When fear & hatred trump humanity

We visited Auschwitz-Birkenau yesterday (for me it was my 3rd visit after 1989 the summer before the Wall fell and 1994). Auschwitz-Birkenau consisted of two main camps and was an unimaginably huge murder-factory, the scale of which is absolutely daunting. When I walk there it feels like an iron fist has grabbed hold of my heart. Even after all these years, I still can not wrap my head around it all…


It is a lesson from the past that I want my children to learn today, especially in light of islamophobia and intolerance towards refugees so prevalent now. This is where it could end, once we stop seeing humanity and we only see ‘them’ and ‘us’… this is where it could end when we fail to help people in need… this is where it could end when we build walls and shut people out… this where it could end when fear and hatred trump humanity…

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Empathicalism part two

Oh my, I certainly was right when I yesterday expressed the thought that Richard Armitage’s message on cyberbullying would be about empathy. And he had a nice selfie to go with that message as well. 🙂

Stop-Cyberbullying-Day-2016-Richard-Armitage

I enjoyed reading this message and the intent I felt behind it – be good to one another and think before you write. I can totally subscribe to that! He says at the end: “Never underestimate your words. Use them carefully and for the better; if, like me, it’s the kind of society you believe in.” I think that is what I will take away from this message most of all.

As for empathy – I am big on empathy myself! Maybe too much so, which is why I was a relatively popular boss when I was one but not always an efficient one, as I found it difficult to be ‘hard’ on others. I was reminded of that the other day when my husband and I had lunch at this little neighbourhood restaurant where we always make small talk with the boss-lady there. She was telling us how she was competing for a ‘good restaurant’ prize and we commented on how we liked coming there because we felt the staff are so extremely friendly. She said she had to fire one staff member not so long ago who had a borderline disorder. When the boss took the staff member aside and talked to her about some customer friendliness issue, the lady flipped in a ‘borderline’ way and said she was leaving that instant. The boss had told her she couldn’t do that, as she needed to lock up, but the staff lady left anyway. “I had to fire her for that” the boss said and I found myself thinking that I couldn’t have done that. I would have cut this lady some slack because of her borderline situation. That could possibly mean the quality of my restaurant would be a little less high, but I would take that chance. I totally understood the boss lady’s decision (I don’t know, after all, how many chances she had already given this borderline lady) but I also felt for the staff lady. Yeah, tough management positions are not for me… So, empathy, yes, I totally get that! The next step is – what do you do with that empathy? And I think this is where Richard Armitage and I differ somewhat.

Richard says that “our words are our weapons” and I totally agree with that. He then goes on to say, “We must consider the other persons feelings before we express our own, consider how our words wound […] In our own small way we can champion harmony, tolerance, balance and forgiveness.” Although this sounds wonderful and idealistic, it has too much of a ‘turn the other cheek’ feel to me. He also says, “It’s one of the big lessons in life, to leave yourself alone […] When we have this critical inner dialogue with ourselves, we do lean towards turning that outwards, towards the world at large”. Yes, sometimes it is best to let things go, but sometimes it is better to stand up for what you truly believe in your heart. So, where I differ with Richard is that you don’t necessarily have to leave the inner critical voice alone! Listen to it, and yes, turn it outwards if you feel strongly about it, but here’s the crux: do it in a respectful way, without insults and vitriol! Let me give an example…

Xenophobia is a huge thing for me – I am allergic to it! I think nothing enrages me more than xenophobia, the unjust treatment of groups of people that goes with it and not seeing people as individual human beings anymore. Right now, in my world, the most marginalised people are muslims and it seriously enrages me when I hear people like Donald Trump (or like our Dutch politician Geert Wilders) blame Islam for everything that is wrong in the world! I try to feel empathy for Donald and Geert and try to understand where they are coming from. They truly seem to believe the things they say and I totally understand it comes from a place of fear. So, to a certain extent I have empathy for them! I feel their rage and their pain and when I hear whatever latest thing ISIS did, I can understand their anger. In turn, ISIS is xenophobic towards the West and towards those who do not believe in the ‘right Islam’, just as Donald and Geert are xenophobic to all of Islam. And where am I in all this? I just feel enraged at all these people! I read articles and see discussions on Twitter and while it is good to talk about these things, what I mostly see is vitriol, demonization towards the other point of view and generalization. Real discussion is not possible. Quotes get bandied to and fro with a feel of malice towards the other behind it. Real understanding of the other is in no way facilitated. I have had to unfollow accounts because of this, I couldn’t bear it any longer. After election time I may follow them again, but for now I have to leave some stuff alone. In this instance I have chosen to leave it all alone, because I know nothing I could say would make an iota of difference and I would just get vitriol spewed at me. However, if I had felt there was room for understanding, I would not have stayed silent.

