My partner is a lawyer who works with asylum seekers and other immigrants here in the Czech Republic (ČR). She’s amazing at her job and I’m constantly in awe of her passion and commitment along with her righteous anger at systematic injustices. In fact just last week, her workplace, together with a consortium of other immigration organizations in the ČR, helped organize a demonstration in the center of Prague to protest the Czech Republic’s refusal to admit Syrian children and their families into the country. She invited me to attend the event with her. I went.
It was my first time attending a public demonstration in Europe. It was moving to see many of her co-workers there and inspiring to listen to the passionate speeches against xenophobia, Islamophobia, racism, the plight of the Roma people as well as the need to come together and welcome diversity. In addition, there were signs in Czech, German and English saying “No One is Illegal,” “End Xenophobia,” “Do Syrian Children Have to Wait for their (Nicholas) Winton?” “I want to have a Syrian Friend!” and “Refugees Welcome!” I wanted to hold each one of those signs!
Yet as I stood there, I began to fear for our physical safety. Would this event get out of hand? Would someone go to extremes to stop it? How would the police respond if someone got out-of-hand? I was scared.
This was not the first time I’ve been scared here. Just last week, the class I was supposed to teach at Charles University was cancelled because of a bomb threat. Every time, I go to Shabbat services, I have to pass through and be questioned by security. The Kehillah has a similar set-up with an entry interview with a video camera before anyone will unlock the door to let you inside. Given the rise in anti-Semitism on the European continent, I’m scared to wear anything that would identify me as Jewish. I know that in many ways being able to hide who I am is a privilege other minorities do not have. Yet, Jews have never been able to blend in as much as some of us thought we could. Even when some of us have shared the same skin color as those with power. The demonstration that worked for diversity and acceptance had almost nothing to say about the rising anti-Semitism in Europe.
Fear is a powerful force. Fear can heighten our senses and help us protect ourselves in dangerous situations. In this way, fear is a basic human instinct. Yet, there is another kind of fear, one created by the patriarchal societies we inhabit. These two sides of fear became quite visible to me this weekend when I watched the Oscar-nominated movie Wild. Cheryl is consistently scared in two different situations, one natural (sleeping alone in the desert) and the other patriarchal (men being sexually threatening).
Yet, one wonders is our fear of the natural world part of this patriarchal aspect of fear as well? As I have been preparing to teach a class on feminism and the environmental movements, I am constantly reminded of the ways in which humans have distanced ourselves from the natural world. Just as much as some men see women as the other, some white people see non-white people as the other, some straight people see members of the LGBT community as the other, some people see immigrants as the other and some Christians and Muslims see Jews as the other and vice versa, so too do many of us see nature as the other. We return to that basic patriarchal dualism: the hierarchical valuing of men over women, culture over nature, white over black, rich over poor, straight over queer, mind over body, etc. Therefore, one could argue that our fear of nature is learned, cultural, patriarchal fear as well.
I’m apt to agree. Yet, where fear comes from and how it is reproduced bothers me less than what we do about it. If we let it, fear can control our lives. Just as patriarchy can.
This is where I struggle with the concept of fear. I admit that I have real fears. There are some interpersonal interactions and other situations that genuinely scare me. Everyone has them. How do we judge which fear is justified and which is not? How do we rise above our fears? Do we need a healthy sense of fear to protect ourselves from danger? Perhaps, most difficult for me, how do we work for justice, rights, safety, freedom and peace when we are scared?
When I used to teach “Christianity in Context” at Merrimack College, I often asked students when we have studied the martyrs of early Christianity if there was a cause for which they would be willing to die. In an existential way, that question has always felt theoretical both for them and for me, I think. But, standing in that march to support Syrian immigrants, I realized just how non-theoretical the question really is. Walking into the Kehillah or into shuls for Shabbat services, I’m reminded weekly just how non-theoretical that question really is. Holding my partner’s hand as we walk through parts of Europe and the United States, I’m reminded daily just how non-theoretical that question really is. So the question becomes not what cause might I be willing to risk my life for, but rather am I willing to risk my life in order to live my life in an authentic way?
Being anti-patriarchal is just being me, fears and all. Embracing both my Jewishness and my queer identity is just being me. Being on the side of justice, rights, safety, equality and freedom for humans and nature alike is just being me. All of these are not just causes for which I stand, these are essential characteristics of who I am and how I see the world.
While I think I’m still going to listen to my fears and modify some behavior when I need to do so, I also know that if being myself puts me in harm’s way, so be it. I’m willing to be scared in order to protect the rights of others and myself. I’m willing to be scared in order to attend services. I’m willing to risk my life to live authentically. Justice demands as much and my hope for a better future tells me that my effort is not in vain.
But, that doesn’t mean that on occasion my heart still won’t be pounding in my chest.
Ivy A. Helman, Ph. D. is a US feminist scholar currently living abroad in Prague in the Czech Republic. Her most recent publications include: “Queer Systems: The Benefits of a More Systematic Approach to Queer Theology,” in CrossCurrents (March 2011) and Women and the Vatican: An Exploration of Official Documents(2012).