Shabbat Goy: Pride and prejudice

I’ve often wondered what I would do if someone was unkind to my son because of his color. But I never thought I would need to think about him being mistaken for an Arab.

Pride and Prejudice 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Pride and Prejudice 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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 really puzzled.
“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.