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Eboo Patel visit creates dialogue around religious diversity

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On Nov. 1, Eboo Patel, who founded the Interfaith Youth Core and served on Obama’s inaugural Faith Council, arrived at Swarthmore. During the roughly 24 hours he stayed, he led four workshops, participated in a world religions class, attended a dinner with President Valerie Smith and other faculty members, and delivered a keynote speech, “Building a Healthy Religiously Diverse Democracy: America’s Promise in a Time of Crisis.” The events focused on the benefits of understanding and acknowledging religious diversity, even in secular spaces.

In his keynote speech, Patel said that hatred of immigrants and other people with different beliefs creates a barrier against their contributions that inhibits societal progression. He then spoke on the history of religious prejudice in America, beginning with the anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party in the 1850s and the movement that pushed against it.

“What is Judeo-Christian?” Patel asked. “It is a genius civic invention. It is a new narrative for America that allows us to imagine Jews and Catholics as equal participants in American civilization. I want to say this again — a group of civic activists, as a way of responding to anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish prejudice in the 1920s, invent a new narrative for America that becomes so deeply woven into American DNA that we believe it was present from the beginning. That’s genius.”

Patel, a Muslim, applied this idea of a national narrative to the modern issue of Islamophobia and fear of Muslim immigrants.

“What new civic initiatives do we need now in this moment of Islamophobia?” he said.
“There’s a new chapter that needs to be written.”

Joyce Tompkins, director of religious and spiritual life at the college, planned Patel’s visit with pastor of Swarthmore Presbyterian Church Joyce Shin and religion professor Mark Wallace, all of whom are members of the Interfaith Council of Southern Delaware County.  They aimed to bring together leaders of different faith groups and to strengthen relationships between the Interfaith Center and the Borough.

“When I first heard Eboo Patel speak on the need for interfaith cooperation in our society, I was struck by two things: first, his ability to speak across many different audiences, by which I mean audiences that consist of different religious backgrounds, different generations, different points of view, and different assumptions; and second, Eboo’s consistently constructive approach to making interfaith cooperation a social norm,” Shin said.

When Shin first pitched the idea over a year ago, Tompkins was doubtful that Patel, a prominent figure in interfaith leadership, would want to come to Swarthmore. However, Tompkins feels that Patel saw an opportunity for expanding interfaith collaboration to secular campuses.

“Swarthmore’s well known in higher-ed circles; it’s also a pretty secular school,” she said. “[Patel] and his colleagues at Interfaith Youth Core are particularly interested in broadening the interfaith conversation so that it’s not just faith groups talking to each other, but talking across the faith-secular divide, which seems to really be dividing our country.”

According to Shin, Patel touched on the significance of religious tolerance and sensitivity to religious issues, even for those who do not practice religion themselves.

“My hope is that Eboo’s constructive approach will draw out and make room for other constructive approaches in building cooperation among different religious communities as well as show the significance of interreligious cooperation in the civic sphere,” she said.

During the student workshop before his talk, Patel gave student leaders case studies of religion-related conflicts that have occurred in secular places such as schools and workplaces and asked them to discuss possible approaches. One situation involved an Orthodox Jewish man who refused to sit at his assigned seat on an airplane because it was next to a woman; one was the difference in power if it were a Muslim woman refusing to sit next to a man.

“We had some pretty interesting conversation,” Tompkins said. “Some people said, ‘Kick him off the plane,’ some people said, ‘Try to persuade someone to change seats.’ It was interesting.”

Another case study was a group of Muslim women who requested an hour of time at the public pool reserved for women only; another involved Hindu students that protested the dining hall serving beef in the only eating facility on campus as being offensive to them.

“What he said, what actually turned out to be true, was we never actually resolved the question of what should we do,” Tompkins said. “What was important was that we were practicing having this kind of conversation with some sensitivity to the issues that are raised by these different groups.”

Abha Lal ’18, an intern for the Interfaith Center, attended the workshop Patel gave for student leaders. According to Lal, religious literacy and interfaith dialogue can give us insight into everyday interactions.

“I think at Swat and a lot of college campuses religion is treated as a purely private matter, but the fact is that it is really important to how many people understand themselves and conduct public life,” she said. “I think Patel’s workshop encouraged us to see this not as a problem to be dealt with, but a fact of living in heterogenous societies that needs to be engaged with in meaningful ways.”

Though Lal feels that Patel’s message about interfaith discourse has crucial implications, she stated that she and other Swarthmore students would disagree with Patel’s claims about American excellence.

“My main qualm was that as important as his approach is, it seems to base itself a little bit uncritically on American exceptionalism, something that is hard to be fully on board with for people here for good reason,” Lal said.

