This past year, my children have become aware of the power of hate. I couldn’t shield them from everything going on. Instead, I tried to educate them about the destructiveness of hate and ignorance, and our responsibility to work against it. We could have talked about the extermination of Native Americans in this country, the atrocity of slavery (and the resulting systemic racism), the killing fields in the Khmer Rouge, genocide in Rwanda, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia… there are too many examples of horrific events from around the world. But we are Jewish. The Holocaust is the trauma that has been passed down through the generations in our families. So I started with our story.
While in Germany this summer, I exposed my kids to some of the history of the Holocaust. We visited the oldest synagogue in Cologne, the only one left standing after WWII. We traveled to Amsterdam and visited Anne Frank’s house and the Jewish history museum. Together, we saw the cloth stars people had to sew to their clothing. We saw the government lists of people identified in schools and businesses as Jewish. We read about the events leading up to the death camps and the laws that were passed. We saw evidence of the lengths people went through to hide and to survive. I sheltered them from the worst of the images and the stories. But still, they understood that people supported these actions. That people accepted the normalcy of hate, accepted the slaughtering of millions upon millions of people- mostly Jews, but also homosexuals, mentally disabled, and anyone caught helping the targeted. It was a gut wrenching experience and my children were deeply troubled by it. And they were scared it would happen again.
I told my sons that just their being alive was a symbol of healing. They embody the truth that the next generation of Germans and Jews could rebuild with love. As both Germans (dad) and Jews (mom), they represent the power of love, of resilience, of hope that we have moved away from hate. I assured my children that we have learned from our past, and we have learned to speak up and fight back harder against this kind of destructive hate.
And then we came home to news of the events in Charlottesville. White supremacists and neo-Nazis marching again. Violence erupting and hate reinvigorated. Our president won’t denounce these factions of our society. What do we tell our children now? What do we tell them when they look up at us and question how people can be so filled with hatred for others who are different? What do I tell myself?
I know the correct answers. We can give our money, our time, and our voices to protecting the people at risk and fighting against people in power who spread racism, bigotry, and misogyny. We can write letters, march, call our leaders, send money, vote. But these actions don’t really address the most basic question- how do we deal with the hate?
I believe it begins with better communication. As the architect Jeff Daly said, “Two monologues do not make a dialogue.” In our divided country, we have been having two separate conversations. We are split left and right. We surround ourselves with those who agree with us. On social media, when we can’t stand listening to the other side we “unfriend” them, or “block” them. At home, we avoid engaging in topics we know could lead to heated arguments with neighbors. We develop social bubbles where we move farther away from each other each day. Instead, I want to learn how to have better conversations, more connections, and a more inclusive approach to people in my community. Fighting hate starts with understanding one another better. It starts with our family reaching out with love.
An ex-white supremacist put this in perspective for me. Arno Michaelis, author of My Life After Hate, wrote,
“I spent seven years as a leader of hate groups, perpetrating wanton violence against innocent people and twisting the minds of other hurt white kids to do even worse…
I’ve been beat up as often as I’ve beaten others, and in no case did being on the receiving end of violence make me any less violent. It was actually the kindness of brave people who refused to lower themselves to my level that changed the course of my life, to put me in a position to follow their example and promote the practice of loving-kindness myself. We cannot hate violent extremism out of existence.
Love is the most effective means to draw people from hate. Kumbayas aside, there are dynamics as sound as any law of physics to back this up. Hate and violence are cyclical things. More of either can only fuel the cycle.”
It’s no easy task to respond with love and to reach out to people we disagree with. It is a struggle of patience, restraint, vulnerability, and unwavering hope. But each time I hug my little German Jews, I am reminded that healing has to start somewhere. Filling our tiny corner of the world with love is one of the most important things we can do these days. And it will always be worth the struggle.
**To help parents address some of these issues and talk about recent events, here are some children book recommendations from the NY Times.
For a guide on how to fight hate, here is a link to suggestions from the Southern Poverty Law Center: