Dietrich College News
2012 Martin Luther King, Jr. Writing Awards
Prose: High School
First Place (Tie)
Fighting a Forbidden Battle: How I Stopped Covering Up for a Hidden Wrong
11th grade, Winchester Thurston
I once belonged to a wonderful religion. I belonged to a
religion that allows those of us who believe in it to feel that we are the
greatest people in the world—and feel sorry for ourselves at the same
time. Once, I thought that I truly belonged in this world of security,
self-pity, self-proclaimed intelligence, and perfect moral aesthetic.
I thought myself to be somewhat privileged early on. It was soon
revealed to me, however, that my fellow believers and I were not part
of anything so flattering.
Although I was fortunate enough to have parents who did not
try to force me into any one set of beliefs, being Jewish was in no
way possible to escape growing up. It was constantly reinforced at
every holiday, every service, and every encounter with the rest of my
relatives. I was forever reminded how intelligent my family was, how
important it was to remember where we had come from, and to be
proud of all the suffering our people had overcome in order to finally
achieve their dream in the perfect society of Israel.
This last mandatory belief was one which I never fully
understood, but I always kept the doubts I had about Israel’s spotless
reputation to the back of my mind. “Our people” were fighting a
war, one I did not fully comprehend, but I naturally assumed that it
must be justified. We would never be so amoral as to fight an unjust
war. Yet as I came to learn more about our so-called “conflict” with
the Palestinians, I grew more concerned. I routinely heard about
unexplained mass killings, attacks on medical bases, and other
alarmingly violent actions for which I could see no possible reason.
“Genocide” almost seemed the more appropriate term, yet no one I
knew would have ever dreamed of portraying the war in that manner;
they always described the situation in shockingly neutral terms.
Whenever I brought up the subject, I was always given the answer that
there were faults on both sides, that no one was really to blame, or
simply that it was a “difficult situation.” It was not until eighth grade
that I fully understood what I was on the side of. One afternoon, after
a fresh round of killings was announced on our bus ride home, I asked
two of my friends who actively supported Israel what they thought.
“We need to defend our race,” they told me. “It’s our right.”
“We need to defend our race.”
Where had I heard that before? Wasn’t it the same excuse our
own country had used to justify its abuses of African-Americans sixty
years ago? In that moment, I realized how similar the two struggles
were—like the white radicals of that era, we controlled the lives of
another people whom we abused daily, and no one could speak out
against us. It was too politically incorrect to do so. We had suffered
too much, endured too many hardships, and overcome too many
losses to be criticized. I realized then that I was in no way part of
a “conflict”—the term “Israeli/Palestinian Conflict” was no more
accurate than calling the Civil Rights Movement the “Caucasian/
African-American Conflict.” In both cases, the expression was a blatant
euphemism: it gave the impression that this was a dispute among
equals and that both held an equal share of the blame. However,
in both, there was clearly an oppressor and an oppressed, and I felt
horrified at the realization that I was by nature on the side of the
oppressors. I was grouped with the racial supremacists. I was part of
a group that killed while praising its own intelligence and reason. I was
part of a delusion.
I thought of the leader of the other oppressed side of years ago,
Martin Luther King. He too had been part of a struggle that had been
hidden and glossed over for the convenience of those against whom
he fought. What would his reaction have been? As it turned out, it was
precisely the same as mine. As he wrote in his letter from Birmingham
Jail, he believed the greatest enemy of his cause to be “Not the White
Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate,
who...lives by a mythical concept of time.... Lukewarm acceptance is
much more bewildering than outright rejection.” When I first read those
words, I felt as if I were staring at myself in a mirror. All my life I had
been conditioned to simply treat the so-called conflict with the same
apathy which King had so forcefully condemned. I, too, held the role
of an accepting moderate. I, too, “lived by a mythical concept of time,”
shrouded in my own surreal world and the set of beliefs that had been
assigned to me. I had never before felt so trapped.
