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When You Step in the Shoes of the Stranger, Beware

When You Step in the Shoes of the Stranger, Beware

Mans head facing away from the camera wearing a white kippah embroidered with a white Star of David

Adam Armoush, a 21-year-old Israeli Arab wanted to prove to a friend that it was safe to wear a kippah in Berlin. His experiment proved just the opposite. In broad day light in the affluent neighborhood of Prenzlauer, he was attacked by three men hurling insults at the Yehudi (Arabic word for Jew).

While being beaten with a belt, Armoush managed to capture on video one of the attackers, a 19-year-old Palestinian from Syria identified by the police as Knaan S.

“Honestly, I’m a little surprised a thing like this could happen,” Armoush said in an interview with Israeli television.

Were he a Jew, he would not have been surprised at all. According to German government figures, an average of four anti-Semitic crimes per day were reported in the past two years, the majority of them committed by right-wing radicals.

What began as a friendly wager seems to have touched a defiant nerve in Armoush, who declared, “I’ll keep the kippah [head-covering], no matter what others think.”

A dear friend of mine conducted a similar experiment in the 1970s, when she travelled to Poland wearing a Jewish star around her neck to gauge the reactions. She was in the process of converting to Judaism, but midway, she felt the need to reassess the Polish heritage she was about to abandon.

After encountering anti-Semitism at every turn, she returned from Poland and completed her conversion. My friend lived the rest of her life as a devoted Jew.

The idea of changing one’s outward identity to experience what it feels like to be a member of a persecuted minority is the basis of John Howard Griffin’s controversial book Black Like Me (1961). The author, a white man from a privileged Texas family, used medication and other skin-darkening methods to pass as a black man. He then traveled throughout the racially segregated South and endured the insults and hardships of blacks, ranging from not being able to find a restroom to barely escaping a physical assault.

As Griffin’s book gained worldwide attention for so dramatically exposing racism in the Deep South of the ‘50s, he received a flood of fan mail. But back in his hometown of Mansfield, TX, a mob burned his effigy on Main Street and threatened him with castration. Griffin and his family escaped to Mexico.

Mark Twain took up this theme of calling out social equality and judging others by their appearance in his historical fiction novel, The Prince and the Pauper (1881). Set in 1547, two English lads identical in appearance change places. One is Tom Canty, a pauper who lives with his abusive father; the other is Prince Edward, son of King Henry VIII.

As Edward experiences the brutal life of a London pauper firsthand, including prison, he becomes aware of the widespread suffering of the English masses.

At the end of the story, Edward regains his royal status, is crowned King Edward VI of England, and he appoints Tom to the privileged position of the King's Ward.

Though Edward died at the age of 15, Twain tells us, he reigned mercifully as a result of his experiences as a pauper.

In each of these three stories, the person who conceals his or her identity to experience life on the other side of the divide comes away with empathy for, or at least a better understanding of those who live in fear and are denied equal justice.

As Jews, we do not have to pose as others to feel their pain, for at the heart of Jewish ethics is the biblical commandment: “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 23:9).

But for those of us who might have the urge to step into the shoes of the stranger: Beware!

Aron Hirt-Manheimer is the Union for Reform Judaism's editor-at-large.
Photo credit: Rose Eichenbaum

Aron Hirt-Manheimer
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