Failed Empathy

Introduction to the
Lecture of Nobel Prize Holder Eli Wiesel on Anti-Semitism

Nov. 10, 2003

Ladies and Gentlemen:

It is a special honor to introduce to you Professor Eli Wiesel.* Only a great artist could turn a boyhood horror into the voice of those who suffered the horror. Only a great writer could reach the hearts and minds of those who did not know that such events were at all possible. But it is the truly greatest person who could experience horror, speak about it, and then explain and reach for humanity through inhumanity.

How could the Nazis do such monstrous things to others? Did they lose their own humanity altogether? I suspect that in their eyes they considered themselves human. But in order to be able to torture their victims, they must have considered the victims less human. The Nazis, I believe, did not invent racism merely to feel superior. They needed to create their racial theory in order to justify the atrocities towards Jews and others. Otherwise the Nazis would have found it much harder or perhaps impossible to do what they did.

There is a word, which provides a powerful expression to our relationship with each other and to society as a whole. This word is identity. Identity has three meanings. They conflict with each other and complement each other.

“Identity” implies separateness. Each of us has his or her own identity that distinguishes us from each other. But the word “identical,” emanating from the same root means precisely the opposite. It describes things that are one and the same, and impossible to distinguish. We are not identical. We are different from each other.

In addition to identity and identical we have the word to “identify.” It does not mean sameness. It means, among other meanings, to “recognize” and “associate.” It means the capacity to imagine how others feel, even though the others are different from us, and separate from us. Thus, each person has his or her own identity, but most persons can identify with others.

How can that be? How can we imagine what others feel, even though we are separate and different from them? The answer is that identity is complex and consists of many features. We can identify with each other because we share one feature of our identity in common. We share our humanity. Regardless of how we look, act, feel, and behave, we are all human. If we share our humanity, we are able to identify with other humans.

The ability to identify with others is fundamental to our nature as individuals and to society. Identifying with others is important to our emotional well-being because we cannot tolerate total aloneness. This deep feeling is necessary to our survival. Total separation endangers our survival.

But the ability to identify with others is as crucial to the existence of civil society. This ability to identify protects us from each other. Once we identify with others, we hurt ourselves when we harm others. But if we do not identify, we can hurt others with impunity. Thus, to hurt others we must sever the bond — the feature of identity that is common to all. We must render the others non-human, and view them as animals or even as things.

This brings me to Professor Wiesel’s topic of this evening’s lecture: Anti-Semitism, in the Past and Today. I speculate again, that anti-Semitism is a way in which people dehumanize others.

Very few people sever the bond of humanity in its entirety and consider all others to be non- humans. But some can sever their bond of humanity with particular groups. Anti-Semites sever their bonds with a select group of humans and thereby minimize and shrink their own ability to bond themselves to humanity. Not their victims, but they become less human.

Therefore, anti-Semitism does not hurt only, and perhaps not mainly, Jews. Often Jews can protect themselves from hatred and its dangers. They have survived thousand of years under its pressure. Anti-Semitism corrupts those who practice it. In fact, it corrodes others including Jews, who are beset by hating others. It often corrodes their spirit with bitterness, even isolates them even from each other. While in the haters’ minds, they reduce the humanity of others, in reality the haters thereby reduce their own humanity.

Tamar Frankel
Professor of Law Emerita
Boston University School of Law

* You can read some of Professor Wiesel’s words at these sites:

A Conversation With Elie Wiesel, Oct. 19, 2012

Elie Wiesel Addresses Anti-Semitism at Cooper Union, Nov. 19, 2014

Farewell My Friend: Three Things I Learned From Elie Wiesel, July 4, 2016

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