2017 Building Unity: Cleaning the Hate

On a beautiful fall day, Ithaca community members gathered to talk about hate and building unity through community service at the Just Be Cause Center, sponsored by the Ithaca Coalition for Unity and Cooperation in the Middle East (ICUCME). The Sept. 10 event kicked off with an inspiring concert by Vitamin L, the Ithaca youth choir that sings about the diversity they embody. The concert included a song in sign language and closed with one of their signature melodies, “Walk a Mile,” that had the audience singing and clapping along.

After the concert, participants broke up into small groups to talk about what “cleaning the hate” means to them. “Since Charlotttesville I’ve felt like history is repeating itself,” said a retiree, adding that he was glad for ICUCME, a group where he can come and discuss his fears and uncertainty and “be with people who are trying to turn hate into something else.”

In another group, participants shared the anxiety of being an immigrant in America today; another person described the pain of being treated differently because of skin color.

The conversations continued as participants headed out into the beautiful sunshine with plastic gloves on and trash bags in hand, to clean up garbage from around Cayuga Inlet. They returned, still talking, with bulging bags, having made a meaningful, tangible contribution to Ithaca’s well-being as part of ICUCME’s annual Building Unity: Cleaning the Hate event.

Working for Democracy and Tolerance

Hussein Al Deek, a Palestinian political activist with a Master’s degree in Democracy and Human Rights from Birzeit University was the Young President of Palestinian Youth in 2013 and is now Chairman of the Board of Directors of Young Youth President Ramallah – Palestine.

The organization he founded in 2014, Youth President Forum (YFP), is working for change. It focuses on youth development, democracy and human rights issues, promoting youth participation in political, cultural and economic life. The YFP board consists of six women and five men.

The YFP’s events – including workshops, lectures, and seminars – have a measurable impact, said Al Deek. They conduct a survey before and after their seminars, and the answers to the questions are significantly different afterward. “Changed for good, not bad,” noted Al Deek.

YFP has 50 volunteers that work in villages throughout the Palestinian Authority. Al Deek travels all over, giving talks on employment, the election process, women and human rights. “First, you have to teach tolerance,” he emphasized. “Our organization says that we are all human, not you are American or a woman – we are human, this is the main idea.”

For more information or to make a donation, go to http://www.ypf.ps/.

Voices from El Sayed

Audience at film

The Bedouin village of El Sayed has the largest proportion of deaf people in the world. Over the generations they’ve developed their own unique sign language, now the most popular way to communicate among both deaf and hearing. The documentary “Voices from El Sayed” follows what happens when one father decides to give his three-year-old son a cochlear implant so he can hear.

On May 23 at Cinemapolis, the Ithaca Coalition for Unity and Cooperation in the Middle East (ICUCME) screened the film as the concluding event in its free series, “Israeli Citizens of Color: From Ethiopia to Chicago to the Negev,” which explored the complexity of culture in a multiracial country (about half of the citizens of Israel are people of color).

“We at ICUCME firmly believe that if we are to achieve peace in the Middle East, it must come through understanding and empathy. Learning about different cultures and the challenges that different communities face is one way to develop this understanding and empathy,” said Linda Glaser, ICUCME chair in her introduction to the film.

The screening was followed by a discussion with Inbal Shlosberg, a social worker who has worked extensively with the Bedouin. Lisa Witchey provided sign language interpretation for the discussion.

Shlosberg gave an update on the Village of El Sayed, as the film was released in 2008. She said that the village is now recognized by the Israeli government and has been provided with infrastructure services like electricity. She explained that even the unrecognized Bedouin villages receive full medical and educational services for free, as Bedouin are Israeli citizens.

“The Bedouin and Israeli cultures are very different,” said Shlosberg, resulting in some of the problems the Bedouin face. For example, she said that the Israeli government views the towns it has built for the Bedouin as something positive, while many Bedouin prefer to live outside the towns, even without electricity or other services.

