Like a Knife Through the Heart

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

Opened Qur'an / wikimedia commons

In one of those quirks of the calendar that sometimes seem meant to make us crazy, September 11, a day of contemplation and remembrance for most Americans and one of nasty political opportunism for some, this year is also the joyous Muslim holiday of Eid al-Feitr, celebrating the end of the holy month of Ramadan.

Normally, Muslim communities would have carnival-like celebrations on Eid. This year many will celebrate on another day, or not at all.

On September 10, NPR’s Morning Edition spoke with Imam Kamal Abu-Shamsieh, director of the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno, California, about his community’s plans for Eid. There will be no September 11 celebration, the imam said, for two reasons. First,

We didn’t want any extremists out there to exploit the pain of our country by saying Muslims are celebrating 9/11.

The second reason, he added, is

…the discussion around the proposed Muslim site in lower Manhattan and the escalation of rhetoric on the airwaves. Locally, a mosque was attacked. Out of fear for the safety of our community, we decided not to have huge public gatherings.

These last words – “fear for the safety of our community” – went like a knife through my heart. I know, because I have been there, what it’s like to be part of a religious minority in wartime. And, lest we forget, we are in a war that will never end, and Muslims are being blamed for it, just as Jews were blamed for World War II, blamed by the same kinds of people, although not for the same reasons. There were enemies who could surrender and end World War II, but there are none now, so this war will never end. That may suit those who benefit, with treasure or political power or both, but it is antithetical to the values most of us hold and to our interests. And that we must never forget, either.

On Palm Sunday, in 1995, I gave the sermon in a Unitarian church. I told what it was like to be a Jewish child at Easter during the second world war, how it frightened us, and diminished our parents in our eyes.

The neighborhood I grew up in in Philadelphia was about 80% Jewish. We lived in peace and harmony with the other 20%, almost all of whom went to St. Barbara’s Roman Catholic Church, for 50 weeks out of the year. The other two weeks were those before and after Easter Sunday.

You’ve heard, no doubt, about the pogroms in Eastern Europe in the 19th century, when hordes of drunken peasants rode through the Jewish towns slashing and burning, killing and raping. Well, as Good Friday approached, we had our own scaled down version of the pogroms. The peasants’ role was taken on by the boys who went to St. Barbara’s parochial school.

Whipped to near frenzy by the nuns who taught them how the Jews killed Christ, they were let out an hour early each day of Easter week — just before we were dismissed — and they waited for us behind the walls of their school yard. As we passed they would charge at us, waving baseball bats and sticks, throwing stones, and calling us kikes, Christ killers, and dirty rotten Jews.

Our parents knew about this. We and they knew who the boys were, and our parents knew their parents, but to my knowledge not a single one of our fathers ever called one of their fathers. Our mothers’ lips went white while they washed our wounds, but no one ever suggested that we might fight back, or that things could ever be any different.

Our parents knew, too, about the teachers at the public elementary school who made us sing Christian hymns even though they knew we were Jewish. None of our teachers was Jewish. The teachers — normal school graduates, all of them — had been brought back from retirement so that younger, able bodied people could be freed up for the war effort. In those days a portion of the Bible was read every morning before classes began. The teachers picked the passages and read them to us when we were too little to read for ourselves, or called upon one of us to read.

That’s how I learned about Jesus, which wasn’t a bad thing but made us children feel like outsiders. The readings were always from the Gospels, not from the Psalms or the Old Testament. I used to try to make myself invisible when the teacher was looking for someone to read. I didn’t want to say those words. They weren’t mine. Nothing was ever said that I recall, but I sensed a certain malice on the part of the teachers when they called upon us Jewish children to read the words of the gospels.

Our parents knew about this, but they never complained, nor asked if sometimes, just sometimes, the readings could come from the Old Testament.

In later years, when I was at home with my children on Good Friday, between the hours of noon and three I would grieve as deeply as any Catholic, for the event which, for all any of us knows, is nothing but a myth. I’d play Bach’s St. Matthew Passion or, later, Jesus Christ Superstar, and cry for us all. For the little Jewish kids who stopped so many clubs and stones with their tender little bodies, for the kids at St. Barbara’s, robbed of their humanity by a teaching the persists even today.

In his NPR interview, the Fresno imam was asked whether the community’s children weren’t disappointed that the carnival was cancelled. He replied,

That is the most difficult question I have had to deal with. I have three children myself.  The youngest is five and he asked me, ‘How come, Daddy, you cancelled our holiday?’

Abu-Shamsieh didn’t tell the interviewer how he answered his son. How do you explain to a child who takes your strength and protection for granted that you are powerless against the cruelty and violence that exists in this world? What does your  child take away from this interaction? What does this do to the assumptive state of a five year old boy, at the very point in his life when he is taking notes on the ways of the world?

As I write this it remains unclear whether that awful man in Florida will burn copies of the Qu’ran on September 11. When I was a child, if a bible fell on the floor you picked it up and kissed it. I remember seeing newsreels of people in Germany burning books during WWII. To me, the thought of burning anyone’s holy book is horrid. It’s wrong to burn the Qu’ran because it’s disrespectful of people’s beliefs and their desire to be good, not only because Americans might be hurt.

If the burning takes place, a group of us in this tiny town will read portions of the Qu’ran aloud, selfishly, perhaps, so we can feel we’ve dispelled a bit of the shame we’ll be feeling.

The Friends Committee on National Legislation, the oldest religious lobbying group in the US, and one of the most effective, although it hasn’t yet brought an end to war, is sponsoring a petition to be delivered on 9/11 to people trying to organize a Muslim community center in Lower Manhattan. No one seems to be upset by the massage parlors and peep shows already there, but defeating a center open to people of all faiths, or none, seems to be the current mission of the political hatemongers.

If you want to see the petition, and perhaps to sign it, find it here.

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