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Five Reflections on America in Transition

This article was published on the Huffington Post Blog November 25, 2016 


In my capacity as the CEO of Tanenbaum (an organization that tackles religious conflicts so that difference will be respected), the 2016 election was hard. The identity politics and lingo of hatred were the opposite of the kind of country we want to live in – from the targeting of Muslims, characterizing homeless Syrian refugees as automatic extremists, to the sudden and growing reality of swastikas in the public space, and the economic, social and racial divide within the country.

In the weeks following the election, I’ve had the chance to reflect with the people around me. It’s been a haunting journey with fear, sorrow, hope and a few hard lessons learned. With respect, I share my Five Reflections with you now.

Reflection #1 The feeling that “I’m in real danger” is palpable.

Immediately after the election, I felt a need to reach out to people I care about, just to touch base. I heard from friends who had supported the President-elect, but were upset about the hate rhetoric and worried that it might not recede. Others shared concerns – their responses left me breathless.

From my Sikh doctor friend, who is also a Major in the U.S. Army:

“I feel that the tone [during and after the election] has created animosity and division. This will be yet another crucible that Sikhs, Muslims and other minorities will endure. … The Republican Party needs to show America that it still cares about ideals such as diversity and religious freedom that have made us great. So far their silence has shown a complicit support of hateful rhetoric and has many of us wondering if America is really two very divided nations?”

From my friend, a successful professional woman, and a Muslim:

“I will never, ever, ever forget the night my babies went to sleep crying in fear. the sick feeling in my stomach got even worse with the appointment of Bannon.”

From an African-American Communications expert:

“I’m dumbfounded by the number of people who voted for Trump who didn’t do so because they are themselves racists, xenophobes or misogynists, but because the racism, xenophobia and misogyny that Trump spewed didn’t even register for them. Of course, being blind to it (or turning a blind eye to it) equates to tacit approval of those mindsets and that’s what so shocking and frankly frightening, especially when it comes to my own mixed-race family that I feel now I must be on constant guard to protect.”

From an academic leader who is Catholic:

“I am trying to ‘lead’ as faculty staff and students struggle with how to respond, from offering sanctuary to undocumented students, to forming a ‘resistance movement.’ Sadly, there has also been some ugliness. Sigh.”

From a Christian woman who cares for other people’s children and their homes:

“What will happen to women in America?”

Reflection #2: The fears are grounded in reality.

In addition to the news of protestors, the debates on whether to acknowledge President-elect Trump as our duly elected leader, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported an uptick in hate crimes after the election (based on reports, not all of which could then be verified). This was alarming given the FBI’s 2015 report that hate crimes had escalated, with a 67% increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes from 2014 to 2015. I am terrified by how some people with racist views have gone public and now seem comfortable freely expressing their prejudice. When did anti-Semitism stop being a dirty word?

But I’m also seeing the ugliness up close, within my personal community.

From a colleague:

“My son’s school had mass protests today after these messages were found yesterday: ‘F—k stupid Latino immigrants … F—k N—s … ISIS is calling, Muslims can leave … (Heart) Trump!’ He was leading the charge (yes, I’m proud of him).”

Photographed at a university in New York | 2016

Photographed at a university in New York | 2016

From a Union Employee Campaigning in Virginia:

“My whole life, I never felt anything about race. But when I was in Virginia knocking on doors for the election, the people would slam the doors in my face, shouting N—.”

Reflection #3: Some people are feeling paralyzed – while others are in “doing” mode, to protect an inclusive social fabric.

I personally witnessed responses from people in my community, and noted with surprise that I had moments of challenge with moving forward. I am a true believer in respectful exchanges and the power of listening to understand rather than confront. So I surprised myself when I attended a one-year old’s birthday party and met someone I had not known from the Midwest.

Though I am almost always a friendly type, I found myself uncomfortable – an unusual experience for me – wondering how to talk about the election and whether we would be able to do so. Though I opted to jump in, as per usual, it was not without trepidation. And that is new. For the record, we shared a concern about division in our country, and what we agreed is a surge in the normalization of hatemongering.

Yet, across the country, and certainly in New York, people dedicated to justice and respect for all came together. Tanenbaum was among the supporters of an important community gathering called #IAMAMERICA, spearheaded by Debbie Almontaser and our interfaith community, which believes in all of us.

Several of my friends donated to causes that protected the people and the rights that they feared will be lost. One Jewish woman, a lawyer in a major firm, sent out a November 9th email titled “This is not about politics” and encouraged her colleagues to make contributions to organizations that pursue justice.

# 4: Listening to One Another is Hard —- but Informative!

Even from those closest to me, who share my values about trying to put the Golden Rule into practice, I saw how communicating across the divide is not always easy – particularly about the last election. For me, it is important and it happened in an unexpected way.

