The Real Magic of Harry Potter

1 May

For fans of Harry Potter, May 2 is a significant day on the calendar, as it’s known in the JK Rowling series as the date of the Battle of Hogwarts. For those who write off the series as mere fantasy, I’ve got news for you: the magic of Harry Potter has been scientificall proven to be real.

A newly released scientific study called “The Greatest Magic of Harry Potter” analyzed attitudes of elementary, high school and college students before and after reading Harry Potter stories and watching Harry Potter movies.

Harry Potter is a boy wizard who helps the forces of good overcome forces of evil. Harry wasn’t brought up in aristocracy of wizard life. At the same time, many wizards in the stories who come from more privileged backgrounds turn out to be the villains of the story.

Researchers find exposure to Harry Potter stories changes attitudes of children of young people toward people of disadvantaged backgrounds such as immigrants, refugees and gay people.

It turns out Harry Potter is an effective tool against prejudice.

Most effective way to fight prejudice is to build empathy through story telling where we see ourselves in another person’s shoes.

The magic of Harry Potter that reduces prejudice is needed today more than ever. The riots in Baltimore over the death of Freddie Gray, a black man who died while in police custody, is the latest chapter in a painful narrative arc that has shaken our nation over the past year. There is no justification for lawlessness and violence. At the same time, the pent up anger in the African-American community is palpable and understandable.

This past December, I discussed the massive protests that took place in Ferguson, MO, and New York City in response to cases of alleged racially motivated police brutality in those cities.

As I noted then, I’m sure there are countless examples of law enforcement officers doing their job in protecting our community in ways that don’t make the news. At the same time, to a casual observer, such as me, something seems to be broken in our law enforcement system. Our nation thrives as a nation of justice, and one of the pillars of a just society is trust. One of the greatest threats to trust is fear, particularly fear of people who are different.

Parashat Kedoshim envisions a world that is free of fear, a world where justice reigns. In fact, the essence of a just society is Kedushah, holiness, the mantra of the portion. One of the most memorable half-verses in the Torah is found in Parashat Kedoshim (19: 18): ve’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha—love your neighbor as yourself. What we often overlook is the first half of that verse: lo tikom v’lo tisor et b’nai amecha—You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your people.

The 16th century Polish scholar and aristoctrat Saul Katzenellenbogen was said to have had such a prodigious memory that he never forgot anything he read or heard. However, he had a knack for forgetting when someone offended him (Etz Hayim, 697).

If only it were so easy. How tantalizing easy it seems to fulfill this verse: don’t take vengeance or bear a grudge and love your neighbor as yourself. And yet, this is as difficult a verse to fulfill in real life as any in the Torah. How much destruction and bloodshed could have been spared in history if this verse’s instructions were just a little easier to follow?

It’s not easy, yet it’s our responsibility as Jews to work on internalizing the verse’s message. We must learn from and support those who seek to put this verse’s teachings into action. In December, I discussed the work of Constance Rice, a prominent civil rights attorney. She became known in the 1990s for, as she puts it, “going to war with the Los Angeles Police Department.”

After years of suing the LAPD countless times over minority rights, Rice changed tactics and found ways to work with the department. They worked together to achieve reform and establish trust.

Some of that change included LAPD officers going into housing projects to set up youth sports programs and health screenings, things that made people’s lives better and brought police and predominantly black communities closer together.

Rice interviewed over 900 police officers and was surprised by the extent to which they opened up to her, as if in a therapy session. Rice recalls:

“They would say things like, “Ms. Rice I’m scared of black men. Black men terrify me. I’m really scared of them. Ms. Rice, you know black men who come out of prison, they’ve got great hulk strength and I’m afraid they’re going to kill me. Ms. Rice, can you teach me how not to be afraid of black men.” I mean this [comes from] cops who are 6’4″.…[W]hen cops are scared, they kill and they do things that don’t make sense to you and me.”

Rice has worked with the LAPD on improving life in poor neighborhoods and has found this causes police to be less fearful:

“Not only does it cause cops to be less fearful, it causes the community to embrace them. I have taken a group of 50 cops and the chief (Charlie) Beck let me train them. I trained them in what I call community partnership policing. The first thing I tell these cops is that you are not in the arrest business; you are in the trust business. We are going to train you in Public Trust Policing. It goes beyond community policing. What it does is it puts police in a position of helping a community solve its problems. These cops come into the black housing projects and they said to these populations who hate them ‘We know you hate us, but we’re here to serve. We’re going to win your trust.’”

Constance Rice has tapped into the magic of Harry Potter and has shown that we can overcome hatred of the other in favor of empathy. Half a century after the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, our nation still has open scars from racial division that has plagued us since the founding of this country. Throughout history, we find that fear of the other brings out the worst in people. At the same time, we find that empathy, properly cultivated can bring about healing and friendship. When we understand one another’s stories, empathy performs magic. And you don’t have to be a wizard. We all possess that power within.

Adonai oz le amo yiten, adonai yevarekh et amav ba shalom, God give strength to all God’s people. And May God bless all God’s people with peace.
Amen.

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