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Children’s Cultural Identities


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 counseling. 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. It raises fascinating issues. It contrasts Jewish spiritual perspectives, thinkers such as Levinas and the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who place a lot of emphasis on a child’s sense of cultural and religious self, 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 elements in a child’s development, which is his cultural ( and that includes the spiritual) 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 upholds 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 see 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 Jewish 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 30 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 Jewish refugees from Arab lands came to Israel after 1948. Some were forced out of the countries where they had been living, 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 yeshiva 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, including the children, feel that their cultures are validated—even if under the law they are equal. Of course, those living in the Palestinian territories are under their own educational, social and political agencies. 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 in that it allows societies to demand that citizens should ideally abandon their group identities in order to be “rights bearing citizens” rather than culturally autonomous. Young disaffected Muslim immigrants react with anger and violence to a situation in which they feel undereducated, underemployed, and under-respected.

In Britain 20 years ago, all immigrants from east of the Mediterranean were regarded as part of the Asian racial minority. Social policy was that a parentless 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. Minority had to go with minority, 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 alienation that compels one to recognize the similar state in others. Also, 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 knows that one of the biggest problems is weighing sympathy for the miscreant and his or her background against the negative impact such a person may have on others and, indeed, on 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 of forcing us to recognize that the child is 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. I must admit to having a very high personal regard for Yair. But on its own merits, his work deserves wide recognition.

3 thoughts on “Children’s Cultural Identities

  1. The book looks fascinating, but right now it is very expensive ($100+ dollars). Pity because it is an important topic and one that is often glossed over in the Jewish community (where many times the focus is on unifying under a common 'Jewish' umbrella and not acknowledging or downplaying our unique ethnic and cultural backgrounds). This issue is at the forefront for me since I just had my first child a few months ago.

    I'll keep an eye on it though; maybe the price may come down after it's been out for a while longer.

    1. Yes I am sorry it is so expensive. It's put out by an academic publisher who assumes only libraries will buy it!
      but if you contact the author Yair Ronen at roneny3(at) he might be able to email you a copy of it.

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