Back to basics. Whatever it may be in life we can learn quite a bit from history, we can learn a lot from one another, and we can learn from ourselves when we pause to reflect and think things through. Sometimes things change, it really doesn’t matter how or why — but they do. We may find ourselves today in a situation or society similar to 10, 50, 75 or 150 years ago.
I remember learning about the formation of the Jewish Community Relations Bureau in Kansas City in 1944, a time the Jewish community defined itself as not being allowed to work, live, learn and enjoy life in all the same places as folks who were not Jewish. And I learned about African-Americans who were not allowed to work, live, learn and enjoy life in all the same places as folks who were white.
When people met a stranger and realized they indeed are not a stranger, that they are fellow human beings on the journey of life: that this person with a different skin color is not different than me other than the color of their skin and the opportunities afforded because of that; and that the Jewish person did not match the stereotypes which had been heard from others; when that happened, when folks opened their minds to meet and understand someone different — then mutual understanding slowly broke down fears and stereotypes.
And when folks sat side by side, eating, learning, laughing — before long, mutual respect developed. Our society improved greatly.
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The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. modeled this behavior. We see photos of him marching with many people who respected each other, who may have been somewhat different than him but did not see any difference, except how society treated them.
Today I hear from people who do not like Latinos, Muslims, homosexuals and even refugees (the history we almost all have in common at some point). I’m certain that there are more “categories” of definitions of people that create fear in others. When someone tells me they do not like immigrants from Mexico, I ask who they know who is Mexican. The answer is usually the same, “I’ve just seen them or heard about them — I’ve never met one.” Therefore, no mutual understand and no mutual respect.
Thank you for reading this far in this column. It is an indicator that you likely want to be part of the solution, and I personally think it is much easier than most anticipate. If we learn from observing young children who are yet to develop bias and fear, and smile with any playmate that arrives, and have unconditional mutual respect and mutual understanding. Or if we remind ourselves of history in just the last century — when people came together to understand and respect their neighbors even when they were different, many times very different. Our society and our individual and family lives would be stronger, happier, more pleasant and maybe even healthier — with a smile, handshake and listening.
Marvin Szneler is executive director and Bert Berkley chair for Community Relations, Jewish Community Relations Bureau |American Jewish Committee.