In early December of 2016, still reeling from the impending reality of President Donald J. Trump, a New York Times headline caught my eye.
“Both feeling threatened, American Muslims and Jews join hands.”
The story was about the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, “a grassroots group that now claims 50 chapters in more than 20 states.”
It had started with a 2010 Shabbat dinner at Sheryl Olitzky’s New Jersey home for a group of Jewish and Muslim women. Six years on, more than 500 gathered for the third annual conference, five times the number at its first. Chapters consisted of equal numbers of Jews and Muslims, roughly 16 to 20 per chapter.
Wisconsin was not among the 20 states. I sighed and put it out of my mind. It was just one more missed chance to forge some sort of connection with the world outside my comfort zone on Middle East matters. I’d been working toward it since my first trip to Israel, just after my 20th birthday.
It was a year long because I was running away and Israel was a socially acceptable place for a Jewish kid to spend a year of college.
Anyone who has met me will cheerfully attest, however, that “socially acceptable” is not one of my chief attributes.
Which is why, shortly after arriving at Kibbutz Ma’ale HaChamisha just outside of Jerusalem in 1979, I announced that, along with the ulpan that was part of my program, I wanted to find an Arabic-language class.
I was learning Hebrew so I could communicate with Hebrew-speaking Israelis, several hundred of whom I’d be living among for the year. Being able to meet and talk with the Arabic-speaking residents of Abu Ghosh, the village at the bottom of the hill, and those beyond made equal sense. I wanted to meet and get to know all kinds of Israelis.
My declaration was met with unanimous disapproval. Reactions ranged from amused disdain to morbid curiosity.
“Why would you want to do that?”
“You’re a Jew. You don’t need to meet Arabs.”
“There are no Arabic-language ulpans, and even if there were courses, you’d have a hard time finding one.”
Everything was new. Everyone knew more than I did. I gave up on the formal language study, but not on trying to figure out how to connect with an Arab family. I hadn’t mentioned that to my new acquaintances or group leaders, and didn’t.
Back in the U.S., Aunt Freda asked a co-worker to connect me with her family in Acco, an Arab city on the Mediterranean. Two months later I was on a bus north for the first of what turned into several visits.
The Shaabis lived in a cavernous Roman-era house across from the sea wall. They were fluent in Arabic, French and Hebrew.
I spoke fluent English.
We spent most of our first visit smiling at each other a lot and drinking coffee. I ate escargot for the first time. I taught them to knit; they taught me to crochet.
The year went on. My Hebrew got better. We were able to converse. They were Christian, not Muslim, which I was given to understand made a difference, although not much of one in the eyes of mainstream Israeli society. Arabs were Arabs, whether Muslim or Christian.
In Robertson Davies’ novel “What’s Bred in the Bone,” he describes the social structure of the Ontario village in which his protagonist resides as like wedding cake. The occupants of each tier are in the same space, but don’t interact.
Israel was very similar. Secular Jews, religious Jews and Arabs shared space with little interaction and virtually no opportunity to mix socially. Here in the U.S. and Milwaukee, it’s not all that different.
We stratify along identity lines and, for the most part, remain comfortably separate within our different communities.
After returning in 1980, I took a class on the concept of the nation in Islam and Judaism, and, in the ensuing years, had limited contact with members of Milwaukee’s Muslim community. But those interactions were all circumscribed by work. Building a genuine social connection was too wide a gap to bridge.
I also spent several years reading and reviewing books on the Middle East for the Milwaukee Journal and later, Publishers Weekly. One was a slender 2003 memoir by Palestinian lawyer Raja Shehadeh titled “When the Birds Stopped Singing: Life in Ramallah Under Siege.”
His view, I wrote then, “provides a valuable perspective – the voice of an ordinary citizen trying to perform the routines of daily life in an area that has moved regularly between uneasy quiet and open (if officially undeclared) war.”
What struck me was how likeable he was, and the degree to which forces outside our control can up-end our lives and routines. Not for the first time, I wondered what I could possibly do to make things better.
These experiences and more have formed my feelings about Israel, which are complicated. I rarely talk about it, because conservative friends would think me a sellout for thinking that not everything Israel does is right; liberal friends would think I’m a fascist for thinking Israel has a right to exist at all.
The truth is that I love Israel and want it to thrive and be safe. I would also love to hear the Palestinian National Symphony and see the Palestinian National Dance Company perform before I die. Because that would mean that there is a Palestine that’s taking care of itself and its people. Every inhabitant of the region deserves to live in peace and safety.
I was still wondering what could I do to make things better in late December 2016, when my friend Molly came to town to visit her parents.
“There’s a group coming to Milwaukee,” she said, “and you must join it.”
Molly, a Whitefish Bay native living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, was talking about the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom. Within weeks of her declaration, an email arrived.
“Hi, Sisters in the making.”
I loved the opening. I also loved that my prospective sister let us know what she had time and ability to do in the run-up to our first meeting – host at her house – and to ask for help with what she didn’t – the agenda. Someone volunteered.
The agenda email included a copy of the SOSS covenant and guidelines.
Along with attending meetings and treating each other as respected equals, the guidelines included: the desire to pursue sustainable friendships based on mutual respect, learning more about our own faiths and acknowledging the “many forms of religious expression within and between” them, and being honest about what we didn’t know about our own or the others’ religion.
There was also a direct reference to the metaphorical elephant in the room.
“Avoid entering into the Palestinian-Israeli conflict dialogue” it read, “until trust and respect has been established within the chapter members.”
Which turned out to be a non-issue.
All the Jewish women had been born in the United States, although most of us had grandparents and some had parents who had been immigrants. Some of the Muslim women were also born here; others were from Egypt and Pakistan.
After greetings and prayers, we went around the room, talking about why we were there and what attracted us to the group. The universal feeling expressed was that we had far more in common than anything that divided us, and a strong desire to learn more about one another.
The Muslim women talked about having to soothe and comfort their children, who feared deportation even though they were U.S. citizens.
That sparked animated discussions about Europe and what had happened to the Jews after 1933, Japanese-American internment during World War II in the U.S. and what, if anything, we had the power to do as individuals. The Muslim registry idea that had been floated during the election was one. All the Jewish women said they’d register as Muslims. No one tried to pretend away, ignore or minimize the fear, uncertainty and anxiety we were feeling.
That meeting left us all wanting more.
Like Jewish women, our Muslim sisters nurture through food and, like us, are either tops at sourcing great food or are great cooks themselves. A recent exception was the June meeting, held during Ramadan. We skipped refreshments.
We’ve seen a movie (“The Tribe”), served Christmas dinner at Repairers of the Breach and sent money to help with legal costs associated with family separation of asylum- and refuge-seekers. We traveled vicariously through the Civil-Rights era south with Jan and Tina on an SOSS-organized trip, where they walked the Edmund Pettus Bridge, visited the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice and other landmarks.
Between meetings we communicate electronically. My sisters’ presence has been a source of strength and comfort. Because of them, I am able to continue hoping we can somehow surmount all the crazy and horrible that’s drowning out what we most need to remember – that we’re more alike than different. That by standing together, we can poke giant holes in the lies of those who want to divide and conquer us for their own selfish reasons.
Standing together, we are ready to take our next big step, entering into dialogue about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
We’re going to read and discuss Sandy Tolan’s “The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew and the Heart of the Middle East.”
There are now 150 chapters in 27 states, according to the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom website – SossPeace.org.