Friday, November 30, 2007

If I Were A Jew

If I were a Jew today, my sensibilities would be tormented. I would find it increasingly difficult to reconcile the long cycles of oppression that Jewish people have endured and the insatiable appetite for vengeful violence that Israel, my homeland, has now acquired. This reconciliation would be particularly difficult now, in November, 79 years after Kristallnacht – the Night of Broken Glass. The anniversary of this dreadfully monumental day in my history would bring me pause. It would force me to reflect on the legacy of extraordinary human suffering. I might wonder how the vicious eruption of cruelty in the mid-twentieth century has influenced the shape of my identity as a Jewish person and our collective identity as Jewish people.

Suffering and oppression typically give rise to sympathy and compassion among the oppressed. I can look upon the sufferer and know that, “there but for the Grace of God, go I.” During this period I might well reflect on the redemptive qualities of suffering that my people have learned through a ghastly set of lessons. I would not have to reflect alone, I could read the lessons explicitly from Elie Wiesel, Anne Frank, or Chaim Potok. I would conclude that my Jewish faith and the history of my people render me closer to human compassion; closer to the instinct to offer healing to hurt, patience to anxiety and understanding to confusion.

I don’t know how I would reconcile that identity with the behavior of fundamentalist Jewish extremists or of Israel as a nation. The details would confuse me. I wouldn’t understand those who suggest that bombing Lebanon, slaughtering Lebanese people and largely destroying Beirut in retaliation for the capture of a few soldiers is justified. I wouldn’t understand the notion of collective punishment, cutting off gas, electricity and water from residents in Gaza because they are attacking Israel who is fighting against them. It would be unconscionable to me to watch Israeli tanks donning the Star of David rumbling through Ramallah destroying buildings and breaking the glass.

I would be confused in concept too. My faith would lead me to believe that Israel is the homeland of my people. My intellect would convince me that it cannot be that simple. The faith and reason of the Palestinians or of Muslims cannot simply be baseless. I would have to believe that the degree of animus, vengeance and violence that they now carry is not rooted in their identity, but rather in their experience; in the sordid nation shuffling and rebuilding that took place after World War II. It must be rooted in their hurt, in their sense of displacement, abandonment and hopelessness.

My reflections on Kristallnacht would lead me to feel that these are precisely the human sentiments that I as Jew would understand; that I ought to understand and feel compelled to help alleviate. It cannot be that the sum total of a history of suffering and slaughter places such a premium on my identity that I would be willing to damn others in defense of it.

If I were a Jew I would be concerned about my insatiable appetite for war and killing in defense of myself. Self defense is undoubtedly an instinct, but I would be afraid of my increasing insensitivity to the suffering others. My greatest torment would be that I’ve misinterpreted the identity offered by my history and transposed spiritual and human compassion with self righteous impunity.


Monday, November 19, 2007

White Values and Convergence

Recently National Public Radio reported on the results of a national poll that suggests there is a division among black people about what it means to be black. NPR’s Juan Williams’ report, Redefining What It Means To Be Black In America accompanied the poll results. In short, the poll suggests that black people these days think there are two sets of black people in America – one set, those ensnared by poverty and donning the trappings of the thug life and the other, those financially better off, genteel and more visibly responsible.

The results of the poll are what they are, an indication of the desperation that all black people feel about the abyss swallowing up so many of our kind. This abyss is creating a value system and a mode of being in the world that is unrecognizable to many black people. Hence, many black people feel that two separate sets of black people are emerging. There is nothing spectacular about diverging classes of people thinking that they possess divergent value systems. In every society in the world class has served as a proxy for all manner of divisions, not the least of which are value systems.

The real problem with the report is its core claim, that the group of black people who work, are civic minded and oriented around responsibility are converging on a white value system. The claim is essentially that the value system of "good" blacks is converging with the value system of whites.

The degree of arrogance and paternalism in this claim is astonishing. Does it need to be explicitly pointed out to white and black people alike that white people are not the model against which the rest of humanity is referenced? If the value system personified by 50 Cent is supposedly representative of a separate set of black people, why is not the value system of avarice, deceit and ignorance personified by George Bush representative of a separate set of white people? Why are not the dishonest, unethical and inhumane value systems of Jack Abramov, Lewis Libby, Dick Cheney and Tom Delay representative of a separate set of white people? Why aren’t the redneck whites who hang nooses from trees, who dragged James Byrd to death, who rapped and sodomized Megan Williams, who rape and ravage Mexican women crossing the border and Indian women on their reservations considered a separate set of white people?

