What Is Tolerance?
I used to think being tolerant meant putting up with something or someone you didn’t like and that showed a sign of maturity, of patience and understanding. I thought being tolerant proved that you were an accepting adult and that you were the bigger person for being the open-minded one. In fact, there were many times in my life that I thought saying to someone that I was being tolerant of them expressed more my dislike of that person in a much nicer way than actually coming out and giving all the reasons I did not like the person. I realize now that my version of tolerance took on different meanings when it suited me just fine.
What is Tolerance?
When I found that I could no longer be the open-minded, patient and accepting human being I had tried to be, especially after doing my best to be tolerant of the situation, I felt then if all that I had done didn’t change things, that meant to me that all bets were off. I could either, tell the person off, ignore them, or stop speaking to them altogether. After all I did try, I was tolerant.
What is tolerance?
In the end I’ve always wondered, why I just didn’t find a better way to deal with it rather than internalize it and then lash out when the final straw was broken. Was that really tolerance or was I just using a big word to condone my negative feelings?
Tolerance is about acceptance. But I never saw it that way. I always saw my tolerating something as my way of just dealing with an uncomfortable situation because I did not want to deal with confrontation, hurt or truth. That’s not acceptance; that’s running away. I always felt so grown up when someone would ask me, “How can you deal with that person?” and I’d say, “Oh them? I just tolerate them.” And for some reason it always made me feel as if I was doing the right thing. If I could tolerate someone then that must mean I was being the bigger person. And who doesn’t want to be the bigger person?
What is Tolerance?
I’ve used that word in many sentences throughout my life. I’ve committed the act of tolerance as well, well at least my version of it. And it always had a negative connotation to it. Whenever I’ve heard someone state, “they tolerate someone”, I would always think to myself, they don’t really like that person, so they are just being charitable towards them to avoid ugliness. In fact I decided about a year ago, that I would not use that word any more. It’s just a calloused, unkind and insensitive word. I’ve used the word tolerate now to describe anything medical. My stomach cannot tolerate the medications I take sometimes and that word seems to be very appropriate. Somehow, when it comes to people, I just can’t connect that word to them any more.
I noticed a brochure amongst the many colorful tri folded advertisements in the lobby of the hotel I am staying inLos Angeles. This particular brochure stuck out like a sore thumb. It didn’t have the same colorful eye-catching appearance of the other brochures, it wasn’t screaming out any buy one get one free gimmick and it seemed to stand all by its lonesome in a shelf with so many other brochures that make Los Angeles what is it; a tourist attraction. It made no promises of high, fast and thunderous rides, or state that this is the place to be if you are in LA. It was dark but not in an intimidating spooky way, instead, its darkness seemed to tell a story all its own without having read what was inside. Somehow, the 8 words on the brochure captured my attention. I dropped all the other brochures in my hand and began to read the front of this eye catching pamphlet.
“This is no ordinary museum…” –New York Times.
Now try to understand this. I like museums, but I don’t always make them first on my list of things to do. Living inNew York I am surrounded by them. I don’t think I’ve been to a museum in about five years. My attitude is that they will always be there so I’ll see them when I can. In fact, I have that attitude about most museums which is why when I’m on vacation, I don’t bother to make them part of my itinerary, unless there is nothing else to do. But this museum was calling out my name. It was speaking to me. I found myself reaching for the brochure and nothing else mattered as I read the brief paragraphs describing what this museum was all about.
I couldn’t understand how a museum about the Holocaust could be named the Museum of Tolerance, especially since I wasn’t crazy about that word to begin with. And what was so tolerant about the Holocaust? If the Germans had been tolerant, then there would have been no Holocaust. But there was that word again. I was beginning to think that the word tolerance had a much different meaning than what I had believed all of these years. And that was exactly what captivated me. I told my family we would not be lying out by the pool or visiting the studio’s that day, today would be the day when we all got in touch with a part of our past. I knew getting into our rented car that I would feel differently upon our return.
When you first walk in, you expect to see visions of the Holocaust. What greets you instead is a reality that many people don’t always associate with the Holocaust. We were invited to enter a 50’s type dinner ; The Point Of View Diner, where a screen showed a news cast of an accident that occurred; an accident that involved drunk driving. That accident changed the lives of all those involved but it went beyond the casualties. It talked about responsibility. Why would The Museum of Tolerance have such a segment? What did this have to do with the Holocaust? What did this have to do with tolerance? There was that word again floating in my mind.
