knife that is fleischik and put it on the cheese.  Of course we know that because we have books and books and books about not mixing milk and meat.

THIRTY-SIX TIMES.  And we look at that and say, “Welcome…the…stranger.”  What could God have meant?  I got nothin’.  It’s Kabbalah.

Since I’m not a comedian or a poet, but just a Hillel director, I’ll spell it out a bit further. It’s not kabbalah.  It’s understanding that our destiny is wrapped up in the destiny of others, our redemption is wrapped up in the redemption of others.  I know that I don’t speak for every Jew, but I know that there are hundreds here tonight and thousands and maybe millions out there who feel as I do.  And I know that my beloved friend and colleague Tahera does not speak for every Muslim, but I believe that there are hundreds and thousands and millions out there who feel as she does.

We need to find our voices.
We need to reach across the valley between us.
We need to remember that our religions demand that we welcome the stranger, the we protect the stranger.  Because we are still the stranger and we are always the stranger.

We owe it not only to the stranger, but to ourselves.