Ira Chernus  


How will the nation respond to the recent neo-Nazi attacks on Jews? Will we simply demonize the attackers and place all blame on them? Or will we recognize them as deeply disturbed fellow members of the deeply disturbed society we call America? Will we focus on the underlying disease, or only on the despicable symptom?

One of the great Jewish philosophers of the century, Abraham Joshua Heschel, faced the same question when the Nazis took power in his native Germany. Of course, comparing the threat to U.S. Jews today with 1930s Germany is like comparing Boulder Reservoir with the Pacific Ocean. But the fundamental issue is the same.

Rabbi Heschelís choice was clear. He saw Nazism as a symptom of the materialism, injustice, and inhumanity afflicting his society. "In our everyday life we worshipped force, despised compassion, and obeyed no law but our unappeasable appetite," he said. "We have failed to fight for right, for justice, for goodness; as a result we must fight against wrong, against injustice, against evil." When he said "we," he meant all Germans, Jews and Gentiles alike. "The conscience of the world was destroyed," he warned, "by those we were wont to blame others rather than themselves."

Rabbi Heschel did not mean to excuse or justify the Nazis. But he knew that when you face a problem, the first thing to do is to understand its causes as objectively as possible. He knew that Nazism, like all vicious racism and fascism, is not the disease, but only a symptom. While it makes good sense to alleviate symptoms, it makes no sense to pay attention only to the symptoms and ignore the disease.

The causes of this disease are clear enough. People become Nazis because they feel disempowered, marginalized, and hopeless. They feel that the democratic capitalist system has no place for them, except as underpaid workers with insecure jobs. So they have no place for the systemís liberal values of equality and tolerance. They think it is useless to attack the people of power and wealth. It is more empowering, and easier, to look for vulnerable scapegoats.

Their conclusions are absolutely wrong. But their sense of being marginalized is quite accurate, and their rage is understandable. In the so-called "economic miracle" of the Ď90s millions of Americans are left behind, downsized and stuck in dead-end jobs. The real miracle is that so few of the hopeless turn to racist and fascist solutions. But the most extreme manifestations of a system give us valuable insight to the workings of the whole system.

The extremists and the rest of us are all parts of the same system. If we want to prevent the symptoms from breaking out again, we have to start dealing with the systemic disease. That means making alliance with progressive people of good will, people of all faiths and races, who are working to end the conditions that breed right-wing hatred.

That may not be easy for the Jewish community. Ever since biblical times, Jews have often viewed the world in terms of Jew versus Gentile. In recent years, Jews have tended to feel isolated and focus on their own problems, rather than making common cause with other, more persecuted, groups. Every anti-semitic attack seems to heighten the sense of isolation and the calls for self-defense as the answer.

But in the 1960s, when Rabbi Heschel marched arm-in-arm with Gentiles for peace and justice, he showed that the solution lies only in cooperation. Now his words bid us recognize our common humanity, and our common membership in society, not only with progressive Gentiles, but even with those whose actions we most despise.

A renewed commitment for social change will not solve the problem in the short run. In fact, it may worsen the problem. The more Jews identify with progressive causes, the more they may be stigmatized by right-wing fanatics. But short-run solutions based on demonizing and attacking the fanatics will only add fuel to their fire and exacerbate the problem.

The better response is to look to the long term, to work toward a society free of the disease that breeds such awful symptoms. The real enemy is not other people, but the injustice, the inequity, the greed, and the callousness of society, in which we all play a part. In the antiwar movement of the Ď60s, Rabbi Heschel heard others make the same point more bluntly: If you arenít part of the solution, you are part of the problem.

We are all part of the problem until we choose to become part of the solution. The first step in that transformation is to stop talking about "them" and start talking about "us," all of us, together. As hard as it is to admit it, even neo-Nazi killers are part of "us."