Imagine a primary school child walking into school to read, “You should die” spray-painted on the walls, or your house of worship having security guards to protect those inside, or for it to be common when playing interschool sports to be teased and called names for nothing other than your faith.
This was not happening in Russia or Germany. This was my childhood in Australia. Growing up a Jew in a non-Jewish community meant I have seen and felt racial vilification firsthand. I have also seen the remnants of the Second World War through family members who had lost the rest of their families in concentration camps or from relatives who had serial numbers tattooed on their arms from their time in concentration camps.
In a long line of scapegoats for other people's fears and insecurities, Jews are not the first group to be victimised – and sadly will not be the last.
While the behaviour of bullies and bigots should never be condoned, it is worth considering that all relationships are a two-way dynamic. This means that at some point a brave conversation is needed about the role of those being victimised in perpetuating or even initiating that cycle.
It is important to note that this is not about excusing, condoning or encouraging vilification in any way. Violence, abuse, and marginalization are never acceptable towards any individual or group.
But we need to ask the question of provenance. What comes first – the vilification ... or the rejection others feel from a group defining themselves as special or different to others?
Within most cultures there is a great pride in being part of a community; people are encouraged to keep the religion going by marrying into the faith. You hear groups talk about famous people from their culture that have made it big, in whatever field, and the contributions their culture has made to wider society.
The Jewish religion defines Jews as ‘the chosen people’, much like other cultures and religions who also infer their way ensures their own salvation or reserves them a ‘special’ place in heaven.
If we are asking who threw the first stone in the war of vilification, maybe we need to look at culture/religion itself.
Let’s explore this in a different way.
Imagine a child in a playground walking around telling everyone that he/she is different, special even. How long before that kid starts getting the attention of people we might otherwise call bullies?
Could there be something about a person wanting to be special or different that is part of the cycle of vilification? After all, they have rejected others first.
Could it be that culture, the very thing we use to give us a sense of belonging and understanding of our place in the universe, may be the very thing that sits at the heart of vilification itself?
How many millions of people have died globally in the name of racial purity or supremacy?
Consider the following examples:
11 million[iii] people killed in concentration camps of World War Two
An estimated 10 million[iv] killed during the Asian holocaust during the second world war
An estimated 3 million[v] who died in the killing fields of Cambodia in the mid 70’s
The 1 million[vi] Tutsi people killed in Rwanda in the 90’s
The Yugoslav Wars in the 90’s resulted in 500,000 deaths.[vii]
The cost is not just lives lost, but the scars for those left behind and the financial impact for countries and communities that need to rebuild themselves after each event.
Our need for a sense of place in the world appears to come from a deep place within. But by using religion or culture for our belonging, we also create a group of people who don’t belong. This means that when we hold on tightly to religion or culture for our belonging, we make ourselves feel better/safer by pushing others away.
Back to the playground: how does the teacher respond when they see a child or children staking a claim to one part of the playground? It makes no sense to allow it, because learning to share and experiencing a diversity of play equipment is important developmentally.
Yet holding onto culture as our identity is something we encourage and champion – and at times defend to the death (of ourselves or others).
Yes, there are physical differences across the world but genetically these differences are less than 0.1% of our DNA.[viii] Our flesh and blood is the same and the only differences, beyond the superficial differences of size, shape, language, food and skin colour, seem to be ones that are mentally constructed.
Could it be that we are missing a way to remind ourselves that as humanity we all live in the same playground?
Freedom of religion, freedom of association and freedom from vilification should be hallmarks of modern society, but who casts the first stone when it comes to the sting of rejection? Is it the abuser or the one who is saying that they are somehow different or special?
Maybe laying down our tightly held and externally shaped identity is the first step in laying down our guns and unclenching our fists. Maybe there is something we can connect to within that is unique, yet equal among all people.
When natural disasters strike, we seem to be able to do this. We can come together as humanity and do what is needed. If we did this in our day to day, we may not even care about who threw the first stone and start using these stones to build hospitals, schools and places for all community.