June 25, 2012
Jews lived all over the Middle East and North Africa for thousands of years, and they lived among Arab Muslims for more than 1,000 years, but they’re almost extinct now in the Arab world. Arabs and Jews didn’t live well together, exactly, but they co-existed five times longer than the United States has existed. They weren’t always token minorities, either. Baghdad was almost a third Jewish during the first half of the 20th century. Morocco and Tunisia are the last holdouts. In Tunisia, only 1,500 remain.
What happened? What changed? Islam didn’t happen all of a sudden, nor did the arrival of Arabs in Mesopotamia, the Levant, and North Africa. Both have been firmly in place since the 7th century. A far more recent cascade of events transformed the region, and for the worse: the occupation of Arab lands by Nazi Germany and its puppet Vichy France, the Holocaust, post-Ottoman Arab Nationalism, Israel’s declaration of independence, and the Arab-Israeli conflict.
As a consequence of all that, rather than the Arab invasion or the rise of the Islamic religion, almost the entire Arab world is Judenrein now. And since the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic Republic regime in Iran, relations between Arabs and Jews are worse than they were at any time during the entire history of either.
Yet 1,500 Jews hang on in Tunisia. The ancien Ben Ali regime kept them safe, as has Tunisia’s relatively tolerant and cosmopolitan culture. But what will become of them now that Ben Ali is in exile and his government is overthrown?
I met with Haim Bittan, the chief rabbi of Tunis. My colleague Armin Rosen joined me, as did our fixer and translator Ahmed Medien.
“You should say something to the rabbi in Hebrew,” Ahmed told Armin. Armin is Jewish and speaks a bit of the language of Israel. “It will make him happy.”
The three of us met the rabbi and his assistant in an office behind an enormous synagogue in central Tunis. I wanted to take a picture of the synagogue, but the police wouldn’t let me. They’re worried someone might bomb it. I found one on Wikipedia, though.
Armin took Ahmed’s advice and greeted the rabbi and his assistant in Hebrew. Their faces lit up. It was an interesting moment. There were five of us in that room. Three Jews, one nominal Christian (me), and one nominal Muslim (Ahmed). For the first time since Armin arrived in the country, he wasn’t the token Jew in the room.
“How has the situation here changed for the Jews of Tunisia,” I said, “since the fall of Ben Ali?”
“Nothing has changed,” the rabbi said. “It’s the same situation since Ben Ali’s fall.”
“This is a country ruled by an Islamist government,” Armin said. “Do you feel that presents any problems for the Jewish community?
“There’s no problem between the government and the Jewish community,” the rabbi said.
“But I have seen photographs of Salafists with their black flag in front of the synagogue here intimidating people,” I said. “Was that a one-time event, or are you worried they might become increasingly dangerous?”
“They don’t bother me,” the rabbi said. “They lived with us before. That incident was their business, not ours.”
What kind of answers were these?
Ahmed, our Tunisian translator and fixer, had a question of his own for the rabbi.
“Does it bother you that some people want Islamic law in the constitution?” he said.
“There’s no problem at all,” the rabbi said, “because the constitution is not written.”
“He doesn’t want to answer,” Ahmed said quietly to Armin and me as he leaned back in his chair.
I’m not even sure why the rabbi agreed to be interviewed. He answered almost all of our questions this way, as did his assistant. They answered as though the entire Arab world would judge them for what they said and pounce if they uttered a peep of complaint. They reminded me of citizens of police states who are asked on the record what they think of the government.
I didn’t want to get them in trouble or give them the third degree, but I needed something other than packaged boilerplate answers, so I chose a question that couldn’t be easily dodged. The rabbi’s assistant wore a black yarmulke or kippah on the top of his head, which marked him out as an obvious Jew, and I addressed my question to him.
“Do you walk around, either of you, on the street wearing the kippah?”
He vigorously shook his head. “We don’t,” he said. “People might think we’re Zionists and we don’t want that, so we wear a hat.”
They had at least one problem then. They felt the need to be closeted, at least on the street. That’s never a good sign.
Christians don’t have to hide the fact that they’re Christian. Everyone in Tunisia who so much as glanced at me surely assumed I’m a Christian (that is, if they gave the matter any thought in the first place) since I look European. Nearly all were perfectly friendly.
They were perfectly friendly to Armin, as well. His complexion makes him look ethnically ambiguous. He could be Hispanic, Arab, Italian, Israeli. He could be many things. He received no more and no less hospitality than I did. But what if he walked around wearing a kippah or a necklace with a six-pointed star? The rabbi’s assistant wouldn’t dare.
It’s hard to say, though, how much trouble Armin actually would have faced had he done that. Israelis can and do visit Tunisia. They can do so on their own passports. They don’t have to use second passports from a country like Britain or the United States the way Israeli visitors to Lebanon do.
