Parenting from the Left #4: Selma and Israel/Palestine
True fear knows no context.
And to follow the commandment to love your neighbor, to know the stranger, you must understand what fills them with unbridled fear, the kind of fear that cannot be rationalized away. This is what has stayed with me more than anything else after my wife and I took our boys to see Selma last week.
Our boys were leery about going to see the film, and we may not have helped our case by focusing a lot in advance with them about how hard it would be to watch. And, as I discussed in my last post, just 9 days after taking them to the 9/11 Memorial in NYC. So, they were bracing for the worst.
And indeed by the end of the film, I had one of them in my lap and the other clinging for dear life to my arm. They were turning away and saying they hadn’t wanted to come after all. But to their credit, when my wife and I explained to them that they needed to watch because it was important to understand, they did.
It was late when the film ended, so we had only a bit of time to discuss it in the moment. One scene we did come back to in our conversation was the gut-wrenching moment where two white clergymen from the North are beaten and killed. The killers tell their victims that now they would understand what it was like to be black in Alabama.
Was that true? Was this the kind of fear and violence the black community faced at any moment? Could sympathetic white people be made to understand that fear? Without knowing much more than they had seen in the film, the boys seemed to think so all around.
We then veered in to talking about their understanding of things like courage and morality, and what it must take to face what the people of Selma faced. I think the film helped them take on all of these issues – fear, courage, morality — in a deeper way, where other discussions on these topics have only scratched the surface. I am not sure they would say that getting below the surface made the whole experience worth it, but I definitely think it was.
But I’ve come back and back to those questions – can we ever understand the fear that others face, especially when it is so pervasive and omnipresent? For people that are oppressed and discriminated against in every facet of life, is there no respite? Or, conversely, is there ever a feeling of safety or certainty? Do we need to know anything more about the context, or “why” that fear exists?
At a morning prayer session at a local synagogue the day after, the Rabbi pointed out that one of the reasons that the commandments to know the stranger and love the neighbor are so preeminent is that it is so hard. It requires you both to know yourself, which can be a lifelong challenge, and then to truly place yourself in the shoes of the stranger and your neighbor.
And although she did not say it, I came back to the thought from that scene in Selma — that perhaps it’s the fear known by your neighbor that is what you truly have to know about them. Not the facts or the context, but the heart-pounding, deafening, and blinding sense of fear. That is when the victim is stripped bare, and when the sense of safety is most distant. And that is the most difficult place of all to be shown, and to want to see.
And to teach this to our kids, sometimes they need to be scared.
We have not yet used the experience of Selma to discuss other issues with our boys, and we still have much to teach them about civil rights here. But I think there can be resonance for them in understanding conflict elsewhere, including Israel. And, while it can always be dangerous to mention Israel/Palestine in the same breath as things like segregation in the United States, there are strains that can and must be built upon. Both in terms of understanding the fears of the communities involved and what they seek in terms of safety and certainty.
So, a few ideas:
- Start by simply listening directly to the stories of Palestinians. Not weighed down by policy debates or the context about the aims of Hamas in Gaza or the failings of the Palestinian Authority, but simply the harrowing stories so many Palestinians can tell. If this can be done in a way that does not lead to an automatic “contextualizing” response, then there is enormous merit in listening to the stories Palestinians tell of the fear and the uncertainty they face. Resist the urge to say the word “But” or to try to lessen their fear by inserting your own. If not possible directly, then read excerpts from the diaries of Raja Shehadeh (especially this one) as a start, to feel how safety has vanished.
- When you visit Israel, take the time to bring your children to the West Bank. Go on a Breaking the Silence tour to Hebron. Or, since kids often like being involved with planting or harvesting, inquire about supporting or joining up with the Center for Jewish Nonviolence, which is helping to replant olive trees near Bethlehem.
- Again, try to focus on the humanity and not the “he said, she said” of the parties quite yet. You do not have to believe that Palestinians are right in their policy positions or statements about the Occupation and still be able to accept their fear. Until you have come to a checkpoint or encountered an extremist settler and felt the fear Palestinians feel on many days, then I think there is something missing. And let me be clear that, no, I do not equate soldiers guarding a checkpoint or the extreme settlers to the white racists of Alabama.
- And if they have never truly known any Jewish Israelis, take the same approach. Do not base it on the talking points provided by politicians in Israel or elsewhere or what community leaders say about the meetings they had on a recent delegation. Allow for a plain and unvarnished connection, if that’s still possible.
As with my reactions to France and the 9/11 Memorial last week, these seem like overly simplistic steps. But they are missed by too many of us. What Selma did for our boys was to give them a sense of the fear, uncertainty, and loss of safety that others face, so that they could reflect on their own lives.
If we all commit to enabling our children to feel these feelings and seek them out in others, the more chances we have that they will truly learn to know the stranger and love their neighbor, even when the context is confusing or complicated.