Last Monday, NPR’s “All Things Considered” broadcast an interesting feature about prejudice. Reporter Shankar Vedantam spoke of a professor discovering that people treat members of their own racial, religious, social or professional communities better than those outside them. This takes a Ph.D.? And what does it really mean?
According to Vedantam, a Yale professor suffered a serious hand injury. In the emergency room, she announced that she was a quilter—important to her—but received ordinary treatment. When she revealed she taught at Yale, in came a team of specialists. (The cost is another story). Vedantam cited an act of prejudice involving the initial treatment—one involving sins of omission rather than commission.
I’m not so sure. The professor’s routine care was probably outstanding. This was Yale! President Obama and the Giants’ catcher Buster Posey get more comprehensive, timely medical care than I do. Yet I get very good medical care and wish that everyone received at least the same. I don’t think I’m not being treated well because I’m not famous.
Along with prestige and wealth, familiarity and comfort create weighty factors regarding how people relate to each other. Human beings, like it or not, maintain an innate suspicion of “others,” even if differences are superficial. Such fear may be irrational on the conscious level, but it exists. Group loyalty tends to be deeply ingrained—taught certainly but also seemingly part of our DNA.
What to do? The Torah tells us that every human being is created in God’s image. Moreover, we should love our fellows as ourselves. Easier said than done. Some among us may exhibit universal affections, but I suspect genuine saints are few and far between.
The Mishnah states, “Kal Yisrael arevim zeh l’zeh.” All of Israel is responsible each for the other. Jews have a special responsibility to see to the wellbeing of other Jews. This attitude is hardly unique. African Americans, the Irish, 49ers fans, Latinos, Chinese, sorority sisters, Muslims, Native Americans and Elk Lodge members all understand.
Two Army experiences come to mind. At Officer Candidate School, the Jewish chaplain at Fort Benning had each Jewish senior candidate speak man-to-man with one Jewish junior candidate. That helpful chain linked men in class after class. In Columbus (Georgia) to purchase uniforms, I went to Sugarman’s and was delighted when the storeowner warmly greeted me as a landsman—a fellow Jew. (I can’t remember if I got a price break.)
Granted, our capacity to go the extra mile for everyone every day involves limitations, because our emotional energies aren’t boundless. We don’t feel the same attachment to everyone.
Still, legitimate affinities do not permit us to ignore the needs of others. A 9/11 or a Superstorm Sandy extends our sense of connection to everyone within sight or hearing. The nation grieves. The nation helps. But even on ordinary days, we must offer every person a minimum standard of decency, integrity, attentiveness and competence.
So here’s to the minimum standard. May we apply it to the max.
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