Calais Jungle

Switzerland, July 22

Yesterday, while attending a forum on European migration issues, I learned that in the town of Calais on France’s northwest coast, a growing shanty-town known as Calais Jungle populated by migrants and asylum seekers, now has a population of 7,300 and is likely to reach 10,000 by September. This deteriorating situation in Calais, not widely known in the U.S., cries out for attention, if only to allow those of us living at a distance to sense the shocking and heart-rending tensions and contradictions still surrounding Europe’s refugee/migrant crisis.

Calais, best known to the Anglophone world as the entry point into continental Europe via the Channel Tunnel, is a gathering place for refugees and migrants who have set their hopes on getting to the UK. Camps of this kind have been forming in Calais since the early 1990s. They have been set up on unoccupied land, using tents and other temporary shelter, moving to new locations when the French authorities close them. Last year this particular camp grew significantly. By April 2015, it had acquired, for the first time, showers, toilets and electricity. Charities have been providing one meal a day.

Because the UK is not party to the Schengen agreement for free movement of people in Europe, the UK is not legally required to allow entry to these people. Nor are they likely to get asylum in the UK as refugees, since they have already been living in France for some time, and therefore can no longer make a case that they are unsafe. But these people do not want to give up on the dream of getting to Britain, where many already have family members, and where they believe their chances of getting jobs are better than in France. The current population includes over six hundred children not accompanied by an adult, many of whom are waiting to be reunited with family members in the UK.

Frequently inhabitants attempt to board trucks or trains entering the Tunnel. One man recently walked almost the entire 31 miles of the tunnel, with freight trains rushing past him inches away, only to be arrested shortly before his arrival on the British side, and forced to return to France.  Just one month ago the port of Calais was forced to close for a time when migrants took to the streets, erecting barriers in the road in order to slow down vehicles heading for the tunnel so that they could board them. Police dispersed the migrants with tear gas.

The alternative to going to the UK for these people is to request asylum in France, but these migrants regard that step as giving up on better possibilities in the UK.

Left wing groups, including Jeremy Corbyn, embattled head of the British Labour Party, have been lobbying the British government to let in a good number of the migrants.  British who want to demonstrate their compassion for the Calais situation have mobilized an aid convoy for the refugees, but French authorities have blocked its departure from Dover, the port town on the British side of the Tunnel. This policy arises from French recognition that anything they do to improve the lot of the inhabitants of the camp is likely to encourage more people to come.

France seems unable to find a means effectively to disperse these people, even though conditions in the camp are unsanitary and crowded. In February of this year, a court in Lille allowed the Calais police to evict 1,000 migrants from the camp. But since the February evictions, the numbers have grown even greater. The authorities have brought 125 shipping containers into the shanty-town as a form of temporary housing for 1500 people. Permanent buildings are not possible because of the sandy soil.

The news site reported in January 2016 that the French Army is making contingency plans for the “reappropriation of national territory,” in case these groups acquire weapons and become more hostile to authorities.

The situation presents the French authorities with a terrible dilemma.  Let’s fervently hope they can find a way out of this before the law of the jungle has its way.



All-or-nothing thinking

Several talented writers commenting on the mood of our times speak of the poisonous effects of “dualism,” which we popularly refer to as “all-or-nothing thinking.”

Much of the time we hold conflicting ideas in our minds successfully. This is how we retain a sense of reality in a complex and contradictory world.

But when the complexity becomes too great, we shift into a different gear as we search for simpler forms of understanding. At such times, we tend to characterize some people as “good” and others as “bad,” some ideas as “always true” and other ideas as “always false.”

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, formerly chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the [British] Commonwealth, in his book Not in God’s Name, describes this state of mind as one when “cognitive dissonance becomes unbearable, and when the world as it is, is simply too unlike the world as we believe it ought to be.” “Pathological dualism,” he says, is a mindset that divides human begins between the totally good and the totally bad. This makes it much easier to commit violence against other people.

But even if we don’t behave violently, most of us recognize that, when faced with opaque complexity, frustration, or deep uncertainty, we become more dogmatic and more simplistic in our thinking. Freud described this state of mind by coining the terms “splitting” and “projection.” In order to feel that we live in a more ordered universe, we split our inner reality, hanging on dogmatically to those parts that we prefer, and projecting the parts that we dislike onto others.

In our world that is so heavily reliant on the messaging of the media, we are subjected to an increasing number of assertive claims that emphasize simplistic, all-or-nothing thinking.   Along with the complex uncertainty that has entered our lives through recent crises, media-defined all-or-nothing discourse itself contributes to the frenzied, oppositional way in which things are being cast right now.

