In light of the recent attacks on Jewish cemeteries —the desecration of Mount Carmel Jewish Cemetery in Philadelphia and the toppling of more than 150 gravestones at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in Missouri — along with my reminiscing that a year ago today (March 1 as I am writing) I was en route to Jerusalem to work with a group of scholars for the Intercontinental Academia on Human Dignity, I wanted to once again confront trauma (building on Part I of this topic). In this case, I consider trauma as an affront to the dignity of ALL bodies and their memories, while simultaneously questioning how those who have not experienced trauma develop respect for its proximity – in individual lives, in sacred spaces, and in memorials.
The desecration of memory alive in the space of the cemetery presses me to repeat what I have said before: that the violation of bodies lies at the heart of traumas caused by human design — even if those bodies are inhumed.The destruction of tombstones, and therefore the disparagement of inhumed bodies, illustrates a rise of anti-Semitism, which cannot be disengaged from the racist and xenophobic rhetoric coming out of the White House. Nor can the destruction of the two cemeteries be considered simple acts of vandalism. Both incidences indicate the presence of larger systemic issues. At the root of this system lies hate and power, maybe also rage and fear. Whatever the affective motivator of the attacks, at their core each reveals a lack of empathy, the absence of the ability to imagine the feeling of another. Perhaps the refusal to do so. Either way, a dearth of empathy or failure at honing the capacity for empathy persists.
The fissures which occur that undermine empathy, often promoted by fear and shame, begin not as volcanic disruptions but rather as hairline fractures. The break in the ability to connect with another or to imagine another’s pain – especially when it is a result of our own actions – gradually becomes larger until a gap emerges, a great loss of the ability to connect leaving a hole, an empty vista.
It is easy to identify a blatant lack of empathy, but where do the first line fractures occur? Considering these more inconspicuous breaks will help to reveal what mechanisms act as fodder for hate and perhaps offer points of action, which I would call creating awareness and fostering empathy. Both necessarily involve building relational skills.
Not intimately related to the desecration which occurred at the cemeteries, but not far from the sentiments that inaugurate such maliciousness and injury, are sentiments featured in an art project launched recently on the Internet by Shahak Shapira entitled Yolocaust.
A play on the acronym “You only live once,” Yolocaust features a series of selfies discovered on the Internet taken by visitors at the Berlin Holocaust Memorial . Shapira took the selfies, predominantly images of people behaving inappropriately at the memorial, and photo-shopped graphic scenes from the Holocaust into them. Shapira exhibited the images online. After a week, he took the controversial display down, saying, “It served its purpose.”
The artistic renderings are disturbing; the selfies are equally so. Most of the photographers of the selfies apologized publicly, claiming no disrespect. However, the question remains: what occurred (or did not occur) internally that permitted the apparent mocking of the Memorial? How do jokes in a memorial compare to attacks on the cemetery? At the root of each act some combination of the following prevails: 1) a failure of imagination of how another person would experience an action, 2) complete disregard for how actions would affect another person, or 3) an intent to harm. In each case, the capacity for empathy is thwarted.
And yet the situation is more complex. The Berlin Holocaust Memorial has long been a site of contention. Some think it should be a sacred space visited as a museum and not as a kind of park. The 2,700 concrete slabs are set out in a grid shape, sloping near the site of Hitler’s administrative center during WWII and resting on a former location of the Berlin Wall. When I visited in August, people rested on the slabs to soak up sun, chat, and eat their lunches. Some decry this as disrespectful; others, such as my German travel companion, say the museum provides a place of coming together. It is, she said, “something that subtly memorializes” (unlike museums that narrate the abomination of the Holocaust), “reminding German’s daily of the horrors, and we can live with it maybe.”
The architect of the museum, Peter Eisenmen, does not claim any particular feeling with which one should approach the memorial stating in an interview with Der Spiegel (quoted in English translation in the Guardian), “People are going to picnic in the field. Children will play tag in the field. There will be fashion models modelling there, and films will be shot there. I can easily imagine some spy shoot ’em ups ending in the field. What can I say? It’s not a sacred place.”
Regardless of how the spaces are conceived (and I think we can envision them as sacred or not; I also think that we can envision them as sites for a variety of activities yet simultaneously sacred), denial of the responsibility to respect bodies becomes obvious in both cases. This abnegation of bodies is tantamount to disregarding traumatic histories and, in the extreme, perpetuating trauma. Thus, the empathy required to stand in solidarity, to mourn the loss of those who were not able to stand for themselves, is conspicuously absent.
While certainly illustrating different intensities, the attacks on the cemeteries and the disturbing selfies evidence larger themes of racism and xenophobia, anti- Semitism and hate. The lack of a commitment to cultivate empathy and promote relationality represents the heart of the systemic problem. Fostering empathy is a challenge when empathy itself fails to be modeled by leaders and by patriarchal society. Currently, both fail to recognize and treat with dignity broken bodies that are not their own or someone related to them.
In the spirit of empathy and dignifying bodies – those dead and alive – I quote Ericka Hart at the Woman’s March who declared, “I stand here for all those who didn’t receive marches when their bodies were under attack.” Viola Davis echoes this sentiment at the 2017 Academy Awards. She powerfully celebrates the lives of the ordinary people, saying that all the people with the greatest potential are “in the graveyard.” She encourages storytellers to “exhume those bodies,” to tell the stories of those who have not been heard as a form of bestowing dignity. Both of these women promote a capacity for empathy; they do so to honor the traumatized and the dead.
Stephanie N. Arel is currently a Post-Doctoral Fellow at Institute for the Bio-Cultural Study of Religion (IBCSR) at Boston University working on the Sex Differences in Religion Project. Her teaching and research interests focus on the intersection of theology, psychology, and philosophy. She is the author of Affect Theory, Shame and Christian Formation (Palgrave Macmillan 2016) and co-editor of Post-Traumatic Public Theology (Palgrave Macmillan 2016).