Like Jesse, like me

Not too many Rabbis have a picture with Jesse Jackson. It’s one of the most controversial pictures that hung on the wall of my Rabbi’s study in Baltimore, eliciting comments from the trivial to the critical to the unprintable. I have that picture posted on my website in the photo gallery.
It was taken at the swearing-in ceremony of then NAACP National President Kweisi Mfume, who in February of 1996 invited me to deliver the closing benediction at that historic gathering in the Great Hall of Justice in Washington, D.C.
Jesse Jackson doesn’t seem to have a complicated relationship with the Jewish people. It’s simple- he doesn’t particularly care for us, or for Israel. At the very least, he is indifferent about us, which also doesn’t exactly endear him to Jews or Israel. If one were to search, among all his quotes about Jews and Israel and Zionists, for the most telling and egregious remark that summarizes his feelings, it might be the one he made to a reporter during the 1984 Presidential campaign. Thinking that the Washington Post reporter and good friend would keep the comment confidential, Jackson referred to Jews as “Hymies” and New York as “Hymietown.” While first denying those remarks, he later apologized for them before a group of Jewish leaders in a Manchester, New Hampshire synagogue.
What makes me think of this picture? Because I found myself thinking like Jesse Jackson, and I wasn’t proud of it.
I’ve begun reading a new book by Sir Martin Gilbert called “In Ishmael’s House: A History of Jews in Muslim Lands.” In trudging through the first few chapters, detailing various names of post-Mohammed leaders, I caught myself thinking ever so privately but embarrassingly, “I can’t wait till all those Abu’s and Ibn’s are over.”
I did it. Like Jesse, like me.
What we don’t know, we can keep at arm’s length, or make fun of, or despise. What we may be afraid of, we can put in a box and ignore or deride.
There is an amazing Jewish teaching in the Mishnah, the Oral Law of the Jewish people.
The question is raised: How early may the morning Shema be recited? Or asked another way, how much light outside does there need to be, to be called “morning?”
One answer is, when daylight allows you to distinguish between white and a shade of blue, it’s time for the Shema. Another opinion says, it’s morning only if you can tell the difference between a shade of blue and a shade of green (needing more natural light). A third opinion is my favorite: “Misheyakir p’nai chavero,” when you can discern the face of a friend. When you can identify who you’re looking at, having only natural daylight at your disposal, it’s morning, and you can recite the Shema.
To Jesse Jackson, every Jew is Hymie, probably because he doesn’t know too many Jews, or doesn’t care to for one reason or another. For me, in my mind, every Muslim is an Abu this or Ibn that, and the truth is, I don’t know many Muslims.
Neither Jesse nor I have taken the time, or perhaps have had the desire, to go out in the daylight and see who we’re looking at. Which is why I congratulate two young ladies I recently met at a meeting in Ma''ale Adumim of the Interfaith Encounter Association. They came to report on their summer vacation of 2010, which was more hard work than vacation, if you ask me. They participated in the Seeds of Peace camp in Maine, which brings together Israeli and Arab teens for the purpose of breaking down barriers and mutual understanding, and eventual cooperation if possible. These young women spoke about the mutual distrust and fear when they were first assigned to rooms, and for the first time in their lives, their “enemies” were now sleeping in the beds beside them. As the days progressed and guided confrontations put feelings on the table, the teens began to feel more comfortable with each other and to understand how much they had in common. Many left the camp as friends, unimaginable prior to their experience. They have each other’s emails and addresses and trust and hearts. Now the punch line to their story.
Each of the girls, Re’ut and Shai, admitted that when they heard of the upheaval in Egypt recently, while news reports were talking about large groups and gatherings, all they could think about were the Egyptian kids they met; they worried for them, hoping they were okay. They thought of the happy faces of their Egyptian counterparts being saddened by the chaos and confusion of now knowing what the next day will bring. The Seeds of Peace experience made it very personal for these girls, because out of a sea of multitudes shown by the press, these Hymies saw the faces of the Abus and Ibns.
And the more the Abus and Ibns meet the Hymies and vice versa, it won’t just be daylight. It will usher in a new dawn of hope.