Wafaa Bilal is a performance artist. He creates works of art – called installations – in which he himself is part of the exhibit.
Bilal’s most famous performance art installation was called, “Domestic Tension.” In May of 2007, Bilal locked himself into a studio in Chicago that was equipped with a bed, a desk, a chair, a lamp, a webcam, and a loaded paintball gun connected to the internet. He committed to staying in the room for a month. The main gist of the performance was this: viewers could go onto Bilal’s website, see what he was doing on livestream video at any hour of the day, and, if they wanted, they could aim the paintball gun at anything in the room, including at Bilal himself, and fire it.
Over the course of the month, Bilal was fired at 70,000 times. The website received 80 million hits from 128 countries. The paintball gun was fired all through the day and night by people from all over the world. They were all perfect strangers to Bilal. They didn’t know him personally, but they could see what their actions did to him and to his surroundings.
The white walls of the room, and all its furnishings were covered with yellow paint by the end of the month. The lamp was destroyed. Online, viewers could see how Bilal reacted to the nearly constant attacks he faced. He kept his demeanor, but he was visibly shaken. He was sleep deprived and anxiety-ridden by the barrage.
Now, those results are not surprising when you consider the ordeal that Bilal chose to put himself through. The internet loves this sort of thing, doesn’t it? A webcam, a gun, and the chance to do something destructive with complete anonymity – it’s an internet recipe for mayhem.
But 70,000 shots in 31 days? More than 2,000 hits per day? More than 90 shots fired on the man per hour, seven days a week, day and night, twenty-four hours a day? That’s an awful lot of shooting at poor Bilal, especially when you consider that his assailants could see with their own eyes the effect that their shooting had on him.
Well, there is one important detail that I have not told you. Wafaa Bilal is Iraqi. He is an Arab. He came to the United States in the early 90s, but he still had a lot of family living in Iraq in 2004 during the height of the Iraq War. That was the year that his brother Haji was killed in Iraq by an American airstrike.
After losing his brother, Bilal was gripped by the way that American soldiers sitting in dark rooms in the United States could direct drones to fire missiles thousands of miles away in Iraq. After three years of reflecting on his loss, he came up with the idea for “Domestic Tension,” a performance art installation that would give people the chance to sit at their own home computers and fire a gun to shoot an Iraqi. Only, in Bilal’s version, the “shooters” could see how their shots affected a real human being on a much more personal level than is possible for a military drone pilot. Also, the people shooting at Bilal in his installation, would not be soldiers following orders. They would be ordinary civilians shooting at him because – they wanted to, they wanted to “shoot an Arab,” a person they might see as their enemy.
This afternoon, as on every Yom Kippur, we will read the book of Jonah, the Bible’s most reluctant prophet. We will hear again the story of God commanding Jonah to travel to Nineveh to prophesy to the Ninevites, the enemy of ancient Israel. Jonah’s assignment was to tell the Ninevites about God’s decree that God would destroy them if they did not repent from their evil ways.
In the story, Jonah responded to God’s command by getting on a ship heading in the opposite direction – as far away from Nineveh as he could go. Jonah desperately wanted to get out of God’s assignment. He did not want to prophesy to the Ninevites. He did not want them to repent. He did not want God to forgive them.
In the end, though, God found a way to convince Jonah to do what he had been told. It involved putting him in the belly of a whale for three days. (Maybe you’ve heard the story). In the end, Jonah did walk through the city of Nineveh and proclaimed as God had told him, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
The people of Nineveh heard Jonah. They declared a public fast day. They put on sackcloth. They repented of all their sins. God heard the people of Nineveh and the city was spared by God’s forgiveness.
And Jonah, how did he feel after he became the Bible’s most successful prophet – the prophet who convinced an entire city to repent? He was miserable.
Jonah complained to God, “You see! This is exactly what I knew You would do!” he said, “This is why I fled when You told me to come here. I knew that You would be compassionate and gracious and that You would forgive them.”
What, exactly, was the meaning of Jonah’s refusal to do what God had told him to do? Why was Jonah so angry with God after God forgave the Ninevites?
Rabbi David Kimhi, a great scholar of the 13th century, wrote that Jonah demanded the honor of Israel, but that he did not demand the honor of Heaven (Radak on Jonah 1:1, quoting Mekhilta d'Rabbi Yishmael 12:1). He wanted what he felt was right for his own people even more than he wanted what God felt was right for the world and for humanity. Jonah was angry because it was more important to him that the enemies of Israel be destroyed than that they cease their evil and become good.
The book of Jonah ends with God subtly and kindly rebuking Jonah for his longing to see Nineveh punished. God says to the prophet, “Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not yet know their right hand from their left?” God reminds Jonah, and us, that we need to see even people we think of as enemies – flawed and imperfect as they may be – as human beings. We cannot allow enmity to cloud our vision or lead us to acts of hatred.
Oh, and here is another detail that I have not yet told you. Ancient Nineveh, the great and powerful city that was Israel’s enemy, the city that Jonah refused to save even when God commanded him to do so, was located just outside of the present-day city of Mosul in northern Iraq. The Ninevites in the book of Jonah, like Wafaa Bilal, were Iraqis.
Hatred of Arabs and Muslims has reached such a peak in the United States today that the FBI reports that hate crimes against Muslims increased by more than 150% in the decade from 2008 to 2017. Muslims in America are far more likely to be the victims of crimes than they are to be criminals. And the pain of hatred that Muslim Americans have to endure does not always come in the form of crimes. Often, it is in small, everyday acts of cruelty.
