In the battle for readers in an ever shrinking market for hard copy press, the vaunted New York Times Book Review recently offered viscerally compelling cover art with title "The Jewish Question" to tease its review of two books on German philosopher Martin Heidegger and the issue of anti-Semitism. Considering Heidegger's historical support for Hitler's "the final solution of the Jewish question," perhaps the title was designed to make those of us already haunted by the specter of Naziism in the present or future to become more panicked.
While the review of the two Heidegger books can be read for content that is no doubt interesting and provocative, the bold writing on the title, along with the recent controversy among Jews and non-Jews about President Obama's statements regarding Israel, bring up the issue of whether one can study anti-Semitism as belonging to a myriad of human tragedies and horrific pain inflicted on innocent people across the world and across the centuries.
I submit that, in the larger context, "The Jewish Question" is apropos to the fierce and virulent competition among groups, religions and countries for the medals of martyrdom worthy of the titles of "holocaust" or "genocide." We seem more willing to fight for the right to win whatever prize one gets for having suffered the most than to learn the lessons from those episodes in order to improve the human climate -- for that is the only climate that will allow the banding together to enhance environmental survival and general betterment.
It is and has always been an offense to many Jews to see the Holocaust as being joined in any way with the suffering of any other group at any other point of history. I am one of those who has abided by the distinction. Whenever I watch a film as stirring and elegantly passionate as "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas," my emotional intestinal tract morphs into the thought that never has there been anything more disgusting as the Nazi assault on the Jews. I hear the voices of many Jews talking about the philosophy not only of "Never Again" but the necessity to remember and commemorate so nobody will forget.
And yet, I fear it may be just this insistence that might lead not only to forgetting but to seeing the Jews as once again insisting on our specialness. This is not to defensively hide from a necessary truth but rather to introduce our need as human beings to begin to be accountable for the potential and actuality of our own violence as well as that done by our own forefathers and mothers.
I ask you to consider the words in the compelling and for me compulsory piece of literature The Nazi Conscience, by Duke University Professor Claudia Koonz. She is ruthlessly honest as she shows how the Nazis had a conscience, just one of a perverted nature. On page 272 of that book she writes,
"If it can be longer I'd like to add what we can and need and might learn from Naziism...Germans' readiness to expel Jews from their universe of moral obligation evolved as a consequence of their acceptance of knowledge disseminated by institutions they respected. Like citizens in other modern societies, residents of the Reich believed the facts conveyed by experts, documentary films, popular science, educational materials, and exhibitions. What haunts us is not only the ease with which soldiers slaughtered helpless civilians in occupied territories but the specter of a state so popular that it could mobilize individual consciences of a broad cross-section of citizens in the service of moral catastrophe."
We have been told that these things can happen anywhere,but that has usually fostered the urgency with which Jews stick together. It has become heresy to imply that such despicable acts of torture can be done by Jews as well, that our history or suffering doesn't render us immune. Quite the contrary give the preponderance of evidence that many people who are abused and bullied and humiliated go on to do the same to others, because their victimization grants them the "right" to vengeance or because the urge for the power to be on top becomes embedded in the psyche.
Carl Jung's conclusion that our survival depended on our willingness to examine our own potential to be criminals remains under the radar for most of us. We lust after violence and our codes of morality and religion say it can't be thus, so we concentrate on blame instead. And we pass down bullying, victimization and blame to our children.
We need no Internet to blame the bullying of our kids among each other. They hear our commentators of hatred on radio and television. We blithely listen to people name calling on television, radio, in supermarket tabloids and even, perhaps, at a local place of worship. We have become numb to the way words are used; that happened in Nazi Germany as well.
Albert Einstein spoke of it being impossible to solve a problem with the same consciousness that created it. And yet, even in a culture where comparison has consumed so many of us who go on to lust after exhibitionistic victory and even now humiliation (if it pays and gets good ratings), we are called on to do the very thing Einstein said wasn't possible. And yet this would seem to be our evolutionary mandate, for those of us who can tolerate the concept of evolving let alone evolution.
I don't quite know what it would take to begin considering decency not as being the best at suffering but the best at learning from that suffering. And the word "best" as no longer relevant.