With social media determining so much of our communication, it is hard to see how this can be avoided, but it raises the question whether there are ways to capture and broadcast the complexity that offers a closer approximation of the truth. President Barack Obama attempted this on Tuesday, when he spoke at the memorial service in Dallas for the five police officers slain at Saturday’s peaceful protest. He sensitively captured the pain of black families who have been the recipients of police abuses, while at the same time honoring the vital role of the police in keeping us safe. He suggested that responding with our hearts is the way to overcome dualist thinking. His message of the heart was repeated by CNN correspondent Van Jones, in an interview with Black Lives Matter that was picked up by The Peace Alliance:

“Everybody’s got to reach deep down and find some empathy. If you cried for the brother who bled out next to his fiancée, but you didn’t cry this morning for those police officers, it’s time to do a heart check. If you cried for those police officers, but you have a hard time taking seriously all these videos that are coming out about African Americans dying, it’s time to do a heart check. We are either going to come together or come apart. There’s enough pain on both sides that there should be some empathy starting to kick in.”

If dualism is a problem, paradox is to be welcomed, says Catholic priest and author, Richard Rohr. Rohr points out that most spiritual “truth” has a paradoxical character. The dualistic mind, he says, calls things it doesn’t understand “wrong.” To understand, says Rohr, means to “stand under” and “let things have their way with you.” Understanding, says Rohr, means preparing our minds for the moment when they can discover a willingness to shift and change. This is an expansion of consciousness, a creative act, that allows us to see the world differently.

Elie Wiesel, my teacher

Tributes to Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel in the days since his death last week recognize a great humanitarian and a courageous spokesman but also an individual whose eyes never ceased to reveal the haunting nature of his personal experience of the Nazi crimes of 1933 to 1945. He reached beyond his own people, offering all of us ways to speak about those terrible events, and held a flame against the dark temptation to be silent. His going marks a rite of passage, forcing us to recognize that in coming decades fewer people will be alive who remember the Holocaust as a personal experience, and at some point those events will pass from living memory.

In the autumn of 1986, during my final year as an undergraduate in the Boston University history department, I enrolled in a class called The Literature of Memory, taught by Wiesel. He traveled once a week from his home in New York to Boston to teach the class. Several weeks into the semester, news came that our professor had won the Nobel Peace Prize, which brought TV cameras into our classroom and reminded us, if any of us needed reminding, that our professor was a person who spoke on a global stage.

Clearly, the purpose of the class was to engage with the Holocaust. As most of the students in the class were Jewish and I was a person of Christian background, The Literature of Memory supplied my first experience of being immersed in the collective Jewish worldview. I had had close Jewish friends over the years, but they had not been able to convey to me what this class conveyed. The experience of the class showed me how something you already think you know can mature into to new level of awareness. I was probably far more aware than the average gentile of the details of the events of the 1930s and the Second World War. I was far less aware of possible ways to reflect on the meaning of those events.

I encountered for the first time pushback from real people against the notion that Jews had killed Jesus. Intellectually I knew that this was a problem with John’s gospel. And I had appreciated that Jews of the twentieth century would object to being called Christ-killers, not only because the notion suggested that something that happened twenty centuries earlier had contemporary relevance, but because it was the Romans who killed Jesus, not the Jews. I assumed that the idea that Jews killed Jesus grew from the fact that the crowd that called for Jesus to die and Barabbas to live had been Jewish, even if it was the Romans who orchestrated the crucifixion. But to say such a thing in this particular group was not acceptable and exposed me as the shallow and naïve gentile I clearly was for failing to understand the full weight of 2,000 years of Jewish fury at being dubbed beyond the pale of acceptance because of their so-called role in killing Jesus.

But the principal message I absorbed from Wiesel’s class, viscerally if not directly, was that if there was ever to be an event in history that would defy Christian notions of forgiveness, the Holocaust was surely that event. An appeal to forgiveness in the face of such acts was surreal. This was not a situation where statements like “We are all human,” “We all commit errors” could possibly seem appropriate. By being in Wiesel’s class I was allowed to feel this truth in the marrow of my bones.

Wiesel’s class thus freed me from the inner requirement to defend my inherited Christian principles and forced me to examine them afresh. It allowed me to drill down to the place where I could say that something that had occurred was unacceptable and leave it at that. I no longer had to rationalize the unacceptable into being less than totally unacceptable because the doctrine of forgiveness required this of me. I began to recognize how this aspect of my Christian culture had the power to undermine my passion in the face of needed social change, and could devolve into denial, setting up and supporting elaborate superstructures to conceal the uneasiness that truth introduces. Forgiveness, certainly an option, could never again, after Wiesel’s class, be, for me, a moral requirement.

Wiesel suggests in the introduction to Night, that the Holocaust actually changed the world’s consciousness about God, for clearly God is not all-powerful if God allows such a thing to happen. “…I touched for the first time upon the mystery of iniquity,” he says, “whose revelation was to mark the end of one era and the beginning of another.” Wiesel perceived that the hegemony of widespread assumptions about God was undermined by the Holocaust. God, if God existed at all, would have to be discovered differently.

I recognized, by spending a few hours a week in close proximity to Wiesel, something of the struggle for meaning once a person has been pulled into the undertow of the world’s evil. For Wiesel, what redemption was possible came through testimony. As a student of history myself, I had often heard quoted Santana’s warning that if we forget history we are doomed to repeat it. But Santana had never seemed to capture the issues well for me. Too often, precisely, those who remember hang on to patterns of thought that predispose them to repeat history. Remembering in order to prevent similar actions in the future was, for me, a discredited idea.

