OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – Two of Oklahoma City’s religious leaders spoke before the city council during its Oct. 24 meeting to emphasize the importance of community during the ongoing crisis for Jews and Muslims around the state and the world.
Ward 2 Councilperson James Cooper invited Rabbi Vered L. Harris, spiritual leader of Temple B’nai Israel, and Imam Dr. Imad Enchassi, senior imam at the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City and Chairman of Islamic Studies at Oklahoma City University, to speak about unity in Oklahoma City amid the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The comments can be viewed on the city’s YouTube page starting at the 1:13:25 mark.
Their remarks can also be read below.
Good morning. My name is Vered Harris. I am the daughter of an Israeli, a lifelong Jew, and an ordained rabbi. I serve Temple B’nai Israel, a synagogue in Ward 2, the largest Jewish congregation in Oklahoma City and the second largest in the state of Oklahoma.
Thank you to Councilman Cooper for inviting me to say a few words this morning, and thank you to the mayor and the councilmembers who have been clear and resolute about their support of diversity in Oklahoma City, including for Jewish and Muslim residents.
The past 18 days have been emotionally wrenching. My family from Israel had loved ones murdered in cold blood on October 7. I have first cousins in the reserves, now called up to serve in the Israel Defense Forces. I do not know a Jewish person in Oklahoma City who is more than three degrees of separation from knowing someone murdered or kidnapped on October 7, or called up to serve in the IDF because of this war. My friend the imam and several other members of his Palestinian Muslim community in Oklahoma City have had family killed and injured in Gaza because of the Israeli bombardment, and in the general Muslim community no one is more than three or four degrees of separation from knowing someone suffering greatly because of the deplorable conditions in Gaza. I love Israel and wish we did not have to defend the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state and its obligation to protect its existence. I care about the plight of the Palestinian people and wish they lived in safety and peace on land they love. My wishes do not change global politics.
I ask my congregation all the time to answer three questions: What can I do? What am I willing to do? What am I not willing to do?
During these difficult times for our communities, I can show up here and tell you that your Jewish and Muslim constituents are hurting, angry, scared, sad … we are not all saying nice things about each other, we are not all feeling supported or seen or heard or cared for by our neighbors. Still, I have had some incredibly beautiful moments of outreach from our friends and neighbors throughout Oklahoma City just wanting to let me know they know times are tough.
I can and am willing to stand with my friend the Imam to say Oklahoma City is not (with all due respect) the Holy Land, and tensions there need not break our hope for friendship here.
I am not willing to ignore the pain of my neighbor. I am not willing to stay silent when I hear anti-Muslim rhetoric. I am not willing to give up hope that we can live in peace and with respect.
I can invite you all, as City Councilmembers, to get to know my Jewish congregation, what matters to us, and what we believe. What is happening on the world stage is a matter for the Federal Government. What is happening right here in Oklahoma City is a matter for you, for us.
I can ask you to show up, to show the good people of Oklahoma City that you see and hear and seek to understand the complexities of circumstances our Jewish and Muslim residents are facing – from global trauma to local antisemitism and Islamophobia to wonderful and beautiful commitments between Jewish and Muslim neighbors to forge the kind of friendships that hasten more kindness in the world.
You are invited to join us for worship at Temple B’nai Israel any Friday night, or for any other event we have. Mayor Holt, Councilor Cooper, and Councilor Nice all have my contact information, and I welcome you to be in touch at any time.Rabbi Vered L. Harris, spiritual leader of Temple B’nai Israel in Oklahoma City
I am Palestinian. I was born in a refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon. I moved to Lubbock, Texas, in 1983 and have made Oklahoma home now for 32 years.
In his remarks upon being elected to his second term as the Mayor of Oklahoma City, David Holt stated that ‘we are not a red city, we are not a blue city, but we are Oklahoma City.’ I echo his remarks as I address the OKC City Council in saying that we are not a Christian city, we are not a Jewish city, we are not a Muslim city, but collectively our beautiful diversity makes up the best parts of what it means to live in Oklahoma City.
