Heart of Violence: Why People Harm Each Other – a book review by Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen

September 14, 2020 by Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen
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Paul Valent brings two unique interests in writing this book. Not only was he the long-serving President of the Child Holocaust Survivors Melbourne but he has been a major voice in the study of Trauma and Founder of the Australasian Society for Traumatic Stress Studies.

He was a delegate to the Stockholm Conference which established the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance, and Research and now known as the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

For many years I have struggled with the question about how individuals who become medical physicians with the Hippocratic Oath of doing no harm to others can commit horrendous crimes. In recent times I think of George Habash [of the Black September movement]; Baruch Goldstein who murdered 29 people in Hebron in 1994 or George Karadzic a psychiatrist who led the Genocide in the Bosnian War. Paul returns us to Auschwitz to the infamous Josef Mengele but few of us know of his boss Eduard Wirths.

Valent offers an answer to my question by quoting a political prisoner, Herman Langbein, that there were three “types of Nazi doctors”. One type was zealots… a second type accepted their tasks as just work and did what had to be done. Lastly, there were those who were reluctant and disgusted”. One also thinks of the photo of the medical personnel who after a day of killing gather in the summer for social drinking and socialising. It helps one understand but never can I accept it.

We live in a time when there is violence in so many ways in our world. Not only the violence on the streets which confronts us daily on our television screens but in many other ways. The one which is part of some members of our own community is domestic and family abuse. There are Royal commissions in our country currently or have recently completed, serious inquiries into sexual abuse which is really sexual violence. In addition, there is much violence in the care of the aging, not just in care which is what we hear about but also in the home sometimes by carers and sometimes by family members.

In this book, Valent does not directly address but it is clearly there by analogy and that is the violence we have been witnessing particularly on the streets of the United States but also across Europe and depending on one’s view it can be seen as either state violence [like in Ukraine] or perhaps revolution. Violence is being perpetrated by the left and the right of politics. In this book Valent tries to understand the minds of the perpetrators having spent so much of his career working with, some would argue trying to heal, the minds of the victims.

Each of the nineteen chapters of this book is a serious contribution to understanding how far violence does permeate the world in which we live. The additional feature that Paul introduces to each chapter is what he calls a review – it is not a summary as such but rather something which helps refocus the points of the chapter and for me challenged to reflect even further on the ideas behind the chapter.

This is not a book for everyone. It is an important contribution to a field which has an impact almost continually on our daily lives but hopefully it is not something we experience daily. This is a book I will be honoured to have on my bookshelf and one which I will be able to refer, hopefully not too often.

Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen is Research Chaplain at St Vincent’s Private Hospital, Sydney. He has been Associate Professor at Notre Dame’s School of Medicine (Sydney); Senior Visiting Research Fellow at UNSW Medicine and CEO of the Sydney Jewish Museum

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