Author Archives: Ari Alexander

Ari Alexander

About Ari Alexander

Ari Alexander is the co-founder and co-Executive Director of Children of Abraham, an international organization dedicated to the promotion of dialogue between Jewish and Muslim teenagers around the world. In January 2008, he relocated to Paris, where he co-founded Génération Dialogue, with Ambassador Jacques Huntzinger, in order to build a web platform that creates a space for intercultural dialogue between young people in predominantly immigrant suburbs and their peers in Paris. Ari has spoken at numerous international conferences about Children of Abraham in South Korea, Spain, Senegal, Belgium, Morocco, Tunisia and Qatar. He completed two Master's degrees in the United Kingdom as a Marshall Scholar: an MA in Comparative Ethnic Conflict from the Queen's University of Belfast, and an MPhil in Modern Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Oxford. His research led Ari to spend time living in Jerusalem, Beirut and Damascus. Ari graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Pennsylvania with a BA in History. He has also served as a counselor and facilitator at Seeds of Peace International Camp and Face to Face/Faith to Faith, in addition to working with Jewish teenagers in United Synagogue Youth and at the Lauder Camp in Hungary.

Closing Ceremonies

Ari Alexander is guest blogging (via Blackberry) from the World Conference on Dialogue in Madrid, organized by the Muslim World League under the patronage of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

I am sitting at the closing ceremony now. On my left is the past speaker of the parliament of indonesia, the largest muslim country in the world. In front of me is the Secretary-General of the World Association of Muslim Youth. Two seats in front of me is the Deputy Minister of Culture of Saudi Arabia.

I spent the last coffee break with a guy who went to berkeley and studied international relations. He is walking his frail father around. His father is the vice-president of the international council of Muslim scholars.

Jr. is running an organization in jeddah and london for ‘fatwas’ to be filtered (his word) by younger scholars in order to figure out which ones should apply to modern times. He told me immediately that he wanted to get involved in children of abraham and invited me to visit him in Saudi.

I’m also surrounded by israel singer, david rosen, brad hirschfield, arthur schneier, bert vissotsky, steven jacobs. They are on ‘our’ side, but I’m not sitting near any of them.

There was a book with a thought-provoking title that came out when I was in college. It was called ‘Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria” When I read that book, I thought a lot about self-segregtion and comfort zones. I understood the comfort, the familiarity, the safety in surrounding oneself physically with one’s own kind. Afterall, nearly 100% of my friends were Jewish for the first 18 years of my life.

But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to value the less comfortable choice, the one where I’m the odd man out. I’ve grown so much more from those moments and so each one builds confidence for the next that something good – and indeed unexpected – is likely to result.

And so I go back and forth between being a hometeam fan, surrounded by people in my uniform, and a visitor, an outsider.

The pope’s representative here, Rev. Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, is now speaking. Why doesn’t he engage me the way my Saudi and Indonesian neighbors do? Because of the 40 years of work some brave, persistent and passionate Jews did to heal Catholic-Jewish relations.

I pray that my children will feel inclined to type away on their wrist-embedded computer chips when Saudi, Iranian, Syrian, Palestinian and Indonesian speakers address future conferences because of the tikkun we do to render Muslim-Jewish relations kinda boring.

Religion & Politics

Ari Alexander is guest blogging (via Blackberry) from the World Conference on Dialogue in Madrid, organized by the Muslim World League under the patronage of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

Here’s an example of the kind of thing I learned here that I wouldn’t have otherwise known.

King Abdullah, as custodian of the two holiest places in Islam, Mecca and Medina, is not imbued with religious significance in and of himself. Yes, he is king of the land that hosts these two places that are holy to all Muslims. But no, his convening this conference does not have religious significance in the sense of a world religious leader making a historic religious move.

In other words, the comparison to Vatican II suggested by some western press sources is probably misleading.

At the same time, the fact that he initiated this dialogue removes one significant obstacle that had stood in the way of the global muslim community in pursuing interfaith dialogue.

You should also know that this event is being covered by the arab (and the spanish) press at a totally different level than the general western press. The biggest pan-arab dailies such as al-hayat and asharq al-awsat, have photos and stories on the front page every day about the conference.

