Friday, July 1

[the problems in the parable]

How is identity created, and how is cultural meaning produced? Do certain groups of people, certain genders, certain religions, have a greater affinity toward violence or nonviolence?

I believe the answer to that question is no -- at least not innately. However, circumstances, cultural training and indoctrination are creating generations of children who identify more with their particular community than as international human beings. And all over the world, children who don't have healthy adult role models are more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors -- obese parents, relatives who smoke, teachers who shout and belittle, or family members who are violent or misogynistic.

Adult role models are not the only ways that children learn how to think. What about the Power Rangers? Snow White? Winnie the Pooh coloring books? Tomorrow's Pioneers? MTV shows? Stories, books, and images also play a highly formative role in creating the identities and attitudes of children.

If a child is exposed to mainstream gender norms and narratives, in stories and in real life (i.e. Disney fairytales where the prince rescues the princess, where girls always wear pink and are told how 'pretty' they look, and boys never wear dresses but always play with trucks and roughhouse in a 'boys will be boys' fashion), these are the attitudes and behaviors they will replicate in their own lives.

Of course, children's books and shows are meant to teach a community's values to the next generation. But what if those values are barriers to an equal, just and peaceful world?

The "Sammy Spider" series of children's books target English-speaking Jewish children as its main audience. One book is called "Sammy Spider's Israel Fun Book," and it follows Sammy Spider's trip to Israel with his human friend, Josh.

Firstly, the right to inculcate your children with your own cultural heritage is important, true. But some of the images and words in this series are teaching Jewish children official Israeli state rhetoric, and painting an inaccurate picture of Israel's position in the Middle East. Not to mention preparing Jewish children for the adult role of continuing to support the status quo of Israeli superiority in the region.

Let children be children, you say? Children deserve honesty from the adults in their lives, and they also have a right to truthful, peaceful education about their background and their heritage.

One page says, "Sammy happily enjoys Tel Aviv with all its noise," with the following picture:

This picture is missing a few things. Aren't there some people who wear head scarves in Tel Aviv? Isn't there anyone, Israeli or Palestinian or otherwise, who doesn't look like a European caricature? Note the woman and child pair at the upper left, close to the two umbrellas -- they are gazing at a sleeveless summer dress in the storefront window.

Kids' books should be educational and accurate. There are some Muslims and some Arabs in Israel -- including the Arab Israeli citizens that the State of Israel so proudly claims as proof that apartheid is not occurring in Israel. "Israel" itself is a claim, and a disputed claim at that. It is disputed by most Palestinians and by many the international community.

The book mentions a kibbutz dining hall, and also describes Jerusalem as follows: "Jerusalem is a City of Gold/ Filled with treasures new and old." Young readers are subtly being taught that not only is Jerusalem a thrilling and historical place, but that it belongs to Israel -- no other perspective is presented.

The most troubling portion of this book, in my opinion, was the two-page full spread map.

To be fair, young children will probably not pay much attention to the particular borders and names on this map. However, this book was published in 2004, when the Road Map for Peace was being debated. There is a 'Gaza' on the above map, but there is no clear West Bank. Perhaps that curve in the road connecting the 'Dead Sea' to the 'Sea of Galilee' is meant to represent the West Bank. But this map makes it appear that all of the land depicted belongs to the State of Israel.

What are other ways in which identity is instilled in young people?

Jewish day camps and summer camps typically teach children Hebrew and read the Torah (in a similar way to Islam, where madrassas teach Arabic in order to recite the Qur'an). Jewish schools, however, usually display the Israeli flag and celebrate Israeli holidays and cultural attitudes.

I aim to create a world where identity is inclusive. For example, children are taught that the words "I am Jewish" can have a variety of meanings, and that none of them are exclusive. Identity is hierarchical, with 'human being' at the top as the most important identity a person holds.

"I am Jewish" can mean born to a Jewish parent or with Jewish roots; culturally Jewish; religiously Jewish; socially and ethically responsible; a supporter of human rights; or dedicated to peace and justice. Jewish identity is individual - just like all other identity categories. Not all Jews support Israeli apartheid. Not all Arabs are Muslims, and not all Muslims are terrorists. In my opinion, identity is a spectrum, not composed of discrete categories.

It should also mean, I am one among many. It should mean that identities are layered. Instead of separating, exclusive labels, like Jewish or French or Baha'i or young or female, we need uniting identities.

The only identity that we have the right and responsibility to instill in our children is 'I am a human being', with responsibilities towards all other living things.

In times of need, when children (and later, adults) need to make decisions, they will return to their fundamental identity as a human being. They will not feel a particular need to protect their own community and attack other communities, even if this behavior does exist in the subtle nuances of their lower-level identity. Nationality, nationalism and patriotism are potent sources of energy in today's world -- we must be careful what we teach our children.

If a middle ground between absolute commitment to the homeland (or the church, or add your 'ism' here) and a simple affinity for our origins and heritage can be found, then the past can be the past and the future can be the future, where we are all simply human beings.

Yes, it's idealistic. And yes, it's being done today, in communities around the world like Costa Rica's peace education system and Sweden's gender-neutral preschool.

Think about your teachers, parents, babysitters, and other adult role models.

What have they taught you about 'your community', about 'belonging', and about 'identity'?


  1. I live in Hong Kong, where the government is proposing to include national education into the school curriculum as a new subject for students in grade 1 to grade 12. The subject is supposed to teach students about the achievements of China and the "bumps along the road" (referring to the cultural revolution and the June 4th Incident) in Chinese history, to establish love for China among students, so that students will care about China and make "sensible judgement" about current affairs with relation to China. Basically the government wants everyone to take the government's stand in every situation. This is what they call "love for the country".

  2. Thanks for sharing -- do you know if this is a nationwide program? I'm curious to learn if teachers are trained how to teach, and how the connection between 'love for the country', as you say, and 'sensible judgement' is being made.

    Costa Rica is trying to create a national peace identity, where being Costa Rican means that you choose peace and pursue nonviolent communication and actions.

    In Hong Kong, is there an anthem or a pledge or other symbol of commitment to the country that students are expected to perform?