Last weekend in Amsterdam I queued up for two hours in cold weather to gain admission to the Anne Frank House museum. There was no guarantee that there would be space for me, or that my endurance would last long enough to find out. But I made it inside! It was a profound experience. I don’t think that my reflections were much different from those of other visitors – but they were made timely by simultaneous events taking place in the US.
The visit to Anne Frank House was a reminder that human genius is extraordinarily ordinary. Anne was a typical teenage girl – she had crushes and she hung pictures of movie stars on her walls. She was also an aspiring author, writing not only diaries, but also short stories and the beginning of a novel, during the two years that her Jewish family was in hiding from the Nazis during World War II. After her death, her diary became one of the most influential books of the 20th century.
The museum visit was also a reminder of how evil can creep its way into ordinary life. Why should this brilliant young girl die in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, one month before it was liberated, simply because of her Jewish identity? Why should over 100,000 other Jews in the Netherlands meet the same fate? Or 6 million across Europe? Every person who was lost bore the image of their Creator, just as Anne did, even though most of them never became famous.
When we reflect on these horrors we tend to state the obvious: this must never happen again. But it has happened again. On a large scale in the 1990s in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, and on a smaller scale in cases like the current persecution of the Rohingya ethnic group in Southeast Asia. So Anne’s story reminds me of the horrible things that can happen when we begin to view our fellow human beings as anything other than human beings.
In the US, dehumanization rose sharply during the recent presidential election. By ‘dehumanization’ I mean viewing other groups of people as less than ourselves, to the extent that we deny their basic rights and dignity as human beings. President-elect Trump did not invent dehumanization – in fact, its roots run deep in our culture. And I do not claim to know Trump’s inward intentions. Nonetheless the impact of his divisive campaign statements has been a visible flourishing of dehumanization.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has identified over 700 incidents of post-election harassment against immigrants, Blacks, LGBT persons, Muslims, women and occasionally even against Trump supporters. Those statistics are difficult to interpret, yet the cultural phenomenon that they highlight is real. It’s worth noting that a number of the harassers linked their boldness directly to the election results with explanations such as: “Now we can say what we really think.”
Last weekend, while I was visiting the Anne Frank House, white nationalists held a conference in Washington DC. Their goal is a ‘white ethno-state,’ a country exclusively for people of European origin. They used to meet in quiet corners, but this gathering was open and assertive. In the words of one participant: “I never thought we would get to this point…The culture is moving more in my direction.” Lest anyone miss the point, the conference also involved hailing the election results with recycled Nazi slogans. Trump later made a comment condemning this group, which was very welcome, but very minimalist. A lot more leadership will be needed to contain the ugliness that has been unleashed.
Also last weekend, while I was visiting the Anne Frank House, someone vandalized the Muslim Association of Puget Sound (MAPS), the Seattle area’s largest mosque. The sign reflecting the Muslim community’s identity was struck with a sledgehammer. Despite the obvious hostility, this story is now unfolding in a beautiful way. The number of perpetrators who attacked the sign is, I would guess, probably around two. The size of the crowd that showed up yesterday to express solidarity during a MAPS Open House appeared to be well over two hundred. I saw them there – over two hundred individual expressions of shared humanity – and they were powerful.
Comparisons to the Nazi era tend to upset people, so let me be clear: I am not saying that the level of dehumanization in the US is equal to that of the Nazi past. I am saying that we are at risk of moving in the wrong direction. I am saying that we all have a role to play in determining what happens next. At this point citizen action can make a difference – so let us take decisive action. It doesn’t matter if you are a Republication, a Democrat, or something else. I hope that you will be motivated to action by a commitment to shared humanity. As the late Israeli statesman Shimon Peres stated upon visiting the Anne Frank House: “It’s not a memory, it’s a warming to all of us.”
Update: Shortly after writing this post, I learned that I had underestimated the number of people who showed up for the MAPS Open House. I had guessed well over 200; happily MAPS counted almost 500! On 9 December, MAPS’ new sign was dedicated in a ceremony that featured multi-faith religious leaders from all over Seattle. On 17 December, the sign was vandalized again. The incident is being investigated as a hate crime. MAPS continues to engage their community by being a good neighbor.
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