At various times during the news cast the visitors were asked to take a poll. Who was responsible for this accident? Was it the person who sold the liquor to the student? Was it the student who took the drink and drove drunk? Was it the mother of the student who drank, drove and was killed? Who was responsible? Every one had a chance to vote. They were given a scale from 1 through 5. I voted 5 all the way; every one was responsible. It was a domino effect as far as I was concerned. Perhaps if the student had been taught early on about the hazards of drinking, of any kind of drinking whether you are underage or at the age to drink, and are shown the consequences of what comes from driving while under the influence, maybe that teenager would have had the sense to say no instead of thinking, “No, this won’t happen to me, it happens to others.”. In this case, I felt the parent, the student who bought the drink and the student who drank it were all equally responsible, although in the film clip you see the mother blaming the student who bought the drink and gave it to her son. The clip continues to show you the consequences of this one accident. It interviews all those affected by it and then another poll asks you again who you think was responsible. I voted 5 all the way. Towards the end, the final poll showed that people watching this film clip changed their attitudes about who was responsible. I couldn’t see how they didn’t see that every one was responsible. The store owner who sold the liquor stated if he didn’t sell it to the student, the guy down the block would and well he was only trying to make a living. I thought how sad; he’s trying to make a living while someone dies because of it. I left that room knowing that the scenario they portrayed on that screen was not true, but it does happen in our every day lives and every one is responsible. I tried to associate the word responsible with the word tolerance, only I didn’t see clearly how those two words would go hand in hand until towards the end of my visit.
The exhibits moves on to show how hate crimes happen all over the world simply because of the way one person thinks. It shows how the actions of a few could lead to the destruction of many. I was greeted first by the horrible acts of September 11th. I noticed when we saw that first picture, my daughter and I turned away. It’s still fresh in our minds although five years have gone by. I still sit many nights pondering how the hatred of one man could have destroyed a nation. I began to see the connection between this part of the exhibit and the Holocaust. It was all about hate. I now had two words in my vocabulary that seemed very very ugly to me.
As I heard the curator speaking, I was amazed that at least 20 hate crimes take place every day in the world. I thought surely he was wrong, I’ve read about more in the paper. Either way, it was a sad reality to accept. As he kept speaking the question on my mind was; “Why do people hate?” When you think of all the energy that goes into such a negative feeling, why do people hate?
I saw different pictures of the hate crimes that have taken place; Each with a different kind of hate but in the end, its still hate. I wondered how the religion of one person can affect another to point of hate. If they chose to love God in their own way, why should I hate them? I thought about how one group of people hate another because of their sexual orientation. What is their crime exactly? Loving another person? How is that wrong? How can you hate one person for loving another? One thing was very clear to me; among these hate groups there were children. Children aren’t born to hate. They learn this. Sadly I realized we are all responsible for this. I’m not responsible for the hate that others feel but I am responsible for how I react to that. And if I show my child that I hate something, they learn this. As parents we are the first teachers of our children. We are responsible.
As we moved through the other exhibits we were presented with a photo passport of a child whose life was changed by the events of the Holocaust. Throughout the visit this passport type credit card is updated and towards the end before you leave, it prints out the child’s fate. Suddenly I was holding in my hands the life of a child, an innocent child. This was no ordinary museum tour. It was bringing to life a history that I had learned about when I was a child in school and ashamedly never thought much about until conversations were brought up or someone made a movie about it. It wasn’t that I didn’t care; it was just that this part of history while profound was hard for me to fathom. I guess in retrospect, I was running away from this. I knew it happened but it was too horrible for me to learn more about it than I already knew. I wanted to feel responsible. What a strange thought that was for me. I could not imagine one man hating an entire nation of people so much that it could lead to such devastation, destruction and pain. But it’s the truth and the museum helps you see this truth.
I held my card closer to my chest as we moved further through the exhibits. Suddenly I was in another world. I was in Europe before WWII began. I was captivated by the styles of clothing, the art, the atmosphere. I’ve seen all of this portrayed in movies but somehow this exhibit put me there. I saw how the Jewish people lived. Funny, as I was writing the last line before what you are reading now, I wrote, “I saw how the Jews lived,” and I changed it to the Jewish people. Hearing the words, “The Jews,” in my head made me think of the Nazi’s. They made the Jewish people seem so dirty and so appalling and what I saw in the exhibits was far from that. Somehow using those words didn’t seem right to me.
Throughout the exhibits you notice a change taking place; a change that many people refused to accept. They wanted to deny the fact that something terrible was happening all around them. Just like in the accident scene we saw in The Point Of View Dinner, here were people laying blame on every thing around them and not accepting responsibility for what was going on. I saw the connection. I saw how people running away from their responsibility could cause such devastation. I saw ignorance. I saw the tolerance. They were tolerating all that was wrong because it was so much easier than to accept the truth. But it was the wrong kind of tolerance. There was that word again. The meaning once again evaded me.
WHAT IS TOLERANCE?
