I got a surprising Facebook message from a camp friend who lives in Northern Utah this week, asking my advice. She wrote to me that her son was given an assignment to write about his religion, so they could study the impact of various religions on culture and world events. Looking at a classmate's paper, he noticed that she had written that the Jews had killed Jesus. He asked his teacher for help correcting her, because as the only Jewish family in their public school, he didn't want to be bullied or teased for calling her out. The teacher told him that he needed to check his facts because the Jews did kill Jesus.
Oh, wait. It gets worse.
On my advice, my friend took her son to meet with the teacher and the principal, and the principal told them that there were two sides to the history. She confirmed the teachers outdated notion about the Jews killing Jesus, and scolded them for hurting the teacher's feelings when they called his words anti-Semitic.
When our conversation left off, she was making an appointment with the Superintendent.
As educated people, we tend to shake our head at the ignorance of people in the world. We might even brush it off as the ignorance of small town Northern Utah with only one family to represent all Jews. It helps to think of it as small town mentality--a rarity, infrequent in modern America. After all, we have access to a universe of multi-cultural information at our fingertips. We can surf the web and learn about the past from multiple points of view, evaluate the data, and form our own rich and informed opinions on a variety of topics, including religion.
Sadly, this is not the case. In our hyper-connected, 24-hour-news-watching, Google-searching, blog-reading world, we form our opinions without checking the veracity of what we find. We tend to believe what we first read. Part of the problem is that we believe whoever has a microphone.
When speaking with confidence, a charismatic leader can get a crowd nodding and agreeing with whatever they say. Take, for example, the most recent Republican and Democratic debates. factcheck.org cites a list of 17 topics combined between the two debates that are considered misleading or false claims. This does not mean they were lying. Assuming the best of these candidates, it just means they were wrong.
Now there is nothing wrong with being wrong. People are wrong all the time. I'm wrong all the time. Just ask Natalie. The problem comes when we speak or write in the public forum as an expert, and then refuse to admit that we can be wrong.
A recent study was done about this, when a group of college students was given two articles about immunizing children. One article in favor, and one against, both citing data and drawing confident conclusions. When the students were brought together to discuss immunization, they were found to be highly polarized, even though they all read both articles. The typical writing style of confident presentation of opinion as fact creates a polarized society who refuses to believe any opposing argument, and that dismisses disagreement as ignorance.
This is what happened to my friend in Utah, and this is what is happening in the media with regard to Israel this week.
In case you missed it, this has been a difficult couple of weeks in Israel. Violence has escalated, and the new method of attack seems to be stabbings. A Palestinian teenager stabbed two Israelis to death in the Old City and wounded two others. Hours later, another knife-wielder was shot and killed by Israeli police after slashing a 15-year-old in the chest and back. Another attack happened at a bus stop, where an Arab-Israeli ran over a 19-year-old girl, then got out of the car, stabbed her, and then attacked two men and a 14-year-old. But don't worry, the suicide bombings and attempted suicide bombings have still been happening.
What makes it worse is the way these attacks have been represented in some of the media. There were articles titled, "Two Palestinian Teenagers Shot by Israeli Police," "Israeli Retaliatory Strike in Gaza Kills Woman and Child, Palestinians Say," or, "Palestinian Killed as Violence Continues." And that last one happens to be false. The wounded Palestinian boy was picked up and treated at an Israeli hospital! How did he get his wounds? By attacking another 13-year-old Israeli boy who fought back. Israeli police broke up the fight, subduing the teens. While it is true that the boy was injured by the police, the way the facts are presented skews the data in a way that presents as being just as anti-Semitic as that teacher in Utah. Even the attacks that are not reported have a feel of anti-Semitism, as if by their silence they imply that these lives are not worth reporting on, or that they somehow deserved it.
Just last week in our Torah we read about the creation of the world. We read that humans were created b'tzelem elohim, in the image of God. As such, we acknowledge the Divine in every human being, no matter what their beliefs, and no matter how vehemently we may disagree with them. We do not pray for the harm of others because in acknowledging that all humans are created in the Divine image, we know that any harm that comes to a human is, at its core, harming God. This week we read in Parashat Noach that God wants to destroy all humanity, ki-malah ha'aretz chamas mip'neichem, "because the earth is filled with violence through them." The word for violence here is chamas, and if I were to leave it at that, I could let you draw your own conclusions about the very nature of the organization that brings such violence to Israel. However, that would be misleading of me, because the ancient Hebrew word has absolutely no connection to the Arabic word which is actually an acronym for the Islamic Resistance Movement in Arabic. With only part of the information, it is too easy for me to mislead you, especially when you probably already have opinions about Hamas.
The word I would rather point out is mip'neichem, translated as "through them." The world is filled with violence through them. Through the humans that God created, the earth was filled with violence--with people ignoring the godliness implanted within others, refusing to settle their differences through peaceful means. Another translation of mip'neichem is "before them," meaning right in front of them. The double meaning helps us see that God does not destroy the world out of vengeance or spite, but because they refused to acknowledge what was right in front of them: other people. They took what they wanted with no regard for anyone's needs but their own.
This is what happens when we refuse to pay attention to the arguments of those who are before us. We force our own agenda forward, heeding only the truths presented to us by those whose goal it is to manipulate our own thoughts and feelings. When we focus on only how sure we are about any issue, we lose.
Here is what I am sure will solve the problems between Israelis and Palestinians.
That's right, nothing. I am sure about nothing. I have no idea how to stop the violence and the territorial disputes and the claim of both sides that the land is given to them by God. I just don't know. But I do know one thing: neither does anybody else. Anyone who claims to have the solution may not be intentionally lying, but they are wrong. We will not be able to come to any sort of peace until both sides acknowledge the humanity within the other, and are willing to see what is right before them: God's presence. And we will never move forward until we acknowledge the Divine presence in everyone at the table. Even if they do not acknowledge it within us.
This Shabbat has been declared Solidarity Shabbat. Jews all over the country, of every denomination are standing together to declare that we stand with Israel. No matter how clueless we are about the situation, we support Israel's right to exist. We stand with Israel, and we stand against all forms of hatred and anti-Semitism, and all ignorance in reporting. We stand with Israel in acknowledgment of the presence of God in all people, and the hope that we will soon know peace.
I want to close with Rabbi Levi Weiman Kelman's prayer for peace:
Adon hashalom, melech shel hashalom shelo,
sim shalom l'amcha Yisrael
Master of peace, make peace for your people Israel
Let that peace spread to all of your creatures.
Let there be an end to hatred, jealousy, and competition between people,
Let there be love and peace among all of us,
Let everyone be aware of their neighbor's love
until we can all gather together and speak to one another.
Help us to learn the truth from the oterh.
O God, you are peace, and peace comes from you.
Adon hashalom, barcheinu bashslaom,
Source of Peace, bless us with peace.