“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”
We may trivialize this axiom as something we tell our children to make them feel better, but, unfortunately, I’ve come to believe that the distance between name-calling is not very far from broken bones. Sticks and stones really can break bones and they usually don’t come too long after the name-calling.
Many Jews see the world through a dichotomy of “us” and “them.” This may seem legitimate enough at first. It may start with a subtle change in language which reflects an attitude. However, this can quickly deteriorate into name-calling or the delegitimization of “the other” and ultimately to their dehumanization. Once this happens, as Jews know all-too-well, violence against others becomes acceptable and sometimes encouraged.
I was recently speaking with an acquaintance about the decline in family values and the rate of divorce. They voiced their distress that this is increasing among religious Jews and it was affecting Jewish society. I responded that I thought it was something affecting all of Western society, to which they responded, “I don’t care about them.” They said this with no shame, no inkling of anything wrong with this sentiment. As people who are relatively isolated from people who do not think like them, living on a religious settlement near Hebron, they do not have the benefit of people challenging their ideas.
I could not help but think how we are all interconnected and how short-sighted it is not to care about trends in Western society in general and how ultimately they affect us, in general as subcultures and specifically as individuals. However, this acquaintance, while educated and intelligent, is isolated physically and intellectually.
Another acquaintance recently told me that she did not want her children to go to high school in Efrat, the city in which they lived located just south of Jerusalem in the territories. She felt that her children, once in high school, needed to be exposed to a wider variety of people. Her eldest daughter went to one of the better religious girls schools in Jerusalem and was delighted when, during a discussion about politics, there were a wide variety of opinions, including a girl who wore a “Peace Now” t-shirt. As the mother told me about the episode, she conveyed the idea that it was not that she or her daughter necessarily agreed with Peace Now’s ideology; what made her happy was that their platform was represented and that all the voices were heard and accepted as legitimate in a dialogue.
In Israeli society there are not a lot of opportunities for different subcultures to meet and coexist. In general, we attend different schools, live in different places, and have different social communities, all of which reinforce philosophies like our own. There is little opportunity to hear, let alone learn from people who are different than ourselves.
It is quite common for religious Jews to only speak about “Jews” and not “people” – as in “He’s a good Jew,” not “He’s a good person.” Similarly, non-Jews and often Jews with a different ethnicity or religious identity, are regarded as irrelevant at best, subordinate and illegitimate at worst.
Such divisiveness breeds ignorance. The ignorance breeds fear. Such fear breeds suspicion, insecurity, and defensiveness. And the best defense is a good offense. It is only a matter of time.
It may be true that good fences make good neighbors, but ultimately such isolation brings conflict and violence.
The stones are thrown and the bones are broken.
On Mt. Zion, which is adjacent to Jerusalem’s Old City and the site of a Yeshiva and several Christian holy sites, Christian clergy and monks have been cursed at by people they say are associated with the Yeshiva. First they were cursed, then spat on. One senior church official recently told the Israeli newspaper HaAretz, “There isn’t a monk who hasn’t been spat on; it’s part of the job description.”
And then the attacks began: vandalism, Christian cemetery desecration, car arson and rock-throwing.
Earlier this month the violence escalated when a boulder weighing over 35 pounds was thrown on a Palestinian working with a Jew on Mt. Zion. According to news reports, the rock was thrown from a ten foot wall on a yeshiva’s property and landed squarely on Adnan Basila’s back. The 52-year-old Palestinian laborer was severely injured with four crushed vertebrae. He survived only after undergoing life-saving surgery. His Jewish employer, Arik Pelzig, had been attacked four days earlier when he was stabbed in his hand and was hit over the head with a metal pipe. Pelzig was hospitalized and received stitches in his head and hand.
This is not the way it has to be.
Living in fear and isolation breeds violence, be it on a hilltop in Jerusalem, a neighborhood in Bet Shemesh or a suburb in New Jersey. Engaging those who are different from us, be they of a different opinion, ideology, race, nationality, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion or religious denomination allows for communication, education, understanding and coexistence.
In the middle of Haifa is the neighborhood of Wadi Nisnas which I walked through a few shabbatot ago. The Arab neighborhood has signs in Arabic, Hebrew and Russian. When I was there, the souq was bustling with activity serving people of all ethnicities and backgrounds. The neighborhood has a cultural center for Arabs and Jews which offers classes, community theater and more. It is a peaceful and affluent Arab neighborhood where I felt comfortable walking on a Shabbat with a kippah on my head.
It is imperative that we build bridges to engage and learn from those who are different from us. Without such initiatives, we will suffer a deterioration in our society and continuing conflict. We have an opportunity to feel comfortable among our neighbors, but we must be open and take the initiative to make it so. This starts by voicing our objection when we hear the language of bigotry.