Teachable Moments, Sans Teachers

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published August 05, 2009, issue of August 14, 2009.
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I confess: When it first occurred, I didn’t think that Henry Louis Gates’s contretemps with Sergeant James Crowley of the Cambridge police could be much of “a teachable moment.” At the time, the whole episode, so vastly blown out of proportion, seemed to me best forgotten, a not especially surprising misunderstanding in an unusually awkward context.

But then President Obama weighed in, and the need to make of the episode a teachable moment became quite clear. For what is a teachable moment? It is an opportunity generated by external events, one from which important lessons can be learned. And the first lesson to be learned, in the case at hand, was surely that no one, having admitted to ignorance of the facts, should then proceed to a conclusion. No one — and especially not the president of the United States, who in fact began his first remarks on the matter by saying, “I don’t know all the facts,” and less than a minute later asserted that the Cambridge police had behaved stupidly.

Given the publicity that assertion begat, a genuine teachable moment arrived. But it turned out to be rather different from what might have been anticipated, for in the end, the president provided the occasion, not the message; it was Gates and Crowley who turned their encounter around. Gates, presumably speaking for both men, made clear that we’d all be better off if we had both more appreciation for the difficulty of law enforcement and for the special sensitivities of people of color, so often the victims of unwarranted suspicion, or, as we have come to call it, “racial profiling.”

The thing about teachable moments is that they require a teacher, someone who can, in fact, see the lesson or lessons to be learned and make good use of the circumstance. Here, Obama excelled; the “beer summit” was a smash success.

Like trees that fall in a forest where there’s no one to hear them, potential teachable moments come and go in profusion, unheard, unused. I have in mind one such, which might have been an immensely important opportunity but which was, as far as I can tell, of only the most peripheral consequence. (Oddly, President Obama, through no fault of his own, had a part to play in this one, too.)

In a lengthy report by Ethan Bronner in The New York Times of July 29, we learn that in response to the perception that the United States is pressuring Israel on the matter of settlements, “several thousand settlers gathered on a dozen West Bank hills” to establish unauthorized outposts. No big news there; that sort of thing happens frequently, although the goal this time was especially ambitious. But the Israeli public is used to these shenanigans, and little was made of the incident.

Bronner’s article included a tidbit of information that might have served to frame a teachable moment — might have, but did not. One Rabbi Yigael Shandorfi, described as a “leader of a religious academy” in a West Bank outpost, used “insulting Hebrew slang for a black man” to refer to President Obama and called him “that Arab they call a president.” (Shandorfi, it turns out, was found guilty in February 2008 of disturbing the peace, this because he instigated “hooliganism” by encouraging young people to assault Israeli soldiers and damage military vehicles as the army was trying to clear an illegal outpost. He was sentenced to 140 hours of community service.)

This is what is said of the man who leads Israel’s unshakable ally and who has repeatedly reaffirmed the deep friendship that exists between our two countries. This is what is said by a man whose fantastical intoxications jeopardize the Jewish state — not because Obama may be offended, but because Shandorfi poisons hundreds of young people, giving them a sense of divine entitlement that is ominous, turning them into near-carbon copies of Hamas militants, down to their face-covering masks.

Thinking, naively as it turns out, that Shandorfi’s statement might have scandalized the country, I called an old friend in Jerusalem, a long-time peace activist and a noted journalist. “So?” she responded. “Happens all the time. And worse.” She went on to describe the frequent use among some Israelis of the phrase “eved ki yimloch,” rule by a slave, to refer to the Obama administration.

The question: Where is the teacher who can issue the appropriate j’accuse? A leading rabbi, perhaps? The minister of religious services? The prime minister himself?

Worst case: The tree in the forest falls. There are people all around. They are deaf, and hear nothing as the tree comes down on their heads.

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