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Building Unity, Cleaning the Hate: 2018

Participants under the tent, during discussion

Despite sweltering heat, dozens of caring Ithacans turned out to clean Wood Street Park for the third annual “Building Unity, Cleaning the Hate” event sponsored by the Ithaca Coalition of Unity and Cooperation in the Middle East (ICUCME). As Mayor Svante Myrick commented about the event, “Cleaning up your community does more than just show you love this place. It shows you love your neighbor. We need those demonstrations now more than ever — we need to do more than we ever have.”

Before the clean-up, participants broke bread together with a vegetarian pot-luck, then divided into small groups for a community discussion on what “cleaning the hate” meant to them. One group reflected on the word “hate” itself, considering whether something focused on the “isms,” like racism, that divide us would have been a better choice.

Another group discussed how they personally “clean the hate” in the world, offering examples such as donating to worthy causes and volunteering to help migrant workers. Yet another group talked about how much hate has infected politics.

The conversations continued even after organizers announced it was time to begin the park clean-up. Participants collected gloves and trash bags donated by Wegmans, then headed out, still talking, into what many had commented seemed like a very clean park. In the end, though, two large black garbage bags full of trash were removed from the park, a satisfying end to a successful event.

 

Nonviolent Protests from MLK, Jr., to the Middle East

What constitutes nonviolent protest? On May 22, the Ithaca Coalition for Unity and Cooperation in the Middle East explored the question in the Borg Warner Room at Tompkins County Public Library.

The evening began with a talk by Riché Richardson, Cornell associate professor of Africana studies, in which she shared the human side of Martin Luther King, Jr., offering reminisces of growing up in the town where he lived. An academic scholar as well as a renowned visual artist, Richardson also discussed how she has repurposed one of her mixed-media appliqué art quilts depicting Rosa Parks, which hangs in the Rosa Parks Museum, to honor the memory of those killed by police violence.

Richardson then discussed the principles of nonviolence described in Dr. King’s first book, Stride Toward Freedom:

  1. Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people.
  2. Nonviolence seeks to win friendship and understanding.
  3. Nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice not people.
  4. Nonviolence holds that suffering can educate and transform.
  5. Nonviolence chooses love instead of hate.

Following Richardson’s talk, a discussion began around how to understand the recent events in Gaza. The discussion was contentious: some attendees completely rejected reports in the New York Times that protesters have thrown Molotov cocktails and rocks, set fields on fire and used guns, insisting that the protesters have been entirely nonviolent. Others noted that the events in Gaza included a mixture of violent and non-violent participants, and raised the question whether Dr. King would have said the violence is justified. One person stated his belief that Israel has no recognized borders, which meant that Israel had no right to defend its border wall against protesters. Others offered historical context for the suffering in Gaza that had sparked the protest, noting that Hamas has drained the Gazan economy dry to fund terror tunnels and rockets, rather than using the money to help the Palestinian people.

The evening ended with Richardson urging participants to listen to one another and to take to heart Dr. King’s principles.

Moderator Linda Glaser in front of an image of an art quilt by Professor Richardson.

Persecuted Christians in the Middle East

Juliana Taimoorazy in front of an image of the Arabic letter "N" with which the Islamic State marked Assyrian Christian homes
Juliana Taimoorazy stands in front of an image of the Arabic letter “N” with which the Islamic State marked Assyrian Christian homes. Photo credit: Phil Glaser

In 2003, there were 1.5 million Assyrian Christians in Iraq. There are barely 200,000 now.

“Iraq used to be a beautiful mosaic of Assyrian Christians, Yazdis, Muslims, Jews, Mandaeism [followers of John the Baptist] – we want to bring that back. I’ve dedicated my life to bringing that back,” said Juliana Taimoorazy, founder and president of the Iraqi Christian Relief Council and the senior fellow of the Philos Project. She spoke April 18 at Tompkins County Public Library’s Borg Warner Room, in an event sponsored by the Ithaca Coalition for Unity and Cooperation in the Middle East (ICUCME).

