I have been preparing all my life for this particular moment in American politics. Growing up in Jerusalem, with survivors of Auschwitz and Birkenau as close family friends, I was sternly and persistently instructed to expect another genocide to arise, to be prepared for that moment, to always be at the ready to fight for and even die for those who would be targeted. Being soaked in that atmosphere as a child—the atmosphere of Holocaust survivors all around me, their tattooed numbers peering out from under sleeves as they stood beside me at the bus stop, many of them not that much older than I am now—impressed into me these internal words: Always be vigilant. Not many people will be willing to see the genocide or rape or violence, much less do anything about it. Be one of the few willing to see it. Look for it. Be willing to resist it, even if it causes you suffering.
So, when Donald Trump began to rise to power, I did not feel surprised.
Americans believe so much in this country’s exceptionalism—even liberals, maybe especially liberals, believe in American exceptionalism; we believe that the suffering of Syrians, for example, is terrible, but it is not our suffering. It is not something that could ever happen to us. The suffering of Salvadorans, Nigerians, Indians, Ukranians—it is lamentable, but it’s over there, elsewhere, at the end of the day not all that relevant.
Of course, not all Americans believe in American exceptionalism, because some Americans are suffering very, very much.
I can feel myself getting preachy, and I don’t want to get preachy. What I think is that genocide has been happening continuously, somewhere in the world, since the Holocaust. We know this, and sometimes we want to do something about it and we don’t know what to do. And sometimes we don’t want to do something about it because our hearts are hard or shriveled or unexercised. Children and women are raped every day, in every town in America and in the rest of the world. They are raped by the people they trust the most. This is true, and it keeps on being true. Many of the children who are beaten, burned, raped, left hungry, screamed at, and shamed, will grow up to do the same to their own children. People are suffering greatly, and in their own suffering they are inflicting horror on other people. Cruel and hollow people are in power. And many—most?—of them are not so obviously cruel and hollow as Donald Trump. Many of the people who cause the most harm seem like good people. They seem trustworthy, interesting, smart, sexy. This is true, and it keeps on being true.
It is very hard to admit these things. It is hard to give them admittance into our hearts, and to keep on admitting them.
For me, the most consistent reason it is hard to keep saying, “yes, this is true” (one meaning of the word “admit”), and the reason it is hard to keep these things in my heart (another meaning of the word “admit”), is because to do so means to also admit how powerless I am. Tonight, in my town, children will be harmed, some of them brutally and irrevocably harmed, and there is nothing I can do about it.
It is of course common in the collective American myth to say, “but of course there is something you can do about it! You can volunteer for Big Brothers, Big Sisters! You can give money to your local domestic violence shelter! You can vote for politicians who will crack down on crime, or who will eliminate poverty, or who will pump schools full of money. Don’t be such a pessimist! Don’t be such a defeatist!” Good-hearted people say these things, and I am all for good-hearted people, but maybe sometimes optimism is just one more way of numbing ourselves from admitting the actual scope and depth of the suffering/evil/horror.
I suppose that not everyone has the same experience, but what I’ve found is that when I gather up the courage to admit sorrow and powerlessness and grief and loss, that the outcome is very different from what I thought it would be. I turn away from the suffering of others because I’m afraid that if I turn toward it, it will crush me, or make me insane, or even kill me. And turning toward the suffering of others with an open heart does do that to us. It crushes us sometimes. It traumatizes us. But it doesn’t only do that. It also softens us. It also makes us more loving. It makes us less likely to cause harm. It makes us more likely to join the resistance, and less likely to be passive or to join the forces of oppression. This, too, I think?, is true.