And here’s the thing: when you visit Tunisia you have to produce your passport a lot. You have to produce your passport every time you check into a hotel. You have to produce your passport to rent a car. You have to show your passport to police officers and the national guard at checkpoints. (That happened to me a number times.) So Israelis—not just Jews, but Israelis—can and do wander around all over Tunisia and announce to the police and to the staff at hotels, airports, and car rental offices that they’re Israelis. And supposedly they don’t experience any problems.
I’m not sure what to make of it. I’d like to report that the Jews are doing just fine, but if that’s the case, why were the rabbi and his assistant so cagey? And why wouldn’t they go out in public looking like Jews? Ahmed didn’t even blink when Armin told him he’s Jewish, nor did he mind in the slightest that Armin and I have both been to Israel. Ahmed, though, is a well-educated tri-lingual professional, and his own views of the Arab-Israeli conflict are, shall we say, unconventional compared with those of his neighbors…
Claremont School of Theology was founded 126 years ago to create Methodist ministers. Now they have plans to train rabbis and imams. The idea has agitated people inside and outside the institution.
June 25, 2012
“Have you seen our prayer room?”
Mahmoud Harmoush bolts up a stairway on the campus of Claremont School of Theology, the tails of his navy sports coat flying. He’s a stocky man of 52, quick on his feet, with a beard flecked salt and pepper. On the first day of spring semester, just a few students have returned to the United Methodist graduate school in this Southern California college town. Harmoush, a master’s candidate, had hustled from his home in Temecula—an hour south—to an 8:30 class that morning on interfaith counseling, driven home, and then returned. He was ready to dash to an afternoon seminar on Islamic law, but was happy to take time for a tour.
Pushing open the door marked “Cornish Rogers Prayer Room,” he steps into an area that could have been sized for a toddler’s bedroom. There is no furniture, just forest-green carpeting and a window facing east. Rumpled rugs are stacked against a wall. Photocopies of various religious symbols, including a cross, a Star of David, and the star and crescent, adorn the wall. This is where Muslims can pray when on campus. Before Claremont created the space, “Muslims pray outside, on the walk,” Harmoush says cheerfully.
A Syrian-born and trained imam who’s studying at a Protestant seminary, Harmoush is a participant in a grand, and truly American, theological experiment. At its core it asks if followers of Abraham’s three faiths—Christianity, Islam, and Judaism—can, or should, study religion together.
LAST YEAR, AFTER 126 YEARS of preparing students for Christian ministry, the Claremont School of Theology announced that it had forged partnerships with a Los Angeles rabbinical school and a mosque to create Claremont Lincoln University, an institution that plans to train ministers alongside rabbis, imams, and scholars of other faiths. The alliance, the schools say, will create the nation’s first Islamic seminary, awarding the country’s first graduate degrees in Muslim leadership.
The Claremont Lincoln idea seems a natural product of the intellectual fervor that bubbles in the city of Claremont. The seminary sits across the street from the Claremont Colleges, a consortium of five liberal arts colleges and two graduate institutions that echo the Oxford-Cambridge model. The schools share facilities and services, such as the library, and students often take courses at the sister institutions, yet each school has a distinct mission.
Claremont’s community—and even scholars at competing schools—say Claremont Lincoln could be a worldwide model for teaching religion and political ethics, helping societies bridge differences and end conflict. Claremont Lincoln’s new partnerships—started in 2010—link the 224 students at Claremont’s theology school with 61 students at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California, a 12-year-old school a hour’s drive west at the University of California at Los Angeles.
In its infancy is another partnership, which would link Claremont with the future Bayan Claremont College, being established by the Islamic Center of Southern California, a mosque just west of downtown Los Angeles. Administrators at Bayan hope to build a $50 million center to educate Islamic students and imams, men and women.
Claremont Lincoln partners are quick to explain that rabbinical and divinity candidates, as well as future imams, will study at their religiously and geographically separate academies, but will join together at Claremont Lincoln for required and elective interfaith courses. This spring, for example, 30 CLU graduate students enrolled in programs that included interreligious studies, conflict resolution, and Muslim leadership.
The idea is to “desegregate religious education,” says Jerry Campbell, Claremont seminary’s president. In a world where people of different faiths are expected to work together, it doesn’t make sense, he says, to educate Muslim and Christian leaders separately and expect them to figure out later how to get everyone to get along.
“What we’ve done with Claremont Lincoln is to create a new market niche,” says Campbell, leaning back in his chair in an office that overlooks the campus and the San Gabriel Mountains. “We’re a premier place for being able to learn about your neighbors.”