Patel also led a workshop on sensitivity to religious differences for Swarthmore faculty, a workshop for students at Strath Haven high school and a workshop for leaders of local congregations.

Cielo de Dios ’21 attended Patel’s keynote speech with her classmates from “Religion and the Meaning of Life,” taught by professor Ellen Ross. The class is currently reading Patel’s book “Acts of Faith,” a memoir about the struggles of being a Muslim in America. She feels that her experience at the college has been in accord with Patel’s ideal for democratic discourse.

“A lot of what he said applies in my religions class specifically because in my religions class, we’re not all from one faith,” she said. “Most of us are Christians, but there’s a Jew and then there’s a Buddhist who was an atheist. We come from a lot of different backgrounds, and even before the talk, we were all open to talking about our experiences and our faith, which is what I think Patel is advocating for.”

Patel mentioned a “circle of dialogue” multiple times, which is the range of people with whom someone is willing to converse about differing beliefs. While Ryan Arazi ’21 agreed with Patel’s concept of a religiously diverse democracy, he found the notion of a “circle of dialogue” idealistic.

“I agreed with the very broad circle of opinions and allowing that circle to exist, and I’m someone who’s advocated for that a lot,” he said. “But in hearing someone else say it, I can understand why that can be too optimistic, especially in a society that’s as polarized as ours and especially with a topic like religion, which goes to your core beliefs, like who you are as a person.”

 

According to Arazi, Swarthmore students tend to be like-minded and therefore not particularly open to interfaith dialogue.

“This is exactly the type of place where that optimism might fail because you have people of very like-minded beliefs and it’s easy to forget about … the outside world and forget that it’s important to listen to everyone,” Arazi said. “I don’t think that it’s a reflection of the people here or the open-mindedness of the people, but that it’s just a natural product of putting like-minded people in the same place.”

According to Patel, religious diversity is a central tenet of social change.

“What else is it?” he said. “What else is social change but dealing with people with whom you disagree and engaging in a conversation in which sometimes, you will change your mind and sometimes they will change their minds?”

De Dios agreed with Patel’s emphasis on willingness to engage others with opposing opinions in conversation, but she felt that Swarthmore students generally identify more with the type of social change represented in the Desmond Tutu quote “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor,” which a Swarthmore student brought up during the 30-minute question-and-answer session after the keynote speech.

“I do think, though, that the first step is in dialogue,” she said. “Not that they have to be mutually exclusive, but the dialogue comes first, more than anything, than the action. I don’t think that people would agree with me that you can be tolerant and not act. I do think that the most important acts of tolerance and respect end up anyway leading to protests and action-based causes.”

Tompkins was very satisfied with the attendance at the workshops and at the keynote speech. She felt that this event is representative of recent changes that she has worked to enact as director of religious and spiritual life at the college regarding dialogue around religious differences.

“I absolutely resonate with what he had to say, because I’ve been here 14 years [and] we’ve made huge, huge progress as far as recognizing religious and spiritual identity as important parts of diversity and inclusion,” she said. “When I first came it was … really, nobody talked about religion; it was very marginalized, there was very little support. I see [the event] just as a continuation of the momentum we’ve been working on, but I feel like it gave us kind of a big push.”

For Tompkins, Shin and the Interfaith Council, the  success of the event bodes well for similar collaborations between the college and the Swarthmore community in the future.

“I am excited to work with the Interfaith Council of Southern Delaware County, Partners in Ministry, different groups at Swarthmore College, and members of the community in developing ways to cooperate inter-religiously,” Shin said. “By seeing who showed up, we have a better idea of who is interested in this work and with whom we can build more sustainable relationships.”

President Valerie Smith, who introduced Patel’s speech, delivered similar sentiments about religious diversity.

“During these tumultuous times when democratic values are being challenged, by engaging with difference, particularly religious difference, we acknowledge our shared humanity,” Smith said.

What’s in a fan?

in Columns/Sports by

Looking back, I realize I’ve spent all year talking about the problems inherent in the world of sports today. With all of that negativity out of the way, I’d like to take this opportunity to remind myself and everyone else that, in the larger scheme of things, I am a sports enthusiast down to the core, and that, in my opinion, sports still serve many valuable functions for people that go beyond simple entertainment. In particular, I want to focus on how fans develop emotional, personal connections to players and teams; the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics are a great example of this on the national scale. This is one of the ways that sports can bring people of all backgrounds and situations together in a way that few other things can. I think that the beauty of sports comes from the fact that every individual fan is entitled to their own individual connection that makes sports an enjoyable and meaningful part of their lives.

