Saturday, January 25, 2020 -
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Guilty until proven guilty

And when did you stop beating your wife?

In other words, you are guilty not only before you are convicted, but even before you are charged.

As in: If I indulge in free speech, someone will say that this is a privilege of being white, and by defending what I say on the grounds of free speech, I am intolerant.

As in: If I say it is important to understand how Islam is distorted by Muslims who are radicalized into terrorists, but I also say that it is important to understand how people are radicalized into white supremacist terrorists, I am labeled a white supremacist.

As in: If I say that we live in post-Civil Rights Act of 1964 America, in which opportunities for people of color have improved dramatically, I am told I am clueless. Don’t I know that nothing has changed? Systemic racism, does it persist? Of course. Is it radically reduced from the Jim Crow era? Of course. The facts be damned. Feelings are superior.

And so, I am guilty until proven guilty.

I was thinking of this when Martin Tessler told me why he is skeptical of institutional efforts at diversity. It’s preaching, he says. It’s top-down. It’s artificial. It’s designed to meet theoretical goals, not to enable real people to interact, to broaden their horizons. “Diversity” as it’s done today doesn’t work, Tessler says.

But diversity can work — the kind he learned as a child in Borough Park in Brooklyn in the early 1940s. Borough Park now is almost 100% Jewish, and it’s heavily chasidic. Not back in the 1940s, recalls Tessler. He estimates that Borough Park back then was 50% Jewish and 50% Italian. But on his block, he puts it as 10% Jewish and 90% Italian.

Marty Tessler was about six years old when his family moved onto the block in Borough Park. Gradually, he made friends. One of his friends was Rocky Garerra — Italian. One afternoon, he and Rocky were playing when suddenly Rocky asks, “What time is it?” “It’s 5:45.” “Oh, I have to leave right now. Dinner is at 6 and I have to be home for dinner. We’re having ravioli!”

Martin is stuck.

He has never heard of ravioli.

“What’s that?” he asks.

Rocky obliges, “It’s meat and it’s cheese and it’s wrapped in a dough. It’s great!”

“What?” exclaims Marty. “You can’t eat that!”

Rocky is stuck.

“Why not?” he says, perplexed.

“It’s not kosher!” exclaims Marty.

“Kosher, what’s that?” puzzles Rocky Garerra.

It’s those kind of exchanges — human to human — that nurture real diversity, says Marty Tessler, smiling.

Human to human. There is too little of that, too much of seeing people as categories, too much expected conformity, and that is why one is guilty until proven guilty. We’re supposed to see “women” or “Hispanics” or “haredim” or “homeless” etc. etc. and not people. The answer is not to demand that people see other people as categories, and then label them with the appropriate degree of victimhood, but to see people as people, in their totality.

I hear people talk about the homeless problem. Many theories. Much analysis. Different solutions. I ask these people whether they personally interact with homeless people. The silence on their faces gives me the answer.

The other day a repairman, after having finished his job, told us: “You know, you’re the first Jewish people I’ve ever met.” He was pleased that this abstraction he had grown up with down south finally became real.

I suspect that this problem is less intense in Denver than in, say, New York City, but then again, perhaps that is just a prejudice of mine. In any event, be it in this city or in the East, in this country or overseas, the key is: human to human.

Granted, it alone will not resolve longstanding hatreds. Take, for example, the hundreds of Palestinians who are treated in Israeli hospitals, usually for free, on what basis? On a humanitarian basis. There is that word again. Medical and other kinds of human interactions between Jews and Palestinians will not extirpate the ideological hatred of Hamas and Hezbollah for Israelis and Israel, but, at a minimum, human interactions do humanize the individuals involved. This is not a small thing, especially for the great bulk of us who will not become presidents, prime ministers or generals. There is a term for human to human.

Innocent until proven innocent.

Rabbi Hillel Goldberg may be reached at hillel@ijn.com.

Copyright © 2020 by the Intermountain Jewish News



Hillel Goldberg

IJN Executive Editor | hillel@ijn.com


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