While in Berlin, I heard a startling statistic: about half of Germans surveyed believe that, “Jews try to take advantage of having been victims during the Nazi era.”* When Poles were asked, the number rises to 72%
This kind of sentiment reveals the end of empathy, both where it fails and why. When a person says that Jews take advantage of the Holocaust, it means that her gaze does not penetrate to the interior life of a people that is still, seventy years later, trying to make sense of losing half of itself and a continent’s worth of culture and history. What those eyes see are only the way that Jews scurry around, visiting death camps, and bringing tour buses, and building monuments. But the motivations for that building and visiting and obsessing are opaque; they are not seen; therefore, they are interpreted as venial and profiteering.
It is possible, both for a Jew or a Jewish institution, to act poorly in response to the Holocaust. It is possible that we react selfishly or foolishly. It is possible that we are crass or judgmental or otherwise obnoxious – even immoral. But when a person cannot see that these reactions, for good or for ill, come from a community coming to grips with great destruction – that is blindness.
Part of the pervasiveness of the Nazi’s evil is that, by their horrific actions they damned many of their children to be blind to the interior life of the children of their victims.
It isn’t just the Nazis – it seems to me that whenever one group of people perpetrates a great evil upon another, it is the victims who have a near impossible time shaking off the burden of responsibility and blame. The descendants of the perpetrators always seem to look askance at those against whom crimes were perpetrated.
We in the United States do this all the time in regards to black men. Here, it is culturally permissible to be afraid of black men. Yet there is no doubt that African-Americans have suffered far more at the hands of white America than white people have suffered at the hands of African-Americans.
Howard Jacobson stridently points out this harsh psychological calculus: as perpetrators, we can’t seem to forgive victims for what we’ve done to them, and as victims, we will always be held in suspicion for the motivation of our attempts to cope with or overcome trauma. Most every call of “reverse racism” in this country, or accusations of taking advantage of the Holocaust in others proves the existence of this peculiar blindness: after I have oppressed you, I, and my children after me, can no longer see you from the inside. I can no longer feel what you actually feel. Instead of seeing you as an individual with pathos, I can only ascribe completely utilitarian motivations to you.
The question of course is why: why does oppression make the oppressing culture blind? Why doesn’t persecution truly sensitize people after its cessation? Why does evil generate ongoing suspicion of the victim?
I think the answer is simple, if not particularly original. Empathy presupposes that I can feel similarly to how you feel. To recognize that I am both like you and am like the people who tried to destroy you is an incredible existential conflict. It is much easier to simply manufacture a reason for the appropriateness of the victim’s fate.
This is the straightforward meaning behind the mitzvah to “circumcise your hearts”(Deut. 10:16). We grow thick calluses, so that we are not subject both to the recognition that the person we have hurt is like us, even as we are responsible for her suffering. The trick, then, is to peel the covering away and see first the person, the individual, and only afterwards the group or classification to which we have assigned her. To find empathy, another’s humanity must come before any identity.