We need to redefine our “opponents.” In the news, it’s whites against blacks, Palestinians against Israelis. But we don’t have to accept these categories. In Pittsburgh, you can find black and white, Jewish and Arab Steelers fans united against the New England Patriots. (photo by Bernard Gagnon)
The past several weeks have been difficult, but also very easy. Difficult, because it feels like civilization could be spiraling into an irreversible Armageddon of hate, violence and destruction. Easy, because I feel like I know where I stand. I have moral clarity. The neo-Nazis marching down the streets yelling anti-black, antisemitic chants reminiscent of 1930s Nazi Germany are wrong. The people who counter-protest for equality, shouting that hate will not prevail – they’re right. They’re the good guys. The “bad guys” think they’re superior; they think it’s OK to disparage others because of their race or the colour of their skin. “We” believe in the dignity of every human being. Simple.
Until recently, when I had one of those moments of disconcerting humility. I saw a Facebook post of Trump Tower surrounded by big, white garbage bins. The caption read something like, “As usual, Trump surrounded by white trash.”
I am mortified to say that my initial reaction was to chuckle. The joke tickled the funny bone of my youth, growing up in small town New Jersey, where the “white trash” used to make fun of us and “we” would look down on them. But I felt horrible for my reaction, and was forced to ask myself, am I really so much different than those I am quick to blame?
I was similarly disturbed when I saw a video of counter-protesters in Charlottesville screaming at the white supremacists marching. They chanted, “You lost, we won. Go home!” Their argument being – our military defeat ended your right to be in public? Is that what we think? If so, when we “lost” and Donald Trump “won,” should we have conceded, packed it up and stayed home?
Of course not. Defeat makes us dig in our heels and fight back harder. When “we” do it, it’s right, but when “they” do it, they’re a bunch of cry-babies.
This summer, I had the tremendous privilege of participating in a four-day retreat with Pathways, a program sponsored by the American embassy that brings together Arab and Jewish English teachers in Israel to teach them “negotiating skills.” The program was powerful, intense, optimistic, and hopelessly depressing.
I was somewhat familiar with Pathways prior to the retreat because they’d done a workshop at my school with our 10th graders. Our students met with Arab kids from Nazareth, engaging in exercises that stretched their ability to think outside the box, and beyond themselves. They learned how to listen, cooperate and confront challenges with a variety of new and different tools.
One tiny example is when the students were paired to arm-wrestle. The challenge was for each kid to “bring the other’s hand to the table as many times as you can.” Intuitively, the kids begin to wrestle, but one clever boy said to his partner, wait, if we work together, letting each other win, we can both do much better than if we actually fight. The point being – you don’t have to lose in order for me to win. In fact, when we help each other, we both win more.
So, when, at our teachers’ retreat, we were divided in pairs and given the task to play a two-dimensional Connect Four game, I was prepared. Each of us was given a different set of instructions that we were not permitted to share with our opponent. This meant, of course, that we were playing by different rules. The challenge to both of us was to get “as many points as you can.”
My secret paper instructed me to get as many XOXO combinations as possible. I quickly figured out from his strategy that he was going for XXXX. Great. If we could have spoken and I could have explained to him the idea, we would have designed the board to maximize our mutual success. There was nothing that required us to get more points than the other person, only to maximize our own. However, we were not allowed to discuss, and my opponent was out to win. He didn’t understand that I had different rules. He thought he was clobbering me.
In our first round, I was happy to let him take his wins and I took mine. It looked to me like we were neck and neck. But, somewhere in the middle of the second round, his smug attitude was getting to me and I wanted not just to win, but to take him down. I started to block him, and I was scoring big, and he had no idea. It was fun.
When we got to the end and they revealed all the instructions and asked us to tally our points, we were both in for a surprise. It turned out that not only did we have a different set of rules, but I received more points per row than he did. The game was totally and illogically stacked in my favour. It would have been nearly impossible for him to win, even if he had all the information from the start.
It was an interesting exercise, but my partner didn’t really get it, not even after it was over. He protested that it was unfair – that I had all the advantages. And, while it was a game, I felt uncomfortable with this Arab person not understanding why I, the Israeli, had all the advantages and he never stood a chance. A little too close to home. And it was a bit depressing that my partner couldn’t understand that the whole point of the exercise was that it didn’t matter who had more points. It was never about winning and losing.
