Genocide and the Motivation of Rescuers

by Roger Alford

I said a few days ago that I wanted to do a few posts on the unusual topic of the intersection between genocide and religion. Let me start this discussion by asking whether religion is somehow a factor in the decisionmaking process of those who choose to stand up and resist genocide. That was the question raised a few weeks ago at a Conference on Genocide and Religion sponsored by Pepperdine Law School and the Simon Wiesenthal Center. (Audio available here).

The question was put by Professor Michael Bazyler, a leading Holocaust scholar, to Rabbi Harold Schulweis, founder of Jewish World Watch, a Jewish organization committed to living out the moral imperative of never again.

Here is the exchange between Bazyler and Schulweis:

Professor Bazyler: “… I want to take the prerogative before getting the audience to ask questions to ask a question of Rabbi Shulweis that always comes up when I talk to students. It’s based upon a statement that Yehuda Bauer, the Holocaust historian at Yad Vashem makes and he says that says you know we the Jews, the people of the Book, we’ve been given the 10 commandments and he would add an 11th commandment: “Thou shalt not be a bystander.” In talking to the various people that are the righteous, that are the rescuers, is there a common trait, is there something in them that you find that made those people, not bystanders but rescuers?

Rabbi Schulweis: Years ago we started an organization called the Foundation for the Investigation of the Altruistic Personality. One of them was a good friend of mine called Perry London who would get a lot of interviews and I must say towards the end he came up with nothing. That is what I think is the mystery of goodness…. I keep asking that question. Perry London suggested a certain kind of adventurous personality, a certain kind of initiative, but I didn’t find that to be the case, neither did he. He found people who were very ordinary very passive, suddenly there is something that happens, I don’t know. Do you know who is gonna save you? Can you guess right now? I’m sorry to disappoint you.

Well it did disappoint me. There is nothing unique in the personality of a rescuer that distinguishes him or her from the rest of the crowd? I did a little more research and came upon numerous references to the Perry London study that Rabbi Schulweis mentioned. Here is how one author, John Conroy, summarized Perry London’s research on Holocaust rescuers:

One small study of people who helped Jews during the Holocaust, described by Perry London in “The Rescuers: Motivational Hypotheses about Christians Who Saved Jews from the Nazis” … found evidence to indicate that altruistic behavior was related to three personal traits: [1] a spirit of adventurousness, [2] an intense identification with a parent who set a high standard of moral conduct, and [3] a sense of being socially marginal. In London’s small sample, the spirit of adventurousness was perhaps best exemplified by a man whose prewar hobby was to race motorcycles on courses that required driving over narrow boards that spanned deep ditches. Once the war began, that man and his friends got a kick out of putting sugar in the gas tanks of German army vehicles, a practice that disabled the engines. The identification with a parent with high moral standards was prominent in the case of a Seventh-Day Adventist minister from the Netherlands whose father had gone to jail for his beliefs; the minister described himself as mildly anti-Semitic, but during the war he organized a large-scale operation for rescuing Jews, believing simply that it was a Christian’s duty. That minister, who belonged to a religious group with an extremely small number of followers in Holland, was also cited as an example of what the researchers called “social marginality”: a social separateness, a feeling of being an outsider, that seemed to allow the rescuers to have less fear about losing their attachment to the majority group. One highly effective German rescuer, