Suzanne Fields

CHICAGO - Chicago was multicultural before "multicultural" was cool. It's a city of neighborhoods," with Greektown, Chinatown and now "Little Village," where a not-so-little community of immigrants from Mexico thrives.

One guidebook notes that sometimes it seems there are more Irish in Chicago than in Dublin. There are enough Poles in Chicago to make up one of the largest cities in Poland. Italians and Lithuanians are here in abundance, and lately the city has expanded with immigrants from China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Korea. Blacks make up 40 percent of the population. Racial and immigrant prejudice is not unknown. But the buzz in Chicago today is not about race, but religion.

A group of scholars, seizing the moment to be relevant, met the other day at the University of Chicago to find common ground among followers of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In the age of terrorism, and the fear of terrorism, that's easier said than done. Nevertheless, philosophers, theologians, ethicists and the inevitable lawyers met for three days to talk about how each of the three great religions upholds the sanctity and dignity of human life.

Politics bubbled close to the surface. "The Islamic world has never been under such pressure before," said Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University in Washington, the keynote speaker. "There's a new political equation and it has changed the Muslim mind."

The professor repudiated acts of anti-Semitism and suicide bombings, but - the "but" seems to be important - blamed the press. "If we knew that not all Jews were proud of (the Israeli response to the Palestinian intifada) - and I know rabbis and have Jewish friends who feel this way - the view would be very different. You don't hear these divergent views on CNN or in the New York Times." (The professor obviously doesn't get his copy of the New York Times every day.)

A day later in another part of town, in a small synagogue on Michigan Avenue, Jews gathered for their Sabbath service and in private conversations expressed concern, even alarm, at the growing expression of anti-Semitism in public and private discourse.

An exhibition on Albert Einstein at the Field Museum, showing how anti-Semitism played a major role in the life and times of the genius who set out the theory of relativity, illustrates why the Chicago Jews are concerned. Einstein left Nazi Germany in 1932 aware of its menace for Jews. As an American citizen, he was outspoken in his support for a Jewish state and received an enormous volume of hate mail. The FBI suspected him of Communist sympathies.

Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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