Surprisingly, though, there are always a few self-determined “real” sports fans who claim that support should be allocated based on measures that are more objective than whatever emotional attachments one may have; players should be evaluated for their skill alone, and a team’s fan base should be based either on locality and/or the team’s quality. Very few people here would make this argument, but there are plenty of sports “purists,” as they see themselves, who would and do. I’ll give a few personal anecdotes to explain what I mean.

I often scroll through the Facebook pages related to teams that I’m a fan of (although, sadly, I have fewer opportunities to do so now that I’m at Swat). On the fan page of the team Manchester United, I’ve run into a few posts that have annoyed me. Here and there, I’ll see a post degrading American fans, saying that they’re not true fans, and I even remember reading a comment about how the real fan base of the team is only in England, or even more restrictively, in Manchester. Of course, plenty of people responded negatively to these types of comments, but there were enough people supporting them to get on my nerves. Yes, I’m an American fan, and, yep, American soccer is relatively quite bad (especially compared to English soccer), but why is my support of Manchester United any less real? I visited my cousin in England when I was a little boy, saw Manchester United play, was in awe, enjoyed arguing with my cousin who was a fan of rival Chelsea, and became a lifelong fan in the process. I think that’s a fairly legitimate reason to support a team; I can’t claim to share in the element of the city’s and the country’s pride, but I have my own personal reasons that are just as important to me.

This is probably overreacting a bit, because the comments I’m responding to would almost universally be viewed as stupid. I’ll use another example that might not be as straightforward, then. In recent years, support for Manchester United among Muslim fans around the world has grown as a result of two high-profile Muslim players that they’ve kept, Marouane Fellaini and Adnan Januzaj. I was a fan before they joined, and, as a Muslim, I was pleased to see them join and thus tracked their progress closely. Last year, for the Muslim holiday Eid-ul-Fitr, the Man U fan page put up a post saying, “Eid Mubarak” (may your holiday be blessed) with a picture of Januzaj in acknowledgement of this growing Muslim fan base. I thought it was a great step towards making their new fans feel welcome as well as continue to boost young Januzaj’s stock and popularity among them.

To my dismay, multiple comments immediately came up telling fans that they should keep religion out of sports (in addition to the usual derogatory comments accompanying anything that has any remote connection to Islam). This is a widespread issue evident, for example, in the debate surrounding NFL player Tim Tebow’s observance of his faith while on the field (Tebow-ing) and other instances/actions like that. I took the incident on the Man U fan page very personally, however. Why can’t I have a particular connection to Manchester United because of how I shared Januzaj’s Muslim identity? Why was it wrong for me to jump at the opportunity to hold on to a moment where the media actually allowed Muslims to be seen in a positive light? Why was it so wrong for Muslim fans around the world to take pride in the fact that they could be represented to the world through two talented soccer players instead of having to constantly apologize for the terrorists who usually get the spotlight? As I see it, support for players and a team based on an emotional reason and a connection through shared identity, religion in this case, hurts no one while having the potential to help quite a few people feel better.

This extends to other forms of emotional connection to players as well. It only adds to the diversity and strength of the fan base when someone supports a player on a team because they’re the same race, religion, sexuality, and, in general, when they find an aspect that they can associate with in some manner. Fans are people, and players are people, and shared identity is often a pretty great way for people to connect; as such, these ties should be considered a sound basis for support. Besides, if players or teams were supported for a set of objective reasons only, then fans wouldn’t be as widespread as they are currently.

Of everything I’ve written this year, this is probably the most jumbled, but it’s also the most genuine. I’ve talked before about all the ways that sports aren’t so great and need to improve, but, in the end, sports make me really happy (please excuse the cheesiness); they provide me with multiple avenues of emotional connection which, when needed, allow me to escape from all the issues of real life. So, as a closing remark, I hope everyone can realize that, to an individual, sports can mean as much as things like art, music, literature, politics, or even divestment might mean to someone else. We as sports fans have to recognize that the players, teams, and organizations we support often have problems, and we should use our power to pressure improvements in those cases. At the same time, we’re also lucky to have the pleasure and release that sports provide us and should take pride not just in the fact that we are fans of a sport, but also the reason why we’re fans. Hopefully, I’ve convinced you all that not only is the world of sports complicated and deep, but so are all the genuine fans out there. And, hopefully, they can get recognition for that, too.

