For Day 14 of my 21 Daring Days, the challenge is tough: ‘Write something inspired by something you’ve recently read, watched or heard. If you can, focus on a particular detail (a quote, an idea, a scene, a story) that made you think.’
‘The Jews are just the canary in the coal mine of populism.’
This arresting quote is from an article in The Times by journalist Daniel Finkelstein, whose parents were forced to flee the Third Reich as children. Between them, they lived in eight different countries before they were able to stop running and call the United Kingdom their home.
Finkelstein’s context is the recent targeting of billionaire George Soros for supporting a campaign to keep the UK in the European Union. And it’s not just the nationalist government of his nation of birth, Hungary, that has had him in its sights — in the UK, assorted pro-Brexit media have been lining up to accuse Soros of involvement in ‘secret plots’ to subvert the will of the people.
And the common, if not articulated, theme? Soros is wealthy, successful, supports campaigns to protect human rights and freedom of speech… and is Jewish.
In a timely reminder that we are less than a century away from the rise of fascism across Europe, Finkelstein shows us that there is nothing new about anti-semitism. Among his more chilling facts is this: in the 1920s, the Nazis won the most votes in those German towns where the Jewish population had been blamed for the Black Death in the 14th century.
Finkelstein says: ‘Hearing Jews worry about attacks on George Soros that don’t mention his Judaism may strike some as misplaced anxiety. But I think the concern about the dialogue underneath it is anything but misplaced.’
I am not old enough to remember the second world war, but I am old enough to have grown up immersed in its legacy. And as the daughter of committed anti-fascists, I understood from an early age that intolerance, prejudice, and conspiracy theories were right up there in the drivers that have underpinned every bloody conflict in history.
My parents would, I know, be horrified at what’s happened to the European peace their generation fought so hard to win. It’s not yet in tatters, but we once again increasingly live in a world driven by fear, and when fear is in the ascendant, it seems to be a human default position to categorise ourselves as ‘us’ and ‘them’ and start hating and dehumanising ‘them’.
Social media now makes it even easier for us to consign ourselves to silos where we need never engage with anyone with whom we disagree, somewhere we can stand comfortingly united by our hatred of our common enemy. This applies across the political spectrum — neither right nor left has a monopoly here.
But as American research professor, writer, and speaker Brene Brown says in her latest book, Braving the Wilderness, ‘people are hard to hate close up. Move in’. And what Dr Brown’s research has consistently revealed is this: ‘As the larger world engages in what feels like a complete collapse of moral judgment and productive communication, the women and men I interviewed who had the strongest sense of true belonging stayed zoomed in [her itals].’
They are the ones who form their opinions of people based on their ‘actual in-person experiences’, not on what they’ve seen or read or been told.
Is this ridiculously simplistic? The cynic in me might be inclined to think so, but nothing Dr Brown writes is not based on her own meticulous research, and in this case her evidence is compelling.
And indeed, when you move in close and see what George Soros actually did, it is — as Finkelstein says — not much more than ‘a rich guy paying for some leaflets about Brexit’.
Is it time for us all get out of our silos and move in more?