A Palestinian woman enters a Jewish Studies class at a Baptist university deep in the heart of Texas.
Sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, right?
No one laughed, however, during the next hour and a half as Muna Hamzeh told her story of refugee camps and military checkpoints to the students in Professor Marc Ellis's Baylor University class. While she blamed Israel and a supportive American government for the continued oppression of her people, the Jewish professor and his class of red, white and blue Christians listened intently.
This is the open expression of beliefs and opinions Ellis seeks to promote as the director of Baylor University's Center for American and Jewish Studies. But not everyone has nice things to say, especially the majority of Waco's Jewish community. Instead, most of them have chosen to say nothing at all for this particular story.
"It's my point of view that everyone has a right to speak their story," Ellis said later that day explaining why he had invited Hamzeh to his "Hitler and the Holocaust" class which meets twice a week. "The Center for Jewish American Studies and I, we see the Palestinian people as friends. Their freedom is very important to the future of Jewish life and as individuals we should be very aware that we have created a refugee population like we were once refugees. And to me this is unacceptable as a Jew."
That's a stinging statement in the eyes of many Jews, local or otherwise. Even Ellis realizes his views regarding Israeli-Palestinian relations are "controversial," he said. But as an educator he also believes it's his responsibility to lend an ear to all voices, he said.
The week before Hamzeh's visit, Ellis's class heard from local Jewish Rabbi Seth Stander and German-Christian Susanne Scholz on separate occassions. Both discussed the Holocaust and its lasting effect on their lives.
Hamzeh's experience as a Palestinian refugee is an aftereffect of the Holocaust, she said. She even compared her people's treatment at the hands of the Jews to the treatment Jews received from Nazis during the Holocaust.
Hamzeh, an English-speaking journalist in her 40s who has reported on the ongoing violence in her homeland, has been criticized by some Jews for comparing herself to Anne Frank, the Jewish adolescent who kept a diary while hiding with her family from German forces during the Holocaust of World War II. Hamzeh has never made such a comparison, she said, but in her Oct. 9, 2000 entry of "Dear Diary," a collection of dated diary entries written by Hamzeh during the time she spent in a Palestinian refugee camp, she did pose these questions to the soul of Anne Frank:
"Where are you Anne Frank? Where are you? Is this the reason you died for? So that your people can turn around and commit these pogroms against another people? You were so young and didn't deserve to die, yet you died because of your identity. The same reason they're killing us now. It is our very existence that they are fighting. Oh Anne! I wish you could come back to life to take a look and tell me what you think?"
"I always cringe a little when I hear that," Rabbi Seth Stander of Waco's Temple Rodef Sholom said regarding Holocaust comparisons in general.
"When any other group makes the attempt to draw a parallel between the Holocaust of Europe and any other intolerance that occurs, it's going to ... raise emotional issues right away," he said. "There really is nothing in history that compares to the systematic destruction of millions simply because of who you are."
In Ellis' opinion, too many of his fellow Jews use the Holocaust as a shield to deflect public criticism regarding Israeli's treatment of Palestinians in the Middle East. While nearly 75 Israelis have been killed in the latest rounds of violence that began there seven months ago, more than five times that many Palestinians and Israeli Arabs have been killed, according to conservative estimates.
"The point is that people need to start making a distinction between Jews and between Israel's occupation. I see them as two separate things," said Hamzeh, whose book "Refugee In Our Land" is due to be released in the United States this August. "To have a clear stance against an occupation that happens to be done by people who are Jewish doesn't mean that you are anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish. I think people who choose to attack those who are critical of the occupation in this way, using this line, they're choosing the easy way out. Because if they throw this in your face and they say you're anti-Jewish then they're avoiding the real issue."
It's the same issue that separates much of Waco's Jewish community and professor Ellis. For the most part, the Jewish community agrees with Ellis' right to express his opinion regarding what they call the Palestinian question, some have stated. Some just desperately wish he wouldn't.
Like many disagreements, this one has grown out of a misunderstanding perhaps more than anything. Some local Jews say they resent Ellis being spotlighted when the opinion of the Jewish community is sought after by local media. Meanwhile, Ellis said, he has never attempted to represent anyone's views but his own.
Neither Stander, Ellis, nor anyone else is eager to weigh in on the dispute. The media attention is more hype than help, they say. On this point, at least, both parties seem to agree.