If only there were a little more empathy (that word again!) and acceptance that people are in fact all very different. As I am in the West, I would love to truly understand how any reasonably well-educated, intelligent person can even support such a man as Trump. Seriously, if anyone can explain that to me (without reverting to foul language and insults to groups of people) I would truly be interested! One of the best discussions I remember having a long time ago was with a missionary whose views totally opposed my own. For various reasons that I won’t go into here now, I am very much against missionising yet a long long talk I once had with this missionary made me understand why he felt the need to do it. I will never agree with it, we agreed to disagree at the time and I will always speak against it, but at least the need I felt to strangle that person faded away. I came to understand his concerns and he mine, and maybe we both became a little less extreme in our views and things became more harmonious. See, and that’s what is important for me – I have empathy, I want to understand where the other person is coming from, but with that information I want to open discussion and not just ‘turn the other cheek’ and ‘let go’. So, for me, empathy is the beginning of talking, of discussion and of hopefully coming closer together.

Discussion, however, can never work without respecting the other! Empathy can not work just one way, the other needs to be open to you as well. When Richard says “Words are our weapons” he is completely right. You can’t make anyone really listen to what’s in your heart with a gun pointed at them and you can’t make anyone really take you seriously when all you can do is use harsh words and insults. If you show true empathy, I believe that can be the opening to others being empathetic to you. And then the real games can begin… It will never be easy, though, because when you do choose to fight for something you truly believe in, that’s when it gets hard to watch your words and that’s when your words have the most potential to wound! And THAT is when you need to remember to be empathetic. State what you believe but, yes, watch your words and remember that not everyone will think as you do…

I really like when Richard says,  “We believe we are good, and ‘they’ are bad, but what if the bad guys believe they are the good guys and vice versa? What if we are both right and both wrong?”. I think that is the essence and the only way to peace is learning to understand where the other person is coming from and trying to bridge that gap together!

So,  what I would like to add to Richard’s message, which I believe has the best intent possible, is that empathy should lead to constructive discussion in a respectful way. Pick and choose your battles, sure, but don’t always just ‘let it go’ – be willing to be open and talk, really talk, without hatred and lashing out, and with, yes, empathy and maybe through that people will be able to come closer together…

Babies

ETA: other interesting responses to Richard’s Forgiveness and Intention blog post for Cybersmile:

Banksy West Bank wall art

Suzy’s post on her Silverbluelining blog about a Banksy film called Exit through the gift shop (post is in German) and my recent thoughts about Richard Armitage’s #nowalls tweet had me researching Banksy wall art on the West Bank in Palestinian Territory. My google search delivered these results…

A Palestinian boy walks past a drawing by British graffiti artist Banksy near the Kalandia ...

Banksy West Bank Wall 2Banksy West Bank Wall 3Banksy West Bank Wall 4

MIDEAST ISRAEL PALESTINIANS BANKSY

Banksy West Bank Wall 6Banksy West Bank Wall 7Banksy West Bank Wall 8Banksy West Bank Wall 9Banksy West Bank Wall 10Banksy West Bank Wall 11

Walls are barriers to coexisting and these images on a wall that I really hate make me feel very emotional. I find them absolutely beautiful. Some people have citicised making a wall such as this beautiful, but I don’t see it that way. I see it as a beautful protest to tear the thing down.

I so want to live in a world of tolerance, peace and freedom, without walls and violence, a multicultural, multi-faith (or non faith) world where people can accept differences and just  coexist. It may sound too idealistic but maybe if there are enough dreamers who express this and act on this in their daily lives, it can one day become a reality?

I find it scary how the world has become so hateful and everyone has become so selfish and I’m not only talking about hateful reactions to refugees or Donald Trump here. Having said that, have we seriously created a world where men like Trump, with such hateful and violent rhetoric, can become leaders in the world? We only have this one world to share! Can we please stop destroying it and each other and become more tolerant? Tolerance to me doesn’t mean being uncritical. To me it means dialogue and discussion and trying to learn about the other, learn to accept them for who they are, and yes, maybe even change a little to accommodate each other.

When I think about the meaning of life, to me it can be summed up in one word: Love.  I just hope people everywhere, west, east, north and south, will one day be able to feel that too. I don’t mean to preach but to me, in the end, that seems to be the only way. I truly believe that love can accomplish more than hate. And that is what these Banksy images express to me – the hope that love and freedom for all will win in the end.

Ich und Du

Here in The Netherlands we have Remembrance Day on May 4th (today) where we remember those killed in war and we celebrate Liberation Day on May 5th, when The Netherlands was liberated from the Nazis in 1945. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the war and every year these commemorations make me stop and think.

