On Tuesday, June 13 2017, Dawanet hosted a phenomenal Iftar at Celebration Square where almost 3000 people of all faiths attended. Following the event, we received an email containing a heartfelt letter by Peter Marmorek, a retired Jewish teacher of Clarkson Secondary School.
It all started late Thursday afternoon, September the 6th, 2001, the third day of the school year. I was working on my seating plans, working on my lesson plans, working on marking the initial writing my students had been assigned the first day and had handed in the second. The school year was only three days old, and already I felt as though I were two weeks behind. I sighed when I heard the knock on my classroom door, fearing that whomever it was would want something from me.
It was two young women, wearing hijabs. One of them I knew was in my Writer’s Craft class, and I knew she was Syrian, though I wasn’t yet sure of her name without looking down at the seating plan in front of me. The other I didn’t know. I smiled and invited them in. They explained that they were on the executive of the MSA, the Muslim Student Association, and they needed an official staff advisor for the MSA to be an official student activity. They wanted to know if I would be that staff advisor.
I hesitated, torn between feeling incredibly complimented that they would come and ask a Jewish teacher to be the MSA staff advisor, and knowing that the way to deal with the stress of having too much work was not to take on more. They saw the hesitation, and explained fervently how many Muslim students had spoken of the World Religions course I had started in our school, and the unbiased way it taught Islam. They explained how they would do all the work, I just needed to be there to get official approval for the activity. After thirty years of teaching, I had learned that students always say that when they want you to be a staff advisor. Rarely is it true. But these two had an enthusiasm and energy that made made me want to do it. I promised them an answer tomorrow. They left; I went back to marking.
That night I thought about the decision. I thought about being Jewish, working with a Muslim group and what that would mean to me and to them. I thought about the shame I felt at what the Israeli Government was doing to Palestinians; I thought about how my grandparents spoke of the Germans who had helped them to escape from Germany during the Holocaust, and how those stories had changed my attitude towards Germany. I thought about how easy it might be to be from the Middle East and hate all Jews for what some Jews were doing. And I thought that it really might not be that much work, finding a room for Friday Prayers, and holding the occasional MSA meeting. The next day, September 7th, I agreed to do it. It didn’t seem like a very big decision. Big decisions often don’t, in the moments when you make them.
I mention the dates because they are important. Four days later it was September 11, and a student, Kofi, came running into my class saying that two planes had just crashed into the World Trade Center and another into the Pentagon. I remember my initial thought was that this had to be wildly exaggerated. I walked over to a computer and logged onto CNN. Kofi was completely right.
As the story became clearer in the following days, we heard of the anti-Islamic backlash in North America, of mosques being vandalized and Muslims harassed. The role of the MSA at my school, and its staff advisor clearly had to change to address this. I met with the MSA executive to talk about what we could do to fight Islamophobia, and to block it from developing at our school.
The next week we had posters up advertising a school wide lecture on “The Muslim View of September 11th”. We had a packed auditorium for a charismatic Muslim speaker from a neighbouring school, who spoke of the horror of the attack, of the 200 Muslims who were killed in it, and of how it went against all the basic tenets of Islam. I spoke at the school staff meeting about the need to support our 300 Muslim students (about 20% of the school). In the weeks that followed there was only one minor incident: a 14 year old boy said, “What are you going to do, bomb me?” in an argument with a Muslim student. When the administration suspended him for three days, the word swiftly spread among students that this subject was not one you could joke about.
By now I had come to know that the two girls who led the MSA were brilliant hard-working students who continually generated exciting ideas. We ran an Iftar during Ramadan, and drew 400 students, 200 of whom were not Muslim but came to learn from the two speakers, and share in the meal we had prepared. Afterwards the school custodians complimented me and told me that they’d never seen a student activity leave the library so neat. (I told them that the students had done it, not me, and to tell the administration.)
The MSA student in my Writer’s Craft course, who had the highest mark in the class, was writing stories about Islam. She wrote about a girl waiting to meet the young man her parents thought she might want to marry, and how the initial meeting went. She wrote about a Muslim girl at a fair who is mocked by a passerby for wearing a hijab, and her struggle against the temptation of how much easier life would be if she stopped wearing it. We talked about her stories and her values, and I learned from her about what it feels like to be Muslim. And I talked about my view of Israel, and how every Friday I stood with “The Women In Black” in front of the Israeli embassy to protest and she was amazed because she didn’t know that there were Jews who actually thought that the way the Palestinians were treated was morally indefensible. She talked of her family’s history and how they had fled to come to Canada, and I talked of my family and the Holocaust they had escaped. And one of us–I truly can’t remember which one–said, “We should put on a presentation for the school on the Middle East and what’s happening there.”
