Closing the circle

My friend, the wonderful and talented playwright & actress Annie Valentina was kind enough to translate yesterday’s eyewitness account of the «ring of peace» gathering at the synagogue into English. I’m immensely grateful.

You might also be interested in the criticisms I made against Breitbart media today regarding grossly inaccurate reporting about this event. 

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Photo: Martin Grüner Larsen (CC-BY-SA 2.0)

Youth in front of the synagogue after the rally.

Tonight I attended the Ring of Peace rally at the Oslo Synagogue. It was an emotional gathering, which has already received a lot of attention from international news media.

There’s something wonderful about moments when history presents us with an opportunity, and the right people step up to it and do the right thing. In rhetorics, this is a quality known as kairos – the capacity of speech to rise to the challenges of the moment.

On July 25th, three days after the mass murders of Utøya, an enormous memorial event took place – the Rose March. It had a turnout of over 150,000 in Oslo alone (I was walking the Bergen march myself). It was an act of symbolism which seized the moment and filled it with the content that was needed.

In hindsight, many have criticized the Rose March as being too simple, too easily forgotten. It was said to have been overly broad, open-ended, and prone to filling with uncomplicated emotion. All of that may well be true, but in many ways that’s exactly what made the Rose March work. It gave visibility to an underlying solidarity. In an abruptly deafening single voice, which I think took us all by surprise the Rose March declared that across our political differences, biases and conflicts, we wish to strive for a humanity shared by all – a shared desire to not commit violence to one another.

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In Greek mythology, Kairos is the god of opportunity, luck and the moment. His hair is long in the front, the back is shaved. And should you ever cross paths with him, you must grab him quickly by the forelock —  because if he slips by you, and turns the smooth side to you, you’ll never get hold of him again.

I am grateful for the Oslo youth who did not let the moment slip them by, who held that rally. Though smaller than the hordes of the Rose March, it had a power of symbolism that I already see spreading via social media to the rest of the world. A Twitter search for ‘Oslo’ tonight almost exclusively returns hits on those 2,000 or so – teenagers, elderly, rabbis, imams, politicians, cops, journalists, emergency workers, teachers, Jews, Muslims, Christians and Atheists – who stood together, freezing, outside that synagogue. (And is there not also something lovely about how many attended in a professional capacity, as civilian safeguard for Jews – civil society making its institutional presence known? Press, police and emergency personnel showing up to represent Public Norway?)

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Democracy is a form of governance where pure, raw power is replaced by symbolic power. This is precisely why symbolic acts like the Ring of Peace have a particular kind of impact. The youth of Oslo set a positive example. The effects of it will be palpable.

The speakers also understood the impact of the moment, tonight. Six years ago, in a public meeting at Litteraturhuset [The House of Literature], I heard a young man named Ali Chishti make an impassioned, articulate speech condemning Jews and homosexuals. It was powerful rhetoric, full of classic anti-semitic tropes and concepts. Jews plotting 9/11, working from the shadows, pulling strings behind the scenes. It was a strong moment, and I remember the plight of multicultural Norway felt more perplexing than ever. The writeup about that meeting says he was booed off the stage. I’d actually forgotten that part. What I do remember is thinking he was met with much resistance, and that this was a relief to me.

Tonight, Chishti — now a man of 30 — stood up and spoke well about how he believed differently today than he had back then. He compelled us to say no to anti-semitism and islamofobia. It was a powerful moment, and like a friend of mine said after the fact, goes to show one should never give up hope that people can change. I experienced it as deliverance of six years’ worth of unease.

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Photo: Martin Grüner Larsen CC-BY-SA 2.0

Rabbi Michael Melchior speaking in front of the synagogue.

But the highlight of the night for me was a spectacular and deeply moving speech, made in an occasionally cracking voice, by Danish rabbi Michael Melchior.

He had three things to tell the youth outside the synagogue, he said (and you’ll have to excuse my quoting from memory here). The first was something the father of Dan Uzan, the Jewish man killed in Copenhagen, had said. When he heard what Oslo youth were planning to do, he said “This gives me back the hope that was taken from me!” and tearfully embraced Melchior.

The second, Melchior said, was that what these young muslims were doing tonight had deep roots in Islam. And then the rabbi quoted from the Q’ran. A rabbi, quoting from the Q’ran! It was a deep gesture that spoke volumes, and was a way of reflecting the youths’ initiative back at them. He told a story from the prophet’s life, where he’d returned to Mecca after being exiled, and was protected by a group of non-believers who said “anyone wishing to harm the prophet Muhammed will have to kill us first” — Melchior said this, and was nearly drowned out by applause.

The third thing he wanted to say, was that the youth outside the synagogue had created a circle of peace and love, and broken one of hate and war. Allahu Akhbar! he yelled. “Allah, God, is with us anywhere humans build bridges and draw circles around each other. That is where Allah wants to be”, said Melchior.

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Over the heads of Melchior and the other speakers, floodlights cast huge shadows on the wall. We saw sixteen feet tall shadows. Young people and rabbis; all looming, all monumental. The rabbi appeared as an archetype of himself on the tall, white wall. Such is the amplification effect of such acts of symbolism: they make the individual actions of a person larger than life, and give the action reach beyond itself. The message of what happened in Oslo tonight – in practical terms a relatively unremarkable event, a gathering of a couple of thousand people – attains great meaning for people around the world. Similar rallies are said to be taking place in other countries, too. It is because this act seized the moment and filled it with content.

Rose marches and peace rings are “too simple”, this is true. They are. They do not recognize the many fundamental conflicts that exist in a democratic, pluralistic society. And in some ways, that’s precisely the point of such a gathering. It is a large, simple action that redefines a moment. It tells us what we wish society was more like and gets us moving in that direction.

Despite our many conflicts, we all wish – most of us, anyway – for our underlying humanity to be acknowledged. These are the moments that remind us of what the overarching goal is with contentions, debate and friction in a multicultural society. It is to find a way to live together without hate and violence. By making a ring around the synagogue, these youth trespassed across current-day minor conflicts, pointing out a path to the society that they want to live in. It’s up to the rest of us to listen, and follow them.

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