Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Teach children to respect others' beliefs

[Published in the New Haven Register, April 22, 2008.

Mark G. Sklarz is vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven and chairman of the federation's Jewish Community Relations Council. Readers may write him in care of the Register, 40 Sargent Drive, New Haven 06511.]

By Mark G. Sklarz

As I cuddled my newborn granddaughter in the hospital last Sunday, I marveled at the perfect miniature features of this beautiful tiny person, overwhelmed by the love, joy and appreciation universally shared by grandparents of all cultures and heritages. Yet, as my mind wandered, I felt a surge of anxiety over the responsibility owed to this precious and innocent little girl. Will we provide the tools to nurture a n open and receptive mind that will respect and cherish the values and beliefs of others, no matter how different from hers? Will we teach her to embrace human dignity, integrity and social justice and to encourage all people to enjoy the freedom of choice and expression to maximize their potential? Or will we allow preconceived notions and biases to distort our guidance and poison her with unfounded fears and prejudices.?

In a world in which we often control so little, this is a choice which allows all of us to make a difference. There is no vehicle more powerful to engage young minds and to inspire an environment of meaningful dialogue, mutual respect for differences and spiritual health than a vibrant and open educational system that challenges accepted principles.

In contrast, no process can be more destructive to engendering trust or promoting harmony and understanding than to fill a developing mind with prejudice and pernicious stereotypes.

No region of the world has been more volatile or consumed with more passionate hatred and distrust the last 60 years than the Middle East. Within hours after Israel's creation by the United Nations in 1948, it was attacked by neighbors dedicated to her annihilation.

Miraculously, despite being surrounded by a predominantly hostile population of 40 million people, this tiny country survived. Little has changed over six decades, except that the development of Israel's military strength has compelled certain of her neighbors grudgingly to acknowledge her existence. Of course, when the security and survival of a nation depends upon perpetual military vigilance and preparedness, mistakes and abuses occur, and Israel is no exception.

On April 1, a New York Times article reported the content of broadcasts, sermons and educational materials employed by Hamas to indoctrinate children and young people of Gaza. Included in the report was a comment by an Imam that "... Jews are a people who cannot be trusted ...," a portrayal of a children's television program featuring a rabbit who vowed "to get rid of the Jews, God willing, and I will eat them up, God willing," and references to videos promoting participation of young children armed with rifles.

These attitudes are complemented and exacerbated by textbooks used in the Gazan school system, which explicitly disparage and denigrate Jews. Children are being taught that hatred is a virtue and martyrdom is a value greater than life.

It is not acceptable for the world to stand silent and permit such contempt and prejudice to permeate the minds of the next generation.

Attempting to attribute culpability for the current situation is of no value, and roadmaps or other avenues to peace will not succeed if respect for the inherent right of all to celebrate their beliefs and pursue their lives in harmony, peace and security is not a fundamental precept of an educational system.

Israel's population continues to aspire to and treasure the opportunity to live in peace. However, the vicious dedication of powerful fundamentalist factions to Israel's annihilation has not ceased from the moment the Jewish state was created and has compelled Israel to expend much of its valuable and limited resources on conflicts of self-preservation.

Israel does not wish to occupy; rather, it maintains certain strategic positions to ensure the survival of its population.

This is tragic, but does not alter reality. The long-range solution is to teach all children from the age of my infant granddaughter that respect and understanding for the beliefs of all people will build common bonds and encourage all to thrive intellectually, culturally and economically.

Now is the time to guide children to collaborate, to speak candidly but respectfully, and to envision and pursue harmony among historically incompatible cultures. Not an easy task, but difficult challenges rarely are - which is why the reward will be so enriching and everlasting.

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