I did know beforehand that it was a minefield. Maybe 5% of the school was Jewish, and no one can say anything about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict that doesn’t mortally offend someone. But because I was Jewish, no one would accuse me of being anti-Semitic. I was in my last years before retirement so it couldn’t hurt my career. And I kept thinking of that wonderful statement by Rabbi Hillel 2500 years ago, “If not me, who? If not now, when?”
So I went to the administration and got approval. Between us, we arranged for three speakers: a Muslim speaker, a Lebanese Christian, and a Jew whom I knew from the “Women in Black” protests. I created a logo of a combined Palestinian/Israeli flag to advertise the presentation. We produced a brochure with maps and a space for student comments, and we went ahead. Again the auditorium was jammed. Most of the students loved it. Some were interested (one wrote, “I had no idea there were political problems in the Middle East”) And some really, really hated it.
One Jewish girl confronted me in tears and anger about why there had been no speakers defending the Israeli Government’s point of view. I understood her fury; it is a terribly painful thing to hear yourself described as an oppressor when you have always thought that you were the oppressed. I too had grown up being taught the myth of plucky little Israel standing up to a gang of Arab bullies, and had believed it until I had the good fortune to take a course from Noam Chomsky, and learned another way of seeing history.
But she wasn’t able to hear any of what I said to her in that moment and the next day our school received an eight page fax from her father “Pro-Palestinian Propaganda in Peel Schools” (Peel was our school district). It had not only been sent to the school principal, but to the head of our Board of Education, the Minister of Education, the local synagogue, and the largest newspaper in Canada. The fax was furious and intemperate…the advertising had promised a discussion of issues: why had only one perspective been presented?
The Board promised to investigate and I was asked by my principal to defend my selection of speakers for the panel. I explained that I had brought in speakers from each group who proposed peaceful solutions and had not chosen any speaker who supported the violence on either side, neither suicide bombing nor Israeli military. I explained that I didn’t believe that advocating violence was appropriate in public schools. The board approved my position, and the investigation was ended.
One of the Jewish teachers in the school loved the presentation. The other didn’t speak to me for the next year. But I knew that I had achieved one of my goals for taking on the staff advisor: none of the MSA students would ever say, “All Jews hate Muslims.”
There were conflicts within the MSA that I had to arbitrate. Several of the boys were furious that two girls were in charge of the group. They said that it was wrong for females to be in charge of a Muslim group, and too much time was being spent on planning and organizing activities, and not enough on having fun. I thought about this, knowing I wasn’t as knowledgable as many of them on Islamic law, and finally explained that while men did have a specific role in the religion, this was a school activity, and the school rules were clear and explicit about not allowing gender discrimination. They accepted the ruling. But generally it was a blissful treat to work with the students.
The next year would be my last as a teacher and my two MSA leaders had graduated. I wondered whether to stay on. But the new MSA executive was so enthusiastic about my support and importance that I had no real choice. The second year we again ran a successful Iftar. We staged a powerful school-wide presentation on “Ten Misconceptions You Have about Islam” about which both Muslim and non-Muslim students were hugely enthusiastic. At the end of the year, the MSA presented me with a farewell gift thanking me for my “continuous dedication to the MSA…(and that I) had always pushed us forward and supported our decisions every step of the way”. And then it was over.
Good teaching always works two ways. The teacher changes the students, but is also changed by them. Through my association with the MSA, I had learned to admire Islam at a deeper level than my textbook learning had ever shown me, because I had seen the living power of the religion in my student’s lives. I had made Muslim friends, both students and adults. And I was seeing, more clearly than before, that even in Canada there was a strong element of racism and intolerance that needed to be fought, and that that fight started in me, because I had my own biases and prejudices. (Once I had been writing about Muslim students, and had written how much “our culture had to learn from them”. Then I looked in horror at what I’d written. “Our culture”? “Them?”) And I was hugely grateful to my students for helping me to learn deeply both about Islam, and about myself.
So even though I am no longer a public school teacher, I am still walking the path that those two students pushed me onto. I work with Tikkun, a group inspired by Jewish social justice traditions that works to heal the rift between Jews and Muslims, both by working with like-minded Muslim groups, and by speaking out against the injustices done against Muslims, in both Palestine and Canada. I remain in touch through email with several of my ex-MSA students. And I see the conflict that exists between Jews and Muslims not as an irreconcilable war, but as a family quarrel that needs to be solved and can be solved because of the deeper ties of a shared history, spirituality, and love that binds our two communities together.
Is it enough? No, of course not–the work that any individual does is never enough. But I have helped to add one small piece to a bridge being build between two shores. Others will add more pieces, from both sides, until the two spans meet. And as an old Canadian saying puts it, “No one snowflake thinks it is responsible for the avalanche.”