Swarthmore Hillel votes to drop ‘Hillel’ from name

in Around Campus/News by

Swarthmore Hillel’s board voted on Monday to change their name after receiving an email from Hillel International that threatened legal action against the student organization if it did not change the agenda of an upcoming event so that it aligned with Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership. The student group decided to remove “Hillel” from its name so that it could proceed with the planned event, where four activists will be presenting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict next week. The name change will also ensure its autonomy in choosing guest speakers and future topics for discussion.

In its letter to Swarthmore, Hillel International described the four activists as “promoting an anti-Israel agenda” that violated Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership. They wrote that if the event focused solely on the speakers’ participation in the American Civil Rights movement, then it would not be in violation of their policy, but that the group needed to correspond with Hillel International for confirmation. They issued an ultimatum demanding that the student group communicate with Hillel International by 5 p.m on Tuesday.

In a press release, Swarthmore Hillel said that the decision to drop “Hillel” from its name was made “in order to affirm [our] central Jewish values of openness and inclusion across differences.” Keeping the Hillel name “would prevent us from continuing to build that inclusive community we want to be,” wrote Joshua Wolfsun ’16, Swarthmore Hillel’s Israel-Palestine Programming Coordinator, via email.

Still, the decision to drop the Hillel name was a difficult one.

“For many of us, we identified with the Hillel name — either as a link to the larger Jewish student community, a connection to Hillel the Elder — the organization’s namesake — or quite simply as just what we have always called ourselves,” Wolfsun wrote. “As an organization that claims to promote pluralism and Jewish life in all its forms, it is deeply disappointing and frustrating that Hillel International has responded to our attempts to create an open and pluralistic community by threatening to sue its students and their college.”

Wolfsun reported that the Dean’s Office had been in contact with the student group, and had been “helpful and supportive” of the student-led decision-making process.

The meeting, which lasted two hours in Bond Hall, was attended by Jewish members both inside and outside of Swarthmore Hillel who discussed which aspects of Hillel they valued and desired to keep. Students also expressed concerns for the group to address going forward, such as feelings of exclusion and unilateral thinking. Having more diverse guest speakers with differing viewpoints is meant to address this issue.

According to its press statement, Swarthmore Hillel has yet to decide on the new name, although it will be chosen in the coming weeks, and the entire Jewish community at Swarthmore inside and outside of the organization will be invited to participate in the selection process.

Hillel International opposes programming that presents an anti-Israel view in any of its affiliated Hillel organizations. As part of a series on social justice issues on Israel and Palestine, Swarthmore Hillel scheduled a discussion entitled “Social Justice Then and Now: Lessons from the Civil Rights Movement” with civil rights veterans Ira Grupper, Mark Levy, Larry Rubin, and Dorothy Zellner. Ira Grupper was involved in a 2009 march in solidarity with Gaza victims of Israel’s January 2009 siege. Mark Levy is a civil rights activist who regularly speaks to college groups about the relevancy of the Civil Rights Movement to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Larry Rubin works with groups in Washington D.C. and Baltimore connecting the Black and Jewish communities. Dorothy Zellner was the co-editor of the civil rights newsletter “The Student Voice” and is now involved in advocacy work on behalf of Palestinians. They are scheduled to speak about their experiences in the American Civil Rights Movement and its applicability to the current conflict in Israel and Palestine next Tuesday and Wednesday.

After Chapel Hill, conflating anti-theism and atheism

in Nothing to Declare by

One week ago, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a man named Craig Stephen Hicks shot and killed three of his neighbors in a condominium parking lot. While many people insist that this was simply a dispute over parking that ended in unnecessary violence, there’s are also people who insist that this was a religious hate crime, as his victims were observant Muslims while Hicks was an atheist. While the idea that a Muslim family would be the target of a religiously motivated hate crime in Bible Belt North Carolina is sadly not all that surprising, the one confounding element is that Hicks, as an atheist, was not the person anyone would expect to be the perpetrator of that kind of crime.

Because he was overtly irreligious himself, many people don’t know how to talk about what happened. I’m against the idea that this should be a “wake up call” for atheists, as some articles on the topic have been stating. Whatever that “wake up call” would entail, I genuinely have no idea. Atheism isn’t really something that has a concrete community or ideals and dogma behind it the way religion does—it’s simply not believing something—and I personally don’t think it should be. In the religious South, the idea of an atheist community is more plausible, but I don’t know if sharing atheistic posts on Facebook really qualifies a man as being a part of it. Even so, the more notable and outspoken atheists have gone on the record condemning this action. While I don’t think they should have had to do that, atheists are still the least trusted group of people in America, even behind Muslims, so this mass condemning of the shooting comes across more as a way for an already disliked group to keep afloat during this rough period.

