Mahoning Valley leaders hope to rekindle dialogue
Discussion between local Jews, Palestinians is slow in coming.
By D.A. WILKINSON
VINDICATOR RELIGION EDITOR
YOUNGSTOWN -- The plea for peace in the Middle East was short and eloquent.
It said, in part, "May the Lord of mercy, the divine source of all life, help us to live as partners in peace."
The statement was issued by local Jewish and Islamic leaders on behalf of their communities -- Oct. 31, 2000.
At the time, Bonnie Deutsch Burdman, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Youngstown Area Jewish Federation, and Dr. Mustansir Mir, a spokesman for the Islamic Society of Greater Youngstown, said their goal was to voice a desire for a peaceful solution and to avoid division locally.
But as fighting in the Middle East escalated in recent weeks, local Jewish and Palestinian supporters have spoken out.
Opposite sides: Husam Rafeedie of Youngstown, president of the Arab Community Center in Liberty, said last month of the Israeli army's actions, "We're talking about terror, the highest level of terror."
A few days later, Bruce Lev, president of the Jewish Community Relations Council, issued a statement, saying, "We categorically condemn and express outrage at all acts of violence and murder carried out by the Palestinian campaign of terror launched against Israel and Israeli civilians 18 months ago."
Area residents say they are deeply concerned about the safety of their loved ones who live amid the bombings and shooting in the Middle East. But many of those conversations quickly turn to politics.
Burdman said this week, "Sept. 11 is going on today in Israel."
Ray Nakley, chairman of Coalition for Peace in the Middle East and a spokesman for the Arab Community Center, said that suicide bombers can't be condoned but were acting out of unbearable pressure.
This nonmeeting of the minds raises questions on whether peace in this area and its long tradition of multifaith dialogues and efforts that benefit the community may be threatened.
The good news is that all parties say that Liberty, the Valley's melting-pot home to many in the Jewish, Islamic, Christian Palestinian and other faiths, remains a quiet, peaceful place to live.
Still, Mir noted that divisive comments would not be good for the community.
Something should be done, Mir said, "to draw a distinction that this is a different situation" than the Middle East.
What's been done: After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, Christian, Jewish and Islamic leaders quickly came together at interfaith services to support Valley residents and pray for peace.
And in the months afterward, those leaders repeatedly gave talks at the houses of worship of other faiths to broaden understanding in the Valley. That hasn't happened in the wake of the recent increase in suicide bombings and other violence.
Mir recalled that in 2000, Burdman spearheaded the joint statement on peace. He said the lack of a statement now may have been just a matter of oversight.
Burdman noted that the violence has escalated during Passover, a major Jewish holiday that consumes the attention and time of the Jewish community.
Asked why there has been no local Jewish-Palestinian dialogue, Elsie Dursi, executive director of the Mahoning Valley Association of Churches, said, "There has not, but it's certainly a good idea."
She said that a local dialogue effort between the Jewish Community and Christian Palestinians about 12 years ago didn't work out.
She plans to start an educational program later this year to help children learn about other faiths. It will be an addition to the many ongoing local dialogues between historically troubled groups, such as the local Christian-Jewish and Catholic-Orthodox Christian talks.
"Our fighting will not help," said Dursi.
Why dialogue matters: Dursi and Burdman pointed out that both sides in such disputes don't and won't agree on the facts.
But dialogues send a more important message, said Dursi: "We value peace in our community."
Burdman said she isn't troubled about conflicting claims about events in the Middle East.
"That's what you get in a democracy," she said.
And she isn't worried about trouble locally. "I believe the good nature of the Valley will prevail."
Nakley and Sami Bahour, a Muslim and leader in the local Arab community, planned to have a memorial event Saturday evening at the center. For scheduling reasons, it was moved to today and also restyled as an open forum.
All religious, ethnic and social segments of the community have been invited. Nakley said that includes the Jewish community.
"We're open to other points of view as well," said Nakley. "We'd like to hear what other segments of the community think about this."
According to Bahour and Nakley, more than 400 Israelis and between 1,200 and 1,600 Palestinians have been killed in the Middle East fighting.
"I think what we would like to do more is to have a dialogue between us and the Jewish Community Center in front of the clergy and in front of people in this community, to listen to both sides," Bahour said.
In January, Bahour said, he went to protest at the Jewish Community Center, and his neighbor, who is Jewish, went to hear the speaker.
The neighbor's neighbor, who is Arab, went to protest with Bahour, and the Arab's neighbor, who is Jewish, went to hear the speaker.
Burdman said she allowed Bahour and others to protest on the center's property so they wouldn't be marching in the street and get hit by cars.
"If we can do all that, can we make a dialogue? What can we do together to help the people over there?" Bahour said.