Validating a child’s cultural identity

We all know about how much damage parents can do to children. But sometimes society, even when it means well, can do much worse. Yair Ronen trained as a lawyer specializing in the rights of children. Unhappy with the way the law seemed too impersonal, he studied counselling. Now he is a tenured senior lecturer at Ben Gurion University.

Ronen has just published “Re-understanding the Child’s Right to Identity: On Belonging, Responsiveness and Hope” (Brill Nijhoff). It raises fascinating issues as it contrasts Jewish spiritual perspectives, thinkers as Levinas and the Lubavitcher Rebbe, with the failures of doctrinaire secular societies to understand and respond to the cultural and identity needs of children. It is a short, academic work, but very stimulating and well worth reading.

The law claims to recognize the need to protect children. Western societies talk a lot about protecting rights and human dignity. But in their secular fundamentalism they tend to overlook one of the most important element in a child’s development which is his cultural identity.

Neither the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the child nor the European convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms explicitly uphold the need to have and preserve a sense of identity.

Or as Ronen puts it “Legal protection of the child’s right to human dignity does not guarantee protection of an individualized identity…the child’s need “to be” his authentic self. This involves the need to be and to become…we need policies of difference or identity which sees suppressing distinctness by a dominant or majority identity as the cardinal sin against authenticity.”

Ronen’s personal experience informs his work. He was born in Israel to Iranian parents. Like many immigrant families in the early years of Israel’s existence, he felt the prejudice of the European Ashkenazi Jews. The atmosphere in Israel in the first thirty years of the State was one in which the secular ideology of the elite looked down on religion and tried its best to impede or discourage it.

Ronen’s family moved to London for a few years where he went to school. There he encountered a very different world, different ways of dealing with prejudice. Anglo Jews tended to suppress their issues with identity and the prevailing anti-Semitism. They were expected to play down Jewish identity in public. In some this led to an aggressive reaction.

This is particularly relevant in Israel. Well over a million refugees from Arab lands came to Israel after 1948. Some driven out others eagerly left persecution. Their culture was Arabic as well as Jewish. Their music, literature, language, mentalities, values and passions were oriental not occidental. They were more sympathetic to tradition than most Ashkenazi Jews. And they were made to feel less because of it.

The result was some disastrous social engineering. For example, in the early years unaccompanied immigrant minors were sent to Youth Aliyah villages where they were denied religious services by the secular agencies for immigration. The Religious Parties protested and negotiated a deal whereby 25% of unaccompanied minors would be sent to religious absorption centers.

In 1958, after the religious quota had been filled, a boat arrived from Morocco with religious children. They were packed off to a secular Youth Aliyah center near Haifa. The yeshivah where I was studying had been alerted to their plight and we were encouraged to visit the village in support of the children. We were refused entry. Though the wire fences we spoke to them. Some were crying because they were denied all religious services and the staff were constantly upbraiding and teasing them for being old fashioned. There was nothing we could do. The Religious Parties had to stand by their agreement. Incidentally this was the beginning of my distaste for religious party politics. But nothing could better illustrate the cultural imperialism of doctrinaire socialism.

Israel has another problem validating the cultures of its Arab populations, both Muslim and Christian. It has not done enough to make these minorities and hence their children feel validated. Even if under the law they are equal. Of course, those living in the Palestinian territories are under their own agencies and there the problems are magnified by their policy of incitement and intentional alienation.

But this problem of cultural identity is now much wider. It threatens to undermine European society and create tensions that could well destroy it. The reaction of Liberal individualism, damages the individual as it allows societies to demand that the individual abandon his or her group identity in order to be a “rights bearing citizen” rather than an autonomous individual. Young disaffected Muslim immigrants react with anger and violence to a situation in which they feel under educated, under employed and under respected.

In Britain twenty years ago all immigrants from East of the Mediterranean were regarded as part of the Asian racial minority. Social policy was that a single or at risk child was placed with someone of a racial minority. This meant that a Muslim child from Bangladesh would be placed with a Black Christian from Jamaica rather than a white Muslim from the UK. Race had to go with race regardless of religion. Multiculturalism (however one defines it) had not yet become the buzzword. Indeed, courts in the UK have defined Judaism as a racial minority rather than a religious one. Governments, NGOs, even movie stars are all too busy pursuing their own ideological or personal agendas. They fail to see the damage they often cause by pursuing human rights as they define them without considering cultural and religious identities.

Ronen refers a lot to Levinas whereas I prefer to go further back to the Torah. There, with regard to the “other,” it insists on a contractual obligation, to abandon paganism in exchange for equal civil rights. But the Torah goes further. It insists on understanding the nature, the soul, the characteristic of the other, the stranger. “And you must surely understand the soul of the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt” Exodus 23.9. It is the level of understanding that comes from experiencing similar alienation that compels one to recognize the similar state in others. Similarly, the repeated coupling in the Torah of the terms Mishpat, Justice, with Tsedek, moral value, underlines the importance of tempering justice with understanding and empathy

There is a complication of course. Any of us involved in education, will know that one of the biggest problems is in weighing sympathy for the miscreant and his or her background against the negative impact such a person may have on others and indeed the wider society. This has now become a major issue in Europe where moral sensitivity toward refugees has created challenging conditions for society at large. It has certainly been at the root of the debate in Israel on how to balance self- protection with sensitivity towards the occupied. Who is dong greater harm, one might wonder. Those who occupy or those who train children to hate?

Ronen does us the great service in forcing us to recognize that the child is so dependent on others and therefore vulnerable (in the best of societies, let alone the worst). His great contribution is to insist that we consider the child’s sense of identity within a framework of other rights. We need to appreciate the security that comes when identity is reinforced and validated. And the insecurity that follows from its being ignored. Ronen’s work deserve wide recognition.

About the Author
Jeremy Rosen is an English born Orthodox rabbi, graduate of Mir Yeshivah and Cambridge University. He was a lecturer at WUJS Arad, and former headmaster of Carmel College, Professor and Chairman of the faculty for Comparative Religion in Antwerp and Rabbi in Scotland London and now in New York. His weekly blog is at