Locality is morality

In order to understand the evil that is racism he wanted to study the greatest evil, the systematic destruction of European Jewry.

Kristall image
A shop window made to look like it has been smashed to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Kristallnacht pogroms on November 9, 2013 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Carsten Koall/Getty Images)

My friend Dr. Lallene Rector, president of Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, called a few months ago. She urged me to meet with a member of her faculty. His name is Dr. Stephen G. Ray Jr., Neal A. and Ila F. Fisher Professor of Theology and President, Society for the Study of Black Religion. I asked her why. She said, because he does a lot of reading and research on the Holocaust. This surprised me. Dr. Ray's field is theology, not the Holocaust. I went to Evanston and sat with Dr. Ray. I asked him one question: Why are you studying the Holocaust? I sat back and listened as he taught me.

He trains people for the ministry which in our society includes dealing with racism. In order to understand the evil that is racism he wanted to study the greatest evil, the systematic destruction of European Jewry. It was then that he presented his concept to me. I am surely not a scholar of the history of the destruction of European Jewry, though I am well-read in the area. What he said was new to me. His most significant finding was captured in a phrase he coined: Locality is morality. He explained. It is not enough to look at the national policies of Germany between 1933 and 1945. To be sure, national policy in the case of the German dictatorship is what made the Holocaust. However, to focus only on national policy is to ignore a key factor that made the destruction of European Jewry possible. Decisions about ethics and morality, choosing between good and evil, are not just national choices. 

These are choices made day in and day out, hour by hour, by individuals and families in large cities and small villages throughout Germany. The Germans had the equivalent of our state National Guards, whom we sometimes call Weekend Warriors. A small group of them from the same small village somewhere in Germany would, for periods of several weeks, pack up and travel a few hundred kilometers east into Poland and round up and murder Jews. Who were these people from any one of hundreds of German villages? They were the baker, the grocer, the tailor, the haberdasher, the dentist, the doctor, the Lutheran minister, a high school principal. These people made a choice as individuals, as community members, as family members. They chose to murder Jews. Not only that, having finished murdering Jews they returned home and went on with their quotidian lives. 

What was it in the culture of each one of these localities that made such evil possible? This is the question Dr. Ray ponders. Furthermore, he considers the destruction of European Jewry to be a failure of ministry because in each one of these German villages there was a Catholic priest or a Lutheran minister. Dr. Ray extends this to a Polish town in which several dozen Poles decide to move several hundred of their Jewish neighbors into a barn and burn them. In each of these towns where some Poles engaged in violence against Jews there was a Christian clergyman, a Catholic priest. This was a failure of ministry. 

I asked Dr. Ray what this has to do with racism. He took me to the lynching maps of the southern United States. He notes that in any given state where lynching took place it isn't evenly distributed. There are some counties in the deep South where there are a lot of lynchings, and right next door is another county in which there are no lynchings. Locality is morality. For reasons that we may never be able to fully ascertain, in one county there was a culture of morality that kept people from lynching African Americans and in another county there was not. 

This month, we commemorate the 79 th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Synagogues and Jewish businesses were burned and destroyed in city after city, village after village, and neighborhood after neighborhood in Germany. Locality is Morality. Just take one of the main boulevards, the Michigan Avenue of Berlin, Unter den Linden. Law abiding men and women, middle and upper middle class, whose American counterparts shop at Neiman Marcus or Marshall Field or Crate and Barrel on Michigan Avenue. On the night of Kristallnacht, they went to Unter den Linden. They broke the windows of Jewish department stores. These upstanding, law abiding people from some of the finest neighborhoods of Berlin stole all the goods they could lay their hands on. 

As we commemorate the Kristallnacht anniversary, we do well to remember that locality is morality. It isn't just national policy or culture centered in a given capitol that determines the morality of society. It happens neighborhood by neighborhood, in the villages of Germany, on Unter den Linden, and in the counties of the southern United States. Locality is morality.  

Rabbi Yehiel E. Poupko is the Rabbinic Scholar of the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago.


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