I decided to make one last appeal to my religion. If it could
not answer my misgivings, no one could. The next time I attended a
service, there was an open question-and-answer session about any
point of our religion. I wanted to place my dilemma in as clear and
simple terms as I knew how. I thought out my exact question over
the course of the seventeen-minute cello solo that was routinely
played during service. Previously, I had always accepted this solo as
just another part of the program, yet now it seemed to capture the
whole essence of our religion: intelligent and well-crafted on paper,
yet completely oblivious to the outside world (the soloist did not have
the faintest idea of how masterfully he was putting us all to sleep).
When I was finally given the chance to ask a question, I asked, “I want
to support Israel. But how can I when it lets its army commit so many
killings?” I was met with a few angry glares from some of the older
men, but the rabbi answered me. “It is a terrible thing, isn’t it?” he
said. “But there’s nothing we can do. It’s just a fact of life.” I knew, of
course, that the war was no simple matter and that we did not by any
means commit murder for its own sake, but to portray our thousands
of killings as a “fact of life” was simply too much for me to accept. I
thanked him and walked out shortly afterward. I never went back. I
thought about what I could do. If nothing else, I could at least try to
free myself from the burden of being saddled with a belief I could not
hold with a clear conscience. I could not live the rest of my life as one
of the pathetic moderates whom King had rightfully portrayed as the
worst part of the problem. I did not intend to go on being one of the
Self-Chosen People, identifying myself as part of a group to which I did
It was different not being the ideal nice Jewish boy. The
difference was subtle, yet by no means unaffecting. Whenever it came
to the attention of any of our more religious family friends that I did
not share their beliefs, I was met with either a disapproving stare and
a quick change of the subject or an alarmed cry of, “What? Doesn’t
Israel matter to you?” Relatives talked down to me more afterward, but
eventually I stopped noticing the way adults around me perceived me.
It was worth it to no longer feel as though I were just another apathetic
part of the machine.
I can obviously never know what it must have been like to be an
African-American in the 1950s. I do feel, however, as though I know
exactly what it must have been like to be white during that time, to live
under an aura of moral invincibility, to hold unchallengeable beliefs,
and to contrive illusions of superiority to avoid having to face simple
everyday truths. That illusion was nice while it lasted, but I decided to
pass it up. I have never been happier.
View the complete list of the 2012 Martin Luther King, Jr. Writing Award winners.
Stay connected with CMU's Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences on Twitter and Facebook.
sources of Carnegie Mellon news include the university news
service website and the Carnegie
Mellon Today magazine.
Shilo Rea, Director of Public Relations at email@example.com
or (412) 268-6094.
About the Quick Links
Follow the Dietrich College on Twitter and Facebook.
Sign up to receive Dietrich College News, the college's monthly e-newsletter.
||Dietrich College News: October 2014
Features this month include CMU's genetics research, using game theory as a parenting strategy, alumni news, photos from events and much more. Read Dietrich College News.
||Research Team Identifies 33 Genes That Contribute to Autism Risk
The list of genes identified with autism has expanded from nine to 33, according to a new study by an international research team led by the Autism Sequencing Consortium (ASC), including Carnegie Mellon University's Kathryn Roeder and the University of Pittsburgh's Bernie Devlin. Read more.
||Former Justice Souter Makes Case For Humanities and Social Sciences
Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter discussed the central role the humanities and social sciences play in seeding innovation and perpetuating democracy during a recent visit to Carnegie Mellon University. Read more.
||Student Writing Awards Seek Entries From Pittsburgh-Area Students
High school and college students are invited to submit poetry and prose entires for the 16th annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Writing Awards. Read more.
||Four Dietrich College Graduates Receive Fulbright Awards
From addressing clean water shortages in urban Mexican communities to teaching English in Brazil, Germany, Montenegro and Turkey, five recent CMU graduates – four from the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences – will be making a global impact through this year’s Fulbright U.S. Student Program. Read more.
||Mapping the Future of the Humanities and Social Sciences
Carnegie Mellon University — which has a long history of the humanities and social sciences collaborating with other fields to solve problems — and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences held the first Pittsburgh-area discussion of the "Heart of the Matter" report and its implications for improving education and creating a sustainable global society. Read more. Watch the video. View photos.