The war in 1940-1945 has shaped my outlook on life even though I was born 25 years after World War II ended. Memories of the war have been recounted to my brothers and sisters and me ever since I can remember. My father didn’t have too many memories of the war to share but my mother’s memories are very vivid and to this day she often tells us all the stories.

My mother was the daughter of a shipowner. Her father owned fishing ships in Scheveningen, the little town at the beach of The Hague that is now a bustling resort. She has a few memories of before the war, like going to Meijendel in the dunes of The Hague and Wassenaar to watch her father ride horses. “When you’re bigger you can learn to ride as well!” he told her, but that never happened. The war came when my mother was 4.5 years old. She was the eldest of 3 children.

Her father, my grandfather, started working for the resistance. He was involved in a plan to evacuate the Dutch Queen Wilhelmina to England with one of his ships but ultimately another flight path was chosen for her. My grandfather’s fishing ships were confiscated by the Nazi’s at the beginning of the war, their house near the beach in Scheveningen was declared a war zone and had to be evacuated.

Scheveningen Atlanktikwall 1944My grandmother took my mother and her sister and brother to live in Den Haag, while my grandfather went into hiding because of his activities for the underground. The 17th century bible, a family heirloom (now proudly on display in my parents’ home) was wrapped up and buried in the soil so that it would not be stolen by the Nazis. You can still see the damp in some of the pages.

The war was tough on the population. Food on rations, night time curfews, escaping into shelters during bombings and when you came out seeing dead people who hadn’t made it. There were regular round-ups and the Gestapo (the secret police) regularly came by my grandmother’s house looking for my grandfather. One day they took my grandmother with them for questioning and kept her overnight while the small children remained all alone in the house that night, not knowing whether their mother would return. Once in a while, often after dark, my grandfather would come home for a secret visit and then he would disappear again through the hatch in the floor, to the crawl spaces under the houses. My mother remembers one particular day when their house was searched by the Gestapo: her father had just left after a secret visit and she and her sister Irene were sitting on the rug covering the hatch, playing there and making sure the hatch could not be seen. Discovery of the hatch was to be avoided at all cost; their father must not be found!

And then there were the stories about school. Less and less children came to school, Jewish children went away. There was at least one girl in class who my mother knew was Jewish. Her hair was dyed blonde and she passed through life as a “Christian” girl. One time my mother pointed out to the girl that her hair roots were dark. When the girl came to school again the next day her hair was all blonde again. When my mother told her father about it he got angry with her because with that remark my mother could have endangered that girl’s life. The winter of 1944-1945 was later dubbed “the hunger winter”. Food became very scarce with often only boiled tulip bulbs for a meal. Wood in the tram rails was used for firewood and the toes were cut off the shoes so that they could still be worn by the growing children. It was a very difficult and desperate time.

Finally in May 1945, when my mother was 9, The Netherlands was liberated.Bevrijding-Den-Haag-2 Bevrijding-1945-Den Haag

Dutch collaborators were interred in a camp, ‘kraut girls’ who had dated German soldiers were accused of collaboration and were shaved publicly, their bald heads painted with red dye. My mother, as the eldest, was taken by her father to witness all this. When the German troops marched out of The Hague, my grandfather told my mother to spit on them and she did.

After the war, the family returned to their house in Scheveningen where the rats were crawling everywhere and the floors were covered in human excrement. My grandfather told my mother to do her best at best school but that she was allowed to fail German class. Hate for the Germans ran deep. If a German tourist came to visit Scheveningen and asked directions, my mother was instructed to smile, point towards the North Sea and say sweetly “Immer gerade aus” (“Go straight ahead”). My grandfather’s hate for the Germans later cost him his life. At the end of the 1950’s he went to Germany to receive compensation for his ships that had been confiscated by the Nazi’s. In Germany he got appendicitis but he refused to be treated by German doctors. By the time he returned to The Netherlands it was too late. He died.

At around this time my mother (who had not been raised in any religion) met my father, a young idealistic theologian. My father was very interested in Judaism and the murder of 6 million Jews in the war had deeply affected him. He admired the German-Jewish philosopher Martin Buber who had fled from the Nazis and advocated dialog in his philosophies. This dialog philosophy became the basic principle in my father’s further life. He even got to meet Martin Buber once in person in 1959 and interviewed him! Buber’s “Ich und Du” (“I and You”) dialog philosophy is what guided my father in his work and became a profound influence on my mother as well as they were trying to help build a better world in the aftermath of war.

quote-the-basic-word-i-thou-can-be-spoken-only-with-one-s-whole-being-the-concentration-and-fusion-into-martin-buber-214257

