There are people out there
unafraid of revealing
that they might have a feeling,
or they might have been wrong.
There are people out there
unafraid to feel sorrow,
unafraid of tomorrow,
unafraid to be weak,
unafraid to be strong…
Mother, “Back to Before”, from the musical Ragtime *
You can learn a lot from diversity training.
That is how I spent this Wednesday afternoon: in four hours of diversity training. You can say it is bunk or you can say it is smart, but it is the requirement of my employer that as a supervisor I see workplace diversity as an asset.
Intuitively, embracing a diverse workforce makes a lot of sense. If everyone who worked for me thought and acted like me, would this be good for the organization? Not likely. I like to consider myself a talented guy, but my skills and knowledge are limited. I need the best from my team. I need to take advantage of the strengths that they have that I do not. Consequently, on those few times when I am in a hiring position, I should be looking for people with different skills and perspectives.
Whether people are black or white, whether they are pretty or ugly, whether they are gay or straight, whether they are skinny or obese, each person has potential. According to my training, that potential can only realized when I am able to be accepting of their differences. I need to see beyond the surface and the stereotypes and connect with the person within. By accepting who they are in all their complexity and quirks, it becomes possible for them to feel valued for who they are, and thus give me their best. If everyone who works for me can feel the same way, we become a more harmonious unit. Everyone is happier and more productive because their essential humanity is acknowledged and appreciated.
These observations should not be startling to you. They are almost intuitive.
However, with my mind fresh from diversity training, the whole Israeli-Palestinian conflict took on a new perspective. A light bulb went off above my head. This was the essential problem between Israelis and Palestinians. It was not that mixing Arabs and Jews is like mixing oil and water. It was both sides failing to see and respect the essential humanity of each other.
Because “Arab” and “Jew”, like “fat” and “ugly”, are just labels. Here is the thing: being Jewish does not really matter. Being Arab does not really matter either. They mean as much as if your eyes are brown and mine are blue. This means that it means nothing at all. It is an artificial and superficial distinction that was elevated to the level of importance that is undeserved. Self-segregation may be an unpleasant fact in much of this world, but it is wrong. Ironically, it was one of the greatest Jews of all times who taught us this lesson: Jesus. He told us that all men are brothers. And that includes those Samaritans and Palestinians too.
This does not mean that we should all try to be brothers; it means all men are brothers. How do we know? Count our chromosomes. Yep, we all have 46. We all belong to the same species: homo sapiens. We each have two eyes, two ears, one nose, two legs and two arms. If there is a real difference between us, it is by gender. I do not have ovaries. Women do not have penises. Perhaps that is why some biologists consider males and females to be different species.
Therefore, if we all are brothers, anyone who says otherwise is spreading lies. Why did apartheid finally fail in South Africa? Because the world recognized this fundamental truth: everyone who lived there deserved equal rights, respect and opportunities because they were all human beings.
Why was the Holocaust so evil? It was evil because some of us chose to act on their erroneous belief that we were not brothers. It was a fallacy that killed millions of our brothers.
The current state of Israel is a direct result of the Holocaust. A homeland for the Jews seemed like a natural way to permanently address the Holocaust. At the time, it seemed both compassionate and logical. Let us give the Jews their own place where they can be free to be Jewish. The Jews can go there to be with their own kind. (Perhaps the subtext was, “We do not want the Jews in our country anyhow, because they are not really one of us, so let them go to Israel.”) It seemed like a neat resolution at the time. A permanent Jewish homeland meant that Jews could be free to be Jews without worry of discrimination.
There was, unfortunately, one flaw: there were people already living in Palestine. In order to create a Jewish state, others necessarily had to suffer. More specifically, most of the non-Jews in the state that would become Israel were pushed across the Green Line to start a new life of permanent refugees. Many others were simply murdered.
Yet this consequence was tacitly okay with the United Nations. Yes, there were dissents when the U.N. authorized the creation of Israel. Nevertheless, it was, in retrospect, perhaps the most boneheaded decision made by this august governing body. It was very clearly deliberate discrimination: Jews are wanted in Israel, and non-Jews are not, and the world says that is fine.