Shlosberg described a recent initiative by the Israeli government to devote more resources to alleviating the poverty of the Bedouin community. “Things are getting better,” she said.

The discussion also raised questions about the value of cochlear implants. Susan Wolf, an educator for the deaf and hearing impaired, described her experiences with children given cochlear implants and said the results vary widely.

Village of Peace

The May 10 screening of “Village of Peace” at Cinemapolis was followed by a lively discussion, with audience members characterizing the movie as everything from “inspiring” to “strange.” Participants shared what surprised them about the Black Hebrew community (such as the veganism), what disturbed them (the polygamy) and what inspired them (the commitment).

Many questions were raised, including whether the Black Hebrews will be able to maintain their distinctive culture as they become more fully integrated in the larger Israeli society. The same question about culture vs. integration was raised at the film on May 10; Ethiopians, too, are wrestling with how to preserve their unique identity.

Mekonen

Arrested for trying to leave Ethiopia for Israel, Herut Admasu’s father was tortured for years, until he could no longer walk or even crawl. But despite the torture, he refused to give up the dream he shared with so many Ethiopian Jews: to live freely as a Jew, in Israel.

Admasu told her family’s story at the opening film of the “Israeli Citizens of Color: From Ethiopia to Chicago to the Negev” series hosted by the Ithaca Coalition for Unity and Cooperation in the Middle East (ICUCME). The film, “Mekonen: The Story of an African Jew” follows an Ethiopian shepherd whose family emigrates to Israel. Forced to grow up too young, Mekonen must figure out who he is as an Ethiopian Israeli and what he wants in life.

For Admasu, connection to her Ethiopian heritage was complex. Like most first-generation children, she wanted only to identify with the country of her birth, Israel. She refused to learn Amharic and even rejected her name, which means “freedom,” in favor of a more mainstream one.

But during a trip to Ethiopia with her father, Admasu finally began asking questions. Sitting outside the prison where her father had been imprisoned, she heard for the first time what he had endured in order to gain freedom for himself and his family – and why he had given her the name of “Herut.”

Now using her birth name again, Admasu is committed to sharing her story and working on behalf of Ethiopians in Israel. Sometimes, she said, that puts her at odds with her parents. For them, Jerusalem was built of gold; to Admasu, Israel is a country like any other, which needs its citizens to speak out when something isn’t right. “That’s what being a democracy means,” she said.

During the Q&A after the film screening, Admasu reflected on the difficulties Mekonen and his family faced in adjusting to life in Israel. Anyone moving to a new country faces such challenges and needs to make adjustments, she said. The important difference for Jews like Mekonen is that there is no going back: Israel is the country of last resort for Jewish refugees from all over the world.

 

Islamophobia and Antisemitism: An Ithaca Response

Participants in a previous Dinner Conversation

Ithaca is a community that cares, as demonstrated by the capacity crowd that filled the Just Be Cause Center multipurpose room on April 4 to discuss Islamophobia and Antisemitism. The Ithaca Coalition for Unity and Cooperation in the Middle East (ICUCME) sponsored the event as part of its Dinner Conversation Series. A vegetarian pot-luck was followed by presentations from community members.

The goal of the evening was to encourage participants to consider their own words and actions and to expand empathy and understanding within the Ithaca community, said the organizers.

Mahmud Burton of Islamic Community Outreach Services spoke about the responsibility of each person to stand against Islamophobia and Antisemitism, invoking the lesson of the Holocaust, “in which some of the most terrible crimes of morality were committed, not only by those who were perpetrating them physically but by the ones who were standing passively and silently and doing nothing to intervene.”

The same kind of rhetoric that uses “violent otherization” is being heard again, said Burton. “There can be no doubt that expressions of Antisemitism and Islamophobia are feelings and words and acts of injustice and dehumanization. To the extent that these are allowed to become normalized in our society, we all share culpability if we remain silent and inactive.” He noted that In Islamic tradition, silence is unlawful if three conditions of full certainty are met: that what is happening is truly wrong or evil; that the behavior in question has actually been committed; and that speaking out will remove or reduce the evil that is being committed. If these three conditions are met, then silence is forbidden. “It becomes clear from this that we share a collective obligation to speak out against injustice,” he said.

