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The Narrow Straits of Our Lives

A difficult question about an anti-Semitic tract from a Muslim leader recalls the Midrash of the four children in the Passover Haggadah
Rabbi Mark Diamond, Board of Rabbis of Southern California, Los Angeles, California Rabbi Mark Diamond is Executive Vice President of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. In that position, he directs a multi-denominational organization of 290 rabbis, and serves on the senior management team of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Prior to assuming this position in August 2000, Rabbi Diamond served as rabbi of congregations in metropolitan San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and

By Mark S. Diamond
“How different this night is from all other nights!” The familiar singsong of Mah Nishtanah reverberates in Jewish homes throughout the world on Passover eve. What Seder would be complete without the beloved Four Questions chanted by the young and the young-at-heart? These questions are the literary device that introduces the maggid, the embellished Exodus narrative that is the essence of the Pesah celebration. Put another way, the Passover Seder is the quintessential Jewish storytelling experience.
“How different this night is from all other nights!” Let me share a true story that I will tell at my own seder this year: Eleven Muslim leaders visited Los Angeles last week under the auspices of the U.S. Department of State and the International Visitors Council of Los Angeles. The visitors were prominent imams, academics and journalists from diverse Arab countries – Algeria, Egypt, Mauritania, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Morocco, and Iraq.
None of them had ever visited the United States, and few spoke English. The focus of their three-week, multi-city American tour was interfaith dialogue. They were here to learn about religious life in the United States, meet with religious leaders engaged in interfaith work, and explore the impact of religion on American political life. The Board of Rabbis has hosted similar groups in the past, and we were pleased to honor this request from the International Visitors Council.
We arranged for the 11 Muslim leaders and four translators to tour Temple Beth Am, their first visit to a synagogue. Rabbis Adam Kligfeld and Susan Leider were gracious hosts, taking a Torah scroll from the Ark and patiently answering questions about the Bible and Talmud, Jewish life and thought. The visitors’ tour continued at the Jewish Federation Goldsmith Center, where we welcomed our guests and directed their attention to the beautiful Jerusalem stone in the lobby. I used the opportunity to mention the Jewish community’s special bonds with the land, people and state of Israel, knowing full well that this would stimulate a lively conversation later in the program.
Following time off for Muslim prayers, we gathered in a meeting room for further discussion. I fielded questions from the guests as a small group of rabbis and Federation leaders began to arrive for a private kosher/halal dinner. An imam from Iraq (he prefers to call it Babylon) turned to me and said through a translator, “Rabbi, I am having a difficult time reconciling what you are saying about Judaism with what I know to be true from what I have learned on the Internet. I have read a very important Jewish book called ‘The Protocols’ and it clearly shows that Jews are scheming, hate-filled people who conspire to take over the world. I know this to be true from my studies, and I know that this doesn’t agree with what you are saying about Judaism as a peaceful religion and Jews as a non-violent people.”
At that fateful moment, colleagues in the room noticed my face turning multiple shades of red and purple. As I paused to gain my composure, I recalled the Midrash of the four children in the Passover Haggadah. Was my Iraqi guest like the wicked child who deserves to “have his teeth set on edge” due to his malicious nature? Or was he more like the simple child who asks a simple question out of ignorance?
I looked into the imam’s eyes and saw no malice. So I thanked him for his query and calmly explained that “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” is a virulent anti-Semitic tract that has brought great pain and suffering to my people. It is a dangerous fraud that circulates widely throughout the world, especially in Arabic translation. “This notorious treatise proves that you cannot believe everything you read, especially on the Internet,” I explained.
I offered to send him an article in Arabic that refutes “The Protocols.” He responded by noting that the problem was not with him, but with so many others who believe in the truth and veracity of this forgery. The issue is widespread and overwhelming, he argued. I turned to him and replied, “We change hearts and minds one relationship at a time. You are here, so I begin with you, and then with your 10 colleagues in this room. We work together from there to change the world.”
Following this dramatic interchange, we adjourned for dinner and more animated dialogue. I approached my Iraqi guest, shook his hand, and thanked him again for his question. He asked me to send him books on Judaism in Arabic. And he agreed to read the article in Arabic countering the lies and falsehoods of “The Protocols.” I have sent him that document, and in so doing, opened an email dialogue that I hope will continue well into the future.
In each generation, every individual should feel as though he or she had actually been redeemed from Mitzrayim (literally “from the narrows”). My experience this week gives me a wholly new, unanticipated perspective on the narrow straits of human existence. We redeem our lives, and our world, one small step at a time.
Rabbi Mark S. Diamond is Executive Vice President of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, and a Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute Rabbinic Leadership Initiative .

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