Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Time to Dream Again

“Are Quebecois Racist?” demands the newspaper headline. The Leger survey on racism is the talk of Quebec, from coffee shops to the blogosphere.

Political leaders have expressed their shock at this report. What bothers them is that the survey claims Quebecois are more racist than the rest of Canada. (59% of Quebecois, versus 47% in the rest of Canada). Now, this of course gives politicians an excuse to defend Quebec’s honor from the results of a flawed survey. Having done that, they can take pride that their pro forma display of nationalism now qualifies them as “leaders”. Unfortunately, this is political pandering, not true leadership.

I don’t know about you, but my mom always used to tell me that “two wrongs don’t make a right”. Does it matter if Quebecois are more or less racist than Ontarians? Fixating on the relative levels of racism in Quebec and Canada is like cancer patient fixating on whether his neighbor’s cancer is worse than his own. Frankly, I consider 47% racism to be an abject failure, one which should spark a great deal of soul searching. If there is significant racism, the exact number doesn’t matter.

What does matter is uprooting racism. Whether or not the results of this poll are exaggerated, all of us, Jew, Christian and Muslim, Anglophone Francophone and Allophone, have to consider how to stamp out racism.

Confronting racism is not that difficult; all it takes is remembering a couple of simple truths. Forgive me for preaching (I am a Rabbi), but let’s remember the idea of the brotherhood of mankind. The Talmud notes that in the Biblical account, God began the world with one human, Adam. This teaches us that all humans are equals, and all humans are brothers and sisters. In the human family, all of God’s children are beloved. Unfortunately, racists don’t see things this way.

Racists love to hate. They excuse their hate by dividing the human family into opposing groups. That’s why racists obsess over differences such as different skin color, religion and culture; it allows them to look down at those people who are different than them.

The 20th century has taught us that if we ignore the brotherhood of mankind, anything is possible, even genocide. Unfortunately, genocide is a big word, and often masks the true horror of what actually occurs; murder, torture and rape on an enormous scale. Samantha Power, in her book on genocide “A Problem From Hell”, tells of an episode in the Rwandan genocide when a 3-year-old boy who saw eight of his siblings hacked to death pleaded for his life. "Please don't kill me," he said. "I'll never be Tutsi again." The racist monsters didn’t care, a murdered the 3-year old anyway because he was Tutsi. Ignoring that each person is created in the image of God leads to tragic consequences.

Another basic idea is to love the stranger. The Bible repeats this one over and over again, perhaps because it is so natural to ignore it. Strangers make us uncomfortable. And when you have immigrants with very different cultural backgrounds, it is easy to feel uncomfortable about accommodating minorities. (It also makes it easy for politicians to score cheap political points off the issue of accommodating minorities).

Yet loving the stranger doesn’t have to be that hard. Take the example of the students of Whitwell Tennessee, a lily white town in the South. As documented in the movie “Paper Clips”, the students embarked on a project to collect a paper clip for each person killed in the Holocaust. This project became an international sensation, attracting media attention from around the world. One of the high points in the movie is when a group of Holocaust survivors visit Whitwell to meet the students. These students, who had never met Jews before, quickly befriend these elderly European born Jews. The Whitwell students had reached out into the world of strangers, and made close friends.

Every schoolchild knows the values of human equality and loving the stranger. Yet, at the same time, these values are ignored all the time. We need to talk about them again and again.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous speech is “I Have a Dream”. In it, he talks about his dreams for equality one day his children will “live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” While it was easy for people to be cynical about his dream in 1963, today it has become part of the American reality.

Perhaps it’s time to dream again. Let’s forget the poll numbers and political grandstanding, and dream of a better Quebec and a better Canada.

Let’s dream about a world without racism.

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