The Plague of Otherness (And How to Cure It)

April 21, 2020 by  
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The term “social distancing” has become the definitive buzzword to describe the advice to avoid close physical contact to contain the COVID-19 pandemic…writes Dovi Seldowitz.

One of C2C’ survivors John Gruschka in Moree in 2019

Curiously enough, this phrase has a long history associated with the study of racism and antisemitism in English speaking countries. Social psychologists use a “social-distancing scale”, developed by Henry Bogardus in the 1930s, posing a series of questions to everyday citizens whose answers determine if they consider the various minority groups as a “distant other”. As one can imagine, close to a century of research has shown that a persistent proportion of the English speaking population is identified as distancing from Jewish people and most ethnic, racial and religious minority groups.

Unsurprisingly, Australia is no exception. In 2001, 24% of Australians were identified as distancing from Jewish people, but over a decade later, in 2015, that number jumped to 40%. This shocking trend went unnoticed in both the mainstream media and the Australian Jewish media, perhaps due to the usual focus on anti-Semitic incidents rather than the overall problem of “otherness”.

The Jewish community and other communities at risk of hatred and violence may consider reducing the plague of otherness and social distance as a new, bolder approach to combatting intolerance and hate.

During this current health crisis, we have widely observed how situations of uncertainty bring out the best and the worst in people. We at Courage to Care NSW, as an initiative of B’nai B’rith, will continue to promote social harmony and the reduction of prejudice across NSW, ACT & QLD. The COVID-19 may have temporarily halted some of our programs but we will remain steadfast in our commitment to educate, inspire and empower Australians children to “be an Upstander” in their daily lives.

The plague of otherness has run rampant long enough. As community activists note each recurring year, “antisemitism is on the rise.”

Whether one participates in community outreach activities, interfaith programs or any other initiative which heals our society from the concerning growth of distancing between various communities in Australian society. During Passover, we are reminded of the teaching that leaving Egypt (Mitzrayim) also refers to leaving one’s limitations (metzarim). The message of Passover refers not only to the 3,000-year-old story of Jewish exile and freedom but to the contemporary responsibility for individuals to discover their purpose in life and not to be confined by complacency, “comfort zones” or any other limitation facing our task of making the world a better place.

Dovi Seldowitz is Programs and Technology Officer at Courage to Care NSW and is passionate about bringing Holocaust memory to the digital age. His past projects include researching and publishing stories of rescuers and “unknown heroes” from the Rwandan, Cambodian and Armenian genocides, and the KIYUM: Innovation & Sustainability project which gathers innovative program concepts and best practices for the Holocaust education field. His latest project is the C2C rapid response to COVID-19 which will provide students at home with an online, interactive program for students aged 10 and over.


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