We must all beware the ‘civilised’ barbarians

The human impulse to do terrible things under the guise of morality must be resisted


The March of the Living at Auschwitz earlier this month. (Photo by Omar Marques/Getty Images)

May 16, 2024 13:01

Recently, I visited Auschwitz with March of the Living and then, in Israel, I had the honour of meeting Yelena Troufanov, one of the released hostages captured by Hamas on October 7. Her son Sasha is still held. I heard of her harrowing experiences as a hostage. But during both these deeply moving and heartbreaking experiences, I could not help but contemplate the most heinous and sinister expressions of mankind.

Often we call people who enact this behaviour “animals”. In doing so, we remove our civilised selves from them. The American academic Will Durant said, “Barbarism is always around civilisation, amid it and beneath it, ready to engulf it… Barbarism is like the jungle; it never admits its defeat; it waits patiently for centuries to recover the territory to which civilisation has temporarily laid claim.” Durant portrays barbarism as the default of humanity, our “factory setting”. Torah recognises this dark underbelly of humanity in its early verses with God affirming that “the creative drive of the human is evil from its inception”.

Torah does not, however, expect us to engage in the journey of civilising and refining ourselves by sanitising those dark parts. Rather, it invites the blood, guts, and aggression into the holy places and gives them haven and recourse. The readings of the Torah during recent weeks are filled with commandments regarding the logistics of animal sacrifice in the Temple. According to Maimonides, the major reason for these sacrifices is precisely to acknowledge our animalistic origins and provide sacred channelling for it aimed towards God. This is important, because if it is not aimed towards God in safe space, it easily ends up aimed at other humans, often in God’s name.

The human being is the most ferocious and dangerous of all animals on planet Earth. And if we do not accept the imperative to powerfully and consistently train ourselves towards the more virtuous and moral parts of ourselves, we cannot help but revert to living in barbarism.

It is so strong an aspect of humanity that often it is sublimated into more “acceptable” behaviours within the civilised community. While we may not resort to murdering someone, we may assassinate his character and all too often these behaviours are done under the banner of rectitude. The Nazis succeeded in mobilising Europe to participate in mass murder on the platform of a refined and civilised society. Hamas beheaded, raped and burned Jews alive, elderly and babies, on the platform of “resistance” to “occupation”. But make no mistake, they too are human. Perhaps they are without humanity, but they are human nonetheless.

As ferocious and vicious as the human animal is, we are also the most loving, caring, and altruistic of all. While barbarism may always lie in waiting, it only emerges when it finds an open space for it to manifest. Much of ethical civilisation aims at ensuring that firm boundaries are set against it. In our path to maturity as a species we are becoming increasingly more adept at managing it. But we falter. And it is happening now.

We mustn’t allow subversive sublimations to drop anchor into society. Not in our universities, our political systems, nor on our streets. We must recognise it and call it out for what it is, especially when it wears the disguise of civilised morality.

And while we notice the darkness of humanity in its most extreme forms, we must also recognise its presence in ourselves – however diluted and muted it may be. In Israel this month I noticed a marked difference from when I visited back in February. Then, the entire country was united and strong, in spite of the differences that predated October 7. Everyone knew it was imperative to unite against the common enemy they faced in Hamas. For survival, they were compelled to summon their virtue and stand together.

But it is now when there is a great challenge to stand together. Now, when the initial piercing of the threat is seven months old and human nature begins to ease into habit, that we must dig deeper and hold the unity.

One of the most concerning things I heard was from Sasha’s girlfriend, Sapir, who was also taken hostage. The terrorists guarding her had showed her the protests in Tel Aviv and said, “You see when the Jews are together they are very strong! But we will create ‘balagan’ (disarray) amongst them and destroy them.”

We mustn’t let them. We must rise above our differences and stand with each other as we did then. We must banish barbarism in all its forms. As the Jewish people have done for centuries, we must raise the mantle of the grace, righteousness and moral strength of the human spirit.

Rabbi Dweck is Senior Rabbi of the S&P Jewish community

May 16, 2024 13:01

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