Friday, November 26, 2010

From the mouths of babes

It's finally happened - out and out racism – and in my very own household.

I was walking yesterday with my very-soon-to-be 9 year old daughter, and she was complaining about the job the cleaning ladies at her school do (or more specifically, don't do). When out of the blue, she referred to "those stupid Arab cleaning women".

In that split second I was transported back to one of the most defining moments of my childhood.

I was about 7 or 8 years old, and a friend from the neighborhood and I were sitting at my kitchen table having a snack while my mother was right there preparing dinner. This friend and I had started with "eeny meeny miney moe, catch a tiger by the toe" and being the silly young tykes that we began substituting other words for "tiger", and getting (in our minds, at least) funnier and more clever with every one. We went through the gamut of different animals that we caught by the toe, then we caught a teacher by the toe, a grandmother by the toe, you get the idea.

At one point, in my complete innocence (and I use that term very sincerely), I said "Eeny meeny miney moe, catch a nigger by the toe". Within a fraction of second, my mother turned around and smacked my face. She looked me in the eye and said "that is a word I will never hear you say again.

I still didn’t understand exactly what was so bad about it (don't worry, today I do know), but from that point onwards, I did fully grasp that there are ways to refer to people and ways not to.

Return to yesterday. No, I didn't smack my daughter in the face, but I did stop in my tracks and look at her. I told very clearly that I don't ever want to hear her say something like that again.

She then said that they were stupid because of how they clean the classroom - not they're Arab.

I told her that in that case, there was no reason to call them "stupid Arab cleaning women", but that "stupid cleaning women" would be enough. I explained to her – in terms that I think (I hope) she was able to grasp that grouping people together and defining them by the fact they are Arabs is wrong, and I will not allow her to refer to people that way.

We also talked about the "stupid" part – I told her that they might be cleaning (and not cleaning) based on what they were instructed to do, so it's very possible that even though she doesn't like (or understand) what they do, it isn't that they're stupid.

I also reminded her that even it turns out that they are stupid, that they were probably born that way, so it's not their fault if they're stupid and she should never make fun of people for something that's not their fault.

Hopefully I covered all of the bases here.

I am 100% certain that this was not something she has ever heard from either my wife or me. Most likely, she picked it up at school from other kids who heard it from their parents who hold certain prejudices, or older siblings or cab drivers, local mini-market owners, or whatever. It doesn't really matter where she got it – as long as she learns at home that it is completely unacceptable.

But the whole sting still had me a bit un-nerved.

I know – we hear things like this all the time, right? In Israel as well as everywhere in the world. I wish I had a shekel for every cab driver that I've had who referred to "Arab drivers" as the bad ones on the road (the sheer number road fatalities we have in this country every year attest to the fact that there is no shortage of really terrible Jewish drivers as well. We hear in Israel and around the world about the dumb Arabs, the terrorist Muslims, stupid blacks, greedy Jews, you name it. Some of these stereotypes are even attempts at "positive" statements. How often have we heard about how "clever" and "intelligent" the Jewish race is? (Open invitation – come spend even a week in Israel and you will see more than enough hard evidence to disprove THAT particular stereotype).

What bothers me is that most people I know will confuse this cover-all hatred of Arabs with a "political" statement.

It isn't. Not in any way, shape or form.

A political statement would be that we should expel all Arabs from Israel. I don't agree with that sentiment (although I know that many people do), but you could make a decent argument for that being a "political" view. It reflects a policy which many people believe would be in Israel's best interest.

I am purposely not going to offer any of my political views in this particular blog (that will come often enough in future blogs that I plan to post), because the actual political background, situation, difficulties and solutions, are not relevant to this particular discussion.

What I will offer is that simply hating all Arabs because they're Arabs – rather than political, is a social view. More correctly, it's an anti-social view. And it's a view that makes us no different and no better than the Nazis, the KKK, and all other racists throughout the world and throughout history.

It's not unreasonable to be very wary of the Islamic extremism that does exist in the world today, and all too often it is the fanatical leaders of these extremists who purport to speak on behalf of all Muslims, thus leading many of us to group them together.

After all, if their own leaders are claiming that all Muslims are "as one" and believe in the same as one another, then why shouldn't we lump them all together that way as well?

The answer is very simple.

Just because the Muslim "leaders" who we see and hear claim to represent the views of all Arabs worldwide, doesn't meant that they really do represent them. (As Abraham Lincoln once said - if you call a tail a leg, then how many legs does a dog have? Four. Calling a tail a leg does not make it a leg).

I have a feeling that the overwhelming majority of Palestinians want essentially the same out of life that I do – to raise a family, watch them grow old, and be healthy, wealthy and wise. Unfortunately, at this point and time, we don't really get to hear those Arabs's views. We only hear the fanatical leaders.

And that fanatical leadership must be dealt in the political, and if it comes to it, possibly even military realm. And we have our political and military leaders in place to do that, and we hope and pray every single day that they will do so with wisdom, with intelligence, with integrity and with courage.

That is their job as the political and military leadership.

Our job is in the social realm, and that is to train ourselves and our children to relate to our fellow human beings. Whether or not we agree with them, or even like them, we need understand that there are ways to see and refer to the Arabs among us, and ways never to.


  1. I had a similar conversation with my 8-year-olds last week. They get these things mostly from their classmates, I guess. We NEVER say things like "bad Arabs" and since we don't have the TV hooked up, it's not that either. It's disturbing but hopefully our response will have some effect.

  2. Isn't it crazy in a world as 'modern' as ours we still have this? Heck, even in a family diverse as mine we have it and it shocks me.

    I will you that we probably all want the same or similar things for our children as they grow. Maybe someday.