Medill News Service: Jews and Arabs in Chicago build bridges despite conflicts

The Hanania household has a curio cabinet adorned with a menorah and Torah, doorways with hanging mezuzahs (a tiny scroll for blessings and luck) and an elaborate ketubah marking a Jewish marriage.

But on the walls of their Orland Park house’s library, there is also an autographed picture of Yasser Arafat and a Palestinian flag. Shelves carry mounds of political books on the Middle East and wooden camels carved from trees from the rolling olive groves in Palestine.

“I call it my little Gaza strip,” said Ray Hanania.

Eight years ago Hanania, a Palestinian-Christian and Alison Resnick-Hanania, who is Jewish, crossed cultural and political borders when they got married.

Their marriage linked two cultures and two religions that these days are too often the subject of conflict. But while the bitter Palestinian-Israeli struggle makes headlines in Chicago, the city also is home to many other marriages between the two groups.

Many universities, religious groups, community activists and artists are working toward building awareness of the complex history of the Middle East to promote dialogue in the community. Chicago has about 250,000 Jews, 250,000 Arabs and nearly 400,000 Muslims.

Ahmed Rehab is the director of communications of the Chicago chapter of the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a nonprofit serving as one of the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy groups. The Council partners with the Jewish Council of Urban Affairs, one of the leading Jewish advocacy groups in Chicago, on many faith based and social events that connect communities.

“Like minded organizations and individuals who believe in outreach are able to connect with each other,” Rehab said. Focusing on what the two faiths have in common is important, Rehab explained.

Members of CAIR’s outreach committee visit synagogues several times a month. By next year they aim to visit a synagogue every week.

“I don’t want interfaith work to become a goal, but a means,” Rehab said. “Other faith groups need to see Islam as a universal faith, as a deep legacy of 1400 years and 1.4 billion people, and not as a front for terrorism.”

Ron Miller, chair of the religion department at Lake Forest College, is also convinced that dialogue will take people into a livable future.

“Our world faces two options, one is the Samuel Huntington’s view of clash of civilizations, that book is being favored by our current administration,” he said. “The other model would be a dialogue between the civilizations. That is what I believe in.”

He founded Common Ground, an organization that promotes understanding and communication among various religions. Since holding its first public program on Islam in 1975, Deerfield-based Common Ground has become an organization with satellite programs in Crystal Lake, Flossmoor, Chicago and Evanston.

And regular citizens have also built bridges in the community. The Committee for a Just Peace in Israel and Palestine was founded about five years ago to further the cause of peace and justice in Palestine and Israel. Rebekah Levin, the organization’s steering committee member, said the group’s focus is making people understand the issues by bringing various speakers that present alternative viewpoints.

So the organization invites professors from Tel Aviv University, former political analysts from the CIA and a Palestinian American lawyer to shed light on the issues in Israel and Palestine. Most of the talks take place at the Oak Park Public Library.

Similarly, Saffiya Shillo, a Palestinian American raised in Chicago, co-founded Salam al-Ann (Palestinians for Peace Now) two years ago, a volunteer network of activists based in the Southwest suburbs, the hub of Chicago’s Palestinian community. The organization opposes violence and fanaticism from both sides, and promotes peace and compromise. “It was very issue oriented before, so we take a beating when we say things people don’t like to hear”, Shillo said.”It’s not easy for people to hear the other side.”

Shillo believes that both communities have to place more emphasis on participation, especially among the youth. In her community work she finds the younger generations don’t want to participate in demonstrations anymore, but dialogues. “It’s easier to pass the hate down, “Shillo said. “The difference is now it’s not just a simple curiosity anymore, but they really want to understand.”

Academic curriculum is starting to reflect the younger generation’s desire to break the cycle of hatred through dialogue.

St. Xavier University in Orland Park, with a large Arab-American student body, recently developed a minor in Middle Eastern studies.

“Interfaith dialogues are one thing, developing an academic minor is something else,” said Huda Krad, a Muslim adjunct professor at English departments in St. Xavier and Loyola University Chicago.

In a college atmosphere. building awareness also comes from going to free events.

The University of Illinois at Chicago and Chicago-Kent College of Law teamed up to start a new initiative in Jewish/Muslim Relations.

The first feature of the program was a series of lectures on the importance of Jewish and Muslim dialogue given by Professor Akbar Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, DC.

With an audience of Pakistanis, Jews, Muslims and Christians, Ahmed focused on the similarities between Jews and Muslims such as their common reverence for the biblical Moses.

Togai Atac, a Muslim law student at Kent, said after the lecture he “was really moved to see such a true perspective on Islam that is vastly overlooked, and in some ways downplayed in American media and in turn in society.”

Atac said dialogues like this are necessary because “out there is a mass media” and its hard to say “at what level academia can compete” with it. He said people need to learn the similarities between Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

There are plenty of similar events in Chicago.

The University of Chicago’s Center of Middle Studies sponsors Israel Awareness

Copyright © 2006 Medill News Service