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My Nephew Said that Israel was Surrounded by Millions of Goats

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I was startled to read that email. I thought at first that there was news out of the West Bank and Gaza that I had not received. I tried to imagine this new incursion of herds of goats surrounding Israel and wondered what that meant. Oh, I wrote to him, you are calling the Palestinians goats. I tried to explain why this way of referencing people was unacceptable to me. He did not write back.


Racism is racism. The Palestinians are racist and the Israelis are racist and if I were into logic I would say this kind of reasoning gets us nowhere. If we are both the same, i.e., racists, then what are we fighting about? Our combined desire to be racist? Then so be it. We shall continue that way and end up having to find some other reasons to fight each other. We do that, we find more reasons and more reasons.


Life as an escalating cycle of violence is no way to live. I tried living in Israel in the early 1970s and could not. I could not tolerate the racism and how everyone accepted living with soldiers on every street corner. Having grown up in Chicago, I understood how racism is a way of life, which leads to incredible abuses of power and has to be countered everywhere one turns. When Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, I was surprised by how many people in the wealthy, Jewish suburb where I grew up were relieved that he was gone. They considered him a nuisance and beneath them. This was voiced by a crew of citizens who had moved to this suburb in the fifties and lived around a country club, the Evanston Golf Club, that was restricted, did not allow Jews. But they built their homes all around this club and never worried about the anti-Semitism that grew at the core of their new village.


I moved to Ohio in the 1960s and lived there for a brief time. I had never lived where there weren’t a majority of Jews. One of the first things the Kellys, our new neighbors, asked me when I met them was why I had killed Christ. Admittedly, I didn’t know what they were referring to. My Jewish education had not yet extended to the Gospels. I had not read yet of our participation in the killing of Christ. Therefore, I was unprepared and shocked to learn that I was still being held responsible for this crime even so long after the fact.


These are all personal reminiscences of various forms of racism. They live within us, have been planted within us. I have been fortunate in having had two excellent teachers help me to understand the insidious ways racism works. The first teacher was Robert Jensen in his wonderfully enlightening book, “The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege.” Not only did I have the great pleasure of reading his book but I also had the opportunity to interview Mr. Jensen who I find to be one of the best teachers out there when it comes to teaching what happens to us when we allow otherness to settle into our souls (you might also want to take a look at his new book, “Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity” for similar reasons). The other teacher on this quest for understanding how we demonize others and thus are trained sometimes against our will or at least unwittingly is Elaine Pagels. Her book, “The Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics,” goes into great detail about how the unconscious and uncritical retelling of the gospels and their messages against Jews and others seeped into lots of minds and caused the kinds of anti-Semitic attacks we have seen historically. Teachings are not always benign and when they lead us to behave in a violent way against another group that is a good way to determine that something is wrong with what we are being taught.


Today we can see the same things happening with our reaction to Islam and those who practice it. We have some rabid writers in this country who do not accept that there is always another in our midst and that other is not a threat. Being unlike each other is not the grounds for resentment or fear. Yet, there are those who find it in particular politically expedient to use this type of demonization in order to promote their own militaristic agenda.


This is the part that we must take seriously. None of the racisms we have studied historically has led to any kind of peaceful coexistence but has been the rationale for wars or enslavement or theft. Thus, this is a large issue we must confront now and come to terms with in ways that can lead us to find the compassion and empathy that allows us to see the other not as an enemy but just that, as someone other than ourselves and from whom, if we give them the chance, we could gain a great deal from getting to know.


If I had a more receptive nephew to these ideas, perhaps I would not be writing this article. However, he is certain of his own racism, certain that Israel is threatened and has every right to use its enormous military power to try and obliterate the Palestinians who to him are all one and indistinguishable, not individuals such as he is, the son of a father who is proud of him and the son of a mother who loves him and a citizen of this world who must take on the responsibility for it once this older generation is gone.


With the possibility of an African-American as our next president and with the equal possibility that a woman will be our next president, we are being tested, I do believe. We are being asked to take all those prejudices and fears that reside inside us and go to work. Maybe it will take this kind of enforced upheaval of the status quo even if neither of these candidates appeals to you to help us to get into a different mental framework in order to challenge our preconceptions.


Can a woman do better at leading the military than a man with no military background? Can an African-American male stand up to the challenges of the hatred that might pursue him when he travels around the country? Is it possible that even given this unique opportunity for change of relations to the sexes and the races we will spoil it and someone will come in determined to kill in order to end this new experiment?


Yes, all of this can come to a bad end. Life, at its own end, comes to a finality that doesn’t allow us to see how this will play out in the centuries to come. Yet, we have the teachers among us to help guide us and there are many more than the two I have mentioned. We have also within ourselves the ability not to see the Palestinians as goats. We are capable of seeing all the people as a wonderful expression of the infinite possibilities that exist on this planet and within us as well.


In this way we can be hopeful and joyous that, given the politics of today, such opportunities exist. Politics gives us the chance now to vote for a world less based on racist and sexist thought and where we can now learn to trust each other more. Perhaps that is the real change we are being granted the chance to create.

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Deborah Emin is the founder of the publishing company, Sullivan Street Press ( She is also the impressario of the Itinerant Book Show as well as the program director of the REZ Reading Series in Kew Gardens, NY. Her (more...)
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