Rent A … What?

The sharp increase in hate crimes in the United States doesn’t happen in a vacuum – and I think it’s important to maintain an awareness of the global context, because there are a lot of parallels between the current state of our nation and what is happening abroad. On the positive side– some of the responses from across the world can be informative and inspiring, too.

A spokeswoman for Germany’s Justice Ministry reports that in 2014, Germany saw 691 attacks on Jews or Jewish property and hate speech.  In 2015, that number rose to 2,083.  In order to combat this issue, a group of individuals joined together and created the Rent-A-Jew project.

According to NBC News, this initiative is designed so that citizens of Germany have the opportunity to meet individuals from a targeted group and spend some time getting to know them. The “rented Jews” are not scholars or religious figures; they are just average, everyday people. The goal is getting to know a Jewish person, providing a chance to break down stereotypes and engage in a personal way.  This is not about getting a lesson on Judaism, the Holocaust, or anti-Semitism; it is about connecting with another human being and finding way for German gentiles to expand their understanding of a group of around 200,000 fellow German (Jewish) citizens.

Many scholars argue that if you know someone from a specific demographic you tend to rely less on stereotypes about that demographic, and make you more sympathetic.  This is extremely important when discussing policy.  It’s the difference between discussing plans for the increase in the refugee population and discussing how to help individuals like Adnan and Nour (a husband and wife that managed to escape and make it to the US just before the majority of bombing began and the birth of their child).

It is possible to completely insulate yourself from hearing opposition to your biases.  There is a social group that will support your causes and there are radio and news outlets that will confirm your perspectives.  Many Americans are slowly losing the will to engage with one another.  I think the Rent-A-Jew project has it right.  They are not trying to create change by passing a new law or protesting a certain group, instead, they are trying to build human connection, empathy.  It is okay to disagree with other individuals and groups and to stand opposed to their efforts.  But if we cut ourselves off from connection we are only exacerbating the situation.

I grew up in a time when it was popular and progressive to claim being “color blind” – to ignore diversity and try to coalesce under one American identity.  This is no longer the ideal. It’s not realistic. Of course we see color, and other differences – we need to celebrate and respect those differences, not overlook them. In order for everybody to succeed we need to acknowledge our differences, discuss diverse perspectives and experiences, find common ground, and value respect and dignity.

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