The Assyrians (also known as Syriacs and Chaldeans) are the indigenous people in Iraq. Neither Arab, Kurd, nor Syrian, the Aramaic-speaking people have lived in the Nineveh area continuously for 6,700 years: they’re descended from the Ninevites in the biblical story of Jonah. The ancient community was converted to Christianity by Saint Thomas the Apostle almost 2,000 years ago.

According to Taimoorazy, there are only 3.5 million Assyrians left in the world. “Religious persecution and harassment in the Middle East, Arabization, Kurdification, coupled with assimilation, means that in 100 years our community will disappear,” she said.

When the Islamic State took the Iraqi city of Mosul, they systematically set about destroying the Christian community and its churches. Tens of thousands of Christians fled; no more than 15 families have returned since ISIS was driven out of the city.

“Christians are afraid to live in Mosul again, because their neighbors turned them in to ISIS and their houses were marked with the Arabic alphabet letter ‘N’ for Nazarene,” said Taimoorazy. “The Assyrian women were violated in front of their families, the fathers were executed. People were crucified in public. Women were sold as sex slaves – they traded them as young as 3 years old for a pack of cigarettes.”

But as bad as it has been, the persecution of the Assyrian Christian community did not begin with ISIS, Taimoorazy said. The Ottoman Empire killed two out of three Assyrians and destroyed numerous churches. Eight people in Taimoorazy’s own family were killed by the Kurds and the Ottomans.

At age 16, Taimoorazy’s parents smuggled her out of her native Iran at great expense and risk to seek religious asylum in Germany. Eventually she came to the U.S. as a refugee. She obtained a Master’s degree from Northeastern Illinois University and is now a Senior Fellow of the Philos Project, Since founding the Iraqi Christian Relief Council (ICRC), she has worked tirelessly on behalf of the Assyrian community.

“A week ago I was in Iraq and we distributed food to 1,000 families,” she said. “We support them with clean water, food, with whatever they tell us they need.” She described the wretched conditions of the refugees – in one camp, 1,200 people lived in shipping containers, with only 8 toilets and 4 showers and 2 sinks for the entire camp.

“There is so much to do: it’s Ground Zero,” said Taimoorazy. “It’s like after a hurricane. So much needs rebuilding.”

ICRC distributes emergency humanitarian relief, including food, shelter and medicine, and advocates on behalf of Assyrian Christians in Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey. One of the projects Taimoorazy described is “Operation Return to Nineveh,” a campaign to help Assyrian refugees return to their homes. Another is the Nineveh Center for Education and Reconciliation, a center that will offer help with everything from job creation to psychological healing to youth activities. In addition, Taimoorazy is looking for partners to re-create a library in Beghdedeh (Qaraqosh), since the Islamic State targeted libraries and books as well as churches for destruction.

In her introduction, ICUCME chair Linda Glaser lauded Taimoorazy’s dedication and hard work. She noted that the April 18 talk was being held on the 70th anniversary of the creation of Israel, which triggered a massive redistribution of populations in the Middle East. “Somewhere between 500,000 and 700,000 Arabs left or fled what became Israel; they are now known as Palestinians,” said Glaser. “At the same time, 800,000 Jews were forced to leave Arab countries throughout the Middle East. Ancient Jewish communities in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere essentially disappeared, forced to abandon their homes and property, just like the ancient Assyrian Christian community has been forced to do because of persecution.”

How to Spot Fake News

A shocking headline shows up in your news feed, but is it real or clickbait? How do you know? On Feb. 6, community members gathered for an ICUCME Dinner Conversation and a talk by Cornell librarian Michael Engle on “How to Spot Fake News.” The pot-luck preceding the talk was enlivened by music by Cayuga Klezmer Kapelye, which also played a short concert after the evening’s discussion ended.

