This was captured by a phone camera, then uploaded on YouTube where it has scored nearly two million hits under the sobriquet “Snack Man.” Which brings us back to election season.
Sonder did not escalate tensions. Instead, he tamped down the conflict, helping to end it. And the rest of us – from Rush Limbaugh to Fox News and MSNBC commentators to the proverbial man and woman in the street often have the same choice. We can de-escalate a conflict, empowering ourselves or we can join the screamers.
My own such choice became clear during the High Holidays shortly after the 9/11 attacks. Attending a popular conservative memorial service near where I lived in Los Angeles, I hoped to hear a sermon offering guidance. But the sermon never touched on the attacks. So I walked up to the rabbi and asked him why. His associates, he replied, had advised him not to deliver his prepared remarks. So, one-on-one, what did he think? What did Judaism have to say about this? He was glad, he said, that the attacks had taken place, because now the United States could experience what Israelis did.
I did not argue with this “wisdom.” Instead, I started attending reform services, held at the Laugh Factory on the Sunset Strip, where another rabbi discussed accepting the other while also warding off potential violence. I felt at home, ready to grow again as a Jewish man.
That opportunity came a few years later, when a 20-something man covered in tattoos, nose and ear rings – precisely the type I would normally circumvent – stood at the altar beside the rabbi. When he unhesitatingly read from the Torah in Hebrew, I was close to tears.
Having turned away from our shared religion he, like me, was seeking to rediscover the spirit of Jewish teachings, the music behind the words. He, like me, had turned away from a foolish rabbi's interpretation, preferring to focus on what was truly meaningful.
For me, one meaning has become very clear. Especially since 9/11, I have repeatedly come across heightened prejudice against “terrorist” Muslims and “profiligate” gays, “lazy” blacks and Latinos “dashing across the border to commit violence here.” Or so they say. What to do?
More and more, I walk away from fear mongers – one person less in their crowd. Or I stand up to them in person and in my work. I do not, however, go along with it.
Sure, it may be uncomfortable to intervene. But by not taking action, by waiting for religious or political “leaders” to do my work for me, I allow myself to be marginalized, giving up my personal power to politicians, lobbying groups, and talking heads. They will direct me; they will save me. Alone, I can have no impact.
This is not what Sonder did.
Yes, there are crazies out there, and few of us can keep them from their pursuits. Every private citizen, however, has a choice. We can intervene, turning down the volume. Or we can silently go along with the craziness, disempowering ourselves.
Sonder empowered himself, and the others on that subway car. As the rhetoric of fear and hate gets ratcheted up in this election year, how will the rest of us choose?By Joseph Hanania, Aslan Media Columnist