I’m not sure if this was a hate crime, and I don’t think anyone will ever be sure. Islamophobia is not an isolated incident in America by any means, but, then again, neither are parking disputes that end in people dying. They’re a surprisingly and sadly common occurrence in this country. Either explanation, in that sense, seems perfectly plausible. So automatically labeling it as a religious hate-crime when the motivations are, at best, unclear, I don’t think is helping that much. I also don’t think those on the other side are being all that helpful either. It being “just” a parking lot dispute that ended with three people dying doesn’t make it any better. You could argue that it makes the situation worse.

Going under the assumption that Hicks was not just an atheist, he seemed to also be an anti-theist, which is what many people are failing to call attention to. Atheism and anti-theism are not the same thing. They can often go hand-in-hand, but they’re ultimately separate. Even if anti-theism is the main component of this crime, I’m weary to write off anti-theism as a whole. Just from personal experience, one of the main reason the people I know who label themselves as anti-theists give themselves that label is because they deplore the violence often done in the name of religion.

What’s difficult for me to put words to, though, is how I still think this is different from something like Charlie Hebdo or the Army of God from the 1980s targeting abortion clinics. In those situations, people were committing violence overtly “for God,” with religion and the words of religious texts being their justification for violence. You could argue that they bastardized the religious texts to interpret them in a way that encouraged violence, but when something is presented as the divine word of God, that just makes malicious interpretations all the more dangerous. I ultimately think they’re different things simply because there is no “word of God” for anti-theism. There are no tenants and rules that anti-theists (or atheists, for that matter) are told to follow. There’s no one book that is presented as the definitive word of what people who call themselves anti-theists should believe and do. And if Hicks read “The God Delusion” and got those violently anti-theistic ideas in his head, Dawkins could come out and condemn him for it, unlike with older texts that are open to be interpreted however the reader wants. If there were only one concrete interpretation of a religious book, sects wouldn’t exist. The people who say that their religion doesn’t encourage violence ultimately just have a different interpretation than the people who say that their religion tells them to kill blasphemers. I’m glad that there seems to be more people in the first camp of religious thought than the second one.

All that being said, if people want to challenge extremist anti-theistic thought without conflating it with atheism or automatically deeming anti-theism as a whole to be an inherently hateful idea, I’m all for that. As someone with vaguely anti-theistic leanings myself, I’m often put off by how many anti-theists equate non-constructive insults toward religion with legitimate criticisms of religion. As with any other topic, poorly spoken people with loud opinions are incredibly unhelpful toward building any kind of conversation or common ground. I think the people who utterly dismiss the idea that the Chapel Hill shooting could have been anti-theistically motivated attack are just as unhelpful as the people who refused to acknowledge that Islam had anything to do with the shootings in France earlier this year.

This should not have happened, and no matter what the shooter’s reasons for doing it were—religious or otherwise—it’s a deplorable situation that happens far too often. Hopefully, though, it at least brings some light to the myriad issues at hand.

When Star Trek metaphors fall short in explanation

in Columns/Nothing to Declare/Opinions by

Atheism has always been criticized for its supposedly lackluster view of the world. I say “supposedly” here because most of the people who make claims about how sad and fruitless it is to be nonreligious tend fall into the religious camp themselves. A recent NPR article by Alva Noë titled “Why Atheists Need Captain Kirk”  compared atheists to Spock and his Vulcan logic as a means of criticizing the atheist community for being too analytical and therefore unappealing, compared to the more intangible worldview of religiosity. I think that’s false.

The author — rightfully so — criticizes the atheist community for indulging in scientism. Atheists, of course, aren’t the only ones who do that, but an idealized view of science as a perfectly rational system untouched by human error or bias is something you come across fairly often in those circles. Swarthmore, in all of its liberal arts glory, is no exception. It was a legitimate point to make, but it’s somewhat ruined by the idea that scientism is bad — not because it is an unrealistic view of the world, but because science has sometimes done scary things. I could just as easily make the same claim about religion — that it has all the idealized positive traits that religious people ascribe to it — except for when it doesn’t. It’s not much of an argument, and the idea that atheists blindly see science as infallible without realizing that science is what created the atom bomb is not an accurate depiction of the situation.

There is a reason that people resonate with the character of Spock, though. I can’t definitively say that scientists and atheists do — some kind of poll would have to be done — but I would understand if that turned out to be the case. Spock values logic and analytical discourse in coming to conclusions about the world.  He’s an extreme, but using “Kirkian” philosophy to counter that simply because Kirk is Spock’s polar opposite makes no sense. Spock is an extreme, and Kirk is too: are we to simply trade out one extreme for the other? At this point, it seems to be more of a case of differing values than one side of the argument being overtly more flawed than the other, as this author would suggest.

