It's the night before Christmas and all thru the town,
Neither Santa nor Christmas trees are to be found...

It's Friday night, the night before Christmas, and I am in Israel. It is also the Sabbath. And I am Jewish.

I've spent the last week teaching Psychology and Law here just north of Tel Aviv. It's my first trip to Israel and the other day we went to the Old City of Jerusalem. It was astonishing - we were walking down a street with dozens of shops selling Jewish goods (e.g., menorahs and yarmulkes), then we turned a corner and were on the Via Dolorosa with its Stations of the Cross and churches, then we turned another corner and were in the Arab Market.

But I don't want to talk about religion or politics or war; I want to talk about... people and group identities.

Every weekend, one of my neighbors in the U.S. plays music so loud that it prevents me from sleeping. But no one - the police, the newspaper - wants to do or say anything about it. Why? Because the music comes from the bells of a nearby church. In the U.S., that seems unfair to me. The other day in Jerusalem, at sunset (when I was trying to nap), a Moslem call to prayers kept me awake. That seems appropriate.

In the U.S., it bothers me that on Sunday the train schedule is reduced and I can't buy a last minute gift when I visit my sister or brother in Bergen County, New Jersey. Yet, here in Israel, it doesn't bother me that the trains don't run on Saturday and that I teach on Sunday. As a friend noted, "Israel is proud to be a theocracy; the U.S. only pretends to have a separation of church and state." That's a good point; but I worry that it's not the only reason I am not bothered here.

In the U.S., although I like the decorations and good spirits evoked by the "Christmas Season", I find the relentless Christmas music in public places and incessant wishes for a "Merry Christmas" (why "merry?") oppressive.

In Israel, I am amused that if I say only "Shalom" or a Hebrew "Good morning" to a restaurant host or hostess, I will be handed the Hebrew menu - of which I understand not a word. People assume I am Jewish. People assume I am one of "them"; one of the majority; one of the group in charge. It is strange and empowering. And it makes me wonder what slights I am then (unintentionally) perpetrating against the Christian cab driver or the Palestinian shop owner.

There is that old saying that you will never understand a person until you've walked around in their shoes. And many have suggested that if you have always been a member of the majority population, you should try being a member of the minority sometime. But I think that if you are the member of a minority population, you should try being a member of the majority sometime. It's eye opening. And a little more understanding in both directions can't hurt... Shalom. Peace.

About the Author

Barbara A Spellman

Barbara A. Spellman is Professor of Law and Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia.

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