From my plumber Tony:

I have the world’s best plumber. And when the bathroom started leaking into the dining room, he showed up and quickly, cleanly and with kindness took care of what could have been a holiday nightmare. We’ve always been friendly, and we got to talking about the election. I listened hard, and one thing was crystal clear. Tony had voted for better business opportunities.

“I learned a long time ago that there are two types of businessmen. The good guys who do a good job, charge a fair rate and have to beg to be paid so they can feed their families. And the guys to tell you like it is, what they’ll do, and get paid. President-elect Trump cares about us. He’ll fight for us.”

Tony’s not a hater, bigot or a person who stereotypes cruelly. He is a reason we must not stereotype President-elect Trump’s supporters.

Reflection #5: Amid hate crimes, top government appointments that stir anxiety among many, and the emergence of neo-Nazism (and the alt-right), there are reasons for hope.

These are days when our President-elect properly condemned bigotry and, then, during a meeting with the New York Times, said he disavowed the alt-right, white supremacy gathering held in Washington (where hate-rhetoric about Jews prevailed and gestures from the Third Reich could be seen). As a master of Twitter, however, we note that he could do so much more – like strongly condemning acts of the religious harassment, racism and prejudice, and violence.

And right after the election, I was struck by insights I would not have expected, but appreciate. I read an op-ed by Glenn Beck, who urged on all of us the importance of listening – to those you fear and disagree with. For me, hearing Mr. Beck speak of overcoming the divide, a man I used to consider only divisive himself, was a reason for hope. Equally striking was Nick Kristof’s insight that Liberals readily condemn the stereotyping of Latinos and Muslims, but have been quick to stereotype Trump voters. Honest reflection is a step on the path forward.

Establishing a just society and putting it into practice is a long-term effort. One that is always characterized by fits and starts. We have just come out of a fraught election. For those concerned with justice that honors our differences, this is a time for vigilance. Many have rational fears from the months of divisive rhetoric, recent hate crimes and the fears of more.

Yet, now is the time to take a risk and reach out to people whose religious, political, social convictions are different, and even opposite, from our own. A good place to start may be with the people closest to you – or your plumber. It is time to hone the elusive skill of listening to learn. And what better time to start than during the holiday season?

Combat Extremism – October Resources from Tanenbaum

Dear Friends,

At Tanenbaum, we are committed to combating extremism because of the horror it inflicts on people. And because it fuels suspicion and fear of others, stereotypes, and hate.

There are many paths to defeat extremism, including actions you can take today. This month, Tanenbaum shares more excellent and practical resources you can use in your daily life:

  • QUESTIONS for Students and Educators: A question sheet that may be used alongside Opposition to Places of Worship and Religious Practices in the U.S. by educators and creative parents alike!
Read, download, and share! Use them to begin a discussion at the dinner table during a conversation without cell phones, in your house of worship, or at your local community center. Challenge your children and students to read them and ask questions – and then research answers. Learn the facts! Speak up! And please share your ideas with us for ways to use these resources to counter hate and terror.
With great hope for peace,
Joyce S. Dubensky,
CEO

P.S. Remember to sign the Peacemaker’s Change.org petition against extremism – commit to taking action!

Oregon Reflections & Recommitment

Dear Friends,

We are filled with sorrow for the innocent victims at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College, for their families whose lives are changed forever, for their friends and their entire community.

As details emerge, at least two surviving students have reported that the shooter singled out students who were Christian. As Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin recommended, we will not name the shooter – we want attention to focus on those who will forever be marked by this day’s horrific events.

Tragically, this incident is not unique – in so many ways. Not only does it reflect a frightening trend of school gun violence, but it also reflects a terrorizing trend in which people are targeted because of their identities. Here, Christians seem to have been among those targeted. In Wisconsin not too long ago, the victims were the Sikhs. And in Kansas City, Jews were targeted at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City and Village Shalom, a Jewish retirement community.

At Tanenbaum, our hearts again break for everyone injured by yesterday’s shooting. But our resolve is strengthened – as we recommit to countering religious violence and prejudice in all of its forms – in classrooms, hospitals, at work and across the world.

In solidarity,

Joyce S. Dubensky,
CEO

Combating Religious Prejudice and Turning the World “Inside Out”

Imagine a rabbi, an imam and a priest pulling the same comical face and having each of these images displayed side by side on either plane of the wall separating Israeli and Palestinian territory in the size of a Times Square billboard. Deemed impossible by the “experts,” street artist and 2011 TED Prize winner, JR, and his partner Marco, thought they’d give it a try.