I struggled while reading this article to determine whether or not I would be considered a “Spockian” atheist. I suppose I would, but only because this article then delves into extremes and doesn’t come back. It latches onto one very flawed, stereotypical idea of what an atheist is and runs with it. It makes the mistake of prescribing the mathematician’s view of the world to “Spockian” atheists such as myself. The mathematician’s point of view is the notion that someone who prefersthe more concrete and logical aspects of life must be wholly incapable of thinking in the abstract or the romantic. But if one makes that flawed assumption, of course “people might come to think,” As Noë suggests, “that the inner life of a scientist would be barren.”

The Spockian world is “the denial of meaning and value” which cannot be reconciled with the idea that atheists can still experience the more ephemeral aspects of life. What’s the point if everything is just twirling atoms in an empty void, after all? All I can say is that this article takes the term “Spockian” far too literally, as if atheists are actually alien creatures physically incapable of comprehending human emotion. Knowing about the inner workings of something does not take away the human appreciation of it. Knowing that emotions are just biochemical processes in the brain doesn’t lessen the impact they have when you feel them. Knowing the science behind a sunset doesn’t mean I don’t think sunsets are beautiful — which I do.

The article mentions in passing that religion and religious people are guilty of the same over-idealizing blunders as science and overzealous scientists. However, it so clearly stacks the odds against the very idea of being nonreligious that any objectivity is lost in the void of stereotyped misinformation. I can’t help but think this person has never actually talked to an atheist or watched any interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is very clearly in awe of the world not in spite of his in-depth scientific understanding — that should apparently mar all worldly beauty beyond any hope of rescue — but because of his understanding.

A Spockian worldview gives atheists the task of explaining “how you get meaning and value” out of quarks. But the notion that “meaning” or “value” are essential components to the conversation is a false and ultimately unnecessary paradigm best left to first-year philosophy seminars. It’s an understandable conclusion to come to with this author’s version of “Spockian atheism” that leaves no room for anything other than hard, cold logic and strictly detached scientific understanding. If one assumes that atheists see no meaning and give no value to anything, it’s easy to say that that is a quandary. It’s an inherently flawed idea, though — one not made to build an argument on simply because the atheist wandering around outside measuring flowers with a protractor, baffled at the very concept of something being considered pretty is an atheist from a cartoon, not any atheist in reality.

Atheism does not need an alternative to Spockism — at least not this article’s greatly flawed version of it that probably doesn’t even exist. Even if it did, living by the tenets of Captain Kirk wouldn’t be any better. Scientism is not a problem confined to the atheist community and shouldn’t be treated like one: it’s a mindset that even liberal arts colleges that actively try to place value on courses of study other than STEM sometimes fall into. Even though that’s the case, I’m sure most Swarthmore students would agree that the problem can’t be fixed by speeding off into the exact opposite direction. Can’t we just all meet in the middle and be McCoy?

Shout it aloud

in A Still Small Voice/Columns/Opinions by

“Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their rebellion and to the house of Jacob their sins.” So begins Isaiah 58, a strident call to arms and my current favorite chapter in the Bible. “Soldier of the Cross” by Kentucky Thunder comes to mind, and as a matter of fact that record is rocking my soul as I write this. From the sounds of things, this could be one of those chapters that gets violent quickly and sits uncomfortably in the minds of modern, nonviolent people of faith. Gladly however, it doesn’t. Isaiah, a prophet who declares himself “The mouth of the Lord,” goes on to chide people of faith for pious acts empty of real action. “For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God.” So much sass, Isaiah, I can’t handle it.

“They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them. ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’” The mouth of the Lord responds pointedly, “Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.” God asks, sarcastically, “Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?” This biting critique of conventional religiosity rings powerfully thousands of years later. What do your rituals do anyway? From God, this really stings.

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:” hold on tight, friends, God’s about to lay it all out, “to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter — when you see the naked, to clothe him and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” Isaiah reminds us, not at all politely, of the commands that we ignore with empty worship and little else. Working for social justice, to fight oppression, to give of yourself — this is the True Fasting that is the will of God.

When we follow these commands, the mouth of the LORD promises us, “Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.” God makes a promise of support to those who do his work.

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.”

“Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.”

“If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on my holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight and the LORD’s holy day honorable, and if you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, then you will find your joy in the LORD, and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.”