Engle summed up his advice in one word: accountability. “Use news sources that are accountable and which have a transparent set of ethical journalism guidelines,” he said.

He urged the group to take a step back from news items that are emotionally attractive and to ask whether you’re passing on the news because it’s emotionally satisfying or because it’s journalistically accurate content.

ICUCME chair Linda Glaser noted in her introduction that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is plagued with misinformation, which makes it hard to have the kind of productive dialogue for which ICUCME advocates. As an example, she recalled that in 2015 major news outlets including the Daily Mail, Agence France Presse, Al Jazeera and Vice News reported that Israel had opened dams leading into the Gaza strip, worsening the flooding there and causing widespread destruction.

But there are no dams in southern Israel. “Rather than talking about the real suffering of the people in Gaza and how to help them with the flooding, news outlets ran stories about fake Israeli dams, which helped no one,” said Glaser.

To avoid falling for such fake news, Engle advised taking seven basic steps:

  1. Look at the URL of the news sources. Fake news sources often have .co at the end; also, other countries have different ending extensions from American sources.
  2. Don’t just read the headline. Most situations are complex and you can’t understand those complexities from a headline.
  3. Ask who wrote the content. Is there a by-line, and a real person taking responsibility for that content? Do a little exploring.
  4. Have a variety of news sources and compare stories across those sources.
  5. Check the date. A lot of news from unreliable sources is old and gets re-posted as something new.
  6. Click on the links. Do they support the content?
  7. Check your biases. We can fool ourselves as we seek to be confirmed in what we already believe.

Sometimes, said Engle, part of a news story can be true by the upshot can be false. And accurate news can come from sources across the political spectrum. But be careful that you’ve identified what you’re reading: is it opinion or analysis, or is intended as straight news?

As one participant commented at the end of the evening, “This was really useful. I wish everyone would follow these guidelines before sharing some of the so-called news that comes across my feed every day.”

Free Speech vs. Hate Speech

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right of free speech to all Americans. But is hate speech protected? Should it be? And what constitutes hate speech – different groups seem to have very different definitions. These questions and more were examined Dec. 5 at “Free Speech vs. Hate Speech: An Ithaca Conversation,” part of the Dinner Conversation Series hosted by the Ithaca Coalition for Unity and Cooperation in the Middle East (ICUCME).

The evening began with reading the text of the First Amendment. Facilitator Linda Glaser, chair of ICUCME, introduced the discussion by pointing out that there is no definition of “hate speech” in the Constitution.

Breaking into small groups, participants discussed three scenarios; the first, about the boundaries of political speech. “There is a difference between hateful speech and hate speech,” said one participant, advocating for the protection of “hateful” speech but not for hate speech. “Hateful” speech should be seen as an opportunity for education, she said.

Participants for the most part came down strongly on the side of free speech, regardless of content. “As one commentator recently noted, ‘free speech is not something we do because we agree with all of the speech that gets protected. We do it because we believe that no one—not the government and not private commercial enterprises—should decide who gets to speak and who doesn’t,’” said Glaser.

The second scenario focused on whether speech in and of itself can be violent, as a statement by a group of Vassar students contends: “speech, whether it is legal or not, can be and is violent,” they wrote. “We have a collective responsibility to stand up for those in our communities who are harmed or disenfranchised by speech, whether it is legally permissible or not.”

One person commented that this type of outcry on campuses against hate speech is the logical extension of the anti-bulllying training children now receive in elementary school. They are taught not to stand by while a bully says or does something hurtful to someone else – hence the sentiment on campuses that hate speech should not be protected.

The line blurred a bit when talking about speakers who use their platform to recruit others to condemn or brutalize those who are different from them. One participant said it’s easier to condemn those speaking out against marginalized groups; the same speech against powerful groups, like the rich, doesn’t feel hateful in the same way.

