To fight antisemitism, focus on the perpetrators, not the victims

We are surprised by the current resurgence of antisemitism because we have mourned its victims to the exclusion of understanding its perpetrators.

June 13, 2019 22:32
4 minute read.
To fight antisemitism, focus on the perpetrators, not the victims

Vienna students fight antisemitism. (photo credit: TIMO MULLER)


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The timing was remarkable. We were walking through the ruined but still recognizable center of Sachsenhausen, a Nazi concentration camp in eastern Germany where nearly 30,000 human beings were murdered for the beliefs they held or the facts of their birth; that is to say, for no reason at all. Just as we approached the pair of barracks where Jewish prisoners were segregated and subjected to particularly brutal treatment, a news alert pinged in from the present: a German government official had warned Jews not to wear kippot in public. He could no longer vouch for their safety.

Despite protestations from the American ambassador in Berlin and others, this story was but a depressing exclamation point to a broader trend. In Germany and all over the world, antisemitism is surging with a savage vengeance. A response that consists of hand-wringing is not enough. We believe we have found a strategy to fight back. A new approach to teaching and learning about antisemitism is a way to not only hand wave, but punch back.

We are three Jewish students in business, law and journalism, hailing from the US, UK and Canada, brought to Germany and Poland for a two-week immersive study in professional ethics in the context of the Holocaust. This program, The Fellowship at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics (FASPE), advocates a unique approach that must be more widely adopted by Jews and others who take the crisis we face and the danger it poses seriously. Focus on the perpetrators, not the victims. This might be uncomfortable to even contemplate, but it is essential. Most people healthily recoil from intimacy with evil; proximity presents its own kind of moral danger. But the reality is that if we do not seek to understand those who hate, we will be helpless to disable and counter that very hatred which is a clear and present danger.

By studying those who hate – their ideology, organizations, strategies and incentives – we can effectively respond to the harm they plan. Of course, we must continue to do the essential work of honoring victims of hate and elevating and amplifying their voices and experiences. The project of empathy and solidarity is eternal, especially when undertaken in fathomless relation to the Holocaust. But studying the experience of victims provides a what, not a how. A victim-centered approach, despite the innovative work done by projects like the use of Instagram as a storytelling medium, has certain limitations when it comes to braking and disabling current noxious trends.

The answer to the very practical question of how evil happens can only be detected in the mind of perpetrators, and in careful study of context, individual motivation and external pressures. The current landscape is radically changed from 15 or 20 years ago, especially when it comes to hostility to Jews. The far Right threatens Jewish bodies in Europe and the United States. The far Left sees the Jew and Nazi as interchangeable, demonizing Israel and comparing Israelis to those who murdered millions. Islamist terrorism is a scourge on Jews globally and a danger to Israel, the largest Jewish community in the world.

THIS SHIFT in focus towards studying the perpetrators must be applied across a wide canvas. In studying past atrocities, memorializing and honoring victims should be perused alongside a clear-eyed examination of how hate developed, violence was inflicted, and horror concealed. Museums and educators must emulate the approaches of places like Berlin’s Topography of Terror and the House of the Wannsee Conference, where visitors can witness the years 1933-1945 from the eyeballs of those who conceived and executed mass extermination. Professional organizations and schools that teach the Holocaust must revise their curricula to make them more effective. “Never Again” requires strategy, not just sympathy.

This 180-degree change will prompt exploration of issues of democratic complicity in minority persecution, the responsibility of the press for shaping the stories they report and ignore, the role of lawmakers in crafting laws that change lives and shape culture and the machinations of business leaders who change the landscape of the feasible.

Lawmakers wrote the Nuremberg laws. Businessmen manufactured Zyklon B and the crematoria. The road to Auschwitz was paved with ink from Der Stürmer. Engineers hunted Jews in Ukrainian woods and Hungarian cities. Who knows what new horrors are already emergent on our social media platforms, ready to weaponize our networks of connection?

Hate happens in slow motion, not double speed. We are only surprised by the current resurgence of antisemitism because we have mourned its victims to the exclusion of understanding its perpetrators. David Rousset, a French writer who survived Buchenwald, said that “Normal men do not know that everything is possible,” a line approvingly quoted by Hannah Arendt, who fled from Berlin in 1935. That awful sense of possibility is newly perceptible. The alternative to doing the hard and often morally fraught and politically precarious work of understanding perpetrators and frustrating their designs is to shamefully resign ourselves to mourning further victims.

Jonathan Harounoff is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School and an alumnus of the universities of Cambridge and Harvard. Ari Hoffman is a student at Stanford Law School, and holds a PhD from Harvard University. Ephraim Machtinger is an MBA and MS student at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. All three are 2019 FASPE Fellows.

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