Later that day, I was overcome with a sense of déjà vu. I recognized that this mixture of fear and ignorance was all too familiar. I thought back to my high school, a public magnet school in a neighborhood of Northwest Jacksonville known for its poverty and its crime rate. I thought of the times I would stay late to watch a football or soccer game, or go see a play, and walk back to my car convinced that a Cadillac rambling through the pothole-covered road would be accessory to a drive-by shooting. My fear wasn’t completely unfounded: our classes were stopped from time to time by shooting victims running onto school grounds. Yet the fear dominated everything else. I never made an effort to interact with the community outside of our school, or to learn the history of that neighborhood. Instead, it was merely a collection of eight blocks I had to pass before I could roll down my windows and be in relative safety.
I think back to my high school self, and how much more racialized my worldview was back then. I was scared of black men. In a sense, my fear was a rational response to my spending time in an environment that looked very different than mine, an environment that I was told to be scared of by those around me whom I trusted to look after my safety. On a mental level, I knew it was ridiculous to be scared of such a broad range of people, but on a visceral level, my fear kicked in and told me that a black man in the neighborhood was more likely to hurt me than someone who looked like me, or came from my school. And it was hard for me to do anything about that visceral response.
Of course, we know all too well that a visceral response can be deadly, from Sanford, Florida to Ferguson, Missouri to Cleveland, Ohio a gas station right by my house to my house to the perhaps hundreds of other cases don’t make national news. A society that conflates “black” or “Arab” with “violent” is a crooked and oppressive one, as people from Palestinian citizens in Tel Aviv to the bandleader on Fallon’s The Tonight Show will tell you.
I thought I had gradually gotten rid of that visceral fear I used to feel in high school, and yet there I was on the Tel Aviv beach, recovering from another scare. And it wasn’t the last time I would feel scared in Israel. Luckily, though, I had friends there who wouldn’t let that fear paralyze me. They would take me to explore other parts of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, where I would see how peaceful the cities could be. My friends would take me to meet Palestinians in Bethlehem, where I would see that Palestinians a lot more reason to be scared of people who looked like me than I of people who looked like them. In a way, it was a pretty standard maturation process: I was scared of something, I learned more about it, and gradually I became less scared of that thing. It’s happened dozens of times in my life, from riding my first roller coaster to learning to drive a car to working my first job. It will happen, presumably, when I go to Malaysia next year.
Unfortunately, the powers that be in the U.S. and Israel too often allow and encourage people to stop at fear. We saw it in Israel’s last elections, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu turned the phenomenon of Arab citizens voting into a national crisis, in a statement that sounded like the decades-old Southern Strategy met Youtube. We see it now in Congress and in state governments, where governors and Members of Congress are peddling false information about the Paris terror attacks to shut the door on Syrian refugees. If they would take the time to learn about the screening process for refugees coming to the U.S., they might feel differently. But the politics of fear is an easy one: why risk telling people the truth when you can get away with telling people what they already believe to be true and come out ahead?
There’s not much like a trip to Israel to show you that the world is not, and has never been, a safe place. Terror is a part of the modern world, and we’re going to have moments that make our hair stand up and our skin crawl, and as we saw earlier this month, horrible tragedies. It’s only natural to respond to those tragedies with fear, but allowing fear to trump knowledge (or, perhaps, allowing Trump to make knowledge feared) can’t be the only answer—it only leads to more violence.