Parents’ natural instinct will always be to try to protect their child against all things unpleasant. Some things lie within our control and are thus easy to guard against; others, less so.
On holiday in England a couple of years ago, I had lunch with a friend.
“So, about your son, then...” my friend said to me as we ate. Said child
was still at the stage of experimenting with solid foods and was
smearing his lunch over every available surface, ensuring the need to
leave a healthy tip for our waiter at the end of the meal.
“So is he going to be a Jew, or what?” Odd question, I thought, and said as much.
“Well, technically speaking, he is one of the Tribe,” I began, a little
uncertainly. “But I rather imagine that, in due course, he’ll make a
decision about how he would want to identify himself. Personally, I
quite like the designation ‘human being....’” Unfortunately, the child
was striving mightily to disprove this point even as we spoke,
diligently stuffing a carrot up one nostril.* “No, no,” my friend
continued. “What I mean is, would you allow him to be a Jew?” Now I was
“Why on earth not?” “Well... you know what it’s like...,” I sensed where the conversation was going, but feigned ignorance.
“As a matter of fact, I don’t. Do continue...”
“Well, it’ll just make things a bit awkward for him here in England,
what with what people think about Jews, and all. Not that I agree with
all that rubbish,” he continued hurriedly, “but you do want to make
things easier for him in life, and all. Best not to deal with certain
things if you don’t have to. You know what I mean?” Rather depressingly,
I did know exactly what he meant.
To be honest, I can’t say that I had given the various manifestations of
anti-Semitism any deep thought before I met my wife. One tends to be
preoccupied with one’s own problems, and even today, being black in
Britain means the obligation to deal with all sorts of prejudice
connected to that.
But something I did recognize was that when one is a part of a minority,
discrimination and petty prejudice become a fact of life. This is not
to suggest that one should just shrug one’s shoulders and accept this
unpleasantness; rather that it is an unavoidable aspect of the power
relationship between the majority and the minority in any social space.
Thus the temptation to try and work one’s way out of being subject to
these strictures – as my friend suggested – is always there, even though
it is clearly incorrect.
All this suggests that I am both a deep thinker and a diligent parent.
Neither is true, of course, and I gave the conversation with my friend
no more thought until a few days ago.
We were having lunch. My wife and son were chatting away about this and
that, and I was giving them just enough attention to make the correct
responses – yes, no, put your food in your mouth, please.
My wife mentioned something about Arabs, I don’t quite remember what. But then my son said something that brought me up short.
“The older children in my kindergarten say I am Arab.”
Living in Israel means there are some things I don’t have any need to
think about, at least as far as my son is concerned. Whether or not
people will think less of him because he is a Jew – or because people
decide that he should be considered a Jew – is one of those things.
But the imperative on my part to try and protect him against other forms
of discrimination still remains at the forefront of my mind.
I’ve often wondered what I would do if someone was unkind to him because
of his color – something that, as far as I can tell, has not happened
yet. But I never thought that I would need to think about him being
mistaken for being Arab.
My immediate impulse was to tell him: “No, child, you are certainly not
Arab.” For one thing, it would have had the benefit of being the truth.
But then I remembered my conversation with my friend, and checked myself
at the last minute.
The truth about whether he is Arab or not was certainly one part of the
equation; but to leave the matter at that would surely have meant
becoming complicit myself in a form of discrimination, wouldn’t it? “But
there isn’t anything wrong with being Arab, is there?” I said to my son
gently, feeling a little proud of myself. Much better to face these
matters head-on, particularly since he is still very small.
It is a little sad that four- and five-year-olds should already embrace
the narrow thinking of the adults around them, I told myself. It’s never
too early to challenge prejudicial stereotypes.
But small children have an uncanny knack of puncturing the smug
complacency of their elders. My son looked up at me from his food, a
puzzled expression on his face.
“I didn’t say there was anything wrong in being Arab.”
I don’t think there is anything wrong in being Jewish, or Black, or
Arab, or anything else, for that matter. But then, as my son reminded
me, my automatic presumption is that many other people – small children
included – think differently.
And isn’t this in itself a form of knee-jerk prejudice? Perhaps my son needs protection from me as much as from anything else.
*My mother to likes to point out that I often did much the same – not
just with food, and until a much older age. The apple doesn’t fall far
from the tree, it seems.