Monday, May 12, 2008

The Dangers of Integrated Preschool

I have a sad story to tell today. It's a story that does offer a glimmer of hope, but also reveals the depths of human ignorance.

A friend of mine who lives in Jerusalem attended his synagogue on Friday night for usual Shabbat (sabbath) services. My friend is a progressive minded man who has long been a campaigner for civil rights and a proponent of building a peaceful world. He's known in his synagogue for being a 'lefty' or one who believes in a peace with the Palestinians that is based on fairness and justice for ALL, not just for Israeli Jews. In his synagogue, he is, unfortunately, in the minority. Many there believe that the only consideration is what is best for Israel and the Jewish citizens of Israel. No one and nothing else, in their opinion, should be considered when charting a course forward. It's mind boggling to me.

This synagogue is in an area of Jerusalem known as The French Hill, on Mt. Scopus. Hebrew University is there and the entire area has a fairly mixed population of Jews and Arabs. All of the people living there would be considered Israelis (meaning they have citizenship in the State of Israel). There are Jewish Israelis and Arab Israelis (who also consider themselves to be Palestinian). (I will save an in depth discussion of all the 'labels' for another day). Suffice it to say that all the people living in the French Hill are citizens of Israel. Some of Jewish. Some are Arab (and either are Muslim or Christian).

On this particular night, the chief Rabbi of Jerusalem came to the synagogue to make a special appeal for members to attend a protest the following Sunday. The protest was to be against the fact that two pre-schools in the French Hill, which are run by Jews, are allowing Arab children to attend their preschools. The chief Rabbi of Jerusalem came to encourage Jewish residents of French Hill to call for an end to this practice. He cited many reasons for this, but the primary one was that Arabs didn't belong in Jerusalem, and having them 'mix' with Jewish children all day long was not acceptable. He said Israel is a Jewish State and should be for Jews, not Arabs. Even down to the preschool level.

I find it unbelievable that anyone could be serious in making such a point or a request. That infants and children should be segregated to 'preserve' the 'purity' of the population... is disgusting at best. I can think of a few other words to describe it, but I'll restrain myself.

Of course, Spirit has a way of 'personalizing' these experiences for me. I have a good friend, an Arab, who's 4 year old son attends one of these preschools. It's predominantly Jewish, run by Jews, and he is an Arab Muslim. My friend sent his son there because he wants him to learn Hebrew fluently, and he wants him to come to know Jews as people, and not just grow up fearing them as the oppressors of his people and the occupiers of his homeland. He wants his son to understand the very real challenges of the situation, but to not hate Jews out of hand. He wants his son to understand the complexity of the situation, and not get 'caught up' in the dominant paradigm of polarization and separation.

The Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem is calling for a protest against a little boy that I consider to be a part of my very family. He's saying my sweet little 'nephew' is a danger to the state of Israel and should be unwelcome and prohibited from playing with little Jewish children in a preschool. It's personal for me. The whole concept is absurd. It's ignorant. It's delusional. It's frankly... sick and twisted. And yet, it is shared by so many in Israel... and in other situations around the world where one particular group wants to consolidate power, privilege and control and make everyone around them 'less than.'

My friend who attends this synagogue has had run ins with his own Rabbi and the chief Rabbi of Jerusalem before. This time was no different. He too knows that sweet little Arab boy who attends a Jewish preschool in French Hill. In fact, he considers him to be his grandson. He thought about just getting up and walking out of the service when the chief Rabbi started spewing his racist, hate inspired, 'call to arms.' Then my friend realized he couldn't 'let it stand.' He had to say something.

He proceeded to challenge the chief Rabbi on his statements and request for protest and asked him what could possibly be the problem with Arabs and Jews learning to live together. Each time my friend would raise a point, the Chief Rabbi, his Rabbi and some of the men from the synagogue would tell him he was wrong, that his ideas were wrong... and dangerous. They would reiterate that Israel is a JEWISH state, for JEWS and that it had to be kept that way. If you let the Arabs have access to things, they would take over, and Israel would no longer be the Jewish homeland. Each time they would say this, my friend would ask them if they want 'peace' with the Palestinians. Always they would say that they did. Then my friend would remind them that peace would never come when the Palestinians were denied the dignity and human rights they deserved. This seemed to go right over the heads of those he was arguing with. In their view, the Palestinians should accept whatever Israel offered... and be satisfied with that.

By that logic, I guess the Jews should have accepted the ghetto in Warsaw as well. It's ludicrous.

The argument raged on. My friend did not budge in his opinion or his willingness to disagree. The Rabbis and other members of the synagogue hammered away at him. They seemed to 'need' him to agree with 'them.' It wasn't going to happen. Finally, when one of the people said to my friend, 'YOU are the only one who thinks this way and YOU are wrong,' three young men sitting in front of my friend turned around and said, "Actually, he's not the only one who thinks that way. We agree with him!" The argument was then able to wind down, with the Rabbis knowing they were not going to be successful in getting everyone over to their way of thinking. Thank God.

One of the most powerful things my friend said during the argument is, "I cannot accept a spiritual man who spreads hatred and racism. I simply cannot accept that." Bravo, my friend. I'm unbelievably proud of you.

I don't know how it will all turn out. There have been similar protests against letting Arabs purchase land/homes in the French Hill (remember... they are CITIZENS of the STATE OF ISRAEL), and many such initiatives to try to discriminate against Arabs. What amazes me most is that the people who do this feel they are completely in the right. How can there be such blindness?

Separation, stereotypes, paranoia, parallel universes.... that is what is going on each and every day in Israel and Palestine. One group has all the power, and wields it over the 'other' with complete unfeeling control. The gap widens with each racist act. And yet, there are those, like my friend... and eventually the 3 young men who can stand up tall and say an emphatic "NO." When enough people do that, there will be no place in this world for the kind of ignorant, arrogant actions of the chief Rabbi and those who were supporting him.

I look forward to a day when the integration of preschools is not considered to be a threat to a nation's security. I know we will have made some progress at that point.

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