After Hamas attacked Israel on Oct.7, the first call to Rabbi Matthew Cutler expressing concern and offering support came from his friend, Imam Genghis Khan.
A few weeks later, when Israel launched its response and invaded Gaza, Cutler reached out to Khan, the advisor for Union’s Muslim Student Association.
“I wanted to return that love in ample measure,” said Cutler, the spiritual leader of Congregation Gates of Heaven in Schenectady. “Though we may look at things differently for political reasons, we love human life and we value it.”
The two men, along with Rev. Amaury Tañón-Santos, executive director/CEO, Schenectady Community Ministries, are part of Schenectady Clergy Against Hate. They engaged in a thoughtful and instructive conversation Jan. 18 in the Nott Memorial as part of the College’s Forum on Constructive Engagement.
President David R. Harris moderated the hour-long discussion before a broad mix of campus community members and the general public.
“After the horrible events of Oct. 7, I started thinking about our community,” Harris said in kicking off the discussion. “Knowing that we have people in our community from Israel, knowing that we have people in our community who are from Palestine, and knowing that we have people in our community who have close friends and family in those areas, I began to ask, What can we do? What do we do? How do we come together and learn?”
Harris invited three members of Schenectady Clergy Against Hate to campus to offer their perspective on how people of different faiths, beliefs and backgrounds can build trust, respect and understanding for each other’s views.
A network of Jewish, Sikh, Christian, Muslim and Pagan faith leaders formed the group following the 2016 presidential election between Donald J. Trump and Hillary Clinton, one of the most polarizing in modern American history.
The coalition is dedicated to encouraging healthy conversations to bring about systemic change by inviting everyone across political and religious lines “to affirm the sanctity that exists in all people and to denounce actions and speech rooted in hatred.”
During the conversation, leaders touched on topics ranging from faith to forgiveness.
“Throughout history, human beings have used faith for some of the most heinous things we have seen,” said Khan, who has been speaking on Islam and Muslims over the past 30 years at various religious, interfaith, educational and corporate venues. “Faith is supposed to bring people together. It’s supposed to have people stand up for one another. Faith is not supposed to and must not be used to terrorize.”
A key principle repeated throughout the evening was giving space to understand and feel the pain of others.
“We live in a world of quick bits and immediate reaction,” said Tañón-Santos. “We have lost as a society the ability of sitting down and not hearing, but listening and being able to wrap our heads around not only what’s being said, but what is informing me of what’s being said.”
A student asked the panelists how, in these times of heightened strife, people can navigate difficult conversations that may threaten their mental health or well-being.
“Discourse is fluid,” said Cutler. “Just because you step back doesn’t mean you can’t step back in. Yes, there are times when it gets overwhelming and we act less than rational. But it’s OK to say ‘time out, we are getting a little too passionate here, but I’m not giving up on this.’”
In explaining the goal behind constructive engagement, Harris told the audience, “Colleges are not about free speech. Free speech is, someone comes in, expresses their views and leaves. That’s not what we ought to do. We ought to be places where folks come in, they speak and others speak. They engage. They listen and they learn. You may leave with the same views you had coming in, but hopefully you better understand someone else’s perspective.”
Established by Harris in 2019, the Forum on Constructive Engagement series aims to broaden perspectives for and promote meaningful exchange on issues. The forum is organized by Union’s chief diversity officers and presented by the Williams Legacy Foundation.