While the conference has generally steered clear of politics (with the exception of the fascinating exchange between 6 Muslim and Jewish leaders about Israel/Palestine during the Q & A of one of yesterday’s sessions), the interest in the arab media is likely related to analysis about the political ramifications of King Abdullah’s initiative.

Similarly, the Pakistani television reporter who interviewed me was clearly MOST interested in the potential of this gathering to impact Pakistani-Israeli relations. For him, King Abdullah’s overture to Jewish leaders led him to consider the possibility that countries, his specifically, in the Muslim world, might face a faster track to diplomatic ties and even normalization with the Jewish state.

Jews and certainly mainstream Jewish organizations, tend to care passionately about Israel. And the trend of interfaith dialogue has developed in a world with Israel. This often leads to Jews beginning ‘interfaith’ dialogue with Muslims far from a conversation about ‘faith’.

The Daughters of Sarah & Hagar

Ari Alexander is guest blogging (via Blackberry) from the World Conference on Dialogue in Madrid, organized by the Muslim World League under the patronage of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

I am happy to report that a woman just gave a presentation in this final closed door session. I commend the organizers for showing the flexibility and responsiveness to veer from the written word (here: the program) and internalize the interventions and subsequent applause throuhgout the day yesterday when the issue of women’s participation was raised.

At least three comments  were made during yesterday’s closed door session to make this point – one by an indian swami, one by a british muslim and one by an american rabbi.

The woman who was chosen to speak at the last minute was Dr. Mekia Najar, a spanish researcher. She said dialogue without women’s participation will fail, as the past has showed time and time again.

Change of Pace

Ari Alexander is guest blogging (via Blackberry) from the World Conference on Dialogue in Madrid, organized by the Muslim World League under the patronage of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

After spending the first 24 hours as a participant observer, I decided it was time to jump in. For me that meant being part of the shmoozing around coffee tables and the lobby.

It meant getting over my hesitation and even sense of being overwhelmed (a very significant rabbi told me he was feeling overwhelmed here, so I felt like that gave me the right to share that sense) – and approach people with a clear goal of getting connected to Saudis in a position to discuss possible partnerships with our work.

In addition to making my way to several exciting work-related contacts, I finally found out how I got here in the first place.

Muzammil Siddiqi, a former president of the Islamic Society of North America, wrote a personal letter on my behalf to the Secretary-General of the Muslim World League recommending that he invite me. I had spoken at the ISNA conference nearly two years ago and had no idea that my relationship with him could lead to such an unprecedented gesture of support.

On the topic of leaders in Muslim America, it’s also worth mentioning here that Sayyid Syeed, the current secretary-general of ISNA, made an incredible gesture of support in his own right – with much larger consequences – when he decided to tell the conference organizers that not only would many Jewish participants refuse to come, but that he too would not come to this conference if the invitation to Rabbi Yisroel D. Weiss, spokesman for Neturei Karta, was not rescinded.

In response to this mobilization, Rabbi Weiss was dis-invited. When I personally marvelled at his courage and conviction, he told me ‘you have to stand up for what you believe in.’

I have long known that the substance and content of these conferences are as valuable as the informal interactions one has. Today – day 2 – made this trip worthwhile. When details, B”H unfold in the months and years to come, today will always be remembered as the day of the planting of the first seeds.

Look Mom, I’m on Saudi TV

Ari Alexander is guest blogging (via Blackberry) from the World Conference on Dialogue in Madrid, organized by the Muslim World League under the patronage of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

I was filled with emotions. There I stood, in the hotel lobby, watching saudi television with my new friend yaseer, who was about to interview me live on Saudi television at 8:15pm in Madrid, 9:15 in Saudi.

I could never have dreamed that this would be part of my life story. I had the chance to talk about being Jewish, about Children of Abraham, and about meeting the king of saudi arabia on prime time television.

The interviewer was so warm, the words came out of me as if they had been rehearsed (though my mouth belonged to the desert from where the audience took this in). It must have been six or seven minutes.

