In Paris, I visited the Jewish Museum of Art and History (Musée d'Art et Histoire du Judaïsme). One of the museum’s themes was the persecution of Jews. Before and during the Middle Ages, Jews fled to France to escape persecution elsewhere. Jews experienced persecution in France, upon arrival, during the Enlightenment, after the establishment of religious liberty during the Republic, and during WWII.
The Dreyfus Affair – a young French Army officer at the end of the nineteenth century falsely accused and convicted of spying for Germany before public outcry largely generated by a letter written by the prominent French author Emile Zola led to the officer’s exoneration – epitomizes the undercurrent of anti-Semitism that pervaded French history.
During WWII, France deported tens of thousands of Jews to German concentration camps. A few non-Jewish French risked their lives to save French Jews. But many non-Jewish French were complicit in the deportation. Nazi policies allowed the undercurrent of French anti-Semitism to surface.
Visiting the museum prompted three musings. First, we humans often define ourselves in contrast to other humans. Alternatively, we can highlight our commonality, defining ourselves by values and characteristics all humans share (or should share). Our survival as a species seems to depend upon our developing the consistent, practice of universal reciprocal altruism, i.e., care for all others. Jewish philosopher Martin Buber insightfully wrote about the importance of cultivating I-thou relationships, in which we see the other as a genuine person, instead of I-it relationships, in which we objectify the other, making them something less than fully human.
Second, I wondered against whom we discriminate today. I continue to observe prejudice – sometimes blatant and sometimes subtle – against women, people of color, and Jews. I also witness bias against Muslims and the GLBT community. Against whom else do we discriminate, perhaps not even aware that we do so? Spending time with people who are different, building bridges that span those differences, erodes the potential for difference to divide us.
Third, humans – all of us – have the potential to become evil, in part, though not entirely, because a misdirected impulse for survival may prompt us to stress that which divides rather than unites us with others. For example, in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, some people lay the blame upon greedy bankers and mortgage lends while others blame irresponsible borrowers. Greed – getting as much for self as possible – appears to be a near universal human value. Few voices have called for restructuring the financial system to impose effective limits on the greed of lenders, investors, and borrowers that will protect the system’s integrity, preserve the incentive for effort that profits provide, encourage responsible behavior with appropriate accountability for the irresponsible, and concurrently protect the naïve and less competent and maximize reliance on market and their efficiencies. That is a complicated set of constraints; most of us prefer simple problems – or at least the illusion of simple solutions – to dealing with the complexities of human and ecological interdependence. Hence, we see our proclivity to default to self-interest and scapegoating those who are different from us.