God calls all those who claim to follow him in this chapter to a more profound understanding of the Sabbath. To fast is not simply to be penitent and sleep in faux humility on beds of sackcloth, but to reach out into our communities with a liberatory hand. Isaiah’s demand is explicit — those who worship the God of Abraham must be noisy in their faith and in their commitment to justice. We don’t have another option. This burns me up inside. The language here cannot be ignored, yet I ignore it every day. God’s command to serve not only the people of Swarthmore College, but the world at large, is a weight that I can’t quite bear. I fail to love my neighbors continually, I get caught in my own interests and lose track of what it means to be a servant of God.

So what can I do? My laughable efforts at serving justice — always flawed fundamentally by my basic, broken humanness — can’t possibly be what God expects of me. And yet, based on the above text, God’s promise is to strengthen my frame before opposition and to steady my hands as I strain at the knots of the yoke of oppression. I suppose I just have to keep working.

Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to your people their rebellion and to the Empire its sins.

God, privilege and thankfulness

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

The hardest thing for me to grasp in my religious questioning, even today, is the idea of inferiority, smallness and lack of control. As I grew up, I would proudly hoist up my accomplishments with pride. My mother would remind me to say “Alhamdulillah,” or “Praise be to God,” after what I thought was a triumph. In fact, I knew I was supposed to say this, as it has been programmed into me since I was a child. There was a problem. A problem in sheer and intentional ignorance that I consistently feared to even think about. Why was the praise to God? It was my accomplishment. I stayed up. I worked. Why was I supposed to act like I had done nothing? It sounds selfish even writing this, but it was a matter of logic as much as ego. Oddly enough, it was Swarthmore, that made me realize why the praise for me personally is to God.

I am intrigued, I would say troubled, but this implies a sort of judgement that I have no right to pass, by the culture of entitlement that we live in. A culture where awards, credit, grades (more specifically grade inflation) and trophies are the norm (I am thankful for this last one as the YMCA allowed my unathletic self to proudly display a full trophy shelf). A lot of this may be due to our culture of independence: a culture that is, in reality, paradoxical. We clamor for independence yet need the public validation of our peers. This is why I drive around with my Swarthmore bumper sticker hoping someone will stop and tell me that Swarthmore is, indeed, a good school. But unfortunately this culture that I have allowed myself to live in hides me from fully realizing one idea — privilege.

This is one idea commonly, but not thoroughly, used in modern culture. You often hear that you should not waste food because there are children starving in the world, but this is used more as a half-hearted parenting technique than an attempt to grasp privilege. But Swarthmore has allowed me to explore this concept. Despite our ignorance of class issues, Swarthmore has forced me to accept privilege as an important reality. I, both as a student and a friend, am constantly forced to realize that the world has given me inherent advantages that have allowed me to me to achieve what I have. This was a moment of shameful realization for me. Who did I think I was? Why have I allowed myself to worship this culture of hyper self-awareness? Why do I wake up each morning trying to make the world “Remember the Name” when in reality it is my position in life that has been my greatest asset?

But recently, this has led me to a greater realization. This is why for me, Praise is to God. God in Islam is the assigner of roles, or otherwise the assigner of privilege. Why I have the role I have is a question of great mystery for me. Why God can let millions suffer through starvation, homelessness, and hate I do not know and may never understand. However, I do know that my position on earth cannot be about me. It has to be about an “us.” I have to see my position not as a fortunate occurrence but rather a responsibility, as a resource not simply for my future but for others’, the less privileged but also the more privileged. If this is in the form of a smile, I can Alhamdulillah do this. If it something greater, I must try.

Swarthmore Hillel draws ire from international organization

in Around Campus/News by

Prior to winter break, the college’s Hillel chapter, the largest Jewish organization on campus, declared itself an “Open Hillel.” Notably, Hillel is the largest national college campus organization for Jewish students in the country. The policy changes mean that Hillel members will no longer abide by the Hillel guidelines that prohibit chapters from collaborating with speakers or groups that “delegitimize” or “apply a double standard” to Israel. The Hillel dispute has furthered an increasingly hot debate over what entails appropriate discussion and activism concerning Israel and Israeli politics on college campuses.

Joshua Wolfsun ’16, a Hillel Board member, explained that the transition towards an open Hillel began in the middle of the 2013 spring semester, when a group of current Swarthmore Hillel Board members came across Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership, and were unhappy with what they discovered.

“If Swarthmore Hillel was ever going to lead discussions within its community, which we knew we might pursue in the future, we needed an open community where people of all political positions were welcome,” Wolfsun said.

Wolfsun further noted that many student board members were uncomfortable with the fact that the Standards of Partnership force speakers and groups to meet a political “litmus test.” He explained that the untenable exclusivity of the Standards of Partnership was made clear when Avraham Burg, the former speaker of the Israeli Knesset, was barred from giving his previously planned talk at the Harvard Hillel house because the event was co-sponsored by the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee.

