Posts Tagged ‘politics of fear’


All of us have moments of fear. It is natural. It is human. I believe that one of the measures of our humanity is how we manage our fear. How far do we let it drive us? How much do we allow it to determine our life decisions? How does it affect our attitudes towards others? Fear can be a good thing. It can push us to actions that result in safety. Fear for loved ones can push us to acts of loving sacrifice. But the darkest side of fear pushes us to hatred, to denigration, even to acts of oppression. Excess fear creates darkness.

A couple of days ago I posted a piece in which I declared a blackout on writing or discussing a certain politician. Here is that link: https://thejewishobserver.com/2015/12/08/lets-shut-this-down-now/ This blog is not about him. It is about some of the reaction to the posting, in particular by those who support his policies regarding Muslims, immigration, and the Syrian refugees. This is about the fear they express and how it is driving a conversation that has turned very ugly. And yes, it is also about those who are against the policy suggestions aimed at Muslims, those who wish to welcome refugees, but use insulting, denigrating language to dismiss the fears of the anti-immigrant/anti-refugee crowd. We need to speak to each other reasonably, without name calling, without accusations of being unpatriotic, or stupid, or racist. We might believe any of those things in our hearts. Maybe we are right. Maybe we are wrong. But injecting pejoratives into the conversation is counter productive. So what I will speak about is fear and what it can force us to do.

Fear forces us to make generalizations; to make value judgments on people because of ethnicity, race or religion. As a result of African American attempts to get civil and political equality, white fear led to laws of segregation, attempts to keep blacks from voting, and perpetrated mythologies of black intellectual inferiority. On an even more obscene level, it spread myths about black desires – such as wanting to rape white women. So African Americans were categorized as non intellectual, but great athletes (and entertainers) who needed to be kept at a distance from white mainstream society. The suffering of blacks to just be able to order a soda at the same counter as whites is a sad commentary of American society.

Fear of Jews (most obviously in Germany/Europe but also to a certain extant in the US as well) cast Jews as money grubbers who wished to control society/government through their wealth. Aspersions such as the blood libel (Jews kill gentile children and use their blood to bake Passover matzah) have had legs for centuries. Father Coughlan was quite public in the 1930’s with his outright hatred for Jews in this country. Many shared his feelings. As a result, there was little support for admitting Jewish refugees from German or Europe leading up to World War II. A sad example is the story of the SS St. Louis, a boat filled with Jewish refugees who were refused safe harbor in 1939 in either Cuba or the United States. The boat returned to Europe and most of the Jews on board died in the Holocaust.

Fear in each of these historical examples also shapes the responses of the victims. Many, led by brave and insightful leaders, fight for equal rights. That is how history and attitudes can change. We need visionary leaders who point a way past fear and the resulting bigotry. But, and this is important, another reaction within the oppressed groups, is submission – the sad acceptance of their fate and position. In Germany during the 1930’s, Jews were so in shock that the country in which they had assimilated and succeeded was rejecting them. Fear often kept them from protesting. In our country, African American communities have been filled with tensions regarding how much to protest versus how much to just go along in the name of safety. Talk to African Americans today, and many fear the police. Fear can drive us in multiple directions.

Now we are dealing with a new, different fear: Muslims. It is different because there is a tangible reason for our fear. Muslims have perpetrated devastating terrorist attacks in this country and Europe. ISIS is an expression of a twisted variety of Islam that perpetrates a range of horrors. In a world in which images are transmitted instantaneously, the fear generated by these events goes viral within minutes of an event. Let me be blunt with my liberal friends. By refusing to acknowledge these realities, by pretending there is no connection to Islam, you are creating a fear in conservatives that you are too dense to appreciate the threat. Let me be equally blunt with my conservative friends. By refusing to see there are radical elements that have and still do come into play in ALL religions, not just Islam, you are allowing your fear to descend into bigotry. Everyone needs to see, for example, that the shootings at the Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, and the shootings in San Bernadino are both terrorist acts. Both have connections to religion. Conservatives will say the Colorado Springs shooter was mentally ill. I would argue that an American born Muslim with a good job who embraces ISIS and kills 14 people is also mentally ill.

Fear of Muslims drives us to consider stopping all Muslims from entering our country. Fear of Muslims drives us to see certain politicians as “truth tellers” instead of ignorant egotists. Fear of Muslims drives us to applaud suggestions like shutting down mosques, or creating a database of Muslims in America. Fear of Muslims pushes us to consider steps that compromise our basic liberties in the name of security. Fear of Muslims prevents us from being the America most of us would like to be.

Fear affects the American Muslim community as well. Imam Nidal Alsayyed of Beaumont, Texas did an interview with his local TV station in which he said he understood why some politicians want the limits on immigration. He did not criticize proposals aimed specifically at Muslims and he said Muslims need to demonstrate they are with their fellow Americans. I would say that American Muslims demonstrate their commitment to the United States all of the time. Muslims serve in our armed forces, contribute to all aspects of American life. The previous U. S. attorney for our region told me of the cooperation and the tips she received from the Muslim community while investigating potential terrorist threats. Surely Imam Alsayyed knows these things. Why would he feel the need passively endorse anti-Muslim policies put forth by politicians like Donald Trump? Well, Beaumont is a small town near the Louisiana border. It is in one of the least tolerant states, in the least tolerant areas of our country. I would speculate that he is experiencing the same fear that all minorities under suspicion experience. I am saddened if he feels intimidated to endorse actions that would be detrimental and insulting to his community. As I said, we are too motivated by fear and not enough by principle, or by morality.

It is significant we are in the middle of Chanukah, the festival that celebrates the victory of the Maccabees over the religious oppression of the Greek-Assyrians. It is not significant because of the military victory, which is certainly an expression of bravery and belief in the principle of religious freedom. Rather, the choice of the rabbis of the Talmud to emphasize the miracle of the oil over the military victory is significant. They chose to highlight the creation and furtherance of light over violence. What is that light? Psalm 97 states, Or zarua latzaddik ul’yishrei lev simchah. “Light is sown for the righteous, and gladness for the upright of heart.” Perhaps the light is the light produced by righteousness, a light that triumphs over the darkness of fear, and that lifts the feeling of gladness in our hearts. May we be inspired to spread that light, giving us the strength to turn away from the darkest side of fear.





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