You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught

(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Teaching Tolerance; Defying Hatred

On a quiet Shabbat morning two years ago, Pittsburgh’s Jewish community suffered the most brutal anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history. When a gunman opened fire in the Tree of Life – Or L’Simcha Congregation building, he took the lives of 11 innocent people across three communities: Dor Hadash, New Light, and Tree of Life – Or L’Simcha.

The rising anti-semitism that we are experiencing in the United States and around the world does not happen in a vacuum. In fact, as with all hate, it has to be carefully taught.

In 1949, Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein won several Tony Awards for their blockbuster musical, South Pacific. However, it also drew critics and controversy for it covered uncomfortable territory: romantic tension based on interracial romance, a strong taboo at the time. The lyrics of the song in the show that addressed this tension, You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught, made 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 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 for 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. 

Sadly, we see the results of hate all around us. The increase in anti-Semitic incidents, the mass shooting at the Tree of life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, and the many others before and after, racial issues in our own country, the intolerant and divisive speech of politicians, are all concerning here at home.  We are drawing more and more lines, separating from and demonizing the “other.”  Hate speech has all but been normalized. Our children observe these actions, and hear the divisive, hateful language of adults around them.

Tolerance and respect for life must be taught. Justice and compassion for our fellow human beings must be taught. 

We, as Jews and as parents, who want to fashion a better world for our children, must lead the way. Regardless of faith, ethnicity or race, 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.

Amidst all of the 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, 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 them. 

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!

About the Author
Steve is Head of School of Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County after serving for sixteen years as Head of School at Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit. He also served as Educational Director of Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park, PA. for thirteen years. Steve has taught and mentored new educational leaders, has led sessions on leadership and change at Jewish Educational Conferences, and at Independent School Conferences.
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