Me and My Fear

25 Nov

by Feivel Strauss

The author wrote this blog entry, after spending two days visiting the Bethlehem district (Areas B and C only), with Encounter. For details about Encounter programs visit http://www.encounterprograms.org/

I like to think of myself as brave, armed with a fearless pursuit of truth. I can embrace any text I encounter, whether it was written by ancient thinkers, mystics, heretics or modern radicals in newspapers and in blogs. I am proud that I can unpack a text, and appreciate it, regardless of its author or content, because I use the text to open new conversations and discuss new ideas.

It is not so easy when encountering live people. I just spent two days on Encounter, a program that brings people like me to meet, listen and encounter Christian and Muslim Palestinians that I would otherwise never meet. I did not think it would be very different from hearing the diverse voices from my teachers and debating with friends, but it was more than just different, it was frightening.

The Palestinians I met are not text-books, they are text-people. My task was not to argue, persuade, or debate. My task was to read them: to digest their words and how they spoke, to internalize who they are and hear the things that I miss in my selective reading. It was scary because I felt less control over the situation. A book is easy to close, to skip a chapter, or to read while listening to music. While in Bethlehem, I could not close my eyes, or block my ears. What they said was less important than the fact that these men and women were real, and that my presence served as an audience to their voices. What could be so hard about listening? What was I in fear of?

I was not asked to agree with them or defend my opinions, I was asked not to ignore their speech. I was invited to spend two days and encouraged not to fear. A fellow participant shared with me the words of Justice Louis Brandeis, both an American Supreme Court Judge and Zionist:

“fear breeds repression; that repression breeds hate; that hate menaces stable government… Fear of serious injury cannot alone justify suppression of free speech and assembly. Men feared witches and burned women. It is the function of speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears.”

What is the root of my fear? Is it the realistic fear from anti-Semitic violence that has followed the Jewish people around the world even into Israel for thousands of years? My only previous experience in Bethlehem has been as a soldier in a reserve unit, during both Operation Defensive Shield and Operation Cast Lead. Every time I had entered this area, I carried my M-16, and was always on alert. This is a fear I respectfully acknowledge.

The flipside of this fear is that I was never given a chance to not be in fear. Which of my fears are fictitious, products of the media, Hollywood and the six o’clock news?

I have been habituated to become comfortable with certain fears. They are used to justify some of my actions and opinions. I need to discern which of my fears are crucial to my survival and which fears are manufactured to repress free speech, i.e. the human encounter with Palestinians.

Just a few hours after I returned from Bethlehem last Friday, I sat at the table enjoying a Shabbat dinner discussing my new thoughts on fear.

The host, quickly got up to bring me the weekly Torah portion where Jacob is about to meet his brother Esau. And there is says, “And Jacob feared greatly…” I was in good company. Jacob had fears, and the rest of the passage is ambiguous whether his fears are justified, or beneficial. The different commentaries share a wide array of possible fears, but in the end, Jacob overcame his fears and encountered his brother. Jacob’s fears led to caution, not repression, his encounter led to love and respect, not hate, and this love and respect led to stability for his family and people.

I encourage us to acknowledge our fears in order be cautious. I challenge us to be courageous to overcome our irrational fears of encountering others in the name of fortifying a healthy and peaceful society.

Feivel Strauss is a Jewish educator and student at the Shalom Hartman Institute. He will be receiving semicha (rabbinical ordination) from the Institute at the end of this academic year.

He can be contacted at feivelstrauss@gmail.com

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