Wiesel was saying something different from Santana. We witness, he said, because there are times when witnessing is all we have. “I decided,” he said, “to devote my life to telling the story because I felt that having survived I owe something to the dead.  And anyone who does not remember betrays them again.”  When facing a choice between “history,” the written record endorsed by the hierarchy – the official narrative – and “memory” – the personal narrative – Wiesel chose “memory,” and he regarded memory as the essence of morality. “Memory,” for Wiesel, was not unreliable. It was not poetry. “Memory,” for Wiesel, meant testifying to the facts of the case. Even though he will have a place in history as a man who contributed hugely to the collective memory of the Holocaust, his life and teaching point us away from the current fashion to reify manufactured collective memory, instead locating truth in the lived experience of the individual.



What meaning should we take from President Obama’s Hiroshima visit?

A month has passed since President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima, but the discussion continues. A Japanese friend of mine wrote to me Monday saying that The Japan Times earlier this week had a full page Readers Forum entitled “What do you think about Obama’s visit to Hiroshima?” Comments in this Forum were positive and largely forward looking: e.g.,

“President Obama is pursuing a change. Now, it is our responsibility to take the next step.”

“The strong words of President Obama are engraved in my heart. His visit to Hiroshima did not only please the Japanese people but also gave the entire world a glimmer of hope for the future. After listening to the historic speech, I thought ‘What can I do?’…”

But comments also recognized that this visit was about the past, even if apologies were not being offered:

“Through this visit I hope the world can see the importance of acknowledging the past.”

Even though most Japanese continue to believe that the atomic bombings were unjustified, nearly 80 percent of surveyed survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki said they were pleased with the visit, according to a Kyodo News poll taken at the time of the visit. Only 15% felt that an apology from the US was called for.

Whatever political motivations Obama had for this visit (think North Korea’s nuclear threat and the US’s new security “pivot” towards Asia), he was, surely, sending a message about the past. He was demonstrating that it is possible to acknowledge the pain of the past even if politics keep aspects of the injurious past alive. He might even have been saying that matters of apology matter less than acknowledgement of pain and forging a new path together.

When asked before the trip whether he would apologize, Obama said in an interview with NHK,

“No, because I think that it is important to recognize that in the midst of war, leaders make all kinds of decisions.

“It is the job of historians to ask questions and examine them, but I know as somebody who has now sat in this position for the last seven and a half years, that every leader makes very difficult decisions, particularly during war time.”

“My purpose is not to simply revisit the past, but to affirm that innocent people die in a war, on all sides, that we should do everything we can to try to promote peace and dialogue around the world, that we should continue to strive for a world without nuclear weapons.”

The discussions around the matter of apology during these weeks have been complex. Some commentators said the Japanese government preferred that Obama not apologize, because this might have place an unwanted requirement on Japan to apologize for gross human rights violations committed towards prisoners of war and civilians during the Second World War. Others felt that the framing of this event, focusing on common concerns about nuclear weapons, demonstrated that it is time to move on from the discourse of World War II apology, which seems stale in the 21st century.

After Obama’s visit to Hiroshima, I sat down at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, with Lily Gardner Feldman, a scholar of political reconciliation. Feldman, Harry & Helen Gray Senior Fellow at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University, makes a distinction between “moral reconciliation” and “pragmatic reconciliation.”

With regard to “moral reconciliation,” Feldman highlights that Germany started very soon after 1945 to look for ways to make amends towards former enemy countries and to the Jews of Israel, and over time has continued to observe joint commemorations of the historical events in question, even when it was no longer necessary for Germany to do so. She emphasizes the role of civil society organizations in building links between the German people and citizens of countries involved in the war against Germany, and the assiduous efforts made to rewrite textbooks. She believes that the two primary aspects of moral reconciliation are a repeated acknowledgement of the painful events that occurred, and the willingness to take responsibility for them.

Feldman describes Obama’s visit to Hiroshima as an example of pragmatic reconciliation. She likewise describes Japanese apologies proffered since World War II as pragmatic, linked, as they have largely been, with attempts to reach political goals, rather than to take a moral position per se.

Prime Minister Abe has, likewise, been criticized by the political left in Japan for taking a less-than adequate stance with regard to moral reconciliation.  His 2015 official apology to South Korea for the sexual abuse of Korean women who were forced to “service” Japanese men during the war, while acknowledged as a step forward, had written in an insistence that the matter would not be revisited. This falls short of Germany’s model.

In spite of all of this discussion, or perhaps because of it, I found Obama’s visit refreshing. I did not see it as only pragmatic. He offered a different way of thinking about the past in a situation that has become stuck in one particular frame. True compassion was present, I thought. His embrace of the survivors was deeply genuine. Obama found a way to acknowledge the unprecedented and terrible experience Japanese people underwent, and to point in the direction of a common future.

But it is nonetheless worth asking ourselves whether acknowledgement of the painful past is only likely to produce reconciliation between countries or political entities who are motivated for other reasons to be bound together in a political future…