The 2012 Promoting Tolerance Visit to the US – a Mind-Changing Experience! |

The 2012 Promoting Tolerance Visit to the US – a Mind-Changing Experience!

Roger Cohen

America is "the place where impossible stories get written" writes Roger Cohen in his recent op-ed for the International Herald Tribune entitled "The Spirit of America". He continues: "It is the overcoming of history, the leaving behind of war and barriers, in the name of a future freed from the vengeful clamp of memory. It is reinvention, the absorption of one identity in something larger — the notion that “out of many, we are truly one.” Americans are decent people. They’re not interested in where you came from. They’re interested in who you are."

If I stopped here, it would have been an adequate summary of everything I had the privilege to experience over ten days in October in the company of nine young leaders visiting six major American cities and with many so wonderful, welcoming and hospitable new friends from the American Jewish Committee - our hosts and partners of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom for this 20th annual version of the Promoting Tolerance programme. 

When I received the invitation to participate in this programme - an annual event sponsored by two partners, a German liberal foundation and an American Jewish organization - I felt that the programme’s concept itself was a lesson of vision, wisdom and character. 

There was so much to see and learn from on this trip - from seeing the Lincoln Memorial and the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., exploring the galleries and the hidden storage rooms of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, grooving together to Jimmy Heath's "Togetherness" at the Blue Note Cafe, and strolling the streets of Chinatown after having "what she's having" at Katz's in The Big Apple. Then Miami, Dallas and St. Louis, followed by "forget about it" in the Pacific breeze of L.A.; loads of air miles and many more smiles. Smiles of the people we would meet for the first time - Jewish people who would welcome us like old friends into their homes and synagogues. They opened their world to let us in and shared with us their lives and stories. They laid out for us their vision of the world at the AJC offices in NYC and DC. They took us out and showed us around, and stopped to be with us and encourage for us.

We talked, we walked and we broke bread, and talked again, and learned from and about each other, but before and after all - we enjoyed each other’s company and celebrated every one of us. Our new Jewish friends did much more than just "Promoting Tolerance", because they promoted us and the vision in us that the impossible is possible when human life and dignity are valued above other things. 

Before we set out for home, we were blessed beyond measure by a visit to a place filled with miracles and by the story of a young man. This man had grown up in a world where brutality and violence had replaced tolerance - Boyle Heights in Los Angeles, the gang capital of the world. This part of the City of Angels was ruled by devils of darkness and doom. There human life was taken daily and dignity was a mirage. But there I saw the light of the world; a city that is set on a hill cannot be hid. Homeboy Industries is a gang intervention programme run by Father Gregory Boyle, who is also known affectionately as "G-Dog". It is a place where the impossible is possible, where deadly enemies began working together and helping each other, where lives are saved and changed forever. I believe my life was also changed there by the story of our guide Francisco and by the stories of so many other homeboys and homegirls who have come out from the darkest of darkness to carry the brightest of light and become an inspiration for so many including myself. 

In "Tattoos on the Heart" - a jaw-dropping book of stories, Father Greg writes: "If there is a fundamental challenge within these stories, it is simply to change our lurking suspicion that some lives matter less than other lives’’. And as William Blake wrote: "We are put on earth for a little space that we might learn to bear the beams of love."

Ilija Lingorski, Bulgaria, Head of the Liberal Institute for Political Analysis,
Participant in the 2012 ‘Promoting Tolerance’ programme