Center Field: The government should fight bigotry

One teacher was Jewish another was Arab, and they drove together naturally, happily, until they were attacked.

Dome of the Rock 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Dome of the Rock 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Recently two teachers went to pay their respects to their principal as he sat shiva in Jerusalem. In one of those remarkable everyday moments of cooperation that never make headlines, one teacher was Jewish another was Arab, and they drove together naturally, happily. Unfortunately, in one of those horrific moments of violence that frequently make headlines, some religious teens harassed them, damning the Arab and Jew for riding together. The teachers were unhurt, but their car was damaged, as was the social fabric, the delicate lattice of social ties and values that define a society.
The next government should accept the mission of opposing such bigotry.
Jews endured too much oppression when we were stateless to tolerate intolerance in our own state. And it is particularly outrageous that ultra- Orthodox teens, broadcasting their purported piety by wearing kippot, should violate Judaism so violently.
Where were these yeshiva students’ rabbis? What did the students’ parents teach them? What kind of people do they think Jews should be? Judaism without ethics is like a county without democracy. The trappings of statehood are there, the obligations proliferate, but the enterprise lacks legitimacy and corrupts devotees.
The Ten Commandments combine the theological and the ethical – as the Torah repeatedly demands kindness to others, because we were strangers in Egypt. A classic hassidic story has one of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s temporary drivers stopping by an orchard to steal some apples, and asking the great rabbi to serve as lookout.
“Come quick, we’re being watched,” the rabbi soon calls. The driver runs back to the carriage. As they gallop away, the driver, looking around, says: “No one was watching us.” The rabbi replies, pointing heavenward, “We are always being watched.”
Judaism today needs a Mussar movement, a moral renewal movement like the one the 19th-century rabbi Israel Salanter started, which emphasizes greater sensitivity to others collectively and individually.
Those young hoodlums could not have acted so abominably if they cared about others, respected humanity’s diversity, or believed they were always being watched.
By contrast, in New York recently, a friend told me how deeply her daughter, who is graduating from Flatbush Yeshiva in Brooklyn, abhors bigotry. It is one of this generation of North American Jews’ defining characteristics.
From their homes and schools – public and private, Jewish and non- Jewish – most emerge with respecting others as a core value, if not the core value in their worldviews.
Of course, some are posturing. I know young North Americans who spout a “we are the world, I love everybody” philosophy celebrating “diversity” from the comfort of their monochromatic, cookie-cutter uppermiddle- class golden ghettoes filled with mirror images of themselves mouthing similar pieties. And I see the remarkable openness my children have developed in Israel toward friends with different skin colors and socioeconomic backgrounds. In my kids’ social circles, Ashkenazim and Sephardim and Ethiopians mix easily and lovingly. They are not so politically correct that they pretend they lack cultural or color differences. But the friends are so intimate and interconnected they treat the variations as morally neutral, just a part of being human – with delightfully little baggage.
Moreover, within the religious system, I have witnessed remarkable examples of open-mindedness inculcated by teachers, starting with the many “shorashim,” roots evenings celebrating Israeli diversity. Once, while accompanying my son’s fifth-grade class on a trip, a group of Arab kids stopped at the same rest stop. One boy grumbled, “What are they doing here.” I glanced at my son’s teacher, an ultra-Orthodox woman teaching in a modern religious school. Reflecting my own prejudices, I prepared to respond, assuming she wouldn’t. But she jumped in, saying, “‘They’ were here first in this country, and ‘they’ are as Israeli as we are.”
Still, I hear other stories of religious exclusivity encouraging bigotry. In Israel, even with so many enemies surrounding us, we must have zero tolerance for intolerance. History demands it, the Torah commands it.
I know such kindness is hard to teach in school. I know it is even harder to teach when there are logical reasons for fearing our enemies. And I know that Israeli schools must broaden their mission in other ways too.
But this kind of kindness-education, of crusading against bigotry, cannot be shirked. It should be a mission of the new government, a priority of the new education minister, and a fundamental Israeli educational goal.
As a Zionist, I trust nationalism more than universalism as a values system. While I see the destructive, exclusivist xenophobia nationalism can trigger, I also see the constructive, expansive, humanism it can foster.
Last week at the AIPAC conference, I sat with two friends, one a San Francisco union organizer, the other a Utah state senator. We discussed the awful story of the young Brooklyn couple driving to the hospital for their first baby’s birth who were killed by a drunk driver. In Israel, the headlines emphasized that they were religious Jews, heightening our solidarity with their grieving families. My two friends, who are Latino, focused on the fact that the drunk driver was Latino, and felt embarrassed.
We talked about how such embarrassment is partly defensive – there is enough prejudice against Latinos in America without such stories, both said. But this impulse is also nobler, expressing belonging, showing they take responsibility for others’ actions.
This connectedness often brings out the best in us, as we seek to represent the best of our nation, religious, ethnic group, or hometown.
That sense of solidarity leading to exemplary behavior is nationalism’s most powerful positive force. Israel has tapped that good impulse repeatedly.
We must nurture that noble spirit in our youth – at home, in schools, on the street, formally and informally – for their sakes, and ours.

The author is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His latest book is Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism published by Oxford University Press