Emory Report
February 27, 2006
Volume 58, Number 21


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February 27 , 2006
The edge of idealism and realism

Jonathan Rio is a senior in Emory College, majoring in Jewish studies.

Winston Churchill once said, “Any man who is not a liberal at age 20 has no heart. Any man who is not a conservative at age 40 has no brain.” I have often wondered what Churchill thought about the cynic, for after hearing this insight I will consider myself lucky if at 40 I am a fool. However, what I truly believe is that, as with almost all things in life, the resolution of this ideological argument lies in compromise.

I’ve joked in the past about my home state of Montana, but in all honesty, Big Sky Country is an amazing place to grow up. For you skeptics out there, I want to reassure you that I grew up on a normal street, in a normal neighborhood, with real people for neighbors and not just cows. With its low crime and drug rates and superior public schools, Billings, Mont., gave me good reason to be idealistic.

After graduating from high school, I decided I wanted to spend a year abroad before coming back to the States to begin college. I spent the next 10 months living, studying and volunteering in Israel—an experience for which I am eternally grateful.

In addition to taking courses in Hebrew, ancient history and general survival skills, I began to gain a new perspective of America. Israelis are not unlike much of the rest of the world in the manner with which they regard America and its citizens. During my year abroad I was exposed to many critical views of America, if not full-blown anti-American sentiment. And, as if being verbally attacked wasn’t difficult enough, as my own opinions of America came under scrutiny, I simultaneously dealt with an experience completely new and foreign to me: terrorism.

There are two memories in particular I will share.

In Jerusalem, I lived in a building across the street from the Hebrew University campus on Har Hatzofim-Mount Scopus. I had never played football in high school, but when I arrived in Israel I joined a team and found that I made a pretty good offensive lineman. In the evenings after class we would practice in one of the parking lots on campus.

One night we were practicing. I remember hiking the football, and then the quarterback threw it, but before his receiver could catch it I heard six loud pops, like firecrackers going off in rapid succession. We all turned to see two men about 20 yards away from us, one standing over the other, emptying the remaining bullets in his semi-automatic into the chest of the man lying on the ground.

Needless to say, our coach wasted no time in vacating us from the scene, and within moments we were back in the safety of our dormitory. A few days later we learned that the “incident” we had witnessed was a disagreement between an Israeli and a Palestinian over just that: the fact that one was a Palestinian and one was an Israeli.

The second memory is even more disconcerting. One night in December, I found myself wandering around Ben-Yehuda Street in Jerusalem. Ben-Yehuda is an outdoor mall, known for its popularity among youths, both Israeli and otherwise. It was late, around 11 p.m., but the shops were still crowded with those who (like me) were a little behind on their holiday shopping.

What happened next created an image my mind’s eye will see for the rest of my life.

A suicide bomber at the top of the strip set off his explosive belt, forcing those who survived the blast to run down the street in the opposite direction. Waiting below was another bomber who paused just long enough to let those fleeing the scene reach him before detonating his own device. A few minutes later, as the ambulances began arriving, a car bomb was detonated to harm the rescue workers who were attempting to treat the wounded.

As you might imagine, those two scenes made a rather significant and lasting impression upon me. Lost was the innocence to which I had so gullibly clung; no longer was I a naïve adolescent who thought world peace was possible—if only we could all just “get along.”

It was in this state of mind that I found myself at Emory four years ago. As a freshman, I was supposed to embody the youthful, the spirited, the optimistic. Instead, the future seemed to promise nothing more than death and destruction—an inevitable self-annihilation of the human race, not to be saved by my generation.

This mood persisted during my freshman year. I enjoyed myself, and by all accounts was having a “normal” college experience, but something was missing. In Hebrew, there is an expression: ra’al b’anayim, literally translated to mean “poison in the eyes” but usually interpreted as “fire in the eyes.”

My fire was gone. The idea that anything good and enduring was possible in the world had become a distant memory, just one of the naïve and foolish notions of youth.

It wasn’t until my second year that I began to suspect I was, perhaps, mistaken. I had walked up to the edge of the proverbial cliff and jumped off—without bothering to notice the parachute of moderation lying next to me.

I started to see things in a new and different light. No longer was the direction of the world a foregone conclusion; no longer was the future a bleak winter.

What had changed my outlook? I realized, very simply, that it was the people around me. It wasn’t the new computer lab in Cox Hall, or the remodeling of the WoodPEC; rather it was Emory’s students, administrators and professors who inspired me.

I don’t wish to undermine the importance of Emory’s physical campus, but new facilities and amenities can only ever be just that: tools we use to see our dreams to fruition. And this is where the marriage of idealism and realism exists: at the nexus between our reality as we see it today and the dream we want it to be tomorrow. Knowing our limits is important; being self-aware is important—but only to the extent that we use this insight to set the boundary that we will strive beyond.

It is at this point that Emory finds its home, now more than ever.

This University has risen from its humble beginnings in Oxford to become a top-tier, world-class institution. What is next?

In a world that too often tells its children, “Pack up and go home, there’s nothing you can do here,” we can be that light, that beacon upon the hill. It is our duty as an instrument of education to push our society along the path of discovery. Emory cannot and will not settle for the status quo simply because changing it seems too difficult. We will continue on course, courageously and ethically pursuing that next step.

If I can leave you with one thought, please let it be this: Dreaming is good. Overreaching is good. Never be afraid to find your dream and, once you have, never let go

This essay is adapted from Rio’s 2006 Founders Dinner speech, delivered on Feb. 6.