In a recent NY Times Op-Ed, Dina Kraft describes a group of Muslim and Jewish women in Brookline, Massachusetts who attend weekly meetings to discuss “the universal theme of weight-loss support.”
Their group, Slim Peace, is the brainchild of Yael Luttwak, who participated in Weight Watchers meetings in Tel Aviv and fantasized about how Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat might have overcome their differences, “if they tried to lose weight together.”
The problem with this particular fantasy lies, of course, in the fact that the issues plaguing Israel and Palestine are much grander than a few pounds of unwanted belly fat. But there is a more subtle issue at play: Sharon and Arafat are both men and weight-loss anxiety is a woman’s game. One of the Jewish interviewees for the article even refers to a friend who expressed some fears about Jews and Muslims meeting together saying, “you would be more afraid if it was [a] meeting with their husbands.”
More than a stereotype about Muslim men and violence, this is a stereotype about how women—beyond ethnicity—are peace-seeking, nonviolent, and share the universal condition of wanting to change their bodies. The woman’s predicament, that she must constantly work to conform to an imagined ideal body type, transforms in the Slim Peace group (a transformation women’s bodies apparently fail to do adequately) into a positive, even redemptive quality.
The problem of fat becomes the promise for peace, or at least the possibility of it.
This, at any rate, is what the article seems to suggest. The unlikely coming together of Jew and Muslim opens the way for conversations that quickly move beyond nutritional tips and toward ethnic particularities, cultural differences, and religion. Participants are “hungry” for such conversations; they “hunger for diversity.” Could their poor eating habits owe to the lack of such “diversity” in their everyday lives? Were they feeding their appetite for such encounters with unhealthy snacks when what they truly desired was confrontation and engagement with their designated “Other”?
Luttwak insists, “We are not a peace-dialogue group and not a conflict-resolution group.” Then what are they? Why design a group specifically targeting Jewish and Muslim women (and in Detroit, Christian Arabs) if not to conduct dialogue about what divides them? Fetishes about food and bodies are projected onto fetishes about “difference.” Or perhaps the opposite is true: fetishes about ethno-religious differences are sought out under the guise of the more socially acceptable search for a better body. With a name like “Slim Peace,” it is clear that the group is as much about the prospect for uniting mortal enemies as it is about losing weight.
I have attended various such interreligious “dialogues” and can imagine the way the conversations at Slim Peace might go. These “conversations,” when they remain civil, often feel like echo chambers. In my limited experience (of course there are successful attempts at interreligious dialogue), Jews and Muslims come to speak and not to listen—they come to insist that what the other must think about them is simply not true. Usually, this involves Muslim participants stressing how “peaceful” their religion is, and Jewish participants asserting their historical status as victims. Questions come out more as accusations or personal revelations in these settings.
When things go well, feelings of “joy” and being “moved” abound, much like the Slim Peace participants claim of their experience. It is unclear whether such events actually change how these Jews and Muslims perceive each other, or if they only change how Jews and Muslims view themselves. In this sense, Luttwak is correct in asserting that Slim Peace is not a conflict-resolution group. The women are not there to bridge differences; they are there to redefine their differences.
“I had never spent any time with any Muslim people before this group,” says one Slim Peace participant. Now, she can happily say that she has a Muslim friend and confidante, that she has shared meals and fears with this woman. But isn’t the foundation of their friendship its political improbability? Is the friendship special because these women have something in common (an urge to lose weight) or because of their shared urge to find a token Jewish or Muslim friend?
As a Jewish student at a consortium of Christian seminaries and as a teacher of Judaism at universities, I have more than once held the position of the “token” Jew, the referent from which students and colleagues could construct their assumptions about Jewishness. And I am not free of the impulse to form relationships with others based on the improbability of our ever even crossing paths. But such relationships only endure when the person stops being my token black/Muslim/Republican friend and becomes, for me, an individual.
I don’t wish to make a humanist claim about Jews and Muslims as “individuals” or “human beings” first. Depending on context, the members of Slim Peace are Jews and Muslims first, or women first, or fat women first. The idea that Muslims and Jews really see one another in these settings, or see beyond their status as Jews and Muslims is misleading and defeats the purpose of such gatherings. They are coming together as Jews and as Muslims, willingly placing themselves in the very referent position I have unwittingly been put into by others in my career.
On Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, his team of comic reporters frequently appears onscreen with titles like “Senior Black Correspondent” or “Senior Woman Correspondent,” a joke on the news media’s ever-expanding field of “experts,” but also a confession about the impossibility of being truly color-blind (or gender-blind, religion-blind, etc.).
Perhaps the women of Slim Peace are on to something in actively and openly seeking out “token” friendships. They come to these meetings as Jews and as Muslims, in search of their improbable other. Unfortunately, in this context their identities as Women (capital W) are implicated in the universalizing of women’s hatred of their own bodies.