Last week I attended a Friday evening service at a Reform temple, led by the high school-age youth group.
The theme of the service, as shown on the program that was distributed to congregants, was this:
The students quoted MLK, JFK and Helen Keller on the subject of tolerance (they could also have quoted the Torah on how to properly treat the stranger (גר) in our midst, but they didn’t). They declaimed
The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.
which they attributed to Thomas Paine (it seems that he said something similar which did not include the part about “all mankind” and which had a wholly different connotation than the students gave it). They even included this:
The Holy Prophet Mohammed came into this world and taught us “That man is a Muslim who never hurts anyone by word or deed, but who works for the benefit and happiness of God’s creatures.” Belief in God is to love one’s fellow men. — Abdul Ghaffar Khan
(although they failed to add that Khan was at odds with the great majority of Muslims in India, opposed the partition that created Pakistan, and was imprisoned by the Pakistani authorities for 15 years for his non-violent opposition).
And naturally, how could they leave out the immortal lyrics of “Imagine,” by John Lennon?
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
They did skip the next line, “and no religion, too.” I asked about it and was told that it had originally been included, but their adult advisers suggested that it might be offensive to some congregants!
There was more, and the message was that we are all the same under the skin, and the cause of war and hatred in the world is a lack of understanding. One student even said something like “all cultures are good, they are just different.”
The students developed the program themselves, but I think their teachers and advisers deserve a grade of F for failing to explain some of the basic facts of human existence, particularly as they apply to the Jewish people.
One is that tribalism on all levels has been hardwired into humans by evolutionary pressures. A person will always be more willing to sacrifice personal benefit for a family member than a stranger and for members of successively more inclusive groups than for relative ‘outsiders’. At the same time they will display hostility to outsiders, which can become obsessive.
This can sometimes be controlled by social pressure and legal strictures within a culture or political unit, but is the ‘normal’ behavior of the human animal.
This hostility does not always promote the interests of the group, because it arises from atavistic feelings which are not rational in the first place (although cynical leaders can and do encourage and channel it for political purposes).
Hostile attitudes abound among various cultures, including hatreds which predispose a ‘tribe’ to genocide against its enemies. Since it is not possible for outsiders to defuse the hostility in another culture, the only avenue for survival for a targeted group is self-defense.
The US civil rights movement is an example of social and legal mitigation of intolerance within a broader culture. To the extent that it has been partially successful, it is because it was possible, within the US, to create a feeling of membership in a large ‘tribe’ that included both the persecuted group and the (former) persecutors.
On the world scale there is no larger cultural framework in which to mitigate group hostility — there are international subcultures, like academia, but they are as tribal and hostile as any other group — so the US civil rights movement is not a useful analogy.
Some of the cultures in the world are farther from the ones that these young people are familiar with than they can imagine. The 100 days of the Rwandan Genocide when 500,000 people were murdered, often by their neighbors wielding machetes, might be incomprehensible to them, as would the Syrian rebel cutting out and eating the heart of his enemy.
Don’t even ask what most non-Western cultures think about slavery, equal treatment for religious minorities and women, gay people, etc.
To make the discussion concrete, consider the Jewish people, to which these students belong.
For almost two thousand years they have been the target of hostility from surrounding cultures. From 70 CE to 1948 the Jews were a minority culture wherever they lived, and today the State of Israel is a minority state in the Middle East. The Jews may be the only recognizable ethnic group that has survived and maintained its identity for such a long period.
Although they used various strategies to survive, convincing their hostile neighbors of the benefits of coexistence wasn’t one of them. Nor was assimilation, which (sometimes) allowed individual Jews to survive at the expense of the Jewish culture. What did work was an emphasis on the differences between the Jews and others, and efforts to stay separate from their neighbors.
Today of course, the degree of hostility toward the Jewish state, both among its neighbors and in the wider world — particularly Europe — has reached the point that only aggressive, preemptive self-defense keeps it from being overrun.
Despite efforts to explain that intolerance really isn’t to anyone’s advantage, it seems that every day the hatred grows and the haters find new ways to express it.
The Jewish nation — people and state — can’t affect the outcome of their struggle to survive by preaching tolerance and coexistence. They have little or no power to influence their enemies by rational argument or by setting an example. They are not world citizens, all mankind does not and will not see them as brothers, and the only human or national rights they have are the ones that they can defend.
Do the young people of this congregation understand this? I doubt it.