A phrase — actually, just a word — in Ethan Bronner’s recent New York Times analysis of the “divorce” between Israelis and Palestinians caught my eye. In lamenting that daily interactions between Israelis and Palestinians have virtually disappeared, Bronner writes, the two peoples “who once knew each other intimately” have become “virtual strangers.” The separation of the two peoples has resulted in “a heightened dehumanization that has allowed the murder of four teenagers to escalate in just a few days into a series of devastating Israeli airstrikes that have killed scores and Palestinian rocket attacks that have displaced thousands.”
The word that stopped me cold was “dehumanization.” It is a word I first came to genuinely understand while standing at the gates of Birkenau, the extermination camp adjacent to the Auschwitz labor camp. There, as best I recall — the staggering scene is not memory’s friend — the chimneys reached all the way to the horizon. And in as close to an epiphany as I have ever had, it came to me that there are horizons not only of space but also of time. The evil genius of the Nazis was not simply their devotion to instruments of mass death. Were that the whole of it, they’d scarcely be remembered today, given how great have been our advances since then in the machinery of death. No, the signal characteristic of the Nazis was their insistence on dehumanization even of those they were about to murder.
No need for grisly stories here: Think only of a modest Jewish family — a mother, father and two young children — forced to undress completely before being shot into a mass grave. Nothing more than that, but nothing more is required.
When we signify dehumanization as the heart of the matter, we comprehend the horizons of time. For plainly, all too plainly, dehumanization persists, nor need we search for it in faraway or obscure places. It persists in our own backyards, and sometimes in our front yards as well. For all the advances of recent years in the status of women, is the denigration of women not a continuing rebuke? For all the progress of recent years in the status of gay people, do gay people not face hazards the rest of us do not know? Most and worst of all, what can we say about the life prospects of our black neighbors — so often poorly schooled, too often incarcerated, reminded again and again of their Otherness?
Too many of us, far too many of us, live with too much pain, far too much pain, to join in celebrating our progress, and it would be unseemly for the rest of us to toast our success so long as their pain persists.
Human pain is not additive; human suffering is not a statistic. For us, it was The Six Million; for those 6 million, it was one, and then another, and then another: 6 million times one. Here, now, it is not the victims of violence or the low birthweight babies, the inadequately educated children or the abandoned elderly. It is Betina and Jamal and Michael; it is Kimberly and Jose and Maya, one by insulted one, one by injured one. One by dehumanized one. People with names, with faces, with stories to tell, people with dreams and hopes, with ambitions. God’s children all.
It is exceedingly difficult these days to rise on behalf of America’s downtrodden, on behalf of the left-behind and the left-out and the locked-out, without provoking tears. The stories of misery and heartbreak, the stories of anxiety and even terror, the stories of hope dashed and of hope stillborn, are legion in number and compelling in content, and a writer who seeks to move his or her readers is quite naturally tempted to tell those stories.
Space requires that I resist that temptation here. I cannot claim that my words are hard and deep, but I want to offer one consolation, the consolation of action. Our rhetoric, our compassion, our empathy, our tears — none of these, heartfelt though they be, is sufficient to the tasks before us. What is called for is to clothe the naked and feed the hungry, to hug the rejected; in short, to live, as best we can, righteously.
Contact Leonard Fein at firstname.lastname@example.org