December 12, 2018

The Light From Within Is Stronger Than Hate

On the afternoon of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s Senate confirmation, Reese, our new Yemenite neighbor, was visiting our apartment, playing with my son Alexander. We’d had a Shabbat soiree the evening before, so the refrigerator was stacked, as my son would say.

“What would you like?” I asked Reese. He surveyed the fare and pointed to the chocolate wafer cubes. “Those are epic,” he said. I smiled and gave him a handful. He came back 15 minutes later asking for more. “Please,” he said, “where can my mom get these? I want her to get cartons.”

“In the Israel section,” Alexander piped up from the next room. Reese, 14, looked at me quizzically. “The market Morton Williams has an Israel section,” I explained. “All kinds of stuff that they import from Israel.” Nothing I said made Reese flinch. “OK, can you please tell my mom? And may I have some more?”

I told him I would give him more on one condition: that at some point I could explain to him why the store has a special Israel section, and the politics surrounding those delicious chocolate cubes. “Sure,” he said, popping another into his mouth. 

I later relayed the story to his mother, Waseif — Saya — who had been a child bride in Yemen and just completed a film on the subject. “Islam is a beautiful religion,” she said. “But the culture and politics of some countries are completely warped. I have never taught my children hate; they don’t know what it means to hate a group of people and never will.”

I nodded. “No one is born with hate in their heart.”

Meanwhile, the Kavanaugh confirmation was unloading on social media, and scathing hate toward groups of people — white men, white women, conservatives — was all over my newsfeed. Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine was being targeted as a “rape apologist” for voting to confirm the judge based on her thought process. In other words, for being a feminist. 

Linda Sarsour tweeted: “Senator Susan Collins is the mother & grandmother of white women in America who gave us a Donald Trump presidency. She is a disgrace & her legacy will be that she was a traitor to women and marginalized communities.” No one can ramp up a race and gender war like Sarsour. Still, I was shocked that she hadn’t found a way to blame it all on Jews. 

“Is there a point when hate has so hardened the heart that little can be done to let the light back in?”

I woke up the morning of Oct. 7 to the horrific news of another terrorist attack in Israel. Kim Levengrond Yehezkel, 29, a mother of an 18-month-old; and Ziv Hajbi, 35, a father of three, were shot at close range reportedly by a Palestinian co-worker at a factory in the West Bank where they all worked in the Barkan Industrial Park.

Is there a point when hate has so hardened the heart that little can be done to let the light back in?

How has the United States, through the vile hatred inherent in identity politics, come so close to this point, when even the nomination of a Supreme Court justice brings the country to the brink of a vitriolic civil war?

That evening we all got together for a Yemenite-Moroccan Columbus Day feast. Ahmed, a handsome Lebanese actor, joined us. Saya confessed to an attraction to Judaism. Ahmed confessed to an attraction to Israeli women. We talked about the lies people believe and the tribal hatred that keeps people apart. I told them about the terrorist attack that morning.

“That’s horrific,” Saya gasped, covering her mouth. Ahmed just shook his head, speechless.

Their reactions couldn’t have been more distinct from the reactions of my friends on the left, who offer up immediate political rationalizations for the random killing of Jews. Saya and Ahmed had been taught to hate Jews, but the hatred never stuck. The light within had always been stronger than the hatred and the lies.

I don’t know the road to peace in this country, let alone in Israel. But I can keep the light flowing between these two apartments, especially between Reese and Alexander. Perhaps one day these two “cousins,” a Muslim and a Jew, will expose the sham of identity politics. Perhaps one day they will be able to rewrite the stars because we never taught them to hate.  


Karen Lehrman Bloch is an author and cultural critic living in New York City.