It happened. That wasn’t a dream. That wasn’t a dress rehearsal. Though they originally told me it would be two hours ago. And then I got mic’d by the wrong cameraman from the wrong station, and the guys from this one ran to track me down…eventually it happened. It can’t be taken away.

Wow. Who would have ever thought? I’m in shock.

I’ve sat in boardrooms and bathrooms, lay in beds on several continents, wondering how to get my message out where it is most needed.

Thank you God for enabling me to reach this moment.

On Television

Ari Alexander is guest blogging (via Blackberry) from the World Conference on Dialogue in Madrid, organized by the Muslim World League under the patronage of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

I was interviewed today by the Pakistani television channel, AAJ, as well as by a prominent pastor of a mega-church in the DC area.

But in a potential highlight of the conference for me personally, I am going to be interviewed by the Saudi Television channel (al-ikhbariya) in 90 minutes.

When people ask me what concrete follow-up I expect there to be after this conference, I give many possibilities. But most important, I would say, is that even if nothing else comes of it, the fact that this television station – al-ikhbariya is broadcasting most of each of these three days from the lobby of this hotel, and spending the majority of saudi-studio based time talking about this conference, is nothing short of amazing.

In a country with well-documented record of religious intolerance, Saudi citizens and others around the region are having Jewish, Christian, Hindu and Buddhist leaders paraded one by one, onto their television screens, interviewed about their experiences of and reactions to the conference.

Millions of Saudis and other Arabs (it is a satellite channel that began broadcasting in 2004) are watching. It may not be an overstatement to affirm that this is doing more good for exposure to the ‘other’ than any single television news coverage in the modern Arab world’s history.

Muslim American Leadership

Ari Alexander is guest blogging (via Blackberry) from the World Conference on Dialogue in Madrid, organized by the Muslim World League under the patronage of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

I had lunch today with Nihad Awad and Ibrahim Cooper, the top two people from the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), and Dalia Mogahed and Ahmed Younis, the top two people from the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies. It was an interesting taste of two generations, two approaches to contributing.

Ahmed used to be in charge of MPAC and describes those years as being an activist. Dalia came from the private sector, before getting involved in Gallup’s historically unprecedented effort to gather scientific polling data from Muslims in 150 countries. The two leaders from CAIR, however, lacked the same dynamism, the same curiosity.

In short, Dalia and Ahmed are the kind of Muslim-American leaders changing the face of Islam in America. They are hip. They are fast. They are highly educated. They cross borders and cultures with ease. And they are genuine – even dreamy – partners to anyone who would get to have the privilege to work with them. And they are shining stars for the Muslim world in representing Muslims in their travels, lectures, books and analyses.

I spent most of the conversation sharing elements of Judaism, analyzing some key aspects in Jewish demographics and describing some of the differences between groups of Jews. It was incredibly interesting.

This is just the sort of exchange that can only take place outside of the primary sessions – back and forth, comparison of experiences, insights quite widespread in one’s own community that come as a wonderful intellectual surprise to the other.

They taught me that polling shows that Palestinians have the same level of anger and depression as the poorest 100 counties in America. They shared with me that the same percentage of Israelis and Palestinians say they have a desire to permanently leave their respective societies.

They told me about being raised Egyptian in LA and Egyptian in Madison, respectively. I wish we had been friends through my 20s. I look forward to developing these ties as we move forward.

Where are the women?

Ari Alexander is guest blogging (via Blackberry) from the World Conference on Dialogue in Madrid, organized by the Muslim World League under the patronage of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

20 hours after King Abdullah opened this conference, I sit in ‘closed door’ session #2 (3 and 4 are later today), and I can’t count 20 women in the room, and that includes interpreters and conference logistics personnel.

The subject of female participation is one that can be all too easily dismissed by men. We can analyze and assess the proceedings here without mentioning this glaring absence of women. The first time I experienced this radical imbalance was at the rabbis and imams for peace congress in brussels in ’05. At the time it seemed absurd, if somehow understandable.

I thought that discussion of gender – specifically the exclusion of female rabbis, for example, so that orthodox rabbis would attend, was justifiable in light of the importance of the dialogue. My position in that sense hasn’t changed much. I don’t take the view ‘better not to have such conferences at all than to have them with only men’ but I am pausing to reflect.

