The question of social justice and racial oppression looms large in the collective psyche these days. Clearly, despite the election of Barack Obama almost eight years ago, the U.S. is not a post-racial society, and the disparities between African Americans and Caucasians in income, education, incarceration rates and many other factors, are staggering. There is a similar pattern with Latinos but not quite to the same degree. Over the weekend I had the opportunity to attend a seminar at the San Francisco Jung Institute given by an African American psychologist and Jungian analyst from NYC, Dr. Fanny Brewster. Dr. Brewster’s program was entitled, “Broken Mirror: Archetypal Grief in African American Women.” Listening to her reading recollections of a young girl’s experience from the 1840’s as the child and her siblings were taken from their mother to be sold to other slave owners is something one cannot forget. The pain of a mother having to see her children for the last time being examined as if they were livestock and the terror of the children who were never to see their mother again was palpable. In her lecture Dr. Brewster compellingly illustrated how such trauma impacted Black women in this country and the ways the echoes of this horror continues to live in the shadow of collective memory, exerting its influence on women and children over the generations. Needless to say, many of those listening were touched in the deepest ways possible.
Today, two days later, I read the news from Israel and Palestine. It tells the story of a twenty-something year old Eritrean refugee, Habtom Zarhum, who tragically found himself in the southern Israeli city of Be’er Sheva yesterday seeking to renew his visa when a terror attack at a bus station resulted in an IDF soldier being killed and eleven people being wounded. The assailant was shot dead before he could kill and injure even more but in the panic and insanity of those moments Mr. Zarhum was erroneously identified by surviving Israelis in the bus station as a second attacker. There was no evidence for this but in the panic and insanity of the moment, he was shot in the head, denied medical treatment, and then brutally kicked and cursed while he lay dying. Such senseless violence leaves us having to question whether this would have happened if Mr. Zarhum was not a man living in a dark skin.
Israeli blogger Michael Omer Man, in the online 972 Magazine, contributed a piece today calling for an understanding of the racial context of the events unfolding in Israel. Drawing a comparison with how context influenced the racial divide surrounding the O.J. Simpson trial in the U.S., he writes,
“The Simpson case is telling because it was more about narrative and symbolism than facts or evidence. OJ Simpson was a symbol, a rallying cry even, a rare case in which a black man had a chance of surviving a criminal justice system so hellishly stacked against people of color. Without the context of discrimination, unbelievable incarceration rates of black men and no accountability for police violence against people of color, rallying behind a man accused of murder might not make as much sense. But context is everything.”
He goes on to apply this lens to the situation in Israel today.
“Palestinians are rejecting the Israeli version of the recent stabbing attacks and police shootings largely because of the context: a long history of state — and civilian — violence against Palestinians, almost always without any accountability. From the Kafr Qassem massacre to the Jewish Underground to Beitunia to the deadly police shootings in Kafr Kanna and Rahat last year to the still-unsolved murder in Duma, Palestinians have no reason to believe that the State of Israel values Palestinian lives. It only follows, then, that there is no reason to believe Israel’s justifications for killing Palestinians.
Likewise, President Abbas last week gave Israelis yet another reason not to trust him and the Palestinian narrative when he claimed that Israel had executed a 13-year-old boy in Jerusalem. So when Prime Minister Netanyahu latched onto Abbas’s — quickly retracted — accusation, describing it as yet another case of dangerous and malicious incitement by Palestinian leaders, no Palestinians really cared. Perhaps it is because in gloatingly proving that Israel didn’t kill this 13-year-old boy, Netanyahu didn’t even mention the four other Palestinian boys under the age of 15 that Israel did kill this month (one in Aida refugee camp, one in Jalazoun refugee camp, and two in Gaza — one in a shooting and a second in a bombing).
It would be unreasonable and naïve to expect Israelis and Palestinians to adopt a common narrative or even common language. After all, history is written by the victor, and if you ask me, neither Israelis nor Palestinians are winning anything these days.”
When we become stuck in one of these polarizing narratives, consciously or unconsciously, wherever we are in the world, we lose sight of the “Other.” It is an inescapable fact that our assumptions about those who are different – and we are not so evolved as a species that skin color is inconsequential as a factor that influences our perceptions of difference – run deep in the psyche and shape what and how we think and feel. We cannot rid ourselves of this factor. We can only become more aware of it and “own” it. This is a piece of psychological development that involves coming to terms with our “shadow” and unless we wrestle with this factor we are doomed to continue to project that shadow onto others. In the context of race relations and social justice, we are each under an ethical obligation to examine assumptions about race and the racially other. Unless we do so, we risk losing the opportunity to impact our unconscious behavior and, as the philosopher Emmanual Levinas wrote, to look into the face of the suffering stranger. The alternative only results in the shattering of the connections that can tie us to one another in dignity and equality.