You might think that if the well-intentioned commitments made by single individuals quickly vanish into a black hole of irresolution, then group-behavior makeovers are even more likely to go belly-up. This is not so. Most of them require far less willpower and stamina than really showing up at the gym a few times a week. Here are three choices for 2015:
1) Invest in extra sets of eyeballs. Much of my work at the Simon Wiesenthal Center involves safeguarding Jewish interests around the world, including those of the Jewish state. Besides nurturing friendships, we sometimes have to call out groups that act with prejudice, hostility, or worse. One of the occupational hazards of this work is to misread the intentions of people outside our religious or cultural group. By not understanding language the way "natives" use it, we can fail to understand what they mean, and find demons where none lurk. The inverse is equally problematic. We can mean one thing when we use certain language, imagery, or tone of voice, and fail to understand the impact they will have on people in a different community.
If it is generally true that one should not judge another until he has walked a mile in his shoes (an idiom anticipated some 1800 years ago by the Talmud's "Don't judge your fellow until you reach his place"), it is even more important when dealing with inter-group relations. So we try as a matter of policy not to write about groups whose thinking and habits are foreign to us without first consulting with an insider. Consulting with them means that we make fewer mistakes in reading the intentions of others and in miscommunicating what is on our minds.
We recommend the practice, and suggest one enhancement. You are looking for people with whom you can be honest, without obligating them to agree. We find that the best way to do this is to take the initiative and offer our services in that capacity. "Next time you write about us, please consider checking facts and reactions with us first. We promise to listen and offer substantive criticism without expecting that you will listen to all or any of our recommendations. If you decide you agree one time in ten, that will be better for us than if you don't speak to us at all." If they accept this offer, they will likely reciprocate and offer you the same deal. In other words, you want human sounding boards who will not lose it when you fail to heed their advice, even if this happens frequently.
How to find people like that brings us to our next resolution.
2) Eat lunch at good restaurants. Eating at your desk is efficient and a good way to stick to your individual New Year's diet resolution. But it won't advance the cause of peace. Sharing a meal with a member of a community you do not understand or do not like might do a great deal to lower tensions. It is harder to be cutting and merciless with someone with whom you once broke bread.
3) Become more selfish. Alas, we will not wipe out inter-group conflict in 2015, unless the Messiah comes, at which point Jews and Christians will commence hostilities as to whether it is his first or second appearance. Before that blessed event, people will continue to slaughter each other and act in all sorts of unspeakable ways. Millions will continue to bleed and starve. How will we react? Working within an international human rights organization, I cannot tell you how to bring world tranquility, but in the absence of peace, I am confident that public intervention can often alleviate horrible situations. Minimally, it can prevent them from getting worse.
There is too little outrage out there. Crushed by an overload of causes that compete for our heartstrings and our attention, many of us simply walk away from all of them. Others feel that picking one problem area over another is bad for mankind, because it emphasizes differences between people rather than some essential sameness. This is especially true if we work on behalf of groups we identify with. Since World War II, we have been taught that particularism—believing that there is something special about one's own group—is a mortal sin. It leads to nationalism, fascism, even (gasp!) speciesism.
Some would like to show love to all equally, but fear running out of it. They believe that we come equipped with a discrete quantity of love. Use it and lose it. So they spread their concern like a small pat of butter on a large slice of bread. They get it to cover, but the effect is bland and tasteless.
I believe that this is a serious error for those of us who operate within a Judeo-Christian understanding of G-d. For us believers, we know of G-d because it is part of Him. The reservoir of love within Him is infinite. It cannot be exhausted. When we practice acts of love, we attach ourselves to this reservoir and have access to more of it. Love more, and draw more of it down from its heavenly source.
Selfishness can be good, if it means choosing those with whom to share love. As we become infused with more of His love, our definition of self broadens.We first have room only for our own beings. We then extend it in widening circles to include spouse, family, community, religious group. Eventually, we can incorporate more and more of humanity into our definition of self. But it starts where it is easiest—with those to whom we already relate.
I hope and pray that in 2015 we can find a kind of selfishness that allows us to tap into G-d's bounty of love, and from there to find the balm to soothe a troubled mankind.
1/7/2015 5:00:00 AM