As I continued walking through the museum, I was captivated. That might sound morbid since I was now seeing howEurope was changing because of Hitler. The exhibits were real. I was there. I noticed the card I was holding had begun to leave an impression on my hand. There was a part of me that wanted to rush through the exhibit just to see what happened to my child. My child. She was mine and we hadn’t even gotten to the horrors of the Holocaust yet. It brought my visit to the museum to life; a life I had not lived but knew that before the end of the day, I would be that girl. It gave a real face to this horrible event that took place before I was born. It made this child’s life in my hands meaningful. It made me cry for her. I wondered throughout the rest of my day if any one else besides her family cried for her. I wanted to hold onto that card if only as a way to keep her memory alive. And as I walked into another room, I saw the words that profoundly captured my heart:
“Hope lives when people remember.” Simon Wiesenthal.
I looked at the picture of the young girl in my hand. I promised her that I would remember her. I visualized myself hugging this child. I wondered when was the last time she felt the arms of a kind stranger around her. I was engrossed with this card forgetting all that was around me. My little girl’s name was Reva Gabe. She was 14 years old. I thought about what she would have become if one man had not hated so much. I thought about her life and the life of her children had she been allowed to live in a free world. I thought about how different the world would have been had others taken responsibility. Now I was thinking of responsibility as well as tolerance.
I walked throughGermany. I walked through visions of death camps and gas chambers. I walked through hurt and pain. But throughout it all, I saw hope. How was that possible? How could any one living through this feel hope? How could any one have faith that things would change, that life would be better? How? It was in the eyes of all the faces I saw in the pictures hanging on the walls of the exhibit. It was in the writings of Ann Frank. It was in the work of Simon Wiesenthal.
And then it hit me.
The Museum of Tolerance is about Hope. It is about enduring all that threatens freedom. The Museum of Tolerance is about truth. Tolerance is not a bad word. Tolerance is about courage. If those that feel hate, any hate, whether it be hate towards religion, hate towards race, hate because of a different way of life, if they could understand that this hate comes from something they were taught, and something that they were made to believe in was wrong, this world would be a better place to live. Those words may sound like a cliche’ but how true they are. Their hate is based on fear; fear of what they don’t understand. Their hate is based on the ignorance of others. Their hate is based on the irresponsibility’s of others. Those that hate- hate because they don’t understand differences, they don’t understand that everyone can co-exist in the same world regardless of what they believe in or stand for.
The Museum of Tolerance is a story about us. It’s our truth. It’s about differences and accepting them but it is also about understanding them. I went to see a museum about the story of the Holocaust and I came out with a better understanding of who I am.
My experience did not just end with a simple thank you for coming by from the curator. He took my family and me outside to see the memorial set up for the Holocaust in the back of the museum. It was a simple structure; a wall with the names of the camps and towards the center of the memorial, there was a pillar. I like to see it as the pillar of strength, courage and perseverance. The pillar was half of a menorah and the tree of life.
It spoke volumes to me. I saw how so little said so much. I looked in awe. I heard the voices of all those that died because of the hatred of one man. I felt the pain but I also saw the beauty, the hope and the dream that one day we can all live together and never ever forget what hate can do to a person, a community, a nation and the world.
I thought about our own issues with the World Trade Center memorial and I wondered why a group of people who all were affected by this travesty could not come together to do the right thing; and that is to honor all those that were killed on September 11th. To continue arguing over the memorial, to continue with the politics that have no place in this memorial is to dishonor all those that were killed on that day. Maybe those that are screaming the loudest should pay a visit to this museum and feel the voices of those unheard, those that were killed so many years ago and perhaps in doing this, they can come back to New York and build the only thing that should be built; a memorial. Not just for those that were killed and their families but for those that will live on to remember that day. The only voices of September 11th are ours and we should use our voices to honor those that gave their lives on that day. Wake up New York. It’s not about the money. It’sI about the memory. It’s about the hope that we will never forget what happened. Build a memorial that will honor those that lost their lives and build one that will tell a story to last a lifetime. Let the voices of those that were taken from us speak through us doing the right thing, the honorable thing.
The end of the tour left me wanting more. When it was over I could not believe that I spent 2 hours visiting my past. Yes, it is my past, it is your past. It is our past. But it is also our present and very much our future. I hurt to think that my grandchildren will live in a world where people might not accept them because they choose to live a life different than theirs. I shudder to think that my grandchildren’s children will experience what we all have experienced in our lives with war, hate and discrimination. I long to see a world where we can all walk down the street and not stare at others because they are not dressed the way we think they should be dressed. My dream, my hope is that we can all live together in a world where differences are part of the norm. ; Where we can discuss instead the real issues affecting our lives as a people, as a nation. My hope is that we can all realize that there is truly only one race and we are all part of it; the human race.
Copyright © 2006 by Sonia Agron