Educating for fear
by Ruth Lavie
The fear in which our children live is not fear of the monster under the bed. It is fear fostered by adults. Ruth Lavie on Holocaust Day and Memorial Day.
Published with permission of the author from Haoketz
Translated by Yonatan Preminger
hat do they want to do?
Children: To kill us.
Correct, they always want to kill us. Remember Purim? What did King Ahasuerus want to do?
A child puts up his hand: To kill all the Jews.
And Pesach, do you remember? What did the Pharaoh want to do?
Children, in chorus: To kill all the children. All the Jews.
Correct, they always want to kill us. And who keeps us from harm?
A child: Mom and dad?
No, who keeps all of us safe?
The children are silent, unsure.
… The so-l-d…
A child jumps up: The soldiers!
Correct. And in Germany there was one man, Hitler – and they also wanted to kill all the Jews. And soon we’ll hear a siren. Why do they sound the siren, children?
A child: Because there’s a war.
True, there’s also a siren during a war, and then we go into the bomb shelter. The shelter keeps us safe, so they won’t kill us. But now there’ll be a different kind of siren. What do we do when we hear it?
Children: We stand quietly and don’t move.
Correct, but we stand and remember, we remember all the people who died, all the Jews whom Hitler killed.
This text could have been a parody of Netanyahu’s speeches. But it’s not. I heard it in a kindergarten on the Memorial Day for Holocaust Heroes and Martyrs. And it’s like this in many kindergartens on Holocaust Day, as well as on the Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism – the two days that encompass us throughout the year, days that construct our reality, a reality in which they want to kill us, to kill the Jews. But now, when we have a state, we have someone to keep us from harm – the soldiers (and now, thank god, we also have Netanyahu, the super-hero). And from time to time there’s also a war, and a siren that sends us off to the bomb shelter. That’s how it is. And, of course, fear. Lots of fear.
The children’s own fear, and the fear that will be theirs as adults. And my own fear that a dedicated kindergarten teacher, loving and sensitive, doesn’t understand why we must not put children into this frightening place – a place which creates distrust of others and fear of adults, except of course soldiers (and Netanyahu); a kindergarten teacher who doesn’t understand that the only fear children of this age should have is towards the big bad wolf in the tale of Little Red Riding-Hood.
This kindergarten is mixed – there are Arab children here too, Arab children who are also taught this fundamental fear, who also learn a reality in which e-v-e-r-y-o-n-e wants to kill the Jews. What role is left for them, those who are not Jews? To be those who want to kill the Jews.
I know a child who sat and heard the kindergarten teacher say, "Imagine yourselves in a camp surrounded by barbed wire fences and Nazis everywhere who want to kill you, and you can’t even move, because they’ll shoot you." On the Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers, this same teacher asked the children to write down the names of all family members killed (fallen) in war, and even gave them a list of all the wars. Believe me, it was a long list. Imagine the feelings of a child who doesn’t have “enough” fallen soldiers to bring to kindergarten. Or doesn’t have any at all. This child might be in high school now, and he hates the Holocaust Day and Fallen Soldiers Day – he doesn’t have the strength to cope with the fear. Other children seal themselves off from feeling the fear, and thus lose their ability to sense and understand the complex reality around them, to be sensitive towards others and include them.
This is not the only fear children live under. In fact, we raise our children in an environment made up mostly of fear. This is an economic existential fear – of losing our work, of losing our home, of losing our fragile economic security. It’s also a social existential fear – of being different, which feeds our need to be like everyone else even if this means harming those who are different. And of course it’s fear of all those who always want to kill us, constructed in war, in terror attacks, in rocket fire, in threats – even in our daily lives of security guards at the entrance to the malls. This is not the fear of children looking for the monster under the bed. The fear our children live in is an adult fear, by which their parents are also bound – parents who are unable to protect their children, something only the soldiers (and maybe Netanyahu) can do.
True, children learn to live with this fear and find the child within. This can be seen in places even more terrible, where children live in the shadow of fear – like, for example, the occupied territories. They take on this reality and turn it into a game. I saw some kindergarten children playing at being security guards: one passed a stick over all those who wanted to use the slide, like guards with metal detectors. They also play “Jews and Arabs” of course – like kids used to play cowboys and Indians.
Children also live under other fears. If you look over the education system, you’ll find that it too is based on fear. Or, more accurately, on violence which creates fear as a means of control. I heard two children talking. One said he wanted to be a teacher. Believe me, I was overjoyed. But then he added, “Do you know how much power teachers have?” Grades, for example, no longer reflect a child’s progress. They have become a weapon: points are deducted for poor behavior, for failure to do homework – for anything that challenges the most important adult, the teacher. And without good grades, the children say, there won’t be a good high school.