Antisemitism is defined by dictionary.com as “Hostility toward or prejudice against Jews or Judaism.” Semitism, on the other hand is not quite the opposite of anti-Semitism. It is “a policy or predisposition in favor of Jews.” Thankfully, I am not anti-Semitic. I have no prejudice toward those who are Jews. Therefore, I need to invent a new word: “non-semitism”. I will define it as “the belief that Jews should not be especially favored nor discriminated against”. I believe in non-semitism. I believe it because I believe all men are brothers. To me this is self-evident. I believe it is wrong to favor the Jews or any group over any other group. This does not mean that I am unmindful of the horrors inflicted on the Jews over the millenniums. They were horrible and they were wrong. However, they were not horrible because they were inflicted on Jews; they were horrible because these were crimes against humanity. Some of our brothers chose to kill because they chose to believe we are not all brothers. In my mind the Holocaust was a monstrous crime of large-scale fratricide.
While in general the law in Israel does not discriminate against non-Jewish citizens, in practice there is a lot of discrimination. The situation is not too much different from the status of Negroes in much of the 20th century here in the United States. While they had equal rights in theory, in practice discrimination was widespread. Our own State Department noted this in its most recent report to Congress. It also catalogued the obvious discrimination that occurs on Middle East territories occupied by Israel, which includes East Jerusalem and The West Bank. You have no doubt seen pictures of the unilateral demolition of Arab homes in these areas so that Jews can occupy these lands. (Incidentally, it is forbidden under international law for any occupying force to colonize an occupied territory.)
It is ironic that in Israel of all places, we see a modern version of apartheid. It is like George Orwell’s Animal Farm where some animals are more equal than others are. In doing so, of course, in some small way Israeli Jews are emulating the injustices done upon them. It is much like child abuse. “My Dad used to beat me with a belt, so it is okay for me to beat you with a belt.” One can understand why someone would feel this way having gone through such a traumatic experience, but it is still wrong to act on those feelings.
Yes, it is wrong. Just as no child deserves to be beaten, no person should lose life, home or liberty for not being in the right ethnic class, in this case for not being a Jew. It violates our inherent human worth and dignity. It supports the insidious lie that we are not all brothers in fact.
In trying to conjure a way out of this horrifying Israel-Lebanon-Hezbollah conflict that threatens to turn into a Third World War, I cannot help but believe that the real crime is that both sides will not acknowledge that they are brothers. They are all human beings. We should aspire to treat everyone with dignity and respect, even when we do not agree with them, because we are brothers.
Israel is now engaged in a battle for its survival. That is why this war is so dangerous. As I said a few entries ago, these rockets launched by Hezbollah have changed whole balance of power. At some point, perhaps sooner rather than later, Iran will be able to lob its own missiles at Israel from inside its own territory. By then, it will not need proxy militias like Hezbollah to do it for them. There is no military answer to this emerging reality other than devastating nuclear war. Even that would not solve the problem, but it would leave millions of our brothers dead.
How do we get out of this box?
There is an answer, but it takes much more courage that sending tens of thousands of Israeli troops into Northern Lebanon to ferret out Hezbollah militias. It can come from either side, but in my opinion, it should come from the Israelis. It should be something like this:
To our Arab brothers,
For many decades, we have engaged in overt and covert wars to hurt and kill each other. We must stop this because it is wrong and it will kill more people. We must stop thinking of each other as Arab or Jew. We must start thinking of each other as brothers. We must all make the deliberate and sustained decision to heal, not hurt.
For our part, we acknowledge our terrible transgressions against our Arab brothers over many decades. We look forward to finding ways where we can redress past wrongs and live together in peace and mutual respect.
Please, together, let us find a way to stop the bloodshed immediately. Then let us work earnestly together to build a new Palestine built on mutual respect for each other and peace.
* Ragtime is one of my favorite musicals. If you would like to hear this song, which is one of my favorites from the musical, click here (3.7 MB). This is a Windows Media Audio (WMA) file.