Like almost everyone I know, I have a conditioned reflex to another person’s sneeze. Some people say “bless you” or “God bless you;” I was taught to say “gesundheit” — health. We don’t respond similarly to coughs, falls, or other problems, just sneezes.

My parents also tried to teach me to consider cancer a dirty word. It was never to be mentioned. If someone said that someone else was sick and then paused, that was enough.

We all use euphemisms. When someone asks a gas-station attendant for the key to the bathroom, neither party has a bath in mind.

It has been a politically correct euphemism to refer to dark-skinned people in the United States as African Americans. The label is used whether the person is a tenth-generation New Yorker, a recent immigrant from Brazil, or a tourist of Australian-aboriginal descent. Some are so caught up in the term that they’ll refer to any dark-skinned person anywhere in the world as an African American — in Havana, Paris, or even Nairobi.

Meanwhile, light-skinned people in the United States are almost never referred to as African Americans, even if they emigrated from such African countries as Algeria, Egypt, or South Africa. Oh, well. There seems to be evidence that we’re ALL of African descent — even people in Scandinavia with the lightest of skins. And then there’s “Arab.”

I worked Tuesday on a television show at Temple Emanu-El. It’s one of the largest synagogues in the world.

Our trucks were parked on 65th Street, just east of Fifth Avenue. One of the crew surveyed the nearby scene and declared it very strange.

Just above the window where our cables entered the synagogue, a large American flag was hanging from a flagpole. Across the street, another flagpole carried an equally large flag, but it was the flag of Pakistan, flying from that country’s mission to the United Nations.

It didn’t seem strange to me. It’s certainly not unusual to see an American flag in New York these days, and that section of Manhattan is chock full of UN missions. As I walked to the job, I passed one mission with a police kiosk outside its front door. It was Yugoslavia’s.

Recently, you may recall, we bombed Christians in that country to try to help a Muslim community. There was no police presence outside Pakistan’s mission.

As the crewmember gazed in amazement at the two flags, I asked what seemed so strange. “Well,” he said, “there’s a synagogue on one side of the street and Arabs on the other.”

According to the CIA World Factbook, Saudi Arabia is 90% Arab. The only surprising thing is that it’s not 100%. The dictionary definition of Arab is someone from the Arabian peninsula, of which Saudi Arabia occupies the bulk. Jordan, according to the same source, is 98% Arab.

Israel has a substantial Arab minority. But, according to the CIA, if there are ANY Arabs in Pakistan, they are too few to list. The only ethnic groups mentioned are Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashtun (Pathan), Baloch, and Muhajir.

By Arabs, the crewmember meant Muslims, which is a reasonable guess for the religion of Pakistanis. The CIA Factbook says the population of Pakistan is 97% Muslim. But what is so unusual about Muslims being across the street from Jews?

Americans associate 1492 with the voyage of Columbus to the New World; it’s also the year Christians expelled Jews from Spain. Many settled in Islamic lands. While Jews were prohibited by Christians from leaving the world’s first ghetto (in Venice) for almost three hundred years (and for a time before that were banned completely), they mixed comfortably with their Muslim neighbors elsewhere in the world.

Islamic historians venerate a twelfth-century physician they call Musa ibn-Maimon. Jews sing his praises as the Rambam, an acronym for Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon. His name in classic form is Maimonides.

He was born to a Jewish family in Muslim-ruled Spain and moved to the Middle East. His famous Jewish religious tracts, including the “Guide for the Perplexed,” were originally written in Arabic. He was a rabbi in Cairo and became court physician to Salah ad-Din, whom we know better as the sultan Saladin. Saladin defeated the Crusaders but considered Richard the Lionheart a worthy opponent.

When Saladin got word that King Richard was ill, he sent Maimonides to cure him. Richard so appreciated the physician’s work that he offered him a post in England, but Maimonides chose to stay among the Muslims, where he could be a practicing Jew — even writing Jewish law books — without fear.

You might see the story in the above paragraph as a movie someday. In December, Phoenix Pictures bought a script about it by the respected journalist James Reston, Jr. Mike Medavoy is to be the producer. The title at the moment is “Warriors of God.”

There’s no question that wars have been fought in the name of God. But, as best I can tell, the current violence in the Middle East is NOT a battle between Jews and Muslims.

The CIA Factbook says 15% of the population of Israel is Muslim; it also notes that, exclusive of the Jewish settlements, about 10% of the population of the West Bank is Christian. Many on Yasir Arafat’s staff are Christian; so is the former Palestinian negotiator Hanan Ashrawi.

In its entry on Pakistan, the CIA Factbook lists ethnic groups and then religions. The two are completely different. In its entry on Israel, however, the data are listed almost identically. “Ethnic groups: Jewish 80.1%,” “Religions: Jewish 80.1%.” But there IS a further breakdown of the “Jewish” ethnic group: “Europe/America-born 32.1%, Israel-born 20.8%, Africa-born 14.6%, Asia-born 12.6%.”

One of the issues associated with the current conflict is said to be a right of return for refugees. Many hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled what is now Israel just before and during its war for independence. But a nearly identical number of Jews fled surrounding lands for Israel at the same time. There had been a large, thriving Jewish community in what is now called Iraq from roughly the sixth-century BC through the middle of the 20th century. Not all of the Arabs living in Israel are Muslim; many are Jewish.

Down the block from me there used to be a restaurant serving a delicious cuisine I’d never seen or tasted before. Its owners were Yemeni Jews.

Yemen is on the Arabian peninsula. The CIA Factbook says some Jews still live there.

The CIA Factbook says the religion of 2% of the population of the United States is Jewish — there are more than seven times more Muslims in Israel. And more Jews were killed in the holocaust during World War II

— not by Muslims.

For U.S. ethnic groups, the CIA Factbook lists “white” and “black,” even though those words don’t appear in the ethnic-group listings of any of the other countries I’ve mentioned here. The religion data also indicate that 10% of Americans have none. Nevertheless, many of those probably say “gesundheit” or some variant of “God bless you” whenever someone nearby sneezes.

I think “God bless America” is about as well thought-out a statement for most people as is the conditioned “God bless you” response to a sneeze.

George W. Bush offered two variations on Monday.

After having recently taken some actions that might have angered our allies, he ended his remarks in Washington on the sixth month after September 11 with “May God bless our coalition.” In the letter he sent to be read by Mayor Bloomberg at the New York remembrance ceremony, he closed with an even stranger line, “May God continue to bless America.”

That phraseology would suggest that the attacks and resulting deaths on September 11 were part of our ongoing blessing from God.

The Washington remarks also included this line, “America will not forget the lives that were taken and the justice their death requires.” I came across another odd reference to justice recently.

I’ll be working on St. Patrick’s Day on a television show at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. An inlay on the floor has the shield of Cardinal O’Connor, the previous head of the New York diocese. The bottom contains his chosen motto, “There can be no love without justice.”

Cardinal O’Connor’s successor has decided to reverse one of his predecessor’s policies. Here’s today’s New York Times on the subject:

“The Archdiocese of New York, meanwhile, has decided for the first time to report new incidents of child sexual abuse directly to law enforcement authorities, if the victims of the abuse concur.”

Love, justice, bless, Arab, Jew — the words are all fine. Conditioned reflexes might not be.



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