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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A REMARKABLE EVENING 

On Monday night, March 30th, I attended a lecture at the Tifereth Israel Synagogue in Des Moines. The guest speaker was Brigitte Gabriel. Frankly, it was one of the most remarkable evenings I have ever experienced.

Ms. Gabriel is a Lebanese Christian, who survived the Lebanese Civil War while a child. She was saved from slaughter by the Israeli Defense Forces when they moved into Southern Lebanon. She later lived in Israel, and now is a resident of the United States. As a former journalist covering the Middle East, she is uniquely qualified to discuss the current events there, as well as the impact of Islamic extremism in the United States. If you have read either of her books, you have a basic understanding of the nature of her talk.

I would not be presumptuous enough to try to encapsulate the content of her talk. It lasted about an hour, with another hour of Questions and Answers. What I would rather do is discuss the venue, and the audience.

I arrived early, in order to become familiar with the Synagogue, never having been to Tifereth Israel before. I first went to the lounge area outside of the community room. In the community room, Ms Gabriel and a panel of local congregation members were hosting a large number of educators from the Des Moines area. High School, Middle and Grammar School teachers, numbering well over one hundred, were at the Question and Comment point. I listened in for awhile, but the questions were mostly inane, suggesting that most of the invited attendees had little comprehension of the nature of Islamic extremism. I heard the words tolerance and diversity in numbers too large to count. I felt I was at risk of having a brain numbing experience, so I went to the sanctuary.

The sanctuary, built in 1929, was done in a classic style, reminding me of the synagogues I visited in my youth in Chicago. I was comfortable in this setting, and sat in a pew just two rows from the lectern. Being early, I was able to watch and visit with many of the attendees for the evening lecture as they arrived. This was the first highlight of my evening.

I must point out that security was very evident. I am sure most know of the very real and explicit threats that Ms. Gabriel has received since beginning her education activities on the nature of violent Islam. But this is Des Moines, not Toronto, New York or Southern California. As it turned out, the security (Des Moines Police Officers) were mainly occupied with directing folks to the rest rooms, and insuring that Ms. Gabriel was not hugged into asphyxia.

My first conversation was a brief one with former Iowa Governor Robert Ray, and his wife Billie. I have met him on numerous occasions, and was pleased that he remembered me. As always, they were gracious, and greeted many of their friends and admirers with grace and courtesy. Sitting next to me were a middle aged couple who are members of the congregation. The wife was very knowledgeable on the history of the synagogue and its congregation, and gave me a brief education on Tifereth Israel. Behind me were a white couple and an African-American man who were members of an evangelical church in the neighborhood. We had an interesting discussion of heart healthy diets, as the African-American man was also a survivor of stroke, heart attack and by-pass surgery. Turns out we shared the surgeon, and had graduated from Cardiac Rehab at our mutual hospital just two months apart.

By 6:50 PM, the pews were filled, and additional folding chairs had been brought in for the side aisles and open spaces. I would guess total attendance at well over three hundred. I cannot describe adequately the diversity of the audience. College students from Drake and Grandview, High School students, parents with their children, married and single adults, middle aged and elderly people; all mingled in a delightfully haphazard manner. Not surprising for Iowa, the conversations among the guests were lively, friendly, and filled with introductions, handshakes and laughter. Three hundred strangers drawn together in what was for many an unfamiliar setting, but with a shared desire to learn.

After appropriate acknowledgments and introductions, the emcee turned over the microphone to Ms. Gabriel. The audience was immediately enraptured by both her personality, as well as the content. She spoke without script (no tele-prompter), referring to a single page of notes only when using an exact quote, or with reference to specific figures or names. The attendee reactions were among the most sincere and genuine I have ever witnessed. Laughter when she make a humorous remark, serious attention when she spoke of matters of importance, and free flowing tears when she talked of her childhood as a Christian child under attack by Moslem former neighbors and friends. The savagery of her experiences was underscored by her obvious emotion.

After the formal talk, Ms. Gabriel opened the floor to audience questions. Again, this is Iowa. Those wishing to ask questions lined up quietly at the microphone, and waited their turn politely and quietly. I was fortunate to be the second person to raise a question, and I introduced myself before posing my question. Every person who followed did the same, introducing themselves and telling the audience why they were here before posing their question. As with the audience, the questioners reflected the wide background of attendees. Among the expected folks who were Jewish, Christian, native Iowans and transplants; were three who stood out. One was a Lebanese Christian who was also a refugee from the turmoil of the seventies. Another was an African Christian from Darfur, and the third was a Muslim African, also a refugee from Darfur.

All of the questions were relevant, and polite. Ms. Gabriel answered each with thoroughness, and occasionally a passion, that showed her knowledge and experience on the issues presented. While she may have expected the standing ovation she received at the end of her formal presentation, I detected a bit of surprise on her face when she received another standing ovation at the end of the Question period.

After the event itself, there was a reception with light refreshments, and a book signing. As before, I met a variety of people during the reception, including the Rabbi of Tifereth Israel, the Cantor, the couple who sponsored the event, and a host of Jewish and Christian folks who all shared a common theme. The theme was a heartfelt thank you for the opportunity to attend, and an admiration for the guest of honor.

I had the privilege of speaking with Ms. Gabriel for a few minutes, and found her to be an engaging and intelligent conversationalist, who made those around her comfortable in a way that only very special people have. I would offer two thoughts from her that I wish to share.

“To tolerate the intolerable is in itself a crime.”

“Although the majority of Moslems are peaceful, their silence makes them irrelevant.”

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