My time in the spotlight resulted from religious and racial profiling. On April 19, 1995, I was one of two gentlemen wrongly profiled as ‘John Moe’ number one and ‘John Moe’ number two in the tragedy that unfolded that morning. The first 48 hours following that unspeakable horror, my family and my community lived in fear, knowing that the public eye was looking at us through a lens of guilt rather than the innocence we were promised in the Constitution. But through tragedy, a candle was lit that began to shine with the spark of hope that there was a better way for people to live with one another.
Almost three decades later, I stand before you as one of the leaders of the interfaith movement in Oklahoma City that eventually became a nationwide and global movement. Through the hardship and the struggle, we learned the valuable lesson that we hope to impart to the world – that despite our differences, we can build a foundation of trust, friendship, and, if we are lucky, love – based on the principles of mutual respect and understanding.
These foundational principles helped us through the tragedy of 9/11 that resulted in the highest level of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hate America and Oklahoma had ever seen. In 2015, at our First Oklahoma Muslim Day at the Capitol, it was my dear friends Rabbi Vered Harris and Rabbi Abby Jacobson who stood on either side of me, escorting me through a crowd of anti-Muslim protestors to ensure that I, and every other Muslim attendee that day, could exercise our American freedoms. In 2016, when a former Representative was so bold as to make such false and offensive allegations that I was one of the biggest terrorists in Oklahoma, it was my sister, Rabbi Vered Harris, who reminded me I am loved and valued and that the interfaith community stands behind me.
And it was this same interfaith community, consisting of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, who value the diversity of our religious and cultural communities in Oklahoma, that joined together to take a historic trip to the Holy Land to gain a stronger perspective on the complexities and challenges of seven decades of violence and war. Upon returning to Oklahoma, we all came to the stark realization that regardless of what religious community we belong to, the path towards a solution for peace in the Middle East is complex and complicated.
When violence yet again broke out on October 7, 2023, the first person I called was Rabbi Vered. We had coffee together.
I was watching with horror. I couldn’t believe what my eyes were seeing. It brought back memories of the traumatic experience of growing up in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camp and surviving a violent massacre in 1982.
Before I could even address the concerns of my local Muslim community and the sudden rise again of Islamophobia in America as a result of fear and misinformation, my heart was drawn to reach out and ensure the safety of my family in Gaza. I sent message after message after message. I called family and friends, but none could reach the Enshassi family of Gaza. On October 18, the heartbreaking news reached me that all four members of my family had been killed. Yousef, Ilhan, their son and daughter-in-law, all taken from this earth as a result of the pure hatred that has fueled the indiscriminate killings of innocent Palestinians.
You must understand, what is happening half-way across the world cannot be understood in a Tik Tok video or through a news clip. More than seven decades have brought us to where we are today and the mass amount of ignorance surrounding this issue has led to the resurgence of anti-Muslim and antisemitism hate the likes of which we thought were far behind us.
In Illinois, a 6-year-old boy was killed by a 71-year-old man that used to play with him, all fueled by the hate burning within. In Los Angeles, Florida, and other states, Palestinian demonstrators have had their First Amendment trampled upon by violent anti-Palestinian protestors that physically and verbally assaulted these innocent individuals that are partaking in their right to freedom of speech. And right here at home, the death threats and Islamophobia comments have come crashing down upon me like the wave of the ocean – much like they have for my colleague Rabbi Harris who faces similar concerns about the rise of antisemitism in America.
Today we stand united, unwavering in our condemnation of Islamophobia, antisemitism, hate-based violence, and xenophobia. We implore the City Council of Oklahoma City to join us in affirming that Oklahoma City is a place where religious diversity is valued and protected.Dr. Imad Enchassi, senior imam at the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City and Chairman of Islamic Studies at Oklahoma City University