My reactions to the statements from the Imam have ranged from initial disbelief and a withholding of judgment to a feeling of a betrayal. That is a powerful word, but an appropriate one.
One of the reasons for this is, as a Jewish man, I have always had good relationships with the Muslim community. I share their outrage at the conduct of the Israeli government at times. And, like the Jewish community as a whole, I have stood with my Muslim brothers through their darkest times in this community.
For me, the fact that the Imam said what he said hurt a lot less than the fact that many people at the Islamic Center of Davis, whom I consider my friends and allies, said nothing. It took Hamza’s courage to speak up to convince me that the worst here was true and, while I went to the press conference as a reporter, I also went as a Jewish man and as someone for whom an apology was not going to be enough.
Mayor Davis spoke for me when he asked “is it enough” and offered the answer “no it is not.”
What happened in the next 18 minutes is that my heart was moved not just by the words of Imam Shahin, but by the words of Bruce Pomer of the Jewish Community Relations Council and Rabbi Seth Castleman. My belief was cemented by the words of my friend, Pastor Bill Habicht.
I spent all day, it seemed, on Facebook sharing my experience and discussing with the community my reactions. For many, they were not willing to forgive. What was spoken could not be unspoken. Some suggested that the Imam must step down in order to cement the view that he is sincere in his apology.
I debated long and hard in my mind as to whether to ask that question in this column, but I have decided that is not my call. Instead, I will use my space today to explain why, for me, I am willing to give the Imam a chance but acknowledge that Robb Davis is right – it is not enough to be sorry.
As Rabbi Castleman put it so eloquently, “As you know as well as I, apologies are only as worthy as the actions that follow.” He said, “So I call upon you, I implore you to follow up those words with actions.”
We are a forgiving people in this nation and we are willing to forgive people who make mistakes if they are sincere and forthright in their apologies.
For many, they argued that the Imam is only sorry he got caught. But they did not watch him speak as his hands were shaking. They did not hear the contrition and hurt in his voice.
As Bill Habicht told me, “When he came back, he had tears in his eyes.” For the Pastor, he saw sincerity and contrition.
What we learned yesterday is that, for several days and a number of hours, the Imam and the leadership of the Islamic Center met with the Jewish community leaders, and in effect what we had was a restorative justice process.
The first step in this process was that the Imam had to understand that harm was done by his words. He caused harm to the Jewish community. He caused harm to the Davis community.
As Rabbi Castleman explained, seven or eight of them had met for hours and talked and discussed the situation. The apology came out of that process.
Don’t believe the words of the Imam? Then listen to the words of Bruce Pomer, chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council who said that when he first heard the remarks, “I was so angry.”
But HIS heart was changed by this process.
As he said, “through the process of the last several hours and days, as I worked with the Muslim community to bring about this event, the process of dealing with the problem, coming together, has created a good deal of hope in my mind and made me realize that we have the foundation to keep working together and make that relationship – and it is so important now that we be together because of the forces we face.
“We’re allies most of the time,” he said. “And when we got done preparing for this event, we were allies again.”
Then read the words of Seth Castleman, who accepted the Imam’s apology.
He said, “The world that we have today is in fact broken, as Mayor Robb Davis spoke of,” he said. “In Judaism we say it’s made up of broken shards of the earth and hidden sparks of divinity. To heal the world to me means putting those broken pieces back together and finding those hidden sparks.”
In the process of meeting, he said, “we found that we agreed on far more than we disagreed.”
And in the process of meeting they were able to start putting the broken pieces together.
If those men who were very angry and hurt can come out of this process and accept his apology, we at least should give him the same chance.
This is at the heart of restorative justice.
My early lessons on restorative justice came both from Mayor Robb Davis but also from a speaker we had, Sujatha Baliga. Ms. Baliga, in her 2013 MLK speech in Davis, talked about this restorative justice process she had in Florida where a young man murdered his fiancé, but her family decided that his crime should not sever him from humanity, and through that process they reached a resolution to pick up the pieces and restore the vision of their daughter.
Robb Davis shared with me that many in the community do not have a clear understanding of what restorative justice looks like.
“If you do not believe that people can be changed, if they are beyond redemption, if they are evil, then you really don’t have a place to invite them back into the community after they have admitted error,” he told me. “That is the challenge. Is the Imam beyond redemption? I say ‘no.’”
Betrayal is in many ways considered the worst of sin of all. In Dante’s Inferno, we see that the worst sinner, the lowest of all lows, was reserved for Judas Iscariot for the sin of betrayal of Jesus.
But if betrayal is the lowest sin, then the flipside of that is the notion of redemption – the act by which someone can restore themselves after committing a grievous error.
I deeply and firmly believe that people can change. As I fight for criminal justice reform, I must also fight for the idea that people can redeem their past mistakes and learn from them. That people who become aware of their shortcomings, and are honest about them, can gain understanding and learn from those mistakes.
We are all fallible humans and we all make mistakes. The best among us are the ones who take those mistakes and become better people because of them.
Yesterday, I had a long discussion with a friend of mine with whom I often agree, but who saw this situation differently. From his perspective, the Imam must go through a process of thinking and a few days is not sufficient. He believes that the Imam should step down in order to fully acknowledge his errors.
I reserve judgment on that. What I will say is that there was a lot of damage done and many people are not ready to forgive and not willing to believe that someone could state something like this without the words being in their heart the truth.
For me though, moments of anger can cloud better judgment. The key for me is not what he said or whether he meant it at the time, but whether he truly at this time understands that what he said was wrong and can commit to be a voice for change in this community and this world.
As Rabbi Castleman said, the Imam needs to follow up his words of apology with actions: “Nothing less than that will satisfy the community that you serve and I serve.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting