Pulling weeds in a garden of peace

Marcie Lee visits Cappadocia, Turkey. People began inhabiting the caves at Cappadocia thousands of years ago and still live there today.

Marcie Lee of Tempe, an Arizona State University faculty associate, traveled to Turkey with six Arizona government officials in August as part of a trip sponsored by the Foundation for Intercultural Dialogue (FID). The goal of FID, a nonprofit founded mostly by Turkish Americans, is to "promote dialogue, mutual respect and cooperation among different cultures and faiths (that) make up our society," according to its Web site, fid-az.org.

I love to garden but didn't realize that, because I was a Jew, I would have to pull so many weeds to help the Foundation for Intercultural Dialogue (FID). The foundation sent me, an academic, and six Arizona government officials to Turkey the last two weeks of August to see the realities of the country, and to spread an accurate understanding upon our return.

Members and staff of FID are so deeply committed to intercultural harmony that each summer they send Americans to experience their homeland of Turkey. The trip was thoughtfully organized and well-structured, and each participant was provided with the opportunity to form his or her own opinions about the country without assumptions or stereotypes.

Nonetheless, I found myself defending Israel to my Turkish and American colleagues, and as a result presenting Israel to my colleagues in the same way the FID was attempting to present Turkey to me. Given the intercultural dialogue integral to the FID's goal, I felt the FID would expect no less from me. I was convinced the organization would want me to help weed its cherished garden of peace-making by striving to bring to the trip the very candor and integrity that characterizes its every endeavor, and that if I did, everyone involved could feel proud of all that was accomplished for the sake of intercultural harmony.

I encountered a variety of weeds in a variety of places.

The cover of the 2009 promotional brochure of the Turkish nongovernmental organization Kimse Yok Mu (Is Anybody There) states that, "Worldwide humanitarian aid rises from Turkey." But the table of contents, from which Israel is absent, lists Palestine and Gaza as aid recipients, and the narrative on the Gaza page reads, "We gave helping hand to the region since Israel started to attack on Gaza and we implemented aid activities at the region which was ruined because of attacks since ceasefire." Amidst descriptions of victims on both sides of other conflicts, and the brochure's help to victims worldwide, that is the only political statement in the entire 42-page brochure.

Days earlier, one of my own American colleagues on the trip had referred matter-of-factly to Israel as a police state.

But the most conspicuous and intractable weed was a trip to the Turkish newspaper Zaman, whose editor exclusively referred to Israel as Palestine. I was so insulted I can't even remember what he was there to talk about. When I pointed out the problem of a newspaper and of journalists using the incorrect name for a country, he gave no satisfactory answer. Despite his profession, in this unique situation, accuracy was irrelevant. There is no other country in the world called by a name many people wish it were, as opposed to what it is.

A colleague asked me: "Can you understand the plight of the Palestinians?" I replied: "Of course. But that does not mean you or I take that compassion for them and transform it into a denial of the reality and the humanity of Israel. There is no other country besides Israel to which people do this, and are not regularly corrected when doing so."

I hope I live to see the day there is a country called Palestine living harmoniously alongside Israel. I will be the first person to call that country by its proper name and no other. But for now, there is no country called Palestine, and to persist in not recognizing that is to dehumanize Israelis, Jews and non-Jewish Israelis. Peace is not achieved by allowing people to deny the name of our country without trying to speak up when they do.

Denying a person, people or homeland its name is the first step in distancing it. Once distanced, it becomes easier to objectify. Once objectified, it becomes easier to dehumanize. Once dehumanized, it becomes easier to bully. Once bullied, it is easier to destroy, literally or figuratively, whether the victim is a child on a playground whose real name is denied to him or her by bullies at school, or a people whose homeland is denied its proper name.

Rabbi Shimon teaches that there are three crowns - the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood and the crown of kingship - and the crown of a good name ascends above them all. Among our many names for God is HaShem, the name. Judaism cherishes its good name, and I believe that cherishing "the crown of a good name" is a part of what drives the FID to send Americans to Turkey.

I feel certain that objectification and dehumanization are the last things the FID, a gem in our midst here in Phoenix, would want. The weeds I found were amidst a county whose truly extraordinary hospitality and civility aligns so strikingly with the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests.

I will continue honoring the FID in two ways. I will honor it by sharing my knowledge of the many glories of Turkey with my students, colleagues and friends. And I will honor it by speaking up as a Jew, and proudly calling and insisting that others call my two beloved countries by their proper names, the United States of America and Israel.

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