All Things Considered

Palestinian Minnesotan and Twin Cities rabbi call for civil dialogue

A man and woman speak in front of a crowd
In this video screenshot, Moneer Rifai and Rabbi Jill Avrin talk to a crowd at the Eisenhower Community Center in Hopkins about the Israel-Hamas War on Tuesday.
Facebook screenshot

A Twin Cities rabbi and a Palestinian Hopkins resident led a community conversation about the ongoing war and humanitarian crisis in Gaza Tuesday night.

“There’s so much hatred out there in the world right now, and so much misinformation circulating and so much pressure that people feel to hunker down in their silos and opposing camps,” said Rabbi Jill Avrin in an interview with MPR News before the event. “The only way that anything is going to change is if we are willing to put ourselves out there and enter spaces with people who have different lived experiences than us.”

Avrin was an associate rabbi at Bet Shalom in Minnetonka and recently co-founded a nonprofit focused on bringing together the Jewish community, called Your Jewish. She was joined by Moneer Rifai, a software developer who grew up in Lebanon, went to school in Minnesota and now lives in Hopkins.

“This issue transcends politics and religion,” Rifai told MPR News. “It’s really a question of humanity. At this point, we need to find another way to talk about it, and we need to find another way to draw attention to the humanitarian crisis happening.”

Gethsemane Lutheran Church, Hopkins Schools and the City of Hopkins put on the in-person and livestream event.

Rifai and Avrin joined All Things Considered host Tom Crann beforehand to give a preview. You can listen to their conversation using the audio player above or read a transcript of it below. Both have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

What have you learned from each other as you prepare for this event?

Rifai: I have really enjoyed getting to know Rabbi Jill. And I’ve really gotten to understand how the Jewish community here feels. The Jewish people have had a long history of antisemitism. And at one point, she mentioned her son asked her, “Mom, is there going to be another Holocaust?”

When I heard that as a parent — as a new parent — that just broke my heart. So that tells me there’s a real fear and anxiety of the Jewish community.

Part of why I’m doing this is to try to reach out to our Jewish friends and neighbors who have actually shown a lot of support for their Palestinian friends and neighbors. I’m hoping this will be a different way to approach this discussion.

Avrin: Moneer has really given me the gift of humanizing the story of Palestinians. As a Jew, as a rabbi, I have such deep personal connections to Israelis. And everyday I hear the personal stories of Israelis.

What’s missing from my life is the personal stories behind the suffering of Palestinians. Even though I can read about them, it’s really different to sit across the table from someone, to look into someone’s eyes and to hear their story. So Moneer has really given me the gift of his family's story, from his grandparents being displaced in 1948.

We’re dealing with a complex and long history here, and yet your plan to talk about the historical context at this event. How do you begin to encapsulate this and actually agree on the facts?

Rifai: We have a PowerPoint slide where we are making our best attempt.

Avrin: Our goal isn’t necessarily to present one history, but to present history from both of our perspectives. And I actually think that people benefit more from hearing the way that we understand the history, sometimes in the same way and sometimes from different perspectives. I think that’s helpful.

Rifai: Yeah, I agree. And we both have agreed initially to be OK with differences. So we’re trying to present just a general history so people can have a general context of what happened in the last century or so. And how can we move forward, or what options do we have to move forward?

But like Rabbi Jill mentioned, we are OK with the fact that certain historical events or historical nuances might be interpreted differently by folks with a Jewish background versus by folks with a Palestinian background. The hope is to show how we can disagree in a civil and understanding way.

If you disagree, how do you want the audience tonight to actually deal with that?

Avrin: I hope that people see us entering a dialogue in a way that expresses difference, but through mutual respect.

Rifai: Yes, it is important to understand the history and to have a context of the historical events. But to be honest, sometimes, we might get too lost in the weeds.

I find less value in proving one right or proving the other person wrong. My main concern is what is happening on the ground today. My main concern is the urgent suffering, and the scale of destruction and suffering happening in Gaza.

So my main concern is highlighting those issues, as well as the issues that Rabbi Jill mentioned, like antisemitism at home and the fear of the Jewish community.

What would you think would be a successful outcome of your event?

Avrin: Success for me looks like people having an expanded view of the situation, for people putting themselves out there to have a more open mind to consider multiple perspectives — and also for people to see that it is possible for people who hold very different views to sit in the same room together and have a civil and respectful conversation. My hope is that people will see that modeled and try to live that in their lives.

Rifai: I’m hoping that folks who are listening or connecting online will be able to understand that, as a Palestinian — and I’m not the only one — we condemn these horrific acts of Hamas. No doubt about that.

And the goal here is to highlight the humanity of Palestinians. I think that gets often lost in the weeds. And many people do not understand maybe the Palestinian history or the the suffering of the Palestinian people. Being able to highlight this unfathomable amount of suffering happening today and respond to it is very important and very crucial.

I’m hoping we can also find a way to move as a community here in Minnesota — as neighbors and as friends — to move forward, which by the way, is going to be a very difficult path ahead. But you have to start today. And we start by stopping the bleeding at first. After that, we can continue these conversations, which I hope they will continue and I hope they will expand.