After writing something particularly critical of Orthodox Jews (say, extremist settlers) some of my readers disparage my views claiming I clearly have an animus against Orthodoxy. While it is true that I do not admire many Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law and practice (I am a Conservative Jew by practice), my grudge with such Jews lies in their political beliefs much more than in their religious ones.
As evidence of this, I offer up a wonderful article published in the N.Y. Times today (on Shabbos no less!) about the SAR Yeshiva in Riverdale, which offers Arabic language instruction to 40 students. Frankly, I was amazed to read this. I do have certain conceptions about contemporary Orthodox Jewish beliefs about Islam and Muslims, and they aren’t favorable. This branch of American Judaism is known far more for its deep suspicion of, and intolerance toward Arabs because of its ardent support for the Israeli settler movement, among others.
So imagine my surprise and delight to read this:
Several years ago, six teenagers at the SAR yeshiva high school in Riverdale came to the principal with a request: They wanted to study Arabic.
It was an unusual appeal in this heavily Orthodox neighborhood in the Bronx…The talk on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is usually supportive of the settlers on the West Bank, many of whom are transplanted Orthodox Jewish Americans, not Arabic speakers.
Still, the students, all of whom had spent time in Israel…were eager and…the principal of SAR High School decided to add Arabic to the foreign language offerings…This year, the fifth year of the Arabic program, 40 students are studying Arabic in four grades…
Though I would venture to guess that in a few years, many of these children will no longer hold views as open-minded and tolerant as the ones they express now, still their good-heartedness is very moving.
Their reasons for studying the language of Israel’s enemies showed an inquisitiveness about “the other” that was refreshing:
“The Arab-Israel conflict is a huge part of our lives, and understanding the culture and language helps us to relate to the other side,” said Jonah Eidman, an 11th grader taking Arabic for a third year.
Sarah Samuels…who just completed their first year, said a schoolmate had questioned her commitment to study Arabic, saying, “It’s the language of terrorists.” But Sarah shrugged the student off. “You can’t define a whole people by certain members of the language-speaking population,” she said.
Adin Goldstein, another ninth grader, added: “Not everybody who speaks Arabic is a bad person. Most are good people.”
“I feel like lots of people have misconceptions about Arabs and Palestinians,” chimed in Ariel Mintz, “and if I speak Arabic I can better understand the culture and understand what is really going on.”
If I read more stories like this one and heard Orthodox leaders saying some of the same things these children are saying, I would feel much more heartened about Orthodox Judaism than I do. But this article gives one hope that the next generation may free itself from some of the shackles with which its elders are chained.
Keyn yirbu (“may they thrive and prosper”).