Tour Day Seven: DePaul University Commons

by EGM contributor Tim Stoner

Today Rabbi Avi Novis-Deutsch joined the tour. On the hour-long bus ride into Chicago from our hotel in the western suburbs, he fills us in on his life and livelihood back in Israel, as well as his current situation, living and working in here in the United States. Avi is a peace activist.

Engaging and articulate, Avi received his ordination at Schechter Rabbinical School in Israel and graduated with an advanced degree in Talmud and Halacha (Jewish Law). He became active in the peace movement nearly 25 years ago, first with Peace Now. Currently, he is part of Rabbis for Human Rights, an interfaith group that brings together Israeli rabbis with imams and ministers from the West Bank.

Later at Cortelyou Commons on the DePaul University campus, Avi spends time getting to know director Jim Hanon and fellow panelists Sami Awad and Mark Braverman. The venue itself is impressive—an expansive dark wood-paneled hall with vaulted ceilings, wrought iron candelabras, and large leaded glass windows. It is very English and very proper. Nearby, the EGM team is setting up for the evening’s screening, doing sound checks, testing the projection equipment, etc.

Logistically, there are issues. First, the portable movie screen provided for the event better fits a college classroom than a grand meeting hall. A few calls around town to rental facilities secure a 10’ X 18’ screen. Another concern is the room lighting—it’s too bright. Given the scheduled start time, western exposure, and size of the windows, our only option is holding off until sundown.

The crowd was not aware of the change and began streaming in well before dusk. Soon over 200 are waiting for the program to begin. The diversity of the audience is even more exciting than its size. This has all the signs of a very successful event. After a heartfelt introduction and acknowledgement of co-host Northpark University, and a brief set-up from Jim Hanon, the director, the film began.

When the lights came up again, the room seems charged. The interaction between the audience and panelists is intense and substantive. A Jewish member of Physicians Without Borders expresses his appreciation for the documentary: “I congratulate Mart (the producer) and Jim for the extraordinary act of courage in making this film. It is an important tool to help break through hopelessness and help people shift from emotion to honest conversation.”

He explains that as a Jew he is greatly concerned for the condition of his nation. “It is in deep trouble,” he says, “and I say this as someone who has been deeply committed to Israel. But I have come to a realization—the occupation is not in any way Jewish.” He looks around at the crowd that fills the hall. “All those who hold this position face a tremendous amount of risk,” he tells them. “I am delighted to see all those who are here.”

Sami offers this perspective on the conflict, “It is our responsibility not to fuel those who speak out of hatred. “Don’t listen to such words,” he says, almost sermonizing now. He is not pointing his finger at radical Zionists. And he does not afraid to challenge Arab leadership for their part in the conflict. Sami believes that Muslim leaders by their silence have failed to articulate the true spirit of Islam resulting in the propagation of a false image around the world. “The bigger responsibility in the Muslim community is to raise up voices that sternly declare what Islam truly is.” He explains that he is not speaking as an outsider. Though Sami is a Palestinian Christian he clarifies, “my heritage is Muslim; my culture is Islam, which is one of respect and honor. Muslims are exhorted to show respect to ‘people of the book’ (the Jews). These are the voices that need to rise up.” He continues, “When the radicals with a false view of Islam are not refuted they win and voices of peace loses. We cannot simply take those words and accept them without standing up against them.”

Another audience member speaks out: “This was an incredibly compelling film. I thought it was masterful how it addressed the psychological issue of fear without reducing it just to that.” He wants to know the panel’s opinion about the B.D.S. Movement—Boycott, Sanctions, and Divestment. Sami suggests caution, believing people should avoid pushing Israel into a corner that could increase nationalist sentiment borne out of fear and alienation.

“The words I prefer to use when we engage in direct action are: ‘making a personal choice to engage in non-cooperation with systems of oppression.’ I think ‘boycott’ sounds more like punishment. I would prefer to say ‘I refuse to cooperate.’ This is not punitive.” Sami’s clear intention is to apply nonviolence as a controlling and consistent ethic. “Putting people into isolation does not work,” he says. “Our goal should be to always keep the space for dialogue open. We don’t want to polarize and isolate.”

After the formal Q&A concludes, dozens of side conversations break out. Photos are taken of the panelists and EGM team interacting with friends, fans, and more than a few either who leave this event challenged, and maybe inspired to take action for peace.

Once the tear-down is complete and the bus loaded, we head back to our hotel. Next stop, Wayne State University in Detroit. We’ll meet in the hotel lobby at 4:30 in the morning for the short ride to O’Hare. The pace of the tour is not easy and favors those able to sleep anywhere, at any time. Fortunately, I have developed that knack.

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