The 12th of October was Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). This is the very highest of High Holidays and is observed by the religious by resting, fasting and praying. For the non-religious like us, this is a day of bicycle trips on the highways, as not a single person drives that day. People take their kids out for a day of cycling fun. Also, it’s not uncommon to bitch about religious people and the way they run the country. As I wondered aloud if we were offending fasting people by eating our picnic in public, my husband declared: “Well, they shouldn’t be fasting in public. It’s offensive to me.” Giggle.
That was not very nice of us, no. But we still hid behind our backpacks. We didn’t actually want to cause offense. We consider ourselves tolerant, respectful people. But how tolerant are we, really..? Do I owe anyone an aoplogy on this Day of Atonement?
On Yom Kippur, people formally ask for forgiveness from God and everyone else for sins committed during the past year. This usually takes the shape of generic “Sorry if I hurt you” messages being shared on social media, which again causes scoffing from the non-religious for its fakeness.
This is a “sorry” message that the kids in my youngest son’s preschool were given to bring home. It reads: “Sorry mummy and daddy that I sometimes do bad things.” Yes, I was as horrified as you are. These kids are 4-5 years old. What on earth can they do that merits a formal apology? Also, there are several kids in that preschool who don’t have a daddy. This is wrong on so many levels. When I asked my son if he knew what the message meant, he said: “It’s because I always annoy you.” Ack!! We hugged him tightly and assured him that he NEVER annoyed us. OK, we lied, but it was necessary. Learning to say sorry is important, yes. But not like this. It only works if you really feel repentance for a specific mistake you made and you are mature enough to actually know what the words “forgive me” mean.
I confess I made my animals fast on the morning of Yom Kippur. We went on our bike tour early in the morning to avoid the heat, and then I had a flat tire so I had to walk all the way back, meaning that I only fed the animals at 2 PM. I apologised formally to them while they glared at me reproachfully.
What brought on this philosophical mindset, you ask? Well, I’ve been reading a book. A new novel by one of my favourite authors: Jodi Picoult. The book is called Small Great Things. Jodi Picoult is a pro at tackling difficult subjects, such as religion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, etc. But this is her most uncomfortable subject yet: racism. And she does it phenomenally. I thought after I read “The Help” that I knew what “white privilege” meant. Turns out, I didn’t know a thing. I am now painfully aware and acutely embarrassed.
Because I am practically the poster child for white privilege. Looking like a stereotypical Northern European is very convenient. I am in fact an immigrant here, but I’ve almost always been accepted and welcomed, my blond children cooed over. How very different it must be to be an immigrant arriving with nothing from Africa.
I also understand better now just how deep the racial issue runs in the USA. When I lived in Holland and worked in a shop, I can’t remember ever being asked to shadow a black customer or ever feeling the need to. But that doesn’t mean it was a prejudice-free heaven. Once, we had a sign up outside the shop inviting people to apply for a job. A pair of young Moroccan girls came in and told me they’d like to apply. I went to my boss and indicated the girls, telling her that we had applicants. My boss took one look at their head coverings and dismissively told me: “No”. Leaving me to awkwardly explain to the girls that actually, there were no job vacancies after all. I still cringe when I think about it.
What must it be like to encounter this again and again? People dismissing you just because of your skin colour, the way you dress or your weight? I must admit I have only the faintest of ideas. The only time I ever felt prejudged was when my husband’s religious co-worker expressed her horror that he married a non-Jewish woman – without ever having met me. I felt hurt. And angry. I can imagine that it makes you very, very angry if you encounter this sort of thing constantly.
All of this makes me wonder if animals are any more tolerant than we are? They don’t seem to care much about colour. Black, brown, white or multicoloured – they mix easily. But what about more radical differences? Breeds, species? On to Google we go.
The first thing I found out doesn’t make the human species look good. Apparently, people prefer white and colourful pets over black ones. Shelters call it the “Black Dog Syndrome”, when after adoption day, the dogs that are still left in the shelter are all black. This post by Katzenworld tells us that black cats are often passed over because they are apparently less suitable for selfies. How shallow can you get!!
There is some evidence of discrimination based on looks amongst animals, but it is hard to pin down exactly what it is. Animals are naturally drawn to other animals that look most like themselves. Can you call this racism or is it simply nature? When I look at my own animals, it is clear that the animals of each species keep to themselves or to those species most similar to them. Rabbits hang out together, but if there are no other rabbits around, they will bond to guinea pigs. I’ve seem them grooming each other and cuddling. Very cute! But they will not bond to a chicken or duck. They are simply too different.
By far the most psychologically messed-up animal I have is Shulman, a duck who is a hybrid between two species of duck; muscovy and mallard. He doesn’t know to which species he belongs and with whom he should mate. Both species avoid him, although he recently seems to have settled among the muscovies. I think they have communication problems though – his voice is different from theirs.
Another species-bridging situation is when a chicken hen broods on the eggs of another bird. My hens are not picky about which eggs they sit on. Chicken, guinea fowl, duck – it doesn’t matter to them. They will mother whatever hatches. As long as it looks like a bird I suppose! I don’t know if they would care for baby tortoises or snakes. But the mothering instinct definitely crosses species boundaries.
So, the bottom line is… How tolerant am I really, being as privileged as I am? I’m not entirely sure. Being Dutch, I have learned not to see white as superior to black. But you cannot live in Israel and be blind to the heavily segregated society here. Everyone has the same rights on paper, but in reality this is a long way off. People are vocal about their hate and prejudice. It is hard to think straight when you’re scared you might be blown up. But it takes a more courageous and better informed person than me to discuss strained Jewish-Arab relations, so this is where I stop.
Being privileged – white, European, thin, straight – I have probably hurt people without even realising it. I might have said insensitive things without knowing I was doing it, because to me, it’s simply not an issue. For that, I apologise, from the bottom of my heart. 💚