We are, B”H well beyond a world of women as travel companions. Here in the state of saudi-in-spain, however, this +1 world is alive and well.

But let us be clear. It is easy to point the finger at saudi because of the well-known, infamous law that bars women from driving in the kingdom, and other conservative, ‘backward’ restrictions. But ask yourself honestly how gender-representative the leadership of your board is, the decision-makers in your city, the editorial committee of your favorite newspaper, the trustees of your bank.

The inclusion of women (often framed problematically as such – implying men’s right to include or not to include) is an embarrassment in our contemporary world. And it is far more psychologically convenient to criticize someone else.

The saudi organizers should not be immune from criticism for their failure to make this historic gathering mirror the communities the leaders here represent. But be sure not to forget what we can each do in our spheres of influence to bring more women to the center of decision-making tables. Every country, religion and community can benefit from making this a priority.

The Rabbi Speaks

Ari Alexander is guest blogging (via Blackberry) from the World Conference on Dialogue in Madrid, organized by the Muslim World League under the patronage of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

I don’t know if its the interpreter’s voice finding a way to make everything sound boring (think opposite of obama) or these speeches are just that sleep worthy?

It’s somewhat excusable to feel supportive towards King Abdullah for making this happen – regardless of the 1-10 score for dynamic delivery. But others here – oy. The teacher is supposed to put you to sleep, but your friends?

This is officially closed-door session 1 of 4 and most of the crowd has intellectually checked out. At least I made a new friend sitting next to me via bberry email exchange. Arthur Schneier is patiently waiting his turn. Its no joke representing the jewish people in the first saudi-sponsored interfaith dialogue conference. Let’s see if his is any more engaging than the previous two speakers…

15 minutes later

He is a good speaker – he got the crowd listening by saying he became an addict of interfaith dialogue because he is a holocaust survivor and personally experienced pain and suffering.

“We reject and refute the idea of a clash of civilizations.”

He said because he survived what he did, including living under communism for a period, he has to be an optimist.

He said: “I firmly believe every conflict in the world comes to an end… Eventually the conflicts subside and people learn to live in harmony with one another.”

First mention of israel-palestine of the conference. We’ll see if/when else it comes up – VERY clear saudi organizers going out of their way to avoid even mention of divisive political issues.

His speech sounds a bit tired at times – and too many mentions of his own foundation and its accomplishments.

Strong conclusion – “dialogue is not sufficient. We have to act together.

And then, he delivered the priestly benediction in the name of aaron the high priest to the assembled crowd. Yes, I get goosebumps easily…

Bahraini Bus Bonding

Ari Alexander is guest blogging (via Blackberry) from the World Conference on Dialogue in Madrid, organized by the Muslim World League under the patronage of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

We teach the teenagers in our programs to be curious, to ask questions, to discover and to ultimately respect based on understanding.

I was on the bus after walking by Tony Blair being interviewed and a host of Saudi royalty, the empty seat towards the front was next to a man who looked like your stereotypical image of someone from the persian gulf. All white robe, including over his head, and a black circular band to keep it up. His beard looks like mine.

Three things struck me about my conversation with this guy – who turns out to be the Undersecretary of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs in Bahrain – a small country in the gulf.

1) He asked me why judaism made it impossible to become a Jew, repeating the widely held misconception that we are an exclusive club. It gave me a chance to explain seriousness of study, commitment, conviction. He loved the explanation and said it made sense to him (in spite of the fact this is in stark contrast with the relative ease of becoming a Muslim).

2) He asked me to tell him about the different kinds of Jews since he knew that we did not all have the same beliefs and practices. I was moved by his desire to learn.

3) He then hit a grand slam when he told me about a Jewish professor from DC who was on the committee that examined him when he finished his PhD in Islamic Studies in Edinburgh. He said the fact that a Jew repeatedly referred to him as ‘sheikh’ – a term of great respect – is something he has never forgotten.

He told me meeting one person really can change your view of an entire group of people. This is at the basis of what I do for a living and it gave me goosebumps to hear it from a man from Bahrain in traditional garb.

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