In her remarks, Linda Glaser noted that hate crimes against Muslims have surged 67%, while 53% of the 1,300 or so religiously-related hate crimes in the U.S. are against Jews. She echoed Burton’s remarks in pointing to the “indignity of difference” as a root cause. “People’s fear of what is unlike themselves makes Jews and Muslims vulnerable, as they have eaten, dressed, worshipped and believed ‘differently’ for millennia,” she said. “Anyone who is different – whether wearing a hijab or a yarmulke – is at risk of this.”

Glaser emphasized the importance of focusing speech, especially political rhetoric, appropriately, so as not to fall into hurtful stereotypes of Jew or Muslim that demonize the “other.” As an example, she pointed to the use of medieval antisemitic tropes used in relation to Jews today. “While medieval antisemitism claimed that ‘Jews are evil, demonic and they kill babies,’ modern antisemitism says ‘the Jewish state is evil, demonic, and kills babies,’” said Glaser. “Such statements are not about political differences but about targeting Jewish identity.”

Small group discussions followed the speakers, after which participants shared their insights and reflections with the entire room. Some described prejudice they’d experienced themselves; others shared what most resonated for them in the speakers’ remarks. When the group was asked whether Ithaca has a problem with Islamophobia and Antisemitism, one participant said, “If we didn’t have a problem, it would be easy to talk about Middle East issues without people getting furious. There’s a problem because we can’t talk about that like we talk about anything else.”

When asked what we can do to combat prejudice in our own communities, one person responded that she wants to learn to be an ally through her speech. Another spoke of reaching out to immigrants in the Ithaca community; a third talked of encouraging companies to be welcoming and inclusive to everyone.

After the discussion, whipped cream, toppings, and multiple flavors of ice cream were put out for a build-your-own ice cream social. Over ice-cream, “participants kept talking, exploring, and sharing – creating understanding, one relationship at a time,” said Glaser, “which is what ICUCME is all about.”

ICUCME is a grass-roots anti-racist community organization working to bring a constructive approach into dialogue about Israel and the Greater Middle East. As a non-partisan organization, ICUCME embraces fact-based, respectful dialogue, mutual recognition, and cooperation to promote understanding and support peace.

Human Rights Education

How should children from kindergarten to 12th grade be educated on topics like human rights? On March 7, Ithaca City School Superintendent Luvelle Brown and Chief Academic Officer Liddy Coyle discussed the district’s approach to engaging, educating, and empowering students, at the Ithaca Coalition for Unity and Cooperation’s (ICUCME) Dinner Conversation Series. A community conversation exploring curriculum development and human rights education followed Dr. Brown’s remarks. The free event began at 6:30 pm with a vegetarian pot-luck at TheSpace@Greenstar.

“The transdisciplinary teaching and learning that is expanding in our school district is exciting and producing amazing results for young people,” said Dr. Brown.

“Human rights are of vital importance to Ithacans, and how our children are educated about human rights is of great concern,” said Linda Glaser, chair of ICUCME. “We were happy to hear about the approach in Ithaca’s schools and have the chance to share our thoughts with district administrators.”

Here are two news videos about the event:

Tackling Human Rights in the ICSD

ICSD Talks Human Rights

Also, see this article in the Ithaca Journal:

Ithaca superintendent discusses evolving curriculum

 

 

 

Faith and Dialogue

“If we put someone in a box, we’re not open to the true communication that leads to real understanding,” said Reverend Jane Thickstun, interim minister of the First Unitarian Society, speaking to a room full of Ithacans at the Ithaca Coalition for Unity and Cooperation in the Middle East’s (ICUCME) Feb. 8 pot-luck and community conversation at the Just Be Cause Center. The topic  – “Faith and Dialgoue” – led Rev. Thickstun into reflections on how stereotypes hinder understanding between people.

