Across the great divide
I never felt whiter than I did last week at a leadership seminar on race and public policy.
It was a two-day session run by Leadership New Jersey, the yearlong program I’ve been attending along with 50 other business, nonprofit, and political professionals around the state. Each month we look at another slice of NJ politics and policy: the environment, healthcare, social services. This month it was race, and the seminar included a study of how Montclair, Maplewood, and South Orange are coping with diversity.
Before that, however, we took part in a consciousness-raising game run by facilitators from the NJ region of the National Conference for Community and Justice (the former National Conference of Christians and Jews). In an all-purpose room at Seton Hall University, we were asked to stand in a straight line. The facilitators then read a series of “have you ever” statements, and instructed each of us to take a step forward or back if the statements applied to us.
“Have you ever been subjected to a derogatory comment based on your race or ethnicity?” Take a step back.
“Have you ever been discouraged from a career path because of your race or ethnicity?” Another step back.
“Can you walk into any beauty shop in America and expect a competent haircut?”
That’s a step forward.
After about a dozen such questions the trend was clear. About a third of the participants are people of color black, Hispanic, Asian, mixed race. They clustered at the rear. The white men and women, meanwhile, were clumped at the front of the room, some so far ahead that they nearly touched the wall.
As a microphone circulated around the room, it was clear that the exercise had struck a deep and painful chord. For many of the whites, the exercise was a window into the lives of their black friends and colleagues through which they had not yet peered. You can call yourself enlightened and sympathetic, but how does it really feel to be told “that’s not a job for a black girl”? You can tell yourself that racial attitudes have changed for the better, but then what is that lawyer doing all the way in the back?
The non-whites seemed less surprised by the results which didn’t make it any less painful. Some cried. One woman said she was “disappointed” by the silence of the white people far ahead of her.
For my part, I ended up close to the front, but not as close as many others. “See?” I almost wanted to say. “I’m white, but not that white.”
The next moment I felt competitive with the non-whites. “Hey, I’m a Jew,” I wanted to tell them. “Fifty years ago, I might have been standing at the back of the room with you.”
That’s a remarkable statement, and a crazy one, I realize now. Remarkable, because of what it says about the huge gap in experience between Jews born after the middle of the 20th century and those born before.
It’s a crazy statement because of its roots in comparative victimology. That sounds like what they do on CSI, but it just means the impulse to prove that my suffering is greater than yours, our oppression harsher than theirs whoever you and they may be. It has its uses, I suppose, if it can lead to a degree of empathy. But too often comparative victimology is about diminishing the suffering of others.
The impulse was on full display after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s keynote speech earlier this month to the American Task Force on Palestine. “The Palestinian people deserve a better life,” said Rice, “a life that is rooted in liberty, democracy, uncompromised by violence and terrorism, unburdened by corruption and misrule, and forever free of the daily humiliation of occupation.”
That last phrase especially led many thankfully not all pro-Israel activists to fume, as if acknowledging the undeniable effects of Israel’s control over the West Bank demonstrated bad faith on the part of the United States. Critics immediately responded that the “humiliation” was self-inflicted, that the occupation is legal, that the “inconvenience” of road blocks and house searches and constant surveillance is no match for the suffering of Israel’s terror victims and their survivors.
True, true, and true. The Palestinians are indeed victims of decades of their own awful decision-making and criminal behavior by their leaders. But that doesn’t mean we must deny the dismal experience of everyday Palestinians if for no other reason than self-interest. Deny the effects of occupation, and you have no right to be surprised when the territories explode, when Arab turns on Arab, when radicals are elected over moderates.
Denying the Palestinian reality also erodes the Jewish soul a soul forged during millennia of suffering. We don’t have to apologize for the way young Palestinians grow up, not after Israel was prepared to meet so many of their leaders’ demands only to be answered again and again with spasms of violence and rejection. But if we can’t understand what it feels like to stare down the barrel of a soldier’s gun, or to dig deep into our pockets for “papers” that mean the difference between freedom and detention, what have we become?
In recent years, the Middle East has become a zero-sum game, and one would be a fool to deny it. The present choice is between Israel’s security and the Palestinians’, and as a Jew I know whose security I would choose. But unless we drop the habit of victimology unless we occasionally cross the line the game will go on and on, and end happily for no one.
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