I picked up the ringing phone yesterday to hear the voice of a colleague. “Maureen,” she said, “I just got a call from a JCC director who needs advice.”
I began a mental inventory of our resources on combatting anti-Semitism when my colleague continued: “They’ve been having bomb threats and evacuations. The children are anxious and asking questions like, ‘Why is this happening to us?’”
That stopped me cold. I knew institutions like Jewish community centers (JCCs), synagogues and Jewish day schools (along with mosques) around the country have been getting bomb threats. According to the Anti-Defamation League, as of March 15, there have been 165 such anti-Semitic threats this year in the United States and Canada. The JCC on Staten Island where my son had played youth basketball was targeted, and a friend posted on Facebook, angry that her child in daycare was repeatedly sent outside to wait in the cold while police checked the building. But this question brought home what it felt like to the children most affected by the threats.
“Why is this happening to us?”
Who really wants to have to explain to a 4-year-old why complete strangers hate Jews so much that they would make such threats? I’m supposed to have ready advice for such matters, but I stumbled on this one.
Because I just don’t get it. Even though I know about implicit bias, scapegoating, hate crimes and genocide, I really don’t understand what happens to a human mind and heart to produce this behavior. Like the caregivers at this JCC, I cringed at having to explain this darkness to children.
We like to preserve the innocence of children and focus only on the positive. I thought of the blog I’d written after the Boston Marathon bombing, which recalled Fred Rogers’ advice to “look for the helpers.” Shaping the narrative is a privilege that comes from living in a country where, for most (but not all) of us, tragedy is relatively rare and where it’s possible to imagine that we can always protect the children. That kind of narrative isn’t available to children in Syria, Afghanistan or South Sudan. How do adults in those places explain the world to their kids? How do they answer the question, “Why is this happening to us?”
Part of my mind rebels against shielding kids, and not just because other children around the world are in danger every day. Why pretend that the world is safe when we know it’s not? Teaching Tolerance advocates for honesty with kids when it comes to racism and other forms of injustice. We’re not for whitewashing or erasing unpleasant truths, but we think these truths need to be told within stories of empowerment. Children need to know that injustice exists and that there are those who will protect them and fight for righteousness.
All of this ran through my mind as I thought about what to offer the JCC director and all the others who are struggling to navigate the xenophobia and hatred that’s mushrooming across this land.
But I can’t get that question out of my mind.
Costello is the director of Teaching Tolerance.