Friday, June 22, 2012

Condemnation and Disassociation

Zbyszek reading a rescued Jewish tombstone previously
used as paving, image from film Shtetl: a journey home
A few days ago I was inspired by the action of Mousa[i], a nine year old Arabic-Australian boy who spoke up when he heard his school friends denigrating Jews. I was also moved by the reflections of a group of teenagers about their burden of knowing that they failed to stand up against injustice. Then there is the guy who both does and doesn’t stand apart, Zbyszek Romaniuk[ii]. He is a Pole from the small town of Bransk, Poland who despite his communities’ unwillingness to talk about its Jewish past makes a great effort to discover it, resulting in graffiti on his walls and threats against him. Yet, in his role as deputy mayor is arguably complicit with the silence. 

This is a discussion about the merits of standing apart from one’s group to challenge the group’s common prejudices or narrative, it is also an argument against condemning people for their failure to disassociate or condemn their own. I draw on the story of Korach.

Beyond “us and them”
Mousa’s example is inspiring, his stance is very important for overcoming divisions. Mohamed Dukuly[iii] is a dear friend who lived through the Liberian civil war but came out a champion of bridge building. He told me how he questioned his own group’s narrative. He wanted to know why the others hated his people, rather than just accept that it was simply because he was Muslim and they were Christian. He talked to members of the enemy tribe and learned about their experiences of arrogant behaviour by many of his tribesmen toward the tribe that was now hunting and killing his people, expressing rage felt for generations. He is one of those who are breaking the cycle.

I am trying to this as well. I have examined some of the hostility my people faced from Blacks in my native crown heights, in Brooklyn New York. Was it just bigotry or did some Jewish behaviour contribute? There were Apartment buildings that mysteriously ended up with exclusively Jewish residents. When I was in Kiev I was shocked to see a statue to Bogdan Chmielicki who I always thought of as a monster for murdering and attacking Jews. I still believe that this is true, but he was also a hero to the downtrodden serfs who were treated terribly by the “nobility”. Jews themselves oppressed, played the role of middle man, thus seen as complicit with the oppression and some doing well relative to the peasants. In the current conflict between Israel and the Palestinians and other Arabs I have also tried to understand both perspectives[iv].

Limits of being open to the other side and opposing one’s own
I am not convinced that challenging my own communities’ narrative is always the right thing to do. There are some arguments about our relationships with various others that I find compelling, convincing, or at least plausible. Some would argue that it is because of my biases, perhaps they are right. My point is that it is wrong to assume that whenever someone is unwilling to condemn their own community it is because they are a bad person. In some cases it is because they are sincere in their view that condemnation is not appropriate.

Besides principles or conviction, it difficult to be open to the other side when one’s own have been harmed, oppressed and even killed. In the film Shtetl, in which Zbyszek appears, at least some of the Jews show little willingness to consider Polish perspectives. Considering the way many Poles treated Jews (certainly not all Poles, many risked their very lives to save Jews, in defiance of the Nazis), I can strongly relate to this reticence even as it disturbs me. In one of the most shocking examples, we hear from a woman who returned to her town in Poland as a girl after surviving the concentration camps only to be hunted by locals whose names they knew, they were found hiding in a closet and killed by their neighbours.

When Zbyszek, in conversation with a Jewish historian, raises the issue of Jews being less than enthusiastic about Polish independence from Russia some years prior to WW II as a factor in Polish gentile resentment, this is dismissed by the Jewish historian, as justified by Polish anti-Semitism. Later when Zbyszek seeks to explain to Israeli teenagers the unwillingness of some Poles to save Jews at the risk of their lives, they dismiss his arguments. Finally at the end of the film Zbyszek himself fails to stand up for the other, despite his passionate interest in the Jewish past of his town. The contrast is stark, early in the film we see him digging out disgraced tombstones and collecting names to discover Bransk’s Jewish past, which is never discussed except in whispers. At the 500 years celebration of Brank he has an opportunity, as deputy Mayor, to mention the murdered Jews in his speech but he argues that as a public servant it is not his task to tell people what they are not prepared to hear. Instead he proclaims, “Bransk was always Polish and will forever be Polish”.

Without equating different situations as there are so many significant differences, as a general principle expecting people to challenge their own side all the time is not only unrealistic but it can itself be divisive. Muslims are continuously called on to condemn every violent act by anyone claiming to be a Muslim and assumed to be guilty until the condemnation quota is satisfied. Jews who do not want to see Israel dismantled completely or at least not prepared to condemn every Israeli action against Palestinians are seen as evil by many Arabs and Muslims. The common denominator is the ‘condemnation criteria’ which becomes a barrier to coexistence acceptance and interaction. The logic and merit of the argument against raising the disassociation bar must compete with the ethical argument against complicity with evil and the compelling craving to hear someone from the other side acknowledge what we see as a terrible injustice and condemn “his/her own”.

