Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Omaha Jewish Teens Meet with Syrian Muslim

Tonight was a memorable Teens 4 Israel meeting.

For those who don't know, Teens 4 Israel is the only Nebraska Jewish youth group whose sole mission  is Israel advocacy.  Teens 4 Israel builds relationships with our Congressmen and other elected officials, partners with national Israel advocacy groups, and meets once a month to learn about the issues facing Israel, how to defend Israel against her detractors, and what Omaha teens can do to support the US Israel relationship.

Our next event will be to attend the AIPAC policy conference in Washington DC.

Tonight we had a regular scheduled meeting at Starbucks.  The planned agenda was to discuss logistics for the upcoming trip to DC,  discuss the Israeli elections, and read a piece from our text book, The Case for Israel by Alan Dershowitz.

About half way through the meeting, a young man approached our table at Starbucks and said, "Shalom.  Atem Midabrim Ivrit?"  (Hello, do you speak Hebrew?)

"Keyn"  we said.  And we asked him his name and where he was from.

The young man told us that his name was Ieyad and he is a Muslim from Syria.  He is 20 years old.  His family is originally from a place in North Western Syria called Idlib but he was born and raised in Damascus.  He still has some family in Idlib.  His parents are divorced.  His father is a dentist living in Saudi Arabia and he moved here with his mother 2 years ago. His grandparents also live in Omaha. He is currently studying biology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and he is studying Hebrew with a Jewish friend.

We asked him if he would join us.  "With pleasure!" he said.  We introduced ourselves and played some Jewish (and Muslim) geography.  Some of the kids have friends in common with Ieyad from school.

We asked him if he could tell us about the terrible situation that is going on in Syria right now.

Below is a synopsis of what he told us followed by some Q & A.  Everything below is what we heard from Ieyad.  The kids were encouraged to research the issue on their own, but it was very interesting to hear about the conflict from his perspective.

He told us about how the Baathist party, a socialist regime, took control of Syria in 1963 and has been in power ever since.  In his words, they are not exactly a dictatorship, rather the government is what he would call a cleptocracy.  They control the economy and loot from the people.

According to him the government represents only 9% of the population, yet they control the military.  Recently the people started to rebel.  The rebels were armed by the governments of Saudi Arabia and Qatar.  They did so because the current Syrian government is a proxy of Iran.  Saudi Arabia hopes that by toppling of the Syrian regime Iran will lose a foothold in the region.

But the Syrian government is much stronger and they are crushing the rebels.  The death toll of rebels and civilians killed by the government has reached 80,000!!!

Ieyad's father's cousin,  a civilian, was among the victims.  He was killed by a sniper.  He was a young man of 34 with a family.

The following are some questions the Teens 4 Israel asked.

What has the American government done to help the rebels?

He answered that the American government has indirectly helped the Syrian government by preventing weapons from reaching the Rebels from Turkey.  He said that the US fears that if the Rebels are successful an extremist government will arise in Syria, as has happened in Afghanistan, Egypt, and other places.  In his opinion, America's primary concern is stability in the region.

Do you fear that Iran will get nuclear weapons?

He answered that he believes that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has exaggerated the threat of Iran so that he can get reelected.  Not to say that he thinks Iran is not a danger, but he feels that the threat has been very overstated.

What is your opinion and attitude towards Israel in general?

He thought for a minute and answered that he does not believe that it is a war against the Jewish people.  He perceives the enemy to be the "Zionists" specifically the government.  He believes that the Israeli as well as the Arab governments are at fault and the people are just pawns caught in the crossfire.

Are you a practicing Muslim?

He said that his grandparents are very religious.  His grandmother covers her hair at all times and observes all Muslim customs.  His mother used to cover her hair but now in America she has stopped doing so.  Ieyad himself is not very religious at all.  He does not attend a mosque.  But he does abstain from eating pork and drinking wine.

The teens noted the similarity in his story and the classic trends of assimilation in the American Jewish community since the fist generation of immigrants.

Why are you learning Hebrew?

He answered that it is close to Arabic so it is easy for him.  Also, he has a Jewish friend who was very interested in learning Arabic so they get together and teach each other.
We pulled out a chumash and Ieyad wowed us by reading from this week's parshah.  The teens noted that he read better than most of the Jewish kids in Omaha!  (Obviously not Beth Israel kids!)

You mentioned that you oppose the US government's foreign policy regarding Syria.  Are you currently involved in any activism to affect that policy?

He said that there is some activism in New York, but his family and friends here are not involved.  They also do not support the rebels financially.  But they pray everyday that the Rebels will be successful.

We said our goodbyes to Ieyad and friended him on Facebook.

After he left the teens stayed to discuss everything they had just learned.

One pointed out how easy it is for people on two sides of an issue to get together for a reasonable discussion.  Another argued that it is easy for us to talk here in Omaha.  If we were in Israel or Syria where the issues would have a direct impact on our daily lives then it would not be so simple.

They also noted the importance of teens 4 Israel.  It is wonderful that Ieyad and his family pray for the rebels, but the Jewish teens would not feel satisfied if their only support of Isarel was in the form of prayer.  They are glad that the Jewish community offers them more concrete ways to advocate on behalf of Israel.  They suddenly had a great appreciation for Teens 4 Israel, AIPAC, and all of the Israel advocacy that takes place in the Jewish community.

This was a great experience for the kids and for me.  Everyone is really excited about attending AIPAC in March.  We decided we want to sign up for a session about the situation in Syria and see if the perspective offered differs from what we learned from Ieyad.