Missed Opportunities


Simple things: a photograph, a class trip. The result: A storm of reactions revealing deep-seated fears, resentment and yes, more than a smidgen of racism right here in my home town of Caesarea.

Two weeks ago, fourth graders from the local elementary school went to visit similarly-aged children from the neighboring town of Jisr Al-Zarqa, an Arab village literally spitting distance from the Northern edge of our town. This visit was one in a series devoted to introducing these two groups of children to different aspects of each others' daily lives and yes, encouraging lines of communication between neighbors. Previous visits over the course of the past school year, of which there have been a handful, took place within the school grounds.

A little bit of history: This program was initiated approximately ten years ago. My daughter's class was part of the pilot. At the time, I remember the excitement, anticipation and yes, apprehension among both the children, the teachers and the parents, the latter including a few who decided not to send their children to school that day and quite a few who were on-hand to assist the project and witnessed a hesitant, but curious and willing intermingling that would become the basis for the further development of the project.

Fast-forward 2017: During their visit to Jisr, the Caesarea children were taken to the local mosque. The parents were informed in advance that a mosque was to be included in their tour and that the children should, accordingly, bring respectful head coverings. For all intents and purposes, the 'fact' of visiting a mosque wasn't problematic, as any tour of the daily life of the citizens of Jisr would no doubt be incomplete without seeing this integral part of their community. Nevertheless, it ended up being very much so.

Apparently, during the visit, the hosting children kneeled on the floor to demonstrate to their Jewish neighbors how they pray. Unsurprisingly, some of the visiting children wanted to give it a try and joined them on the inviting, plush carpets, assuming that position (known as 'sajdah') recognized worldwide as an integral part of Muslim prayers. Of course, as expected, the visiting parents took photographs of this rather startling sight. Although I have not reproduced the most controversial photograph here, I offer it in this link from the local newspaper.

From there, from that innocent moment, a moment absent of intention or design, the real story unfolds. By the end of the school day the WhatsApp chat groups, not only for the specific class involved, but others through the Caesarea elementary school as well as the greater community, were positively buzzing with action.

To my delight, most of the comments were apparently benign. Most parents had no problem with the visit, didn't worry about there being any serious repercussions of their children having been curled up on the carpet--in a praying posture--in a mosque. In fact most of the commentary indicated an understanding that this was an experience like any other, that no one was trying to proselytize their children, that those kids who'd decided to "join in" (and some refrained, standing on the side looking on) had merely wanted to get a feel for what it was like. I think one can assume that NONE of them were considering the ramifications; NONE of them had Allah in mind.

Very significantly, included among the more balanced, calm reactions were reasonable questions such as whether the mosque should have been included on the tour, whether it had been entirely essential to demonstrate, once inside, how the local Arab population prays, and whether, in general, this part of the visit might have been handled a bit differently. Constructive criticism is always welcome and productive. Unfortunately, there were also a handful of outraged parents who, as is their wont, created a positive storm with their fiery reactions and it is these that will be remembered. The take away from a day that was meant to be about the promotion of tolerance and acceptance through exposure and education will be anger, fear and yes, racism.

I know quite a bit about the difference between exposure and a clear-cut agenda to convert. Part and parcel of attending a Quaker School, which I did for ten years, entailed Meeting for Worship. Within the Meeting House there are no formal prayers and no priest, minister or rabbi, instead, anyone moved to speak simple stands up and presents their piece. Those in attendance are welcome to react, to present something else they're thinking about or remain seated quietly on the simple wood benches .  This weekly ritual had absolutely no influence on my own Jewish faith and not once, during all those years, did I feel as though someone was trying to convince me to adopt their religion. I did, however, emerge with a particular respect for multiple religions, beliefs and traditions--key to understanding a global population.

This was, in fact, the goal of that visit to Jisr last week: an attempt to show these children what they share with their neighbors in order to foster a healthy, neighborly relationship. The fact that some of the kids wanted to try out the part on the carpet was only natural and reminds me of my own brief flirtation with the Eucharist. Although I never accepted the "body of Christ," that tasty-looking cookie my Christian friends were fortunate enough to receive, always intrigued me. Curiosity in a nine year old can only be expected. 

The most disturbing aspect of this event and its fall-out was not, for me, the reaction of a miniscule, unrepresentative number of parents, quite frankly, typical of that strain of “fear of the other” running rampant worldwide. Instead, it was the speed at which the press used this event to accentuate the hysterical, the racist, the fearful and the extreme. In a perfect world this program would have been featured on the national news at an earlier date as exemplifying the promotion of tolerance, multicultural education, and brotherhood--lauded for encouraging a more hopeful, together, world.

At the end of the day, it was one more missed opportunity.