The Disassociation imperative in Torah
In the Torah there are three references to a call for disassociation in the case of Korach. He was a relative of Moses who challenged the legitimacy of his leadership and prophecy[v]. Korach ambushed Moses on a busy day when the presence of so many people would seem like business as usual[vi]. As the situation heats up the entire community gathers to see the showdown between the two men. First God tells Moses about people separating themselves from the wicked people[vii], Moses then tells the community "Please get away from the tents of these wicked men, and do not touch anything of theirs, lest you perish because of all their sins[viii]. Just as Korach had separated himself from the community to oppose Moses, it was important that the community separate from him[ix]. The fact that the people were standing with Korach’s group listening to them silently[x], is interpreted as implied agreement with their words and denial of Moses’ prophecy. They had to move away physically to symbolically distance themselves from Korach[xi].

In Jewish law this principle is expressed in the obligation to reproach sinners and the prohibition against flattery of evil doers (Chanifa). If someone violates certain prohibitions it is forbidden to give them honour or do anything that might imply approval of their deeds. An example of this is a wealthy donor who is involved in domestic violence. An organisation that would give him honour at their fundraising event would be in breach of the laws against Chanifa/flattery
[xii]. One who justifies the wicked, or condemns the righteous-both are an abomination to the Lord[xiii].

Arguments against condemning people for failing to condemn or disassociate
The danger is that if we take the argument for disassociation to the extreme then people attached to either side of a conflict that see some merit in their own group’s claims or narrative can never reach out and connect with people on the other side because they would think that the other must be avoided. Of course that is wrong. Moses himself seeks dialogue with his detractors[xiv], which teaches us that one should not continue conflict[xv]. At a later point in the story Moses and Aaron are invited to separate themselves from the community and God would destroy them all[xvi]. The response is to do the exact opposite, Moses instructs Aaron to “rush into the midst of the people[xvii]” with incense to achieve atonement. In this case the loyalty to the people was the most important virtue.

We must differentiate between active participants in a conflict and the general group who have not condemned. In the case of the crowd standing near Korach, Moses argues “O God, the God of the spirits of all flesh, if one man sins, shall You be angry with the whole congregation?” Moses differentiates between the active Korach and those who may have sinned in their hearts by doubting their teacher[xviii]. An alternative interpretation is that “although the whole congregation gathered, they did not sin[xix]”.

We also must consider the possibility that people are not sure what is right. One commentary explains the doubts people had about whether to side with Moses against Korach because they misunderstood Moses’ statement that “"In the morning, the Lord will make known who is His, and who is holy”.  They thought that if Korach and his group were wrong they would not get up from their beds the next morning.  Seeing Korach still alive, they thought that perhaps Korach would be proven right[xx]. We can give the benefit of the doubt to people who do not condemn what we think is wrong; they might think it is right or be unsure.

Consideration must also be given to whether or not there is any potential to make a difference by condemnation. A strong argument is made against culpability of citizens in the sins of their rulers because the impracticality of achieving anything by taking on their rulers[xxi].

Disassociation can be a powerful tool for peace, let us not use its absence as a reason to inflame conflict.

[i] Not his real name
[ii] Shtetl: A Journey Home". by Marian Marzynski,
[iii] Mohamed is a Together for Humanity presenter and has also contributed to “conscious connectivity: creating dignity in conversation”
[v] Numbers 16, as interpreted by traditional commentary
[vi] Chizkuni
[vii] Numbers 16:21
[viii] Numbers 16:26
[ix] R. Yitzchak Arama, in Akedat Yitzchak, cited in Leibovitz, N., Studies in Bamidbar Numbers,
[x] Midrash Hagadol
[xi] Malbim, R. Samson Raphael Hirsh
[xii] Ehrman Rabbi A (2002), the Laws of Interpersonal Relations, Artscroll Brooklyn, NY, based on Shaarei Teshuva 3:187-199
[xiii] Proverbs 17:15
[xiv] Numbers 16:12
[xv] Rashi
[xvi] Numbers 17:10
[xvii] R. Samson Raphael Hirsh on 17:11
[xviii] Ramban
[xix] Nachalat Yaakov on Numbers 16:22, R. Yaakov/Yekl Ben Binyamin Aaron, first published in 1642 Crakow, included in Chumash with 15 commentaries on Rashi
[xx] Meshech Chochma
[xxi] Ramban about the actions of Shimon and Levi in Shchem. 

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