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Me and My Fear

by Feivel Strauss | Published on November 25, 2010

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​.encoun​ter​pro​grams​.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 blogs. I am proud that I can unpack a text, and appre­ciate it, regard­less of the author or content, because I use the text to open new conver­sa­tions and 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 that different from my hearing different 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 were text-people. My task was not to argue, persuade, debate. It was to read them: to digest their words and how they spoke, to inter­nalize who they were and hear the things that I missed 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, 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 what it meant 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 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 flip-side 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 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 are manu­fac­tured to repress free speech that is 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

To view the entirety of the blog on which this post can be found, please visit http://​teachingis​rael​.word​press​.com/​2​0​1​0​/​1​1​/​2​5​/​m​e​-​a​n​d​-​m​y​-​f​e​ar/

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