“This was not the first time that the Standards of Partnership led to the silencing of voices within the Jewish community,” Wolfsun said. “As a branch member of the international Hillel community, the board did not feel like it could stay silent about it.”

Nathaniel Frum ’16, however, has expressed concern with Hillel’s recent policy changes, noting that the largest Jewish student group on campus seems intent on becoming a purely left leaning political group. One argument that he and others have raised notes that SPJP already offers a space in which speakers who might be “anti-Israeli” can speak, and members of Hillel who are interested in hearing those views can participate and be involved in those forums.

“There is no shortage of student groups or faculty departments that would be willing to bring an anti-Israel speaker to campus,” Frum said. “There is also a very heavy bias in demonstrations involving the state of Israel. One would think that a Jewish group on campus would be enthusiastic to show the only Jewish state in a positive light to the student body. Sadly, this is not the case. Swarthmore has no shortage of generic liberal student groups and it seems Hillel is one of them.”

A major question in the debate regarding Hillel’s policy changes revolves around what the terms “Zionism” and “Anti-Zionism” necessitate for different people. Varying opinions on the definitions of the terms have led people to feel differently about the changes. Unlike Frum, Wolfsun feels that Anti-Zionism is compatible with Judaism, and that people of all worldviews regardless of their beliefs about the Israeli state, ought to be given a chance to speak under the Hillel roof.

“There are many people, and many Jewish students at Swarthmore, who identify as anti-Zionists. To conflate Judaism and Zionism is to not allow for the incredibly diverse Jewish community that actually exists today. To meet our mission, we’re committed to building a space that allows for all political positions on the state of Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We’re really truly committed to pluralism and open dialogue. We believe that the way to learn and engage with issues in a constructive way is to hear from, engage with, criticize, understand and reflect on multiple views.

Marissa Cohen’17 another Hillel member, expressed sentiments similar to those of Wolfsun. She believes that although it may seem as if Judaism and Zionism go hand in hand, that such a pairing is not true for all Jewish people, especially Swarthmore students.

“Not allowing speakers of a certain viewpoint sends a message that students of said viewpoint are also not allowed–or at least not as welcome as others,” she said. “All Jewish people, regardless of political beliefs, should be treated equal. Hopefully, the resolution will thus allow for an increase in attendance. Maintaining the Jewish community is my most paramount concern.”

She further explained that although she identifies as a Zionist, she not frightened by the prospect of “anti-Zionists” speaking in Hillel. She believes that most of the reaction against Open Hillel currently overstates the effects.

If [Anti-Zionist] speakers are coming to campus anyway, why not host them ourselves, in a forum that will allow us to at least influence the situation?” Cohen said. “Students interested in the speakers will follow them to whichever forum they speak at–if we do not host them ourselves, we will lose Jewish students from Hillel who will feel as though their views are better represented elsewhere.”

She also argued that Hillel’s current policies represent a close minded approach.

“By refusing to hear other views, we send the message that we are not confident in our own. Hearing anti-Zionism does make me uncomfortable. But that’s ok. I will better understand opposing arguments, which will help me refute them later.”

Noah Weinthal ’15 offered a middle ground view, pointing to both benefits and detriments of the policy changes. He suggested that plenty of room already exists on campus for Anti-Zionist beliefs, beliefs that he himself is often made uncomfortable by.

“Anti-Zionism to me means a belief in the falsity of the moral and legal justification for the creation and continued existence of the State of Israel,” he said. “It means denying to Israel the right to self-defense while espousing and applauding it for Palestinians.  It means vilifying Israel for military campaigns against those who fire rockets at towns and schools that have done nothing wrong except seeking to exist.”

 Nevertheless, he notes that Hillel’s stated mission is “to enrich the lives of Jewish undergraduate and graduate students so that they may enrich the Jewish people and the world.”

“Nowhere does it say that one’s Jewish identity is contingent upon Zionism, and I find it hard to see how we may enrich the world if we cannot learn to welcome dialogue with those with whom we disagree,” Weinthal said.

Additionally, he explained that he believes that there is a difference between believing in the State of Israel and believing in the core tenets and principles that make one Jewish.

“I think my concerns about Anti-Zionism are a strong case for why we need a strong Pro-Israel group on campus that provides a safe space for those who wish to learn about the nuances of Israeli politics in more neutral and less vilifying languageThat group, though, has never been the role of Hillel and should never be the role of Hillel.”

Other members of Hillel were contacted and did not respond. Kelilah Miller, the Jewish Student Advisor, declined to comment.

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