It arrived at Baylor for the 1998-99 school year, he was the featured speaker at that spring's Holocaust Remembrance Day recognition, an annual event hosted by local Jews and the Waco Conference of Christians and Jews. Since the formation of the Center for American and Jewish Studies in 1999, Ellis has even offered board positions to both Rabbi Shaina Bacharach of the conservative Congregation Agudath Jacob and Rabbi Stander of the Jewish reformist Temple Rodef Sholom, he said.
Though he has submitted a membership application to Temple Rodef Sholom, some Jews in the community have questioned his commitment to Judaism because he has yet to join either of Waco's Jewish congregations since he and his family's arrival over two years ago. But with nearly a dozen books to his name covering topics from the Holocaust to liberation theology, there is little reason to doubt his faith, argue his supporters.
"Marc is someone whose faith is very important to him and also Marc has the wonderful ability to open himself to questions," said Baylor University president Robert Sloan, explaining why he values Ellis' contributions to the Baylor campus. "I thought it would be a wonderful experience for our students to be able to talk to a man of Jewish faith and be able to ask him the kinds of questions they wanted to."
Initially, his arrival was met with similar enthusiasm by Waco Jews, as evidenced by this written statement from Charles Levy, president of Congregation Agudath Jacob and Stanley Hersh, past-president of Agudath Jacob and the Jewish Federation of Waco/Central Texas:
"When we first learned that Baylor University was bringing a Jewish scholar to town to head up its Jewish Studies program, we were quite pleased, perhaps even excited. However, our excitement turned quickly to disappointment when we realized, shortly after Ellis's arrival in Waco, that he was, apparently, unabashedly pro-Palestinian."
Ellis isn't totally estranged from Waco Jews. Bernard Rapoport, long-time community activist and chairman of Southwestern Life Insurance Co., speaks highly of him despite some of their philosophical differences.
"I don't think disagreements are unhealthy," said Rapoport, a member of Temple Rodef Sholom. "I like Ellis, personally. I like him very much. But as I say, I don't agree with him and he probably doesn't agree with me on everything either."
Levy and Hersh relay their dissatisfaction with the hiring of Ellis in stronger terms as their joint statement goes on, describing him as Baylor University's "poster boy for its efforts to become more Jewishly aware."
Ellis resents such comments, calling them smear tactics based on zero fact. Baylor University denies the claims, as well.
"I think it's unfortunate when people imply such things about Dr. Ellis or about Baylor University," said President Sloan. "Marc is here because of who he is and we have him here because we want him here. Marc's views on Israel do not constitute the soul and substance of Marc Ellis. He brings those questions but he also brings other questions."
Ellis bears multiple degrees in his field, a recent Harvard senior fellowship and an international reputation as a renowned Jewish scholar, school officials say.
"We value the relationship with the local Jewish community very much but that's not a typical process the university follows," said Baylor spokesman Larry Brumley. "We don't consult with the local Baptist pastors when we bring in a (Baptist theologian). We're obviously not trying to offend people or groups, but . . . avoiding controversy is not necessarily a determing factor in hiring faculty and creating centers."
Stimulating students, however, is. A quick peek in on Ellis's overflowing, floor-room-only "Hitler and the Holocaust" class suggests he's doing just that.
"That to me is encouraging," said Rabbi Stander, recalling his visit to Ellis's class. "The fact that you have so many students so interested in the (Holocaust), it gives me a great deal of hope. They really want to know not only the details of what occurred but why it occurred.
"The center's mission is to make Judaism and Jewish life part of the tapestry of Baylor, first and foremost," said Ellis, "so that Christian students can learn about Judaism and Jewish life and also ask the questions that they want to ask."
Liz Miller enrolled in Ellis' class because she heard it was challenging and as a Christian, she was interested in learning more about the foundation of her religion, she said. After last Tuesday's class, Miller approached guest speaker Hamzeh and began talking about "how ignorant and apathetic we are about injustice in this country."
"She's helped me realize my duty as an American," Miller said of Hamzeh, "that we do have a responsibilty to other countries because we have been so priveleged and especially to just be aware of what's going on (and) not to just live in our own little bubble."
It's that bubble of limited viewpoints that Ellis encourages his students to break through.
"When we penetrate beyond the slogans: 'Palestinians are terrorists. Jews are innocent.' Whatever it is," he tells them. "Then we're into a different ballgame. . . . When you penetrate beneath the surface, some of it's very messy, some of it's very beautiful. And it's our job to kind of figure that out in our lives and where we stand within it, which is not easy."