Ethics @ Work: The charms of baseless hatred

We are now in the midst of the "three weeks"preceding Tisha Be'av, when we mourn the destruction of the ancientTemple in Jerusalem. The sages of the Talmud state that the Temple wasdestroyed due to sinat hinam - baseless, or gratuitous, hatred within the Jewish people.

Theexpression is a bit anomalous, especially for a social scientisttrained to assume that people have reasons for everything. I would liketo present one explanation for both the term and the phenomenon,drawing on the resources of ethics and social science.

One obvious benefit of hate is to induce us to protectourselves from harmful individuals, people who it would be dangerous tobe near. This could be because they are actually trying to harm us(such as a mugger or a terrorist), or because they are liable toinfluence our behavior in a way we identify as harmful (such as a dopepeddler).

There is nothing baseless or gratuitous about hatred like this.But there are still isolated individuals who manage to rise above eventhis very practical kind of hatred - people such as Bruria, who taughtwe should hate only the sin, not the sinner.

However, another benefit of hate is to improve thecohesiveness of some social group. It is a short step from noticingthat adversity increases solidarity to realizing that incitingadversity may be a useful tool for bolstering solidarity within somegroup.

Such "instrumental" hatred is not gratuitous in the sense ofbeing without benefit or reason, but it is gratuitous in the sense thatthe object of hatred isn't being hated because of any particulariniquity. Rather, the chosen enemy just happens to be in the wrongplace at the wrong time - a time and a place where hating somebodyhappens to be useful.

(Rashi's definition of baseless hatred: "Hedidn't find any sin in him for which it would be permissible to hatehim, and [even so] he hates him.")

Of course, hating people has costs as well: there are immensebenefits to cooperation and friendship, which tend to be destroyed byoutbursts of hatred. For this reason, we would expect that instrumentalhatred would be particularly cultivated when its object is powerless toretaliate.

One instance would be a powerless alien group, such as the Jewsin exile. Jews often wonder what it is about them that arouses thescourge of anti-Semitism almost everywhere they wander. But it need notbe anything in particular that Jews do; sometimes it is just useful tohate someone, and the Jews are a convenient someone. It's nothingpersonal.

(Remember the kindly Constable in Fiddler on the Roof?"Just some mischief, so if an inspector comes through, he can see wedid our duty. I don't know why there has to be this trouble betweenpeople. But I thought I should tell you.")

Almost the opposite can take place in a free society.Fortunately, in a free society, innocent identity groups cannot beoppressed merely because they are different. But it can also bedifficult to prevent a group from cementing its own solidarity byrelating to its host society as a whole, or to some competing subgroup,as "the great Satan" or the like. There may be no particular traitarousing enmity and suspicion; it's just a matter of convenience andnothing personal. In other words, it is sinat hinam.

I believe such "instrumental hatred" between factions wasresponsible 2,000 years ago for corroding the Jewish polity and thelast remnants of Jewish sovereignty, those collective institutions thatenabled the Temple to survive. I also believe both kinds ofinstrumental hatred - that from without, if we are too powerless, andthat from within, if we are too divided - have the potential tothreaten our collective survival again.

Most of all, I am convinced that if we are wise enough to heedthe message of our sages, and recognize the unique nature and theunique threat of this special, seemingly gratuitous type of enmity, wecan keep it to a minimum and continue to thrive as a united society.

Asher Meir is research director at the Business Ethics Centerof Jerusalem, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College ofTechnology (Machon Lev).