My Uncle Jose – my mother’s younger brother – got more than his fair share of beauty — and brains as well. He was the most good-looking of all 6 siblings, with deep-set eyes and a fine sculptured nose on a narrow face – throwbacks to the family’s Spanish genes. He went to join Uncle Mariano, who preferred to be known as Uncle Bob, then living in the States, and studied criminology there. When I was 10 or 11, I cannot recall exactly, Uncle Jose came to live with us briefly in Manila. I remember him now because he actively encouraged my bookishness. Every week he gave me a set of words to look up – of those I remember “apostate”, the very first one; “lagniappe”, and “pecuniary.” This must be the very first time I have ever used all of those words in one sentence! One day he brought me a book – The Diary of Anne Frank: it was my introduction to the Holocaust. When I’d read it, I was left disturbed and then relieved that at the time — the 1960s — wide-scale persecution of Jews and other minorities was no longer official policy in Germany and that the Jews had established a haven of safety in their own homeland, Israel. That was over half a century ago.
On my birthday this year I received a book on netsuke – those exquisitely carved toggles that secured a pouch or small box when tucked into a kimono – written by the English potter Edmund de Waal. He had inherited a collection of over 200 from his uncle then living in Tokyo. In tracing the history of those intricately carved treasures in his book, The Hare with Amber Eyes, he uncovered his mother’s family’s personal experience of the Holocaust in Austria and France. Of the Ephrussi family’s collection of paintings, sculpture and other art, as well as furniture, only the tiny netsuke had survived intact, secreted by a faithful family maid under her mattress throughout the war.
The Dreyfus affair – that infamous persecution and inhuman exile of a French Jewish army officer in the 1890s of which I learned in my World History class in high school — had a part to play in de Waal’s book. One of the Ephrussis – Charles — had supported Parisian impressionist artists by buying or commissioning paintings when hardly anyone was prepared to buy them. But when French society was sundered between those who sympathized with the unjustly accused Dreyfus – the Dreyfusards – and the anti-Semitic anti-Dreyfusards, artists who had previously benefitted from Charles Ephrussi’s financial support turned against him. All except Monet. It is against this background that I can now make sense of various references throughout Monet’s biography (read years before) to the troubles that Clemenceau, one of the Dreyfusards, went to Giverny – Monet’s famous garden — to seek a restful haven from.
In my previous post, I wrote of having read halfway through Robert Harris’s book on the Dreyfus affair – An Officer and a Spy – given me by a German friend. I have finished it now, and it ended on a happy note: the narrator of Harris’s fiction – Colonel Picquart — was vindicated in the end: appointed a Cabinet Minister by Clemenceau and promoted to Brigadier General. Dreyfus was eventually declared innocent of espionage in 1906, once a Count Esterhazy was confirmed as the actual guilty party who had passed on notes and copies of a weapons manual to the Germans, as proved by Picquart’s investigation. But perhaps the anti-Dreyfusards had the final word decades later – very few French Jews survived deportation to the Nazi concentration camps.
Why am I writing about this now? Because yesterday in Paris, 3 men broke into a house where a young Jewish couple were staying, raped the girl, withdrew all the money from their bank account, and took all the jewelry and valuables from the house. The reason? Because they were Jews. Worldwide in 2014, it is open season on Jews. Even in American university campuses – in a country where once Jews found a place of safety. Especially so in Israel – also once a haven of safety for Jews from all the world’s continents from the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Africa, and expressly established for that purpose. Every single day anti-Semites come closer to their avowed goal of total annihilation of Jews. When they cannot do it physically, they assassinate verbally in the international media and other fora. Just over half a century after 6 million Jews and uncountable other minorities were exterminated by the Nazi regime, there has resurfaced the same age-old hatred for this one race. No longer confined to one country such as France or Germany, Jew-hatred has become a global pandemic.
One has to ask why there is so much hate towards Jews and Israel worldwide. And you perhaps are asking, why should I, a Filipina, care? I care because I care about injustice. I care because one group of people is unfairly treated. All over this world, there are those who care about wildlife and biodiversity and their disappearance from this earth. As a researcher of social ecology interested in the preservation of biodiversity, I care deeply about the earth and its biodiversity – its biodiversity in the widest sense — not merely of plants and wild animals, but also of the genus Homo sapiens, an animal species. I am beginning to doubt that specific “sapiens” in light of all the unsapient acts humans have been and continue to be capable of. Here is one ethnic group, one among the diverse groups that make this earth and this world of ours a richer and more interesting world. And we – who care about our pets, the orangutan in the forests, the lions and elephants and whales and other charismatic wild animals in the forests and savannahs and the seas; who denounce the cutting down of forests and age-old trees – shouldn’t we care as much about one of our kind that is a similarly threatened and endangered species? Isn’t this a convoluted form of self-loathing – hating one group of humans?
One group of people that has contributed much – so overwhelmingly much in all spheres of human endeavour – in diverse aspects of culture and science, business and philosophy, ethics and religion, popular entertainment and medicine, information and other modern technology. And yes, philanthropy too – wherever in the world disaster strikes – an earthquake, a tsunami, typhoons, and recently Ebola — there is unfailingly an immediate humanitarian Israeli presence. Perhaps therein lies the root of all this focused human self-loathing – unadulterated envy of the unfair share of talents and skills showered in overflowing measure on them by the Creator of the Universe: manifold blessings in compensation for their being unjustly despised from generation to generation.
My journal of gratitude is in its 67th day. What do I have to be grateful for on this day in the light of this unfathomable and sickening state of affairs in our world? Perhaps gratefulness is not an emotion I can rise to at this moment. I can merely remain positive and hopeful. I would like to think that we – the human species, Homo sapiens – are capable of rational, sapient thinking and behaviour. I would like to reserve a space in my heart for hope – hope that all that is good and positive will prevail and triumph over the evil and negativity that threaten our species and our world. Because we, as a species, are the lesser for hating one of our own, for killing one of our own, for trying to obliterate one of our own.
As John Donne concluded centuries ago in the poem, No Man is an Island: “Each man’s death diminishes me,/ For I am involved in mankind.” Centuries earlier, a disciple of Jesus, an early humanitarian – whether you believe in his divinity or not is irrelevant — quotes him in The New Testament, Matthew 25:40: “Truly I say to you, that whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do also to me.”Jesus as a persona is not confined to Christian theology; he is regarded as a prophet in Islam. Moreover Eastern philosophy echoes the Christian view that what affects one of us affects the whole. As Fritjof Capra, author of The Tao of Physics writes, “The essence of the Eastern world view is the awareness of the unity and mutual interrelation of all things and events…. All things are … interdependent and inseparable parts of [the] … whole….”
When we indulge in hate and seek to destroy others, we ultimately destroy ourselves.