Speech at opening of Shalom/Salaam: The Untold Story of a Mystical Entanglement George Washington University, Washington D.C., September 9, 2004

Speech at opening of Shalom/Salaam: The Untold Story of a Mystical Entanglement
George Washington University, Washington D.C., September 9, 2004

First of all, I'd like to thank my hosts here at George Washington University for all the help and support that they've given me. There have been an awful lot of people working with me on this show, and I appreciate the assistance of each and every one of them.

This, the inaugural exhibition of Shalom/Salaam: The Untold Story of a Mystical Entanglement, has been a very long time coming, with the first rumblings of this project being felt all the way back in the winter of 1999, when I first discovered the relationship between the Sufis and Jewish mystics. Since that time, I have produced and shown artwork based individually in both the Baal Shem Tov and the Sufis - exhibits which are currently on view over at the Eckles Library on the Mount Vernon Campus of GW - I have researched and am just finishing up a 400-page book on the historical underpinnings of this show; I have published five articles excerpted from that book in various magazines and journals; I have received a grant from the Puffin Foundation to produce a wonderful set of note cards; I taught a course in this subject during two different semesters at the Jewish Study Center and I presented this project at a conference on interdisciplinary art this summer.

And yet, despite all this hard work of mine and the growing success of the project, the battle in the Middle East rages on. Go figure!

This brings up a very important issue concerning this art project - and the efficacy of activist art in general. Can this art show - or any art show, for that matter - have a real affect on the current events taking place in the world around us? Is it that art, no matter how well intentioned or historically based, is ultimately confined to beautifying the walls, and little more?

I have no doubt that the answer to the conundrum that is the current Middle East situation does not lie in this room, as represented by my art show. Art can be a gentle lover, but it is no miracle worker.

However, there are definite things that an art project such as this can offer by way of an impetus for peace, and by providing a fresh manner in which to view the relations between Muslims and Jews, Israelis and Palestinians. And it is my hope that by adding this voice to the cacophony surrounding the situation in the Middle East, I can help move the conversation towards the positive - and away from the energy that drives the current war.

Reading today's newspapers, it's easy to believe that Jews and Arabs have never had a period of mutual enrichment, a time of peace and reciprocal respect.

Yet, looking into the past, we find a wonderful co-mingling between Jewish and Muslim mystics. For instance, when medieval Jews wanted to understand the Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides' work, they studied with Muslim teachers, as Maimonides' work was so influenced by Sufi and Islamic philosophy, that Muslims had a better understanding of it than did his contemporary Jews. And then there's the story of the 13th century Sufi teacher, Ali Ibn Hud, who taught Jewish and Islamic mysticism to Jewish and Islamic students in Damascus, all while wearing both a turban and a Jewish head covering, to show his respect for both paths!

In addition to popularizing this important historical chapter in the relationship between these two peoples, my project is offered as part of the dialogue of peace. Shalom/Salaam represents a reality of shared roots that we can no longer afford to ignore. As Elie Wiesel, the passionate human rights activist, has said, "I still believe human bridges can be built between the Jews and Arabs, through reciprocal visits between students, teachers, musicians, writers, business leaders, journalists and (yes!) artists." This project answers his call.

Additionally, I feel that this endeavor can offer a literal bridge between Jewish and Arab communities and even governments. At its very best, art can proffer a non-threatening method of bringing people together, one that operates outside the boundaries of the current political and social fray.

It is my hope to exhibit the artwork from this show in the Middle East - and specifically, in Israel and Syria at the same time, illustrating in the most temperate of manners the highest possibilities of these two peoples. Indeed, much of this story took place in Damascus and the Holy Land throughout the Middle Ages - and it seems entirely appropriate to hope that this exhibition might - might, mind you - be able to provide some small, but specific step in the stimulus for peace.

In one sense, it is quite easy to disparage an effort like this. After all, if the greatest political minds of our generation can only succeed in bringing the Middle East to a fervent boil, than what can I possibly be thinking, attempting to insert my art into the cauldron?

Well, ultimately, we have to make choices in life - and the choice so often comes down to giving up, or fighting on. I, myself, don't believe in fighting with the sword - no mind will ever truly be changed by force. However, I do believe that it is incumbent on myself to work, with whatever skills I call my own, towards making this world a better place in which to live.

And so, though I freely acknowledge that trying to insert this project into the Middle East situation is akin to attempting to put out a forest fire with a cup of water, I feel just as sure that it is the best that I personally have to offer.

After all, we must remember what the human rights advocate Albert Einstein had to say:

"All of us who are concerned for peace and the triumph of justice must today be keenly aware of how small an influence reason and honest good will exert upon events in the political field. But however that may be, and whatever fate may have in store for us, yet we may rest assured that without the tireless efforts of those who are concerned with the welfare of humanity, the lot of humankind would be far worse than it in fact currently is."