By, Hadassah Penn
On Monday, April 15th, Yeshiva University’s Democratic Club hosted New York State Senator Robert Jackson and New York City Council Member Ben Kallos for an interfaith panel discussion about the intersection of religion and politics.
Molly Meisels, president-elect of the YU Democratic Club, explained the panel’s necessity and timeliness. “I was inspired to organize the event because of recent events in American politics over the last few years regarding a lot of Islamophobia, a lot of anti-Semitism, [and] the rhetoric…that surrounds bigoted perspectives on various religious groups,” said Meisels.
Meisels wanted to raise awareness of Islamophobia, to remind YU students that despite differences, Jews and Muslims have many shared values, experiences, and hardships. “As someone who is the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, I noticed the importance and the pertinence of raising awareness towards Islamophobia in this country because my grandparents experienced something similar,” she said.
This language of shared values was apparent during the panel itself. Although Senator Jackson and Council Member Kallos don’t share the same faith, they do share a common mission: to promote respect and inclusivity across all religions, races, sexual orientations, and gender identities. “I was born and raised in New York City,” said Senator Jackson. “I respect that everyone is different and everyone is equal.”
The two discussed how personal faith has shaped their political outlooks. While Senator Jackson doesn’t consider himself very religious, Council Member Kallos mentioned that “Talmud Torah [Torah study] informs a lot of my decision-making.” Above all, both Senator Jackson and Council Member Kallos emphasized that their goals are not to glorify their own personal beliefs or to tear down other religions, but to create a city where everyone has the same rights.
“The only way to reach an understanding is to communicate with one another,” said Senator Jackson. As an example, the senator explained his efforts to add the Muslim holiday, Eid, to the New York City public school calendar. Since he is New York State’s first Muslim senator, one might assume that Senator Jackson’s intentions were solely religious; he emphasized that this was not the case. “What was it about? It was about being inclusive,” said the Senator. “Not taking away Christian or Jewish holidays, but being inclusive.”
Council Member Kallos agreed that inclusivity is a necessity, especially when standing up against bigotry and hate. “When we talk about antisemitism and islamophobia, it’s about standing together,” he said. “I believe hate is a disease; it can be cured by love.”
Senator Jackson was similarly optimistic when discussing the state of government inclusivity. “I think politics are already inclusive,” he said, citing various diverse political figures. “What I want to see is more people involved in that process. You have to be in it to possibly win it– you never know.” He told the audience that religion should never be a barrier. “If you feel you’d be good in public office, go for it.”
YU Student Sara Marcus enjoyed the event, but remarked that she wasn’t fully satisfied. “I think the answers were thorough about issues that might be sensitive for people of faith…[but] I do wish they addressed more current political issues that these panelists are currently tackling.”
Not all students who attended the event were as politically-minded as Marcus, but Molly Meisels didn’t mind. “Attending the event, I really recognized that there are people on campus who are interested in having the conversations,” said Meisels. “It might not be many people, but there are people, and that’s really inspiring to me.”