My friend, Aisha Manzoor, a Muslim woman who lives in Cumberland, told me about a recent incident in which she was confronted by a man while waiting in a store’s check-out line. They were both buying back-to-school supplies for their kids, who were both there. Their kids were even playing with each other in the check-out line. Yet, with no more provocation than seeing Aisha’s hijab, and the olive-toned skin on her face, the man repeatedly called to her loudly. He aggressively told her who he thought she should vote for, for president. The man then turned to his wife and talked about Aisha, as if he thought Aisha could not understand him. Using obscene language, he said that she must be an “illegal.”
To Aisha’s credit, she did not lash out or say anything hurtful. She just said that, when the time came, she would vote for the proper candidate. She then called her child and told him it was time to go.
That’s the kind of experience that many American Muslims have endured. Knowing that, it’s a bit easier to understand why Wafaa Bilal would subject himself to being fired at with paintballs 70,000 times to express himself in his art. It was his reflection of the experience of being an Arab Muslim in America.
The number of hate crimes against Muslims in the United States is high – higher than it is for Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs. In fact, according to statistics kept by the FBI, there is only one religious group in the United States that suffers more hate crimes than Muslims – and everyone in this room knows who I am talking about.
More religious hate crimes are perpetrated against Jews for being Jews in the U.S. each year than are perpetrated against members of all other religions combined. When we talk about the need to overcome hatred against perceived enemies, we are really talking about ourselves. When we talk about the damage that hatred does to the psyche of those who are hated, we are also talking about the damage we suffer as Jews.
Anti-Semitism is on the rise in our country from all directions. We hear it in the words of politicians on the left who say that Israel has “mesmerized the world.” We hear it in the words of politicians on the right who talk about Jewish billionaires corrupting our democracy with their wicked money. We feel it viscerally in our bodies when we hear about synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh and Poway, California.
It is understandable that Jews today are angry and scared by the way anti-semitism has percolated back into mainstream society. This rise in hatred should not be. After the whole world has seen what anti-Semitism can lead to, it should not be. But, we also know that anger and fear are not solutions that will bring it to an end. Our tradition itself teaches the lesson of Jonah – that hating our enemies is not what God wants. So, how are we supposed to confront anti-Semitism? How do we stop senseless hatred?
I believe that the best way to end hatred is through building relationships. When people come together to know and understand each other, it is much harder for them to hate one another. I know that there is no amount of relationship-building that will stop hardened, ideological anti-Semites – nothing will stop hatred that already has run amok. But the power of relationships will keep the virus of hatred from spreading.
That is why I spend so much of my time as a rabbi building relationships with people from other faith communities. That’s why I bring dozens of children from parochial and non-Jewish private schools into this Sanctuary every year to give them a taste of what Judaism really is.
It is also part of the reason why the Jewish community shows up in large numbers when other religious groups are targeted for hatred – like the outpouring of Jewish support for the Muslim community last March after the horrifying mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand. We reach out to others in sincere friendship because it is the right thing to do. We also do it because we want them to feel sincere friendship toward us.
Another thing we can do to address hatred is not to be silent when it appears. I want to ask you today to do something I know is hard. When you hear people speaking hateful words, don’t ignore them. When you hear people speaking hatefully about Muslims, about Latinos, about African-Americans, about immigrants, about women, about gays and lesbians, about transgender people, or about any group targeted for hatred – say something.
Say words like this, “When I was a kid, I used to say things like that, too. As grown-ups, I think we should learn to respect one another.” Say, “I value our friendship, but those words you’re saying are putting distance between us.” Say, “Are those really the values that you stand for? Those are not my values.”
I know that what I am asking is hard. I know that it’s hard to confront hatred and bullying. I know that it is especially hard to speak up when the person you are confronting is a friend, or a relative, or even a parent. It’s hard. But we have to say something.
Why should you risk speaking up when you hear words of hate? Let me put it this way: What do you hope your non-Jewish friends and relatives say when they hear people talking about how cheap Jews are? What do you hope your friend will do when she hears her sister-in-law say that Jews control the media? How do you hope your friend will respond when he hears his father talk about how Hitler had the right idea? I guarantee you, all your non-Jewish friends and relatives have been in situations like that, and many of them have stood up for us and spoken against hatred. I am asking you, too, to be a model of standing against hatred by speaking up.
Wafaa Bilal locked himself in a room with a webcam and a paint gun because he wanted to show us something. The experience gave him an up-close view of hatred. But, it also gave him something else. Among those who saw his website, a few people decided to do something positive. When they saw that things were getting really ugly, a few people took control of the paint gun and started firing it repeatedly away from Bilal to give him a break – to momentarily stop the barrage against him. They did it anonymously, without seeking or expecting any thanks.
One person went even further. One man in Chicago saw how the viewers of the website were using the paint gun to shoot up the lamp that Bilal had placed in the room. He saw the distress in Bilal’s eyes when the lamp was shattered and destroyed. So, he went to a store and bought a new lamp and delivered it in person to Bilal’s studio as a simple act of kindness, a simple act of solidarity as a human being.
We need more of that in the world. We need to hear the lesson of the book of Jonah and see human beings, not as Jonah saw them, as enemies fit for destruction, but as God sees them, as people, pure and simple. We can see them as flawed and imperfect, certainly, but always as people. It is only by teaching ourselves to demand the honor of heaven in this way – to see others as human beings – that we can hope to be seen as we truly are ourselves.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah,
May you be sealed for a good year.