My parents got married in 1960, the first children were born in The Netherlands, and my father was dispatched to Israel in 1967 by the Dutch Reformed Church; he was to work as an advisor and a bridge builder: help the Christians receive more insight into Judaism and understand that the roots of Christianity lie firmly implanted in Judaism (Jesus himself was a Jew after all!) and show the Jews that not all Christians hate them or want to convert or murder them. Martin Buber’s “Ich und Du” brought to life in my father’s work, a philosophy close to his and my mother’s heart. No more hatred and anti-semitism, what was needed was an understanding of the beliefs of the other, the realization of how much each has in common and the acceptance of people just as they are. My father as well as my mother had learned from the war: racism and oppression should never happen again, every person counts, it doesn’t matter where they are from, what they look like or what they believe. We live in a multicultural world – instead of being divided by difference, how about also realizing how rich this world is in all its variety? This philosophy of life was not just abstract; it became practice in our home. Next to the ‘biological’ children (of whom I was the last to be born, in Jerusalem) my parents adopted 2 Palestinian babies and 2 Ethiopian teenagers: we became multicultural ourselves and turned into a family of different faiths (or no faith) and colors. Added to that, many other children temporarily lived with us, when the need arose, for short term fostering.

When I was 10 years old we moved to Germany. My grandmother in Scheveningen found it difficult to accept that but my parents did not believe in racism and hatred: not all Germans are bad! My father continued his work on an international level, becoming General Secretary of an organization called “The International Council of Christians and Jews”. In a beautiful twist of fate the head office of the ICCJ was located in the former home of Martin Buber, my father’s philosophical hero! He worked in Buber’s House for 17 years.

Martin-Buber-Haus_Heppenheim

From my teens to the beginning of my twenties I became obsessed by the Second World War; a logical consequence of my parents’ history and work. I had been surrounded by the subject ever since I could remember, after all. When I was 19 I even went on a “Holocaust” study trip where among other places I visited Auschwitz in Poland. This left a profound impression on me and the values and lessons from history handed down to me by my parents were only strengthened in me through these experiences. To this day I try to live by them – be open to people, never judge a book by its cover, accept the other for who they are, embrace diversity and never ever lose touch with your humanity.

So, why are the 4th / 5th of May important to me? Because every year I am reminded of these lessons. Every year I hear people say in the speeches how we must learn from the lessons of the past and everyone agrees and applauds, while the next moment I see hate and intolerance towards, for instance, Muslims around me here in The Netherlands. Every year I hope that the remembrance of what happened in the war and the celebration of freedom will jerk us into behaving with respect and humanity towards the other, even though opinions and beliefs may differ. Through opening yourself up towards the other and vice versa there is a way. Ich und Du.There is always hope and to make the world better, you really only have to start with yourself.

Love is the answer

I so very much believe in love and diversity and tolerance and allowing people to live according to their own beliefs and ideologies without encroaching on the beliefs and ideologies of others. There is so much hatred and conflict in the world today and so much prejudice festers… My own focus is on what is going on in the Middle East in Israel/Palestine (as I have lived in Jerusalem) and now this whole awful IS (Islamic State murdering journalists) situation has emerged.

Where is tolerance? Doesn’t religion teach us to love? And even if you have no religion, isn’t the only way to real survival and happiness love? In the awfulness of today’s world I hope that people can start to rise up and break through all the awfulness and hatred and prejudice and actually truly love. I feel like a naive little ideologist saying this but apparently I am not alone with this feeling…. I am not the only naive ideologist…

Two days ago (September 12th) Richard Armitage did a Twitter Q&A (https://twitter.com/RCArmitage) and of course I loved following it all. However, the answers he gave to two questions especially spoke straightly to my soul:

Question: What aspects of society/culture do you think ‘The Crucible’ best speaks to today?
RA: It speaks of prejudice and persecution and any society who has permitted it’s government…to legislate in favour of such denial of human rights, be it, race, gender, religion, sexual preference and political orientation.

and

Question: What do you hope the audience will be left contemplating after the performance? 
RA: I hope our audience leave with a sense of purpose, duty and responsibility…That they are at one with their mortality and that they believe in love.

His response made me think of this video that I came across a little while ago of two young poets speaking of the animosity between Jews and Muslims, referencing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and trying to beat prejudice:

And then this morning I was alerted to another video, addressing exactly the exasperation I feel about the world today, but there is a message of hope at the end. Oh, if humanity would only listen!

The message of hope in this video I would like to reiterate here:

“But once we truly love we will meet anger with sympathy, hatred with compassion, cruelty with kindness. Love is the most powerful weapon on the face of the earth […] The path towards a new beginning starts within you”.