Searching for Role Models

By Samia Khoury
Thursday, April 1, 2004

All moral values that children learn at home and at school seem to be turned upside down when they face the real world. All those role models — parents, teachers, community leaders, and religious leaders — seem completely different as a child grows up and tries to live by those values.

In our region, it is very easy to blame this brutal military occupation for the erosion of moral values. Actually there is a lot of truth in that: every aspect of our life has been disrupted, and every value has been trampled upon by the occupation. So it is one of the biggest challenges for parents, teachers, and community and religious leaders to continue being role models despite all that is going on.

Of course it is easier said than done, because under such circumstances the law of the jungle prevails. Children’s respect for their parents often gets shattered when they realize that their parents are deviating from the values they brought them up on. Children watch and listen for the sad examples of when their parents are not telling the truth or are cheating in business in order to survive.

For school children, the teacher is absolutely infallible. I remember how my daughter reacted in kindergarten as she was starting to learn how to write. I looked at her copy book, and commented that one of the words was spelled incorrectly. She insisted that the teacher had written it that way, so it must be correct. I explained that the teacher could have been mistaken. But I could not win the argument because she insisted that the teacher does not make mistakes. What a disappointment it is for children to discover that the teacher not only makes mistakes, but could be dishonest or unfair.

But for those devout believers, no matter their faith, the disappointment is even bigger, and it hurts more and shakes their faith when they realize that some of their religious leaders do not adhere to the moral values that they propagate. Of course, when those leaders are trapped in a situation they can always claim that they are human. We are all human, and we can all be tempted to deviate from honesty, truthfulness or justice. But when a religious leader assumes the spiritual leadership of his or her community, the responsibility is much greater than that of an ordinary lay person. More is expected from those leaders so that their congregations or constituencies can lean on them in times of difficulties. With their support and inspiration, the community will have courage and hope to face the challenges and evils of everyday life under this brutal occupation.

We have a saying in Arabic that rhymes, which translates as follows: “The artifice or malice of priests has superseded that of women.” I think this is an insult to both priests and women, and an unacceptable generalization. But like all proverbs or sayings, a certain reality is reflected.

I can understand how oppressed women sometimes need to resort to devious methods, although it is never justified, but I cannot understand why priests need to be malicious or conniving. After all, when they choose the path of serving God by being spiritual leaders in their communities, they need to adhere to basic values such as humility, honesty, justice, sacrifice and forgiveness. But then, who am I to tell the priests what values they need to adhere to? They are supposed to know that themselves, and act accordingly to be role models for their communities. But it has to be noted that even Christ was apprehensive when he warned the crowds, “Obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach” (Matthew 23:3).

So as a concerned member of the community who looks up to religious leaders, irrespective of their faith, I worry when those leaders deviate from basic values. Once they cease to be role models, they may have no compunction to use the power that is invested in them in ways that could hurt the community and its reputation.

Civil society and community leaders have just as much of a responsibility towards their communities. The credibility of their work all depends on how much they adhere to moral values, and how transparent their performance is. They need to be role models so as to maintain the reputation of civil society organizations and guarantee the continuity of their services.

I am not going to refer to political leaders as role models. Politicians are a category of their own, and no matter where they are, their vested interests always seem to supersede all moral values. From my experience in living in this troubled land, hardly any of the leaders and politicians who have influenced the course of events in our region can be considered role models — whether they are Arab, Palestinian, Israeli, European, or American. In fact, when any country or government is blessed with a decent and honest leader who speaks out for our rights and for the justice of our cause, it comes as a big surprise and a fresh, soothing breeze of courage and honesty, but unfortunately whoever has that courage to speak out pays a heavy price.

We have watched the damage of the Israeli occupation on both the Palestinian and Israeli societies. It is an evil system that has dehumanized both peoples, the oppressor and the oppressed. Who will be our role models to get us out of this mess? The logical answer would have been the United Nations, which was established for the sole reason of setting values, standards and norms to solve world issues peacefully. Unfortunately, like the rest of the leadership involved in our region, it has also failed the test, and has lost all its credibility.

Maybe we should start looking at the potential of Israeli dissidents — who have had the courage to refuse serving a military occupation — and the younger generation of Palestinians who refuse to be silenced by the brutality of the occupation or intimidated by the disorder and lawlessness in the Palestinian Territories.

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