The definition of hate speech that drew universal condemnation from participants was speech that incites immediate violence – though even there, some participants said that those committing the violence, not the speaker, should be punished.

The third scenario raised the question of whether deliberately presenting falsehoods to gain sympathy for a political viewpoint is protected speech. The example offered was that of Rutgers University professor Jasbir Puar, who asserted falsely in a talk at Vassar College that Israel kills Palestinians for the purpose of harvesting their organs.

This was a difficult question, said discussants. “Certainly such lies should not be let to stand,” said one person.

But at a time when “truthiness” has replaced truth in the popular imagination and politicians feel no compulsion about uttering complete falsehoods, said another participant, how do you get academics to see beyond their own political viewpoints and adhere to standards of critical thinking and verifiable facts?

 

Teaching tolerance; teaching peace

On Nov. 7, community members gathered for ICUCME’s monthly Dinner Conversation to talk about teaching tolerance, but speaker Mihal Ronen challenged attendees by asking whether being “tolerant” should really be the goal. “Think of it instead as teaching peace,” said Ronen, who has been teaching for 27 years and is currently a 2nd grade teacher at Ithaca’s Fall Creek Elementary School.

Ronen offered examples of her techniques to teach children “to be human beings,” such as helping them learn how to recognize their feelings and to respond to others with curiosity rather than fear. Each day, she teaches them to say “good morning” in a language other than English. “Different languages are like stretching, yoga for your mouth,” she explained.

Non-Violent Communication (NVC) techniques have been valuable to help students understand their own needs and that of others, said Ronen. The techniques are helpful to parents, too, as one participant attested. Ronen agreed.  “A lot of unkind behavior is rooted in fear, and that fear doesn’t end when you become 18,” she said.

In her remarks, ICUCME chair Linda Glaser echoed Ronen’s emphasis on teaching peace rather than fomenting fear. She cited the bilingual Arab-Jewish Hand in Hand Schools in Israel as models for how to teach coexistence and build a peaceful society.

But what inspired the topic for the Dinner Conversation, said Glaser, was a disturbing report on new United Nations Relief and Works Agency textbooks produced for Palestinian Authority schools. The textbooks deliberately foster a culture of fear and hatred; one book refers to a Molotov cocktail attack on an Israeli civilian bus as a “barbecue party.”

“Most chilling of all,” said Glaser, “the texbooks state that after the Palestinians win total control of the land, the 6 million Jews living in Israel ‘will endure expulsion from the land and extermination of its defeated and scattered remnants.’”

After reading this report, said Glaser, ICUCME felt it was important to examine what teaching for peace really looks like.

As one participant said after the group discussion, “Peace is a behavior. You can think whatever you want: it’s what you do that matters.”

Wrestling Jerusalem

Seventeen characters, all played by one man: rabbi, Palestinian woman, Israeli soldier, Muslim…each fully realized in a tour-de-force performance by writer-actor Aaron Davidman. “Wrestling Jerusalem,” screened Oct. 24 at Cinemapolis in Ithaca, is a movie adaptation of Davidman’s one-man show exploring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The film, and the panel following, were co-sponsored by the Ithaca Coalition for Unity and Cooperation in the Middle East (ICUCME) and local artist Philip Donovan. Nearly 100 people attended.

“What Davidman wants us to do is empathize with all these characters, to step out of our comfort zone and hear what they’re trying to tell us,” said panelist Miriam Elman, associate professor of political science and the Robert D. McClure Professor of Teaching Excellence at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs. She is also a research director in the Program for the Advancement of Research on Conflict and Collaboration (PARCC) and co-editor of “Jerusalem: Conflict and Cooperation in a Contested City” and “Democracy and Conflict Resolution: The Dilemmas of Israel’s Peacemaking.”

“The film shows a lot of pain and loss on both sides,” said Elman. “It shows multiple representations and we need to hear that. There are no binaries in this film, that’s too simple for Davidman. Everyone needs to step out of  their preconceived biases and the film is pushing us to do that.”

