I began high school in 2002, a year after the September 11th terrorist attacks, and during the height of the Second Intifada. Saying Americans--and particularly Jews, were paranoid during this time would be an understatement. The memory of our nation being attacked was a festering wound. Similarly, Jews and non-Jews alike aligned over the ongoing conflict in Israel, a country that was now considered our brethren in the so-called war against Islamo-Fascism. The sentiment among Jews, at least anecdotally, seemed to be: we have long faced this terror. Now we share an enemy.
Indeed, it became difficult to criticize America or Israel without being considered somehow unpatriotic. For however long Israelis' had lived with this alarm, many believed we too lived in the same inhospitable climate. And if nothing else, the land of six million Jews--an ostensible democracy in the Middle East--was now our greatest ally. This was no longer merely due to aid, politics and culture. We coalesced on a common fear.
I remember debating with Jews and non-Jews alike on the merits of this newfound patriotism and subsequent support of Israel. Many argued we, as Americans, were destined to defend the world against this rash of fundamentalism. Muslims (but they really meant Arab Muslims--the lack of differentiation between tribe, ethnicity and religion became increasingly vague) were here to end our way of life. They hated us--because they hated us. And we had to take any measures possible to stop them.
Lost in these tirades was the notion that perhaps we too were becoming fundamentalists. I don't need to go into dictionary definitions or social theory to account for this. We were losing sight of how our rhetoric--and ultimately our actions--were taking a small sample of people (who yes, were terrorists), and believing they represented the entirety of, well, what we weren't quite sure. Most people didn't, and still don't realize that the largest Muslim population in the world is in Indonesia. And that every person in the Middle East isn't Muslim. And that a Pakistani is not an Arab. And that a Sufi isn't a Salafi...the list goes on and on.
I don't want to sound didactic. But we, as a country, were aligned with a war and an ideology that was far more monolithic than the Arab or Muslim population. And as the most powerful nation in the world, we possessed the potential to be more dangerous than any sub-state actors. We began two actual wars in the name of defeating Islamo-Fascism. And the number of proxy wars is far greater, if admittedly more difficult to prove. This was in the name of defeating fundamentalism. This, we failed to question as the incursions began.
So this blind support for our nation continued, as did our support for Israel. And I, as a fourteen year old, was left wondering why I was being accused of not supporting America because I found George Bush idiotic and the pretense for our wars dubious. Yet these conversations, while unpleasant, didn't strike me as outwardly hateful.
Strangely, it took until Social Studies class--until "constructive conversation"--for students to truly express themselves. Some students simply seemed to want to know more.
"Who are they?"
Some were naïve.
"Why do they hate us?"
But some were just loathsome. I still vividly remember sitting in a row across from one student, David. He was a wealthy Jewish kid from a well-educated family, who most of the time sounded liberal. Yet as our teacher prompted the conversation of terrorism, and particularly the relationship between the Intifada and the "war on terror", David seized the opportunity to parade his perspective.
"These people are animals! They just want to kill us in the name of their God."
The word animals rang through my ears; it still pierces my memory. A few heads nodded in agreement.
"How can you say that?" I said.
I was outspoken. So I tried, and failed, to calmly explain that while certain people's actions were reprehensible, we can't categorize everyone as sub-human.
"We should just bulldoze Gaza and kill every last one of them," He shrieked.
I lost my calm.
"You think that's not genocide? How is that different than the Holocaust?" I yelled.
"Because it's true," David said.
"Its not! You're saying the same thing the Nazis did!"
"You're a bad Jew," He said, his voice trembling.
"You're a bad person," I responded.
The teacher interrupted us, trying, and failing, to get the class--or maybe just David and I--to calm down. David couldn't help himself. He ended the conversation by telling me to watch my back. He had older friends, and I didn't doubt he would get them to harass me. Yet I was more hurt by the idea that someone could actually think that way; a Jew, of all people--one of my people--could advocate such profound hatred.
I stayed after class to talk to the teacher. I wasn't in trouble, but I wasn't quite certain how David escaped reprimand.
"I just wanted him to understand that if someone has a perspective--even a terrorist--we have to try to understand it," I said.
"What about the idea of getting 40 virgins for killing innocent people?" He said, his deep voice belying wisdom he didn't possess.
"We have to try to understand that, too."
I half-smiled, realizing he would condescend to me; I thanked him for talking with me, and quickly walked away. In my adolescent years, I don't think I ever felt so profoundly misunderstood.
I realize, twelve years later, that this was the face of fundamentalism. It may end in a cave in Afghanistan, or in an ivory tower filled with wealthy businesspeople, but it doesn't begin there. It begins with fresh eyes and young faces that see danger; who, though only fourteen, quickly become twenty-six, then forty-six, and so on. They too, someday take the reigns of power.