In 1949, Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein won several Tony Awards for their blockbuster musical, South Pacific. However, it also drew its critics and controversy for it covered uncomfortable territory. Its romantic tension was based on interracial romance, a strong taboo at the time. And the lyrics of the song in the show that addressed this tension, You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught, made too many people uncomfortable:
You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear, you’ve got to be taught from year to year
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
Rodgers and Hammerstein were repeatedly asked to drop the song. The Georgia state legislature even drafted a bill banning the song during the national tour’s stop in Atlanta in 1954. The bill was defeated. In Boston, a Navy lieutenant commander demanded that the number be cut because it was shoving ideology down the audience’s throats. Hammerstein wrote back, “Please forgive me for not agreeing with you. I am most anxious to make the point not only that prejudice exists and is a problem, but that its birth lies in teaching and not in the fallacious belief that there are biological, physiological, and mental differences between the races…”
Although we come into this world with the inclination to do both good and evil, Jews believe people are born innocent. As the song clearly states, we have to be taught to hate. And make no mistake, evil and hatred are taught – and they must be taught from year to year, systematically, to take root and spread.
Fear can also be taught, as when we are taught to fear those who are different from us. Unfortunately, our brains are still neurologically wired to fear, as a survival mechanism from ancient times, to protect the tribe. Sadly we see the results of hate all around us. Racial issues in our own country, and the intolerant speech of many politicians, is concerning here at home.
And then there is the hatred that morphs into pure evil; the evil we have been experiencing in Israel by psychotic terrorists stabbing innocent people, and the mass murder of innocent people in Paris this past Friday, and earlier in the Sinai and Beirut. In these cases, it is radical Islam that is evil. Extremism by any group of people that results in the loss of liberty and freedom, and results in the death of those who are different from the extremist groups, is evil!
These extremists and murderers were not born this way. They were taught by their parents and by their teachers and by the elders in their community. And until that changes the evil and murderous acts of these people will continue. As you read this, Fatah, in the Palestinian territory, is teaching its children that Israel perpetrated the murders in Paris.
Tolerance must be taught. Respect for life must be taught. Justice and compassion for our fellow human beings must be taught.
When President Obama stated that the attack on Paris was an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share, I cringed. I cringed because my first reaction was that there are no universal values. If there were, this kind of evil could not be taught, embraced or perpetrated. These extremists do not value human life or the rights of individuals. They are not compassionate or merciful.
And then I reminded myself – there are universal values, universal values that we, as Jews, introduced to humanity; the universal values based on the attributes of an ethical monotheistic God. These values include justice, mercy and compassion for all human life!
In all of this darkness, we Jews cannot forget that we introduced this light to the world. But just like hate and fear must be taught, we must, with a full heart and a sense of urgency, make sure we teach our children the values of our people – the values of our God. We must not only teach them these values, we must show them through our own actions and words how to live by these values through their speech and most importantly, their actions!
In every society, children are viewed as the hope of the future. Among the Jewish people this notion is enriched by the view that children are a Divine trust, and guarantors of the future. The Book of Psalms declares “children are an inheritance from the Lord.” And through teaching our children, we can change the world for good and for peace!
May the memories of the victims of the most recent wave of terrorism, whether in Israel, France, Egypt, or Lebanon be a source of good, and the impetus to teach all of the children of God’s world, God’s universal values of justice, compassion and mercy for all of humanity!