Pitt promotes community of compassion, invites others to follow
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DialogueCommunity of Compassion

Pitt promotes community of compassion, invites others to follow

'We have a calling to disagree with each other. But what we can't do is dehumanize each other. We have to have compassion.'

Pitt colleagues and friends Abdesalam Soudi and Jennifer Murtazashvili promote compassion and trust during Dec. 5 event on campus. (Photo by Adam Reinherz)
Pitt colleagues and friends Abdesalam Soudi and Jennifer Murtazashvili promote compassion and trust during Dec. 5 event on campus. (Photo by Adam Reinherz)

University of Pittsburgh professors — one Muslim, one Jewish — modeled compassionate and respectful behavior to influence students, colleagues and community members.

Seated beside one another in Pitt’s University Club on Dec. 5, Abdesalam Soudi and Jennifer Murtazashvili articulated their joint responsibility to create a campus environment driven by “shared humanity.”

Tuesday’s program, which came nearly two months after the start of the Israel-Hamas war, was intended to counter polarizing events at universities nationwide, organizers explained.

“We’ve seen what’s happened on so many of our campuses across this country,” Murtazashvili said. “We can disagree about things. We should disagree about things — if we didn’t we wouldn’t be fulfilling the purpose of this university. We have a calling to disagree with each other. But what we can’t do is dehumanize each other. We have to have compassion.”

Both physical and verbally acrimonious attacks at universities have garnered national attention for months.

On Nov. 7, the U.S. Department of Education described a “nationwide rise in reports of hate crimes and harassment, including an alarming rise in disturbing antisemitic incidents and threats to Jewish, Israeli, Muslim, Arab and Palestinian students.”

Weeks later, a poll from the ADL and Hillel International reported that 73% of Jewish students on college campuses in the U.S. have witnessed or experienced antisemitism since the start of the school year.

At Pitt, the Office for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion has heard from students, faculty and staff, “anecdotally and via reports to the Pitt Concern Connection, about a rise in Islamophobic and antisemitic remarks,” according to an Oct. 25 email to the Pitt community from Vice Chancellor for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Clyde Wilson Pickett.

Carla Panzella, Pitt’s associate vice provost and dean of students, addressed the reports during the program.

“The tragedies in Gaza and Israel have been some of the most difficult ones for universities to navigate because many people have very different responses,” Panzella said. “And our own emotional response can make it difficult to be empathetic to others who are feeling differently.”

Despite the challenges, she added, Soudi and Murtazashvili exemplify what it means to “practice compassion for each other during a difficult time, and to practice seeing how our community members are suffering and committed together to alleviate that suffering.”

Carla Panzella, Pitt’s associate vice provost and dean of students, asks attendees to ‘practice seeing how our community members are suffering.’ (Photo by Adam Reinherz)

Soudi teaches linguistics at Pitt and described himself as “an African, Arab, Muslim immigrant living in southwestern Pennsylvania post-9/11,” who despite facing “various forms of discrimination,” loves raising his children in this “wonderful city.”

Murtazashvili, a professor at Pitt’s Graduate School of Public & International Affairs and founding director of the Center for Governance and Markets, said the program was necessitated by her Squirrel Hill upbringing, bat mitzvah at Tree of Life Congregation and the 2018 synagogue shooting.

“I don’t want to lose this community,” she said. “I lost that sense of safety that I had at Tree of Life, but I don’t want to lose all of you.”

Throughout the afternoon, attendees discussed compassion, empathy and fear.

Emiola Oriola, Pitt’s inaugural director for the Office of Inclusion & Belonging, said working at an academic institution fosters an insatiable quest for knowledge, but instead of offering quick responses, educators should exhibit humility.

Having compassion means “slow ourselves down and really place ourselves in other people’s situations, perspectives and emotions, allow things to unfold without having snap reactions and snap judgments,” he said.

Still, what happens when someone says, “They hate you, or not even that they hate you but that they want to kill you? Where does compassion come in?” one participant asked.

“This question gets to the heart of why we have social science, it gets to the heart of why we do so much of what we do,” Murtazashvili replied. “Evil is not going away. Evil is part of our world and is part of our lives.”

Considering Nazi Germany, and recognizing that those atrocities were not committed by only one person, is helpful.

“People got swept up in ideas. People got swept up in ideology. People got swept up in emotion. People got swept up in blame, scapegoating, rather than looking at themselves in the mirror,” Murtazashvili said. “It didn’t have to be like that.”

While she acknowledged that hatred will not disappear, “how we deal with it, how we confront it, how our neighbors confront that hatred, how we see each other, is so important.”

For students, faculty and staff, the optimal tactic is simply standing together as “the Pitt community,” Adam Leibovich, dean of Pitt’s Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences and College of General Studies, said.

“It’s easy to gather when we’re celebrating,” he continued, “but I think it is even more important for us to gather when we’re struggling, when people are hurting or uncertain.”

There are obvious challenges to coalescence, given the ease of judging others based on accents, origins or characteristics; still, the remedy to present ills was articulated 80 years ago by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Soudi said.

Included in Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince” are the words: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eyes.”

That’s the key, Soudi said: “You have to invest in people. You need to know them. Discover that treasure, that hidden treasure. That’s the point.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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