Their vision turned into the Face2Face project that took portraits of 41 courageous Palestinians and Israelis, each with the same profession, and pasted them in monumental formats in villages throughout both disputing territories. Israeli and Palestinian taxi drivers, sculptors, actors and teachers accepted to play the same character as their counterpart and were photographed with a 28 millimeter camera. One would not be displayed without the other. (At left: Fathers of the three Abrahamic faiths pasted on the separation wall/ security fence, Palestinian side – March 2007.)

Exposing ridiculous faces of ‘the other’ throughout Israeli and Palestinian towns stirred a variety of emotions throughout the streets, yet it brought to light our common humanity. “The Torah teaches us that ‘every human being is created in the image of God.’ So if everyone has different faces that they give, they are also different faces of God,” explains Face2Face participant Rabbi Reb Eliyahu.[1]
 
At some point during the project, JR says that, “the desire for peace overwhelmed the will of victory.”[2] JR demonstrated that the real heroes are therefore not where we often think they are because we are surrounded by them, every day, in the streets.
 
“I am not an artist with a cause but an artist who causes people to think,” notes JR.[3] The accessibility and magnitude of his art causes the spectator to draw their own inference about what it means to them—from a transformative message to a work of art or a piece of meaningless paper.
 
When Marco distributed the photos in the streets, people were perplexed as to who the Israeli and who the Palestinian was on each portrait. While the authorities concluded that the Face2Face project was incomprehensible, many onlookers ultimately deduced that the ridiculous images were a metaphor for the perennial conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
 
The meaning of JR’s art is not limited to the picture. He explains that in his work “an image is just the first layer of the work. The context, the people behind it, and the time it took to create it, gives the actual frame of the artwork.”[4] In JR’s absence, a man in Ramallah would have to explain every day why he accepted to have an Israeli’s face pasted on his property. Some people were enraged, some confused, but many came to the realization that Palestinians and Israelis are in fact more similar than they are different.
 
JR’s 28 Millimeters seeks to raise questions. In Paris he stimulated debate about minorities with Portraits of a Generation, in Asian, African and South American cities he focused his lens on the victims of patriarchic households with Women are Heroes and Wrinkles of the City highlighted the living memory of the aging populations of Shanghai, Cartagena and Los Angeles. Through each of these projects JR has stimulated public debate by sharing the messages of the world’s victimized, oppressed, marginalized and forgotten and have them travel throughout the world.
 
(At right: Pasting of a minaret in Vevey, Switzerland after Switzerland passed a law banning their construction in 2009.) 
 
"I would like to bring art to improbable places, create projects so huge with the community that they are forced to ask themselves questions. I want to try to create images of hot spots such as the Middle East or Brazil that offer different points of view from the ones we see in the worldwide media which are often caricatures,” says JR.[5]
 
A Wish to Turn the World “Inside Out”
 
Now imagine the possibility of JR changing our position from a participant into a creator of a global art project. When JR was awarded the 2011 TED Prize, he was given one wish to “change the world.” His wish: to turn the world Inside Out. JR describes his role as a “printer” for anyone who wants to share something they would like to communicate with the rest of the world. Participants are asked to submit their portraits, which are printed as large posters at the Inside Out studio and sent back to creators for them to display in their communities. Each action is exhibited on the project’s website and comes with a statement concerning something the participants care about.
 
Inside Out is focused on the power of art and ideas to change perceptions, attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world. In Tunisia during the Arab Spring, people replaced Ben Ali’s face with a portrait of their own. A group action on the border of the U.S. and Mexico took place where over a thousand individuals communicated a message of peace and unity. In Haiti, a group action entitled “Rising Souls” is scheduled to occur on the walls of Port-au-Prince on the second anniversary of the earthquake to show a new side of Haiti and through Haitian eyes.
 
(At left: Inside Out group action; Juarez, Mexico; 2011.)
 
Whether or not JR’s work has changed the world is a decision people can make for themselves. What is certain is that JR has transcended the limits of humanitarian photography, which is often constrained to the portrayal of poverty and suffering – images to which the average person has unfortunately become desensitized. Through JR’s work on the other hand we see personality, humor and life. He has discovered a new way to reach into people's hearts or at the very least, cause them to blink an eye.
 
Links:
–    JR’s website
–    Participate in the Inside Out project by visiting the Inside Out Website
– Nastasia Bach, Conflict Resolution Intern

[1] qtd. in Face2Face (book)

[2] Excerpt from Face2Face

[4] “A Conversation With JR, Intrepid French Street Artist,” The Atlantic, Sept 6 2011, http://www.theatlantic.com/life/archive/2011/09/a-conversation-with-jr-intrepid-french-street-artist/244518/.

[5] Excerpts from an interview of JR published in Beaux Arts Magazine, October 2009