Claremont’s lofty goals, though, have agitated people inside and outside the faith: some scholars say they doubt there is enough need or demand to keep open a school for imams in the U.S. or that its graduates would find much work at mosques; and several United Methodists have accused Claremont’s administration of chasing an educational fad to keep alive an institution that has struggled financially and was on the verge of losing its accreditation…
June 25, 2012
Many New Orleanians credit the Times-Picayune with uniting the city in the aftermath of 2005′s devastating Hurricane Katrina. And now, the paper is showing its unifying power again in the wake of another upheaval.
Journalists and non-journalists, lifelong residents and residents-at-heart have come together to protest changes to the city’s beloved newspaper, which will no longer publish seven days a week come fall and will become a more digitally focused product.
City residents wasted little time in making their displeasure known. Hundreds of people attended a rally soon after the announcement to support the paper and its staff, about a third of which will be let go.
Since the brouhaha began, readers have bought “The Some-Times Picayune” and “Save The Picayune: Don’t Let Bylines be Bygones” protest T-shirts, hung support banners on fences, posted “Wanted” signs for new Publisher Ricky Mathews and bought Times-Picayune stud pins in support of the paper’s employees.
In addition to emotional support, readers, angered at the deep staff cuts, are also raising money to help those who are losing their jobs at the paper.
Despite the public outrage, the Newhouse family’s Advance Publications, which owns the paper, has not wavered from its plans to build what it calls a company that can grow in the digital age. Those plans include reducing the frequency of print publication to three days a week in New Orleans and at its three Alabama newspapers.
“Not evolving was not going to be a winning strategy,” Randy Siegel, Advance’s president of local digital strategy, told AJR earlier this month. “And we’ve watched very closely in all our markets how our readers and advertisers are using digital products and services to get their news and information.”
Here are some of the people who are protesting the company’s new approach and rallying to support its staff:
Rebecca Theim, who worked at the Times-Picayune from 1988 to 1994, had kept in touch with a small group of staffers, and she has reconnected with many others as the heartbreak at the paper has unfolded.
“That’s probably the only good thing that’s come out of this,” Theim says. “It’s such a sad thing otherwise.”
Theim finds “disgraceful” the way Advance Publications has handled the situation and treated the staffers. She says the company “owes a lot of people a heartfelt apology.” Like the public, staffers learned about the unsettling changes when the New York Times broke the story the night of May 23. The paper hurriedly put together an official announcement that ran in the Times-Picayune the following day.
The following week, Theim, who now lives in Las Vegas and works as a writer for the marketing firm behind “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” began a petition on Change.org that has gathered more than 8,600 signatures. The petition asks people to show their support by signing to “implore Advance and the Newhouses to maintain the publishing frequency and proud legacy of The Times-Picayune and its other newspapers.”
Signers include “Doonesbury” cartoonist Garry Trudeau, actor Ed Asner (whose Lou Grant character has been used in protest of the paper’s changes), author Anne Rice, Democratic strategist and CNN political contributor James Carville and musicians Branford Marsalis and Marcia Ball.
“This started out as me being a frustrated alum” living almost 2,000 miles away from New Orleans “and not feeling like I could do much to help,” Theim says. “It’s the one great thing I think I could do. It’s just an opportunity to have one more concrete manifestation of the kind of support that this paper and these people have, not just in New Orleans but across the country, both from alums and the people who came to love [the paper] over the years, and certainly in the aftermath of Katrina.”
Theim has also contacted the publicist for comedian and TV host Ellen DeGeneres, who was born in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie, and the assistant to Hoda Kotb, co-host of the fourth hour of NBC’s “Today” show, who worked for a CBS affiliate in New Orleans from 1992 to 1998. As of June 22, Theim was still waiting on their responses to her request to sign the petition.
“The outcry has been amazing,” Theim says. “This city embraced that paper in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, because everyone at that paper went to heroic efforts to keep that community and the world informed.”
She also helped start dashThirtydash, a fund set up to financially aid staffers who are let go or demoted. The name comes from the “-30-” symbol formerly used to indicate the end of a news story. A reporter from the Huntsville Times, a Newhouse paper in Alabama going through similar changes, contacted Theim for help in creating such a fund for affected staffers.
“I’ve lost my job three times in the corporate world, and I know how devastating it can be emotionally and financially,” Theim says.
The dashThirtydash fund was modeled after The Friends of the Times-Picayune Relief Fund, started after Katrina to help staffers who had lost their homes in the storm. Donors from both in the city and out of town have contacted Theim about donating in support of the paper.
Bruce Nolan, a 41-year Times-Picayune veteran who has not been asked to stay with the paper, contributed $1,000 to the fund. New Orleans resident Julius Cain, a BBC Worldwide Americas vice president, has also donated $1,000.
Keeping up with the Twitter and Facebook accounts and running the dashThirtydash fund takes a lot of time and energy, but Theim is passionate about helping her Times-Picayune family.
“My husband’s ready to divorce me,” she jokes. “When I’m not at my day job, I’m doing that: Trying to rally the troops.”…