Elman said that in her research on the settler movement, “the vast majority of Israelis who I interviewed in the West Bank were driven by fear, not hate.” The answer offered by “Wrestling Jerusalem,” she said, “is to hold more sane and meaningful discussions, an important start to peace.”

Inbal Shlosberg

Panelist Inbal Shlosberg agreed, adding that “We should do more, like this film does, to show the complexity of the situation. We should talk about the deep inner views of all the perspectives, not just present it as two sides.” Shlosberg is an organizer for Women Wage Peace, an Israeli-Palestinian grassroots movement with members from the political right, center, and left, and including both religious and secular women, together demanding a political agreement to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As a social worker, Shlosberg said she could really identify with the cycle of trauma that Davidman talked about in the film, trauma passed from generation to generation by both Israelis and Palestinians. Reflecting on the fear and insecurity that is guiding their actions and reactions, she said: “I grew up on the border of Lebanon and I saw a lot of missiles. I felt traumatized, and sometimes unsafe but I also felt resilient because I overcame the trauma.”

Shlosberg worked with the Jewish community next to the Gaza strip during the 2014 war, and spoke about the trauma felt from the deaths on both sides of the border. “Growing from the trauma as individuals, as a community and as a nation is our mission,” she said, noting that after that summer Women Wage Peace was established as a way to transform the trauma into constructive action.

“Dialogue-based initiatives and grassroots efforts are the answer,” Shlosberg concluded. “I encourage you to learn more about and support those kinds of organizations, like Women Wage Peace.”

The Moral Imperative

Margot Brinn and Karryn Ramanujan from the Ithaca Baha'i community

The Syrian civil war has killed almost half a million people. Money donated to help Syrians often can’t reach them.  The medical infrastructure in Syria is in terrible shape. Victims of the war as well as people with cancer and other diseases are unable to get the help they need.

The Ithaca Coalition for Unity and Cooperation in the Middle East (ICUCME) dedicated its first Dinner Conversation of the year to raise money for a hospital that has been able to help Syrians. In the past few years 2,500 Syrians with serious medical problems have clandestinely crossed the border into Israel to receive medical treatment at Ziv Hospital.

While that is a drop in the bucket to what is needed, it expresses ICUCME core values of human-to-human connection, since officially Syria and Israel are still at war. Yet even enemy combatants – men wounded fighting in battles, not just women and children — are being treated at Ziv with the same level of care as Israeli Arabs and Jews are given. The money raised at ICUCME’s Dinner Conversation will go towards supporting the free medical treatment the Syrians are receiving.

After partaking of a delicious pot-luck, the Oct. 3 Dinner Conversation began with Margot Brinn and Karryn Olson-Ramanujan from the Bahai’i community offering a brief introduction to Baha’i history and beliefs. They then distributed quotes for discussion from the Baha’u’llah, who founded the Baha’i in Iran in the 19th century, and explained the technique Baha’i use when considering such passages.

The conversation then segued into a larger consideration of the evening’s theme of the moral imperative. One question discussed – should you offer aid to your enemies who might then hurt you? – inspired one participant to share the Baha’u’llah quote she’d been discussing: “When a thought of war comes, oppose it by a stronger thought of peace. A thought of hatred must be destroyed by a more powerful thought of love.”

Said her discussion partner: You should offer aid to your enemy, because by showing compassion to someone who might hurt you in the future, you could potentially change that future.

Participants also explored their own moral beliefs and the family and social context in which they were formed. They then considered how to balance one’s own well-being with moral obligation. But for one participant, a retired math professor, there was no possible conflict: by being true to one’s own moral soul, helping others was on behalf of one’s own well-being.

After the discussion, participants used glue, scissors, stickers, and felt shapes to create get-well cards for Syrian children being treated at Ziv Hospital. Said one card-maker, “I just want those kids to know someone in Ithaca cares.”

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/.