A typical birthday greeting runs, “May you have good grades and get into a good high school.” Imagine the incredible fear of a child who is not getting good grades and knows, even in elementary school, that his fate is sealed. What can a child who fails to understand the material do, when the teacher asks him to go over the material at home instead of arranging extra assistance for him? How can he not be afraid, if he understands in first grade that nobody is going to help him (not even the soldiers), and thus, again, his fate is sealed? Not to mention the fact that parents are expected to be teachers, working with their children at home. How can they do this without any pedagogic training? And how can they themselves avoid being fearful, and avoid making him feel their frustration with him and his lack of ability? There is a lot of talk about violence at school. I am certain that teachers really do feel helpless and afraid. And the only weapon they have, the only weapon the system allows them (the system which frightens them too), is punishment. Again – fear. And fear brings violence – of teachers against pupils, of pupils against teachers, and of pupils among themselves.
This begins even before they reach school. During the kindergarten hours I described above, some of the children had a hard time sitting still. Perhaps this was due to motor difficulties, perhaps attention deficit, or maybe, just maybe, they found it hard to cope with the terrible words spoken by the kindergarten teacher. This teacher rebuked them, got angry, threatened and punished. And again this fear of the teacher and the helplessness of the child who can’t sit still – even the soldiers can’t help here. The system is trying to shove so much knowledge down the throats of children who haven’t even finished enjoying their childhood – so much knowledge which also awakens fear by its very vastness, and so little emotion, except fear, of course.
This nurturing of fear is not the result of error, of a lack of understanding or lack of genuine desire to help the children onward. I believe it is the most important project of the education system of today, of our governments – the nurturing of fear as a means of control, of discipline; the development of a reality in which fear directs us, as children and as adults. This fear begins at school, but continues afterwards – the fear of losing our jobs, of losing our health because we don’t have the means to maintain it, of losing our home because of the constant threat of sliding below the poverty line on which we all tread warily, knowing we may fall at any moment. The fear of being branded as “useless” for the state and thus having no rights. The fear the state may abandon us if we don’t prove ourselves “worthy.” The fear lurking behind the slogan, “equal rights means equal obligations,” which makes our basic rights as human beings conditional, liable to be denied us at any moment (and many have been denied their rights already).
Let’s go back to those days between Holocaust Day and Fallen Soldiers Remembrance Day, and the values fostered by the system. I am one of those generally called “second generation Holocaust survivors.” As a child, I was terrified of anything to do with the Holocaust. I was afraid even of thinking that there were adults capable of doing such things to others. This made me distrustful of any adult, and no child can cope without being able to trust the adults around her. As a teacher, I always tried to talk about the Holocaust from a place of strength, of security – not of fear. The stories about the partisans, for example. I spoke with the children about the fact that we must not harm those who are different, that we must help and support each other. But the Holocaust discourse generally focuses on Jews, whom everybody wants to kill. And so Jews can do whatever they like to others – the concentration camps earned them that right. And the Fallen Soldiers Remembrance Day, which refers to the Jewish fallen, and ignores all others, is another aspect of the same way of thinking.
Here, any attempt to compare with the Holocaust raises an outcry. How dare you compare us, the survivors? Have you no respect for those who were there? For the sake of clarity, I want to say I am not comparing the acts of the State of Israel with what was done in the Holocaust. When these things can be compared, it will be too late. And that’s the fear which we must acknowledge and live with – that there will indeed come a time when such comparisons may be made. This fear must lead us to constantly seek the signs which show that such a time is approaching.
And I admit, I am afraid. Very afraid. Not of those who want to kill Jews, but of those who believe that Jews are allowed to kill others; those who believe that this fear, nurtured from childhood, which allows for no solution but force, permits us (because I too am included in this “us”, whether I like it or not) to do all those things which as I child I was so frightened of. There is no need for concentration camps – it’s enough to see the power which enables eviction and deportation and starvation, relating to others as inhuman. To see how this fear leads us to tell ourselves that everyone wants to kill us and thus we must kill them first. To see how this fear, nurtured from childhood, permits us to deny the rights of non-Jews – Palestinians, migrant laborers, refugees. And you know what – even the rights of Jews who are unable to “fulfill their obligations” towards the state and are in need of its assistance.
I am really afraid when I see that the government’s policy has come to be identified with the state, and that any protest against it is presented as an act against the state itself. I am really, really afraid when in the name of protecting the state (which is identified with the regime), laws are changed, and it is acceptable to beat up those who try to change regime policy. And I am afraid when I see that those given the role of “wanting to kill us” are not granted any choice except to fulfill this task – otherwise they themselves will be annihilated.
And this week, in these days between the two remembrance days, we must abandon this fear of those who want to kill us, and adopt a different fear – a fear of the path we’re treading that leads to something which is not the Holocaust (after all, regimes have many creative paths to choose from), but is fundamentally similar to what guided those who created the Holocaust. The moment other human beings are no longer seen as equal to us, by the very fact of their being human, we need to be afraid. The moment basic rights are denied to these same people who are not us, are not Jews, we need to be afraid. The moment the regime is identified with the state it leads, we need to be afraid. This fear needs to remind us, lest we forget. The state is all the people, men, women and children, who live within its borders, and they all have an equal right to live in security.
This fear must remind us that some things are forbidden, forbidden to do to other human beings, and thus we must always seek the path which does not lead to these things. This fear, this alternative fear, protects us, because if such things are done, we will have taken another step towards that which must not be compared. And at this moment, I am very, very afraid.
Translated from the Hebrew by Yonatan Preminger