Fear Itself

One time I was walking on U Street in Washington DC, holding hands with my boyfriend, when an older black man said to us with a smile, “It’s just so good to see a man and a woman holding hands in this neighborhood, you know?  I still think about my lack of reaction and wish I would have shouted after him “I think it’s good to see ANYONE holding hands!” Or the time that a bunch of white suburbanites around a campfire assumed I’d get a kick out of a never-ending session of racist joke-telling. Or when someone told me not to go to a neighborhood because it’s “dark” and I was like “Lack of streetlights?”

Don’t assume I share your fear. I do not.

I’ve been thinking a lot about fear-based prejudice lately. Also: racism, xenophobia, hysteria, and bigotry amid the anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, anti-Muslim, fear-mongering sentiments inflamed by the ignorant and dangerous opportunist that is Donald Trump. Whew. I, along with many others, was shocked when Trump recently called for baring Muslims from the United States. I was sickened by the cheers his racist pledge elicited from people at rally in South Carolina. What about all the Muslims in Metro Detroit, where I’m from? The ones I know from high school, the ones my aunt teaches at Henry Ford College, our friend from Yemen who is seeking asylum, and who is so terribly lonely while he waits for him family to join him? Under Trump’s plan, what, they go on a day-trip to Canada, and when they try to cross the bridge back to the U.S., they are denied entry? People who are welcome one moment are told “You don’t live here anymore” the next?

Wasn’t is just months ago that Americans seemed genuinely moved by the plight of Syrians, who are fleeing ISIS and the violence of their country? Weren’t we all, as a whole, devastated by a picture of a dead toddler who drowned while attempting to escape Syria with his family?

I remember when, a decade ago, I first learned of the St. Louis, the ship filled mostly with German Jews escaping Europe in 1939. It was turned away from Cuba, and then essentially ignored by the United States as it entered Florida’s waters. The ship returned to Europe. Many on board found refuge in other countries, but 254 died in the Holocaust. When I learned that the United States wouldn’t help these refugees, I couldn’t believe it. How could my America, the one built by people fleeing other counties, have done such a thing? I’ve been reading more about the shameful event recently and something really sticks out: There was a growing anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S. in the post-Depression/pre-WWII era and this was very good for the Nazis who hoped to exploit the unwillingness of other nations to admit Jewish refugees to justify its regime’s anti-Jewish stance. Today in America, there is a growing anti-immigrant sentiment, at least in politics, and ISIS has stated that it is the group’s goal to use use anti-Muslim sentiment in the West to increase recruitment.

A few pledges, for me to keep my sanity, but, more importantly, my humanity, during this pivotal and fraught time:

As an American: I stand with Muslims. I also stand with anyone of any faith, and also with non-believers like myself, to support their right to peacefully exercise their beliefs. I believe that calls to separate “us from them,” to “Make America great again [you know, by eliminating anyone who is not a White Christian]” and to “put a hold on Muslims coming to this country until we figure this thing out” are all deeply based in fear and I do not fear well-vetted refugees from Middle Eastern/African countries and Muslim-Americans, or Muslims in general. There are one billion Muslims in this world. The idea that most, or even many, Muslims are America-hating ISIS-supporters is absolutely false and I won’t allow a fringe group of radicals, or scared Americans, to dictate my view an entire religion.

As an American living in Jerusalem: Now, this one is more complicated. How should I be educating myself and what should I be doing and saying in this tense climate, on this hotly contested piece of land, in this city where I’ve seen more stray cats than smiles, heard more angry car honks than laughter? It’s so very complicated and hard to understand, says everyone, and I’m beginning to understand what they mean. I am in no position to get into political debates about whether the Jews or the Muslims are justified in actions against the other. But I know this: widespread fear and hatred of an entire group of people just feels wrong to me.

So, I will disagree when the cab driver in Tel Aviv tells me it’s bad there are so many Arab taxi drivers in Jerusalem. I will say “I don’t mind that one bit.” When he asks why I’m so blind, I will tell him that I’m not blind, I’m just seeing things in a different way. When Jewish teenagers in a race yell “Turn around! Bad neighborhood, there’s a mosque!” I will, next time, because I didn’t say anything this time, ask them, doesn’t it seem counter-intuitive to associate a house of worship with a “bad neighborhood?” And that Facebook group I joined in order to be connected to things happening in Jerusalem, but then realized was filled with queries like “Where can I donate Jewish blood? and “What taxi company can I use that doesn’t hire Arabs?” — well I will leave that group, because reading hateful things everyday is wearing on me. (Actually, I just left the group, that was easy).

And should I be exposed to Muslims who make hateful and sweeping statements about Jews, I will do my best to make it known that I do not agree.

I hope to meet many locals – Jews, Muslims, and Christians, and others – over the next three years and learn more about what they think and why. But no matter what they tell me, I will never be convinced that fear and hatred can do anything other than destroy.

To humanity,

Jerusal-Em

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