Fear is what’s at the root of stereotypes, Rev. Thickstun said. “But if we can be in touch with the goodness within us, the love that flows out from us…If we can get to that point where all faiths bring us to, there’s no need to fear people of other faiths.”

After Rev. Thickstun’s remarks, the room broke into smaller groups and one-on-one conversations, exploring questions like “what assumptions do you make about people of other faiths?” and “does your faith or value system makes you more or less willing to listen to people with differing opinions?”

The entire group came back together to share their discussions, including experiences of faith-based discrimination as well as positive examples of how to conduct conversations with people of strongly held convictions.

The evening concluded with lively music from members of the Cornell University Middle Eastern Music Ensemble and enthusiastic Middle Eastern dancing, featuring the Lebanese Debkeh, taught by Radwan Tajeddine, and Israeli folk dances, taught by Nomi Tami.

 

 

 

Finding Common Ground

On a blustery winter evening, dozens of Ithacans braved sleet and snow to attend “Finding Common Ground,” the Ithaca Coalition for Unity and Cooperation in the Middle East’s (ICUCME) Dec. 6 event at the Just Be Cause Center.

The evening began with a vegetarian pot-luck that included stuffed grape leaves, roasted beets, a tofu casserole, and pizza (popular with the kids), with pastries and fruit for dessert.

Participants then broke into groups of two and three for an in-depth discussion about creating space for others’ points of view (while respecting your own stance), and ways to change the dynamic when faced with disagreement, in order to find common ground.

The lively conversations continued as craft materials were brought out for the fun portion of the evening. Jules Hojnowski demonstrated the art of bobbin lace, while Kay Weed of the Christian Science Center taught an eager crowd how to fold origami “kindness boxes.” The under-ten participants enthusiastically glued beans to paper to create bean mosaic pictures, while a mixed age group created paper flowers out of strips of colored card stock.

At the end of the evening, enthusiastic crafters kept folding and creating while volunteers stacked chairs and folded tables around them. “I think people would have continued crafting sitting on the floor, they were having so much fun,” said event organizer Linda Glaser. But with the snow falling ever more heavily, the last crafter finally ventured reluctantly out into the night, a cheerfully yellow flower in his hand.

 

 

Food, Fun and Conversation

An enthusiastic crowd filled the large multipurpose room at Ithaca’s Just Be Cause Center on Nov. 1 for “Food, Fun and Community Conversation,” sponsored by the Ithaca Coalition for Unity and Cooperation in the Middle East (ICUCME).

“Our whole family really had a great time,” said participant Greg Pitts, a financial advisor with Natural Investments. “People were so friendly and it was good to have a chance to talk about ideology in a positive way. “

The evening began with a Middle Eastern-themed pot-luck that boasted familiar dishes like stuffed grape leaves and babaganoush, as well as more exotic fare like majadra, a lentil dish with pine nuts.

The community conversation on “Beliefs, Facts and Emotion.” began with a role playing exercise done in pairs, as a way to explore what it feels like to have one’s ideology disrespected. Participants then discussed, and shared with the whole group, what techniques can be used in such situations to promote constructive dialogue and avoid argument.

After the organized community conversation ended, the Cornell University Middle Eastern Music Ensemble (CUMEME) performed. The group includes members from diverse nationalities and cultures; they entertained the crowd with selections from a repertoire that includes traditional Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Greek and other music from the Middle East. In keeping with the spirit of the evening, they displayed a sign reading “Playing for Peace.”

Along with music, participants in the ICUCME event enjoyed free henna tattoos by artist Joannah Fine. They could also have a trilingual welcome sign personalized with their family name in Hebrew, Arabic and English.

To see more photos from the “Food, Fun and Community Conversation” event, see the album on ICUCME’s Facebook page.