Slaves to Hatred?

February 18, 2012


This week’s Torah portion discusses biblical slavery.  It really wasn’t slavery like in the United States until 150 years ago. Biblical slavery was more like indentured servitude, which for Hebrew slaves could only last a limited period of time. The Rabbis said about slavery that the master was really the slave, because he had to take care of his servant, feed and care for him in all circumstances. 


Recently some teens I like very much were talking about the rivalry between Shawnee Mission East and Rockhurst High School. The supporters of the SME team are not allowed to say anything about opposing teams at sports events. They can only root for their own team. They can’t attack the opposition from the stands.  The high school student I was talking to was really unhappy that they are not allowed to diss the other team. 


It made me remember a very surprising conversation I had many years ago with some Catholic clergy.  They were saying how much better things are these days since they no longer feel persecuted.  “Persecuted,” I said.  “You were persecuted?”  “Sure,” this priest whom I liked and admired said.  “It used to happen all the time.”  “By whom?” I asked.  “By Protestant churches, and other ethnic groups,” he said.  Rockhurst is a Catholic school.


So what was I thinking? I was thinking about the childhood stories my dad told me about anti-Jewish bias at the hand of Catholics! 


Tomorrow is the kickoff of this year’s National Brotherhood Week!  It’s always the third week in February.  Some of you will remember Tom Lehrer’s 1960’s song of the same name:


Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics,
And the Catholics hate the Protestants,
And the Hindus hate the Muslims,
And everybody hates the Jews.

But during National Brotherhood Week, National Brotherhood Week,
It's National Everyone-smile-at-one-another-hood Week.
Be nice to people who
Are inferior to you.
It's only for a week, so have no fear.
Be grateful that it doesn't last all year!


You see: prejudice, prejudging others, is literally built-in to our genes.  It’s the way the mind works.  When we see someone we naturally extend to that person the qualities we associate with someone like that person.  We naturally pre-judge, and we apply to all members of a group the qualities we see in some members of a group.


But why, why, do we engage negative stereotypes so easily?


Well, that’s a very complicated question.


When my dad was a boy his best friend was an Italian kid named Pauli Ambrose. I never met Pauli, but I heard about him my entire life.  Dad was always welcome for big Italian meals at their table.  They’d just say, “Ruby, you’re staying for the meal, right?”  But here’s the part I just learned a few years before my dad died.  Mr. Ambrose would say to his wife, “The Christ killer is staying for the meal.”  That’s what Mr. Ambrose called my dad, Christ killer, but in Italian.  He didn’t mean anything by it.  That’s just what he called Jews.  That’s what he learned, I would guess, and that’s what he said.  Even so, they were very nice people. 


But Christ killer is a hateful term.  The idea of Christ killer was used by Poles to justify murdering Jews during and after the Holocaust. The idea of Christ killer justified the blood libel. The idea of Christ killer allowed the slaughter of Jews in the Middle Ages.  Ideas matter. And what we say matters. 


So a few weeks ago in a basketball game between BVNW and BVN some BVNW kids sang Hava Nagila and did something like the hora to be funny and diss the BVN kids.  I don’t know what they meant by it.  I don’t think they know what they meant by it, except that they thought it was funny.  Teenage sense of humor – go figure.  But other kids have gone further.  One of our teenagers was told “You should have burned in the ovens.”  Another had someone do the Nazi salute.  These were clear attempts to intimidate Jews.  And what it brings to the fore is that this is not the only time this stuff happens in Blue Valley, or Johnson County.  And Jews are not the only group to suffer from prejudice.  You see:  when we allow ourselves to put down other groups, to not only be prejudiced but to express negative stereotypes, it justifies the actions of those who really do hate.  It’s not possible to say, “Well, this guy really didn’t mean it; but that man over there, he meant it.”  All of that prejudice looks the same. And when we engage in stereotypes, we allow that hatred to surface and maybe even to harm real people.


You can find this on the web:

Billings, MT, had its share of displays of bigotry based on religion, race, and sexual orientation: desecration of a Jewish cemetery, harassing phone calls to Jewish homes, swastikas on the home of an inter-racial couple, etc. But then something happened in 1993 involving a Jewish menorah that triggered a positive reaction by thousands of people.


An editorial in the Billings Gazette on December 8, 1993 stated:

"On December 2, 1993, someone twisted by hate threw a brick through the window of the home of one of our neighbors: a Jewish family who chose to celebrate the holiday season by displaying a symbol of faith—a menorah—for all to see. Today, members of religious faiths throughout Billings are joining together to ask residents to display the menorah as a symbol of something else: our determination to live together in harmony, and our dedication to the principle of religious liberty embodied in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America. We urge all citizens to share in this message by displaying this menorah on a door or a window from now until Christmas. Let all the world know that the national hatred of a few cannot destroy what all of us in Billings, and in America, have worked together so long to build." 6

The Billings Gazette published a full-page image of a menorah in their newspaper. By the end of the week six to ten thousand homes became decorated with menorahs.

Let us not be enslaved by our prejudices, because we can rise above them.


Let us use this as a time to discuss:  when people say they hate all Muslims and all Muslims are terrorists; when people say that blacks are criminals, or the poor don’t want to work:  what do we say in response?  If we remain silent, then we are not like the people of Billings, Montana, who stood up to prejudice with love, and who changed the world for the better. 


Let us use this incident to make Johnson County, Blue Valley North West, Blue Valley North, and our entire metro area a better place to live. For then the world will truly look at us and say, “You are a blessing.”