That is not, by any means, an exaggeration
With only one week left to go, I'm sorta wrapping up my summer in the DRC. Nothing really new has happened, other than the fact that most of my roommates have already left. It is just me and Tiffany now, and it certainly is a lot less interesting/hilarious than it was with all 5 of us. Oh, and they made us move AGAIN. That's right, AGAIN. We left our gorgeous house (and unfortunately I didn't get a picture of the lovely pool) and have moved into an apartment complex right next door. It was really incovenient and everything, and we had really settled nicely into the old house. The apartment is fine and I'll only have to stay there a week, but it was just super inconvenient to have to move everything again.
Anyway, today I went to CALI (the Congolese American Language Institute) to speak at their English club. Every week or so they get a native speaker to talk to their English club about various topics. I decided that I wanted to talk about Judaism/being Jewish/Israel etc. I thought it would be mildly interesting to them since there are approximately 0 Jews in the DRC and I figured that they would probably hold a ton of awful stereotypes that I could try and correct. I started out with just a basic introduction to Judaism, basic beliefs, holidays, traditions, etc. They looked generally interested in what I was saying, but seemed pretty bewildered by all the 'foreign' terms I was introducing to them (Torah, Zionism, rabbi, antisemitism); I got the impression that I might as well be talking to them about aliens. They actually had a pretty solid understanding of what the Holocaust was, but didn't have much of a historical background on antisemitism. At first, they asked me a lot of questions about the differences between Christianity and Judaism, like "What is the difference between Passover and Easter?" "Why is the Sabbath on Saturday and not Sunday?" "What do Jews think of Jesus?"and things like that. But as we continued talking, I got more bizarre questions, such as, "Why do Americans think Jesus was white?" "What is Mother Nature?" "Is the pope in charge of the Jews?" They inevitably asked me if I was Jewish, and when I said yes, they responded, "Well you are rich, then!" I then asked them to elaborate more on what they thought Jews are like, and they said things like, "They're clever...genius!...powerful...wealthy." I tried not to laugh, and explained that it is true that Jews have made important contributions to humanity with regard to science, math, philosophy, finance, law, entertainment, music, etc., but that their perceptions of Jews were based on common stereotypes. From there, I talked to them about what a streotype is, how streotypes are formed, and how they are inaccurate. They were a bit confused at first, but seemed to understand when I gave this example of a streotype: "All Congolese people are good dancers." I asked them to try and keep an open-mind, and to not indulge in such gross generalizations, even if they appeared to be positive. All in all, I'm just so glad they didn't bring up the whole "Jews killed Jesus" bit. I'm not sure how I would have handled that.
They also wanted to talk about why the U.S. government has traditionally been so pro-Israel, and they gave me truly bizarre comments. One person said that it was because "Jews are in positions of power in America," and another one said they because they "control the government." One person even said it was "because George Bush is Jewish...or maybe Clinton." I couldn't help but laugh out loud at that. I guess they assumed that since George Bush is so pro-Israel, he must be Jewish. I tried to respond to this diplomatically, and said that there are many people of all religions who support Israel, and conversely, that there many Jewish people who are in favor of the creation of a Palestinian state. I tried to explain the logic that was used to create a Jewish state, and I gave them a bit of background on Zionism. None of them were familiar with the concept of Zionism, nor had any idea that the Holocaust and the creation of Israel were in any way related. Of course, the students wanted to know my opinion on all of this, but I was careful NOT to give it to them. I explained that I simply wanted to get them to talk about these issues, so that I could fill in their gaps of knowledge, and correct what I saw as misperceptions, misinformation and stereotypes.
At the end of the talk, they wanted to know about religion in America. I talked to them about our tradition of freedom of religion, to which they listened intently. I told them how most people in the U.S. are Protestant; however, all kinds of religions from around the world are represented there, which is reflective of the diverse population as a whole. They seemed very impressed by all of that and nodded back in agreement.
Reflecting on the experience, I'm really glad I had the opportunity to talk with these kids about issues that were incredibly foreign to them. Hopefully at least some of the things we talked about made an impression on them. For the most part, they seemed to understand that much of what they had previously thought was based on preconceived, inaccurate notions. However, when I was about to leave, a girl still came up to me and told me that "I must be rich." Sigh, at least I tried. Maybe I at least peaked their interest enough for them to learn more about these issues themselves.