By D. Kevin McNeir
Since October 7, when southern Israel was attacked by Hamas-led militants and several hundred men, women and children were kidnapped, the Gaza Strip has become ground zero in a military conflict that grows more deadly and claims more victims each day.
More than 10,022 people have been killed in Gaza, including 4,100 children, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza while Israel announced that over 1,400 people have been killed — the majority during the initial Hamas terror attack.
Whatever number is the most accurate, what cannot be denied is the real tragedy that continues to unfold: the thousands of little boys and girls whose lives have been snuffed out or at the least, have been changed forever.
As the Israel-Hamas war reaches its first month and with no clear end in sight, more innocent lives will inevitably be lost – men, women and children – as supplies including food, water, fuel and other essentials are nearly depleted and which cannot safely be delivered to those who remain trapped in the region.
And while military and political leaders on both sides of the conflict, as well as their allies, have issued their prerequisites and proposals that believe would lead to either a temporary ceasefire or an end to the war, the voices of those who stand to lose the most – children – remain unheard and ignored.
Still, I wonder what children would say to adults – those who hold the reins of power in their hands, who profess to know so much and who claim to be so concerned about the future, even as they allow innocent children to be used as pawns – if they were allowed to speak?
I remember first considering this question when I was just a little boy growing up on the westside of Detroit in a neighborhood in which the demographics shifted in a mere five short years – from predominantly Jewish to almost exclusively Black.
When our family moved in during the summer of 1966, we became the fourth Black family on our block. That fall, I entered kindergarten at Louis Pasteur Elementary – the neighborhood public school located just four blocks from my house.
Naturally, I played with little Jewish boys and girls and we all attended school together. Their backyards, bedrooms and basements became my safe havens for fun, games and meals just as mine would be for them. Some families, like mine, celebrated Christmas and Easter, while others looked to Hannukah and Rosh Hashana as their holy days.
But as children we had fun on our minds and participated in events on both sides of the ethnic or religious lines. It didn’t matter if we were Black or Jewish. We were all children and we made sure we were “equal opportunity participants and beneficiaries.”
Sometimes our parents would engage in discussions about race, religion, politics or the economy. But more often, from what I recall, their conversations tended to focus on me and my Black or Jewish playmates – the children of the neighborhood.
By the time I entered the second grade, I noticed how things were changing. The boundary lines for schools had been redrawn somewhere along the way which resulted in more Black children – many of whom did not live in our immediate neighborhood – being reassigned to our school.
They did not know my Jewish friends. Some had never encountered a Jewish person before. And while many did not understand the differences that existed between Blacks and Jews, they clearly noticed them. In their ignorance or perhaps in their fear, some Black children became increasingly disrespectful to, even hostile toward, the Jewish children who I knew and liked so well.
As my Jewish friends became increasingly harassed, harangued, ridiculed and rebuked, I found myself growing more confused and angrier. On several occasions, I either spoke up in their defense, or raised my fists against the Black detractors who dared to assault my Jewish playmates in physical altercations.
Slowly things changed and the conflicts at school and in the neighborhood eventually declined, then ended by the time I became a sixth grader. All of the Jewish families had moved away. However, with their departure, I wondered what my Jewish playmates would have said to Blacks who viewed them more as enemies than friends simply because of their different beliefs and ethnic background. I would never know.
Marvin Gaye voiced similar concerns in his song, “Save the Children,” which he wrote and included on his groundbreaking album, “What’s Going On.”
I mention this for two reasons: first because I have long been moved by the hauntingly prophetic words he penned; second because Mr. Gaye lived in a house just a few blocks away from my own back then and his son, as well as his niece and nephew who lived with him and his wife, attended my elementary school until the Gayes, like my Jewish friends and their families, moved away.
Gaye makes his perspective clear as his song begins. “I just want to ask a question: Who really cares, to save a world in despair? Who really cares? There’ll come a time when the world won’t be singing. Flowers won’t grow. Bells won’t be ringin.’ Who really cares? Who’s willing to try? To save the world that’s destined to die. When I look at the world it fills me with sorrow. Little children today are really gonna suffer tomorrow. What a shame such a bad way to live. Oh, who is to blame?”
Near the end of his soliloquy, Gaye makes his demands clear.
“Live for life but let live everybody. Live for the children … Save the babies.”
Blacks and Jews in America have a long history of cooperation and tension but the crux of our relationship has been largely ideological – two groups bonded as fellow minorities. Similarly categorized as racial others, many American Jewish immigrants have long related to the plight of African Americans and vice versa.
Even Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had within his ranks of supporters many prominent Jewish rabbis and other Jewish leaders from cities across America. King openly expressed his vision of a secure Israel and a peaceful Middle East – a dream he repeatedly shared as he and the movement gained greater attention and prominence.
And while that was back in the 1960s, one thing remains as true today as it was then – it’s up to us to help make his vision, his dream, a reality.
After all, as Maya Angelou reminded us in her poem, “Human Family,” ‘we are more alike than unalike.’ And indeed, we are!
However, while Angelou and Dr. King spoke truth to power and whose voices were heard and respected, Palestinian and Jewish children in Gaza Strip region, often expressing similar thoughts and concerns, continue to be ignored or silenced.
And so, Gaye’s question comes to mind once more: “Who really cares?”