The principal of a local high school calls me up. “Hey rabbi, we had another anti-Semitic incident at our school. I’ve spoken to the student and his parents, but I’d like him to meet with you.”
“Of course,” I said.
A few days later, this burly seventeen year-old steps though the doors of the synagogue staring blankly downward, with an apologetic mother on his heels. I invite him into my office and ask him to tell me why he thinks he’s here. Then, “What it’s like for you at school?” He starts slowly, but before long he’s rolling, talking about how the Jews control all the banks and yet insist on special status, about how the Germans, the Nazis, were just defending themselves against having their country taken over by Jewish bankers and billionaires.
The defensive impulses surge in me, urging me into attack mode.
Breathe. Slow it down. I turn my attention back to him and notice his fear and his anger. If I come out swinging, won’t that exacerbate his fear and frustration? How do help him bear this burden he carries?
I ask if he’d be interested in hearing another version of that history. With his encouragement, I shared what I had learned about why there happened to be a lot of Jews in banking and finance industries, how many Jews were forced into money lending positions since they were denied the right to own land or join professional guilds. I spoke about the generosity of those same Jewish businessmen and bankers of the mid-20th century, how they gave so much of their wealth away to help Jewish refugees resettle in Israel and other places. “And perhaps,” I suggest, “there are good reasons that Jewish classmates, in a school with so few other Jews, seek a protected status. Perhaps it has more to do with being afraid than with feeling entitled.”
“And what might happen,” I said, “if a big, strong guy like you, with friends and influence, could help them feel safer and supported, rather than more isolated and afraid? What if, next time you overheard someone telling another Holocaust oven joke, you stood up for them, and said, “Hey, that’s not cool.”
He didn’t say anything, but I could see he was mulling it over.
“Well, I think it could make a big difference. In fact, I can’t think of anyone else that could make a bigger difference than YOU. Look,” I added, “I need your help. Only scared kids seek special protections. And the way I see it, you’ve got two choices. You can make them more scared and defensive, or safer.”
“What’s the difference?” he replied, clearly not convinced, and visibly deflated.
“Are you happy? You don’t seem very happy to me. I don’t know about you, but I’m never happier than when I catch myself doing the right thing, usually helping someone else. When I am able to help someone feel safer, not only are they happier and more pleasant to be around, but I am happier. Ragging on these spoiled Jewish kids seems to me to be a lose-lose situation. It makes them more scared and gets you in trouble – so much so that your principal makes you meet with a rabbi. Nobody wins in that scenario. Maybe it’s time to try something different.”
Was he buying it? I couldn’t tell for sure, but he was thinking about it, and he did ask for my card on his way out.
A few weeks later, we convened a meeting of the principals of the mountain-area middle and high schools to discuss ways to address the rising number of anti-Semitic incidents being reported. After the meeting, that principal approached me, re-introduced himself, and said, “I’ve got to ask you, what did you say to that student I sent to meet with you?”
Surprised, I asked him to explain.
“Well, just yesterday, I was in the hall and saw him with his usual group of friends. One of his crew turned to rag on one of our Jewish students and he turns and says, ‘Hey, that’s not cool.’ So, I pull him aside, and asked him if he had a chance to meet with the rabbi. And he smiles, and says, ‘Yeah. It was cool.’”
Xenophobia, fear of those different from us, is nothing new. It’s a protective instinct that we’ve all felt and acted upon to one degree or another. And, ‘fear of the stranger’ lies at the root of so much injustice, violence and war. History reveals that those who stoke it are no friends of democracy or peace.
So, how does one successfully win a fight against a fear we all feel, prevent it from festering into hatred and terror? When we go to battle-mode aren’t we liable to create new enemies even if we successfully vanquish existing ones? Is there another way, a way to have lasting victory over the powerful forces of fear and hate?
The Hebrew language has a word that means both “victory” and “enduring.” The word is netzach. It’s an attribute in the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. Netzach is a striving, a battling, a fighting that flows from compassion and into gratitude, and its victory lasts, la’netzach netzachim, forever.
So, how does it work? What did I say to that high school student? Why did that conversation between the student and me seem to make a positive difference? When he started justifying what the Nazis did and blaming the Jews, my instinct was to make the case: why I am right and he is wrong; why one of us is the solution and the other the problem. But I paused long enough to ask, “What if…” What if, I switch it up, consider where he has a valid point, invest hope and trust in him, and make him part of the solution, an essential part? What if, in this struggle, I seek out and invest in the best of him, this ‘adversary,’ this ‘stranger?’
This is netzach in action, fighting not to best our adversary, but rather to bring out the best in them, and in ourselves. And, it may be our best bet for a lasting victory in the battle against human fear.
Rabbi Jamie Arnold