“I’ve got a Nazi Iron Cross tattooed on my chest.”
We were chatting with a stranger across an unmanned gas pump, along an isolated road in rural east Texas. He had asked us, conversationally, what church we attended. This is a common conversation starter in this part of the world and did not surprise us. We’re Jewish so we attend synagogue, we replied, equally casually. That was when he told us that he had a swastika on his chest. He said it matter-of-factly, but there was a challenge in his eyes.
How do you respond to that? With fear? Anger? Disgust? Do you try to give him a history lesson? Try to make him understand what that symbol really means?
Two sentences. That’s how much we would get to say to him. That’s how much time we had to make an impression on this person, to make a difference in his thinking. Is it possible?
I’m tired. I think most of us are. I’m tired of bad news. I’m tired of hate crimes and mass shootings. I’m tired of divisive politics and policies that hurt people. I’m tired of not having any idea how to talk to people about these problems.
Most of all, I’m tired of feeling like the world is spinning beyond my control. I want to turn off my radio and ignore it all. I want to hide behind the feel-good stories of people being nice to each other.
Now I’m supposed to say: We must stay out there and keep up the fight! We can make a difference! But I’m tired, and these admonitions feel hollow. This mess is so big and so tall, it feels like there’s nothing we can do, nothing at all.
How did we get here? How is it possible that I can meet a Nazi at the gas station?
When hate rules the day
All this bad news is leading to exactly the erosion of expectation that we’ve been fearing. Hate crimes and mass shootings have become so normal that we are no longer surprised by them. Outraged, maybe. Surprised, no.
The New York Times recently published a cartoon that was so blatantly antisemitic most of us could not understand how the editors let it through. In their apology, the editors said “the cartoon was chosen from a syndication service by a production editor who did not recognize its anti-Semitism.” Seriously? Clearly, we have work to do in teaching people about antisemitism.
The Times editors recognized the deeper danger this lapse represented. “However it came to be published, the appearance of such an obviously bigoted cartoon in a mainstream publication is evidence of a profound danger — not only of anti-Semitism but of numbness to its creep, to the insidious way this ancient, enduring prejudice is once again working itself into public view and common conversation.”
Changing the culture by changing the story
We are seeing here the first steps up the Pyramid of Hate. The first step is the acceptance of hate crimes as normal and bigotry as mainstream. If the story we tell about our community is that hatred and bigotry are normal parts of the culture, then hatred and bigotry will increasingly become normal parts of the culture. Cultural norms can be self-fulfilling prophecies.
That is why I am wrong when I suggest that we should ignore feel-good stories of people helping each other. These stories lead to a different narrative about our culture. If we tell these stories, then maybe love and kindness will increasingly become normal parts of our conversation. Let’s create a different self-fulfilling prophecy – one where chesed, loving-kindness, wins instead of bigotry.
Let’s aim for a world where stories of kindness are the rule, and the stories of hatred the exception.
When you meet a Nazi at a gas station
So, what do you do when you meet a Nazi at a gas station in the middle of nowhere?
We were probably the first Jews he had ever met. Anger, disgust, fear – these are the responses the man with the swastika tattoo was seeking. Those responses would have reinforced his negative opinion of Jews. He wanted conflict.
We knew that the best outcome was for him to leave the encounter thinking that the only Jews he’d ever met seemed like nice, normal people. Our goal was to humanize a group he had only seen as a stereotype. Maybe, if we were lucky, to begin to change the way he thinks.
“OK, if that’s what works for you,” we said. “This is what works for us. The key is to try to do good things to help others.”
He looked a little sheepish, wishing us safe travels as we drove away in opposite directions.
Knowing your audience
As we drove away, we wondered if there was something better we could have said. The key, we realized, was knowing our audience.
We were alone at the station with this man. If there had been anyone else there, those bystanders would have been our most important audience. We would have responded differently then, to make sure those listening understood how dangerous anti-Semitism can be.
Alone with this man, however, he was our only audience. To respond with anger or disgust would be speaking to ourselves, not to him. The only chance we had of successfully speaking to him was the humanizing response. Our best chance was to make him see that we are human beings, as worthy of respect as he considers himself.
This approach would likely be more difficult with a group, where they are all trying to impress each other with their bravado. But especially one-on-one, small acts of chesed, of humanizing, can help us all see the humanity in each other.
Keep taking those small steps
To make a world where stories of kindness are the rule, we not only need to tell stories of kindness but to create them as well. We must stand up for each other and treat each other with respect. The answer to all the people I don’t know how to talk to is that I need to talk to them as if we are both human beings. Disrespect would have driven our gas station Nazi deeper into his hole. Respect from an unexpected source has a chance, however slim it may be, of making him reconsider.
Activism is important, but we can remember that we do not need to change the whole world. We only need to change our little corner of the world. If we each work to change our little corner of the world, then the whole world will begin to get better. Kindness, like hatred, spreads out in ripples around us.
This sort of change will not happen quickly, but over time, small steps will change the culture. They will pull the arc of the moral universe in the direction we want it to go.
When you meet a Nazi at a gas station, treat him like a human being. Help him see that you are a human being too. The progress will be slow, but if we spread humanity and kindness, then we will find our community walking up the steps of respect, not the steps of hate.
 With apologies to Dr. Seuss and the Cat in the Hat.
 See the ADL’s pyramid of hate: www.adl.org/sites/default/files/documents/empowering-young-people-the-escalation-of-hate.pdf
 As Rabbi Tarfon said: Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love chesed, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.