In 12th grade, our European history book spoke of a village in France that sheltered over 3,000 Jews during the height of the Holocaust. The refuge wasn’t secret; its mission was known, and the town’s unity defied the Nazis’ quest to continue searching for Jews.
In sixth grade, our teacher read us “Number the Stars.” I read and reread that book, mostly because it’s set in Denmark, among dewy farms and woods that reminded me of Sweden, at a time when it had been four, then six, then eight years since I had even been in Sweden, neither money nor autonomy being in my favor. The book tells the story of when the Danes spirited nearly their entire Jewish population to safety in Sweden, right under the noses of the Nazis. The Nazis pretended oblivion.
So can an unarmed front — if united — defeat the plans of evildoers?
These stories must be why tens of thousands of Americans rushed to airports in January, to shout “Let them in!” — in spite of 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombing and the Orlando nightclub shooting and rhetoric that makes every Muslim guilty for every wrong any Muslim does. Still, they ran to airports and shouted to let more Muslims in.
If I was a non-Muslim American, I can’t tell — Would I have recalled “Number the Stars,” or would I have nodded sagely that ‘Islam hates us’?
Some sixth grade classmates who listened to “Number the Stars” with me now say horrible things about Muslims on Facebook. Or about Black people. Maybe I’d have ended up like them.
Our world is not really the world of “Number the Stars.” In our world, Russia protects Syria’s dictator, while the U.S. scolds. The U.S. protects illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, while Arabs scold. Arabs protect Sudan’s dictator from his trial on genocide in Darfur, while the U.S. scolds.
In our world, Syria’s dictator knows he can play one set of Arabs against another. He can say: “My bombs and gas are necessary because the enemy is dangerous. We must uphold our way of life; also, they’re all just terrorists.” So many people fall into adopting these excuses for human rights abuse. Like those Arabs who ignore torture prisons in Syria. Or other Arabs who excuse Saudi bombs falling on Yemen. Or Americans who wave off hate crimes.
This is the opposite of the French village. It ridicules human rights principles. You’re supposed to help victims that your own “tribe” harms, so that when you need help, others have your back.
But if you’ve tried being that French village, you know how it goes — People call you obnoxious and delusional, or assume that you’re never quite clever or creative enough to make a difference.
Maybe our efforts, though failing, still drift out as a sort of lingering embrace of those we wanted to protect. Those efforts, and the feelings behind them, can’t just disappear. They must be somewhere.
As we tiptoe into despair and fright, I pray that we Tar Heels always be such a force: unarmed, but vocal and united.