Muslims in America: The Empty Chair at the Thanksgiving Table

Why is this Thanksgiving, this America, this year, different from all other years?

Bradley Burston
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Zienib Noori, 20, of Albany, NY listens to a speaker at the 'Today, I Am A Muslim, Too' rally in New York City March 6, 2011.
Zienib Noori, 20, of Albany, NY listens to a speaker at the 'Today, I Am A Muslim, Too' rally in New York City March 6, 2011. Credit: Reuters
Bradley Burston

A few days ago, awash in images of terrorism and grief, I got to talking with a Muslim man who runs a hardware store up the street here in Jaffa. He asked me about Thanksgiving.

A natural question for an expatriate American. People ask a lot. The holiday called Thanksgiving exists everywhere in movies, sitcoms, Grey's Anatomy. So I had my usual upbeat, bland, fellowship-of-humankind answer at the ready.

But then something happened, and I had nothing to say.

For the first second, my chest seemed to lose its floor. Before I opened my mouth again, I needed to decide quickly how honest I was prepared to be about this. About America. 

It wasn't the usual issue. It wasn't the long shadow of that first Thanksgiving and what was to follow, the story of extraordinary hospitality turned to horror. It wasn't the idea that a people rooted in their home, welcomed and helped keep alive a group of vulnerable, needy, clueless newcomers from afar - only to face a subsequent genocide.

It wasn't that. It was something more immediate, a little harder to place.

I wondered: Why was this Thanksgiving, this America, this year, different from all other years? 

Maybe it was the news from St. Petersburg, Florida, where, in the wake of the Paris terror murders, a phone threat to a local mosque warned: "We are tired of your s--- and I f---ing personally have a militia that is going to come down to your Islamic Society of Pinellas county and firebomb you and shoot whoever is there on site in the head. I don't care if they are f---ing 2-years-old or 100. I am over your f---ing s---, and our whole country is."

Maybe it was the news from closer in, from the mountains we ourselves can see on a clear day. The news that Ezra Schwartz, a warm and energetic Sharon, Massachusetts 18-year-old spending time in Israel, a young man whose life had been about good works and baseball, had been murdered in terror attacks which the same day took the lives of a Hebron-area Palestinian and three Israelis.

Or maybe it was the thought of a leading candidate for the presidency of the United States, Donald Trump, hinting at the possibility of shutting down mosques and creating a national database for U.S. Muslims. Or maybe it was the mayor of Roanoke, Virginia, suggesting that America should consider sequestering refugees from Syria in internment camps.

I began to think of the Thanksgiving table in a new way. More like our Passover seder, with one seat left empty and one table setting and one glass left untouched.

I began to think of who would be missing from the Thanksgiving table this year. I thought about the unimaginable grief of the family of Ezra Schwartz from Sharon, a short distance from where the Pilgrims of that first Thanksgiving had landed.

And I thought about the wave of bigotry against American Muslims which has followed the terrorism in Paris.

In Florida, in Connecticut, in Nebraska, in Texas, in North Carolina, wherever there is blanket hatred and mistrust toward any follower of Islam – even those who have been Americans for generations – there is an empty seat at America's Thanksgiving table. Humanity denied. The promise of America as refuge, broken.

It was only later that I knew what to tell the man at the hardware store about what Thanksgiving was for. It had everything to do with taking a step across a deep divide, to offer humanity to people who are not your own.

This weekend, Ezra Schwartz' Jewish community received a remarkable letter from the spiritual leader of Sharon, Massachusetts' Muslims, Imam Abdul Rahman Ahmad.

"Dear Jewish Sisters and Brothers," the letter begins. "It was with great sadness that I learned last night that Ezra Schwartz of Sharon had his life brutally cut short in Israel yesterday."

The imam, extending his "deepest condolence for your tragic loss," voiced hope that he could “serve as a resource and ally for you during this trying time and that this terrible incident will be a catalyst for bringing our communities together, rather than pulling us apart."

“Your families will be in my and my family’s hearts, and in our prayers,” he concluded, signing the letter with the Hebrew words traditionally spoken to console mourners.

A few days before, in Petersborough, Ontario, where in the aftermath of the Paris terrorism, arsonists torched a mosque, a local synagogue reached out to the Muslim congregation, offering to share its space for worship until the mosque could be rebuilt.

Until then, members of the Masjid Al-Salaam Mosque, Beth Israel Synagogue, and the Unitarian Fellowship, will all hold services in the building. Kenzu Abdella, president of the mosque, was quoted as saying that the overwhelming support from the Jewish and Christian communities, and the rest of the community, had turned a hateful crime into something positive.

What is Thanksgiving for? In a dark time, Thanksgiving is meant to serve up something called chesed, which means lovingkindness, and much more.

Chesed, and Thanksgiving, are about the idea of grace, a much-needed break from meanness and from tragedy of human manufacture, a break from callous injustice and callous disregard of injustice to others. A pause in an onslaught of raw wounds and grieving, a pause made of that undefinable generosity of heart which startles us into adopting it ourselves when it crops up in unexpected ways at the holidays.

Thanksgiving is for cherishing those who come to the table, and offering support for those who cannot.

May your Thanksgiving be a blessed one.