Discrimination opponent learns to overcome biases

Lujain Al-Khawi, Blaine High School

Growing up in the Midwest, I never really met many people of Jewish background. The fact that I am Muslim and Arab only added to my alienation of the Jewish community.

For hundreds of years, Arabs and Jews got along greatly with minor setbacks, not because of their religious differences, but because of tribal ones.

The ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict has only intensified the ani­mosity between Arabs and Israelis in the Middle East, and the hatred has carried over into Europe and the United States.

Although I come from a very open-minded family that never spoke ill of Jewish people, I still had my own biases about them, biases that mostly stemmed from the media. In fact, the only picture in my mind that I had of a Jewish person was of a radical Zionist with anti-Muslim and anti-Arab senti­ment. It is not an excuse to say that my mindset was a result of me not knowing a single Jewish person, but unfortunately, that was the reality. It is almost embarrassing to say that the only Jewish person I could name at the time was Jon Stewart, the host of “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central.

Even with my admiration for Jon Stewart, I still saw the Jewish community in a negative light, and that was the fault of my ignorance and bias. Looking back, I did not view that bias as negatively as I see it today, because I knew that deep down, I was a good person and one of the last people in the world to be prejudiced against anybody. I felt as though my identity as a colored person in a predominantly white society was an immunity to any personal racist sentiment.

That feeling changed when I attended a Jewish-Muslim youth lobby day at the Minnesota State Capitol last spring. That was the day I figured out I was no different from the racist people I always com­plained of to my family.

Illustration by Lujain Al-Khawi, of a young person with a Taqiyah with the star and crescent and a young person with a kippa with the Star of David. They each have an arm around the other's shoulder.

The Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and Jewish Community Action are both nonprofits in Minnesota focused on helping solve civil rights and social justice issues regarding members of their respec­tive communities. They organized this event at the State Capitol to encourage Muslim and Jewish youth to work together to lobby for legisla­tion they both cared about.

Going to the event, I was nervous at first because I did not know what to expect. This would be the first time I would meet a Jewish person. At the start of the program, we were divided into groups, where we had to approach someone we never knew before. This was a very posi­tive experience for me because I had the opportunity to converse with a Jewish person around my own age.

I was surprised to see how much we had in common. We were both passionate about politics and peacemaking, and we were both your average American teenagers. My nerves settled as I talked to more people. I even felt excited to see what the rest of the program would offer.

A great epiphany occurred to me when a young Jewish activist approached a podium and began speaking fiercely about the impor­tance of the Safe Schools Bill, which basically called for more prevention of bullying and discrimination of any sort. She talked about the different problems many minorities feel in today’s schools. It was a remarkable surprise for me to learn that some Jewish students are marginalized for their differing religious practices and some feel as outsiders in this predominantly Christian country.

I knew this bill we were lobby­ing for was especially important to non-Christian, non-white students in American schools, who may have been bullied solely because of their religious practices or ethnic backgrounds. I never thought Muslims and Jews struggled with similar problems, let alone had anything in common.

I was so happy by the outcome of the event that I decided to come again the following year, in February, so I could be part of a young team that fosters relationships between the two religious groups. So, for the last couple of months, I have had more experience working with Jewish youth in political and inter­faith events.

This event has impacted me tremendously because it has forced me to come out of my comfort zone and experience new insights. I believe that all young people need to leave their comfort zones and work together with other ethnic or religious groups to improve their communities together.

These last couple of months that I have been working with Jewish youth have been so meaningful, as I have befriended people of the Jewish faith for the first time and relieved myself of some of the stereotypes. I truly felt the need to share this message, because for my whole life, I thought I was one of the most cultured, open-minded people in the world, but little did I realize that I had my very own flaws—my own biases.

I hope my story will influence others to not have themselves believing they are blind to color, other ethnicities and religions. We may be past the Civil Rights era, but we are now entering a new one. Now more than ever, the problems between the Jewish and Muslim people are worsening. I want to show a new side of what it means to be a Muslim-Arab—one who gets along with the Jewish community, which is very unheard of today, unfortunately. We still have to tell ourselves that we can do more to create a more accepting world.

Many groups around the world benefit from the political animosities between Jews and Muslims—organi­zations like the American Freedom Defense Initiative, which recently posted an ad on public transporta­tion of a Muslim sheikh sitting next to Adolf Hitler, suggesting Islam has an innate hatred toward Jews.

I know my religion does not support anti-Semitism or intol­erance of any kind, and it is my responsibility, along with others, to try to stop such groups’ mali­cious acts to divide the two faith groups. Only these hate groups are winning this battle of Muslims vs. Jews. The real victims are the inno­cent lives killed in the Palestinian territories and in Israel.

I know that this problem can change with the work of active youth. With the effects of global­ization, I feel strongly that today’s youth are more accepting of others. However, things will remain the same if we do not take deliberate actions to stop the hatred between Muslims and Jews, or any groups, for that matter.

I hope my work with other Jewish youth in the Twin Cities will carry over to the Middle East and lessen the animosities between the two ethnic and religious groups. And I especially hope that we examine ourselves for our own biases, lest we allow them to take control over us.