Prejudice, Part II

Two weeks ago, after spending a fabulous semester break with my mom, I dropped her off at the airport. While sitting in the sherut (shared taxi) back to Jerusalem, a woman sat down next to me; feeling bummed after having just said goodbye to my mom, I wasn’t really up for talking.

She started talking to me, though, so I tried to rally for the sake of being nice. She asked the usual small-talk questions: where are you from, where are you going to school, yadda yadda yadda. And then, the bombshell: what do you study?

“Islamic and Middle Eastern studies,” I replied. Silence.

“Islam? Arabs? Why would you want to study them?” She asked, looking disgusted.

“Why not?” I replied, knowing exactly where this conversation was headed, but trying to buy myself time.

“They’re horrible people. They hate everyone. They want to kill everyone, especially us.”

Trying to maintain my composure, I explained to her that because my mother was a professor of Islam when I was growing up, we probably had very different experiences with the world’s Arab and Muslim populations. Mine have been largely positive, while hers sounded like they’d been deeply negative. Still, the issue persisted.

“Why do you even want to help anyone whose mission it is to kill all the Jews?” She asked, perplexed. “They’re hateful. They want to wipe us out and make the world an Islamic empire.”

At this point, I was really struggling. From what I’ve seen in my life thus far, pragmatism rarely wins out over black-and-white, zero-sum thinking. Absolutism is easily upheld by de-legitimizing nuanced arguments, by saying that pragmatic viewpoints are only held by the infidels, the sell-outs, or the morally depraved. This mindset, sadly, runs rampant throughout the Middle East, and it became crystal clear to me that evening.

I tried to explain that, yes, there are some people who hold this viewpoint, but that doesn’t mean that a) you can paint all Muslims or all Arabs with the same brush, or b) that you can sink to the level of those who propagate hate. However, I struggled to articulate myself convincingly. Maybe it was because I was flustered. Maybe it was because I didn’t feel like I could say what I was thinking: that yes, sometimes it’s damn hard to keep from jumping on the hater bandwagon. But that doesn’t make it okay to do.

I wrestle with this issue all the time, and it’s hard to reconcile myself with it. It’s hard when I’m walking up to campus, and hear comments from Arab men that even I–she of the sailor’s mouth–would never repeat. It’s hard when I hear firey, hate-filled sermons coming from the other side of the hill. It’s hard when I read articles in the paper about riots in Beirut, calls for jihad in Iran, and Hamas’s continued commitment to the destruction of Israel. At moments like that, my blood boils, and I’m tempted to stand on the hill overlooking the West Bank while I let my foul mouth fly. But I don’t.

I don’t because the guys who make my coffee on the weekends help me with my Arabic, and occasionally throw in a free pastry after making sure I’m pronouncing this week’s vocab lesson correctly. I don’t because the Muslim women of Hebrew University (of which there are many) held a silent, peaceful protest against the Mohammed cartoons–and in response to the violent protests held elsewhere. I don’t because the man who drove my mom and I around the West Bank taught his sons not to throw stones at IDF soldiers, but to forge friendships with like-minded Israelis in the name of tolerance and pragmatism.

The woman on the sherut also made the point that she wants to help her own people, not those who want to destroy them. “Why help them,” she asked, “when I could help my own?” This raises a good question, and one that I couldn’t answer right away. I had to acknowledge the validity of her point: giving assistance to an outside group over one’s own doesn’t make much logical sense. Why bolster someone who could do me harm, when I could be making myself stronger?

I could only come up with a partial answer to this question, and it wasn’t until later that night that I put together a full response: because I’m not willing to sink to that level. I’m not willing to say that all Muslims are bad, because that’s precisely what the fraction Muslims who propagate intolerance say about the Jews and the West. This is one of the main reasons why the West and many Jews are disgusted by the Arabs–and I’m not willing hate them for it, only to turn around and do the exact same thing.

I’m also not willing to fortify my own at the expense of others, by teaching my children to vilify outside groups and to only love those who are like us. I don’t believe in strength through intolerance, and by the same token, I don’t believe that tolerance propagates weakness. You don’t have to be self-effacing, weak, or passive in order to accept others.

However, I do believe that by teaching my children to respect those who are different, I’ll be making my own people stronger. Idealistic? Perhaps. But at the end of the day, I want to be able to say that, despite the ferocity of this conflict, that I helped cultivate tolerance. I don’t want to be able to say that I only helped my own people. I want to say that I helped both.