Sadly, it reminded me of another moment at the retreat, when I was seated by a different Arab man. He told me he lives in Abu Tor, a mixed Arab and Jewish neighbourhood on the border of East Jerusalem. Without thinking, I blurted out, “Hey! My best friend just moved to Abu Tor!” As the words came out of my mouth, I realized that many Arabs are not so happy that Jews are moving to Abu Tor. Indeed, he replied, “Yes, well, I’m sure her area is much nicer than mine because many more resources are invested in the Jewish section than where I live.”
I could have countered with the fact that most Jerusalem Arabs reject citizenship, or that they teach their children to hate us, but the truth is that I just wanted to cry. Because, basically, he was right. Why should he live in the same municipality as my friend and get inferior services? At the same time, why do I have to fear getting stabbed or blown up when I walk down the street? These two questions do not justify each other, they exacerbate each other.
With the “game” stacked unfairly on both sides, how are we supposed to learn to cooperate? We both wanted to; that’s why we were there. But we had to work extra hard to change the rules. And, if we couldn’t figure it out at a retreat where we were all there because we wanted to learn to live together, then what hope did we have out there, where everything is about who is right and who should go away.
From where do we get this need to win? When my kids were 6, 4 and 2, they had an amusing game. When we’d go from the house to the car or from the car to the house, the two older kids would race. They’d run howling and laughing, until they reached their destination, whereupon one would scream, “I win!” and the other would burst out crying. Then the little guy would come hauling up the back announcing proudly, “I lose! I’m the rotten egg!”
When do we go from the stage of enjoying the game and laughing simply because others are laughing, to needing to win and watch our opponents cry?
I’ve always hated competitive games. I happen to be pretty good at many of them and I come from a very competitive family, so I can easily get swept up in the challenge of winning. But I hate when I beat another person and it makes them sad. With my kids, it was often hard to balance the honesty and integrity of playing my best with the desire to see their pride when they win. Fortunately, today my kids can beat me at almost anything, but watching them try to clobber each other is painful.
Still, thanks to Pathways, I discovered an unexpected positive side to this not-always-pleasant phenomenon. When the Arab students came to our school, the kids from both schools were very nervous. What would they talk about? What would they do together? How would they get along with people who they had grown up to believe were their “enemy”?
In one of the first activities of the morning, they divided the kids into groups by table. Every table was mixed, with both Jews and Arabs. To start, they had to make a paper chain of things that everyone at the table had in common. They would write one thing on each piece of paper and attach them together, while everyone had one hand tied behind their back. The kids were laughing, joking, learning about each other and cooperating. By the end, each table felt a strong sense of solidarity. “Table 6 rules!” And “Table 3, we’re taking you down!” could be heard across the room. In less than an hour, having a longer chain than Table 3 had become much more important than who controlled the Temple Mount. It was beautiful. And scary – are we fighting about obstacles to peace, or are we locked in a cycle of violence because we can’t bear to lose?
So, how do we “win”? In Israel, we’ve tried with military might – if they see how much stronger we are, they might just admit defeat and back off. They’ve tried with terror – if we don’t feel safe walking our own streets, maybe we’ll give in, pack up and leave. But these strategies don’t seem to be working. Humans are not wired to accept defeat.
The problem is, as we learned in Charlottesville and as we see here in Israel every day, we can’t win by causing our opponents to lose. To win, we need to rethink the rules and reconsider our objectives.
We also need to redefine our “opponents.” In the news, it’s whites against blacks, Palestinians against Israelis. But we don’t have to accept these categories. In Pittsburgh, you can find black and white, Jewish and Arab Steelers fans united against the New England Patriots. And, at the supermarket, it’s everyone against the jerk in the express line with more than 10 items, who we all want to clobber, regardless of race or religion. And, sometimes, admit it, we’re the jerk in that line.
God knows that none of His children are perfect, but He loves us all just the same. If God is anything like me (and I was created in His image), what could possibly please Him more than if His children could create a new game – a game in which everybody wins?
So, as we enter the last part of Elul, a month of self-reflection, let’s try to shake up the rules – to question what we know and what we think we want. Let’s convert some of our anger into curiosity. Let’s turn a few of our screaming chants into invitations. Not because we’re wrong to be angry or to protest, but because, if we can find each other’s humanity, perhaps we can change the game entirely.
Emily Singer is a teacher, social worker and freelance writer. Singer and her husband, Ross, were rebbetzin and rabbi of Vancouver’s Shaarey Tefilah congregation until 2004. The Singers spent two years in Jerusalem and then moved to Baltimore, Md., where Ross was rabbi at Congregation Beth Tfiloh and Emily taught Judaic studies at Beth Tfiloh High School, until they moved to Israel in 2010. They have four children.