By: Julia Azari
Last week, many or perhaps all of us went to the Holocaust museum and saw the exhibit “They Were Neighbors,” which is about collaboration and complicity in the Holocaust.
Crowds are a recurring theme in the beginning of the exhibit. Some of the commentary provided by the museum asks about the motivations of the crowds. Genuine hatred and bigotry surely drove some of this participation. But that’s not all. We can guess that probably some of these people feared for their lives or livelihoods and felt pressure to participate, creating some of the sharpest ethical dilemmas that we considered in the discussion afterward. It’s a third category, though that has stayed with me: did some of the people who participated in Nazi rallies, public shaming, and ostracism simply get “caught up in the moment?” What does that mean? How can it be squared with the advice I gave you all early in the week – that acting collectively, along with others, is the key to restoring democracy? When does acting in a group cross over from being a movement to being a mob?
The second thing that stood out to me was something many of us have probably learned about many times: the passage of laws extracting higher taxes from Jewish people, eventually confiscating their property altogether. As the people working in the museum pointed out, every situation is unique. But it is important to remember that in the United States at the same time, there were a number of (mostly state) laws that codified racial discrimination. Even FDR’s New Deal programs, which drew praise across party lines, included provisions that excluded African-Americans or wrote prejudiced attitudes into policy. Policies that are subtly or not-so-subtly aimed at excluding specific groups are not that far in our past. It is the job of both political parties in the United States to prevent laws that conflict with the “equal protection” that our Constitution guarantees and that the fundamental values of our nation requires.
In addition to artifacts, pictures, and film from the time, the exhibit also features interviews with Holocaust survivors about the reactions of friends and neighbors. One of these remarks struck me as especially pertinent to contemporary discussions. A woman described returning to school, as a young girl, after being in prison. Her teacher asked, “what did you do?” She said she had done nothing – she had been very young at the time. Her teacher insisted that she must have done something, or at least that her father owed income taxes.
This will be a controversial statement, but I was reminded of our own politics of mass incarceration. What kinds of questions do we need to ask when we think about who goes to prison and why? Do we assume that everyone who goes deserves to be there? What kinds of injustices surround us? What questions should we ask of our government?
When government power is exercised most severely – the power to imprison, to kill, to tax and take property – citizens must ask the most, and toughest questions.
In DC, I have visited several museums – in addition to the Holocaust, the museum of the American Indian and an exhibit on the Qu’ran at the Sachler. I am reminded more than ever of the things we share in common as humans. We can be generous and petty, cruel and kind. We share the impulses to protect our families, to build and discover, and to find meaning in our lives. But we will have our own answers to difficult questions like the ones posed here. Difference has the potential to make our societies vibrant and strong, but we need politics more than ever to help us to resolve our disputes, peacefully and equitably.