White people do not have a monopoly on righteousness or on sound value systems. They are every bit as susceptible to the frailties and ugliness of the human spectrum as everyone else. The claim that responsible black people are converging on a white value system implies that I am converging on a white value system – that somehow the values ingrained in me through the particular journey of my family, my faith, my life and my own critical thought has led me to the doorstep of the temple of white values. Not only is that notion ridiculous, it is personally offensive. Indeed, that idea scorns the morality born of my ancestors’ resistance to oppression meted out to us by the very white people whose value system is now thought to be impeccable.

I find it shameful to have to make this argument so far along on our supposed path to enlightenment. White people and the value systems they employ are neither the standard nor the metric. Value systems ought to be referenced against goodness, against kindness, honesty and human decency. Acquiring that system is a human challenge that we all face.


Thursday, November 1, 2007

Halloween and Surrender

There is no end to the discussion about the failures of No Child Left Behind. A lot of it centers on the systemic failure and persistent underachievement of black children. The President and his men have reconstructed the education debate so that it revolves around metrics and statistical trends on meaningless standardized tests. Ironically, it is the disguises of Halloween that reveal the real damage that society has inflicted on black children. Multiple sets of black kids came to our door on Halloween night trick or treating. Several of the encounters demonstrated the degree to which black children have been reduced.

My wife and I were eating dinner with a too cute “biting scary cat” when there was a loud pounding, not knocking, on the door. The biting scary cat dropped her broccoli and flew to the door screaming, “the trick or treaters are here, the trick or treaters are here!" When we opened the door there was a group of six or seven black kids ranging from about 3 to 13 years old. None of them had on costumes. One of them boldly and gruffly said, “trick or treat” and they all extended their plastic bags. I said, “But hold up, none a yall have on costumes. What’s up with that?” The biting scary cat had the bowl of candy in her hands and turned to my wife and me and asked, “how come they don’t have on costumes?”

“Cuh we broke.”

I was instantly crushed. Creativity does not cost. On the contrary, it supposedly flourishes in the face of limited resources. Apart from that, listening to this little girl look us straight in the face and say, “cuh we broke,” hurt. What I heard in her response was, “because we’ve surrendered.” They were not bothered by their lack of effort. It did not seem to occur to them that they ought to be uncomfortable, if not embarrassed, to be asking for candy on Halloween at a stranger’s doorstep without a costume of any kind. The compounding weights of low expectations and poor education are not only stifling their creativity, but are undermining their pride in themselves.

When my wife told the biting scary cat to give them some of the candy they grabbed handfuls each and we had to tell them not to take it all. They turned to start down the steps without a word. The biting scary cat looked back at us again and said, “Mommy, they didn’t say thank you.” On hearing that, one of them threw a thank you over her shoulder as they continued down the steps.

I turned back inside in a combination of anger and sadness. My wife suggested that we take the biting scary cat trick or treating to some of our friends in the neighborhood. As we turned up our block we saw the same kids riding in a car with the radio blasting 8Ball & MJG’s, “Alcohol, Pussy and Weed.” A three year old in a car listening to alcohol, pussy and weed? How does that happen? and what does it say? In my mind it says the same, that we have surrendered.

And the night got worse.

When we came back, the biting scary cat returned to a little girl and went to sleep around nine o’clock. At about ten o’clock I was watching HBO on-demand boxing, Manny Pacquiao versus Marco Antonio Barrera, when there was another pounding on the door. I couldn’t believe it. This time, there was a young brother maybe 14 years old with a little boy that was either 3 or 4. Again, neither of them had on costumes. From the same bag of gruffness as the other girl he said, “trick or treat.” I said, “Yo!! You don’t have on a costume and its 10 o’clock.”

He smiled and said, “I’m a crook.”

“What do you mean you’re a crook?”

“This is how crooks be looking, I got on a black T.”

I think its surrender.