Thursday, September 9, 2010

Rosh Hashanah, 5771: no more fears, no more scapegoats

Today is the Jewish New Year, marking the start of the “Days of Awe”, a ten day period of reflection, meditation and repentance ending with Yom Kippur. Actually, the New Year started at sundown last night, and my partner (who is Jewish) and I invited a few friends to join us for dinner. As it turned out, we were all women and, except for me, all Jews, none particularly religious or observant.

All of us are also activists, and so our talk naturally turned to the rampant Islamaphobia (as one person pointed out, “It’s so widespread we had to coin a name for it”) that is sweeping our country. From the frenzy surrounding the proposed Islamic center in downtown Manhattan to the most recent threat to burn Korans on Sept 11 by a tiny fundamentalist group of Christians (using the word loosely), Muslims have become the new target of American fears and bigotry. Last night, several people recalled their parents’ growing up, when being Jewish evoked similar sentiments. And many of us recalled our own childhood and early adulthood when whole neighborhoods were off limits for Jews. In fact, a new poll by Gallup shows that people who express contempt for Jews are 32 times more likely to be anti-Muslim.

What might a commons frame have to say about all of this? I won’t pretend to present all that a commons philosophy offers here, partly because anti-Muslim prejudice cannot be separated from racism and anti-immigration points of view, and because religion (which is only part of this equation, but one that cannot be left out) is a gray area in commons thinking, which I will discuss more in another blog post.

Because this is Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the Jewish New Year, I want to raise the question of fear. A commons-based society is one in which fear is uncommon. Clearly individuals may have personal fears: spiders, needles, heights, etc. And many of us have various levels and stages of fear around big life events such as dying.

But in a commons-based society, people would not be afraid of each other, and would not need to create groups of people to vilify and fear. I am almost 57 and in my life, I have been taught to be afraid of Communists (under every bed), Catholics (the pope tells them what to do, and, under Kennedy, the Pope was running the country), Jews (controlling all the money), and then in more minor ways, hippies, drug addicts, gay people, and probably any number of other groups and subgroups. I was not taught to be afraid of Black people, mostly because I grew up in a town where there were none, not because we were so pure.

At all these stages of my life, there were people who tried to counter these fears. Some people would give the fears names that made them into moral issues: “anti-Semitism,” “homophobia”, “racism.” While these analyses were both helpful and accurate, I often found that in people who were truly fearful, this approach simply covered their fear with either guilt or defensiveness, but their fear remained intact. Others tried to counter fear with facts, which again, in the truly fearful, now added a feeling of stupidity to their fear. Possibly because I was very friendly with a number Jews and Catholics growing up, and my parents were sympathetic to Communist ideals, (not to be confused with being Communist sympathizers, which they were not), I did not share the fears of my childhood friends and was often accused of being anti-American. I also attribute some of reaction to fear mongering to my own dawning awareness of being a lesbian, and watching how much fear I could strike in someone else just by saying that. Our country practically practices a fear du jour: witchcraft, the British, the Germans, the Japanese, the Russians, creatures from outer space….the list is way too long.

Counting Islamaphobia with more education about Islam and calls for tolerance from every kind of pulpit to say nothing of enforcement of hate crime laws is critically important. But just as Islamaphobia has replaced a number of other fears, we don’t want to simply educate ourselves out of this one, only to replace it with fear of some other group of people in the next decade. We must train ourselves out of fear itself. People let go of fear when they feel heard and understood, and when their own personal experience counters the fears they have been taught. We often use the words “compassion and tolerance” as though they were interchangeable, but in fact, we need to separate them. Can we be compassionate – from the Latin, meaning to “feel with” – to people who are afraid, without tolerating behavior that is unacceptable? Compassion will not replace analysis or facts or education: it will simply form the basis from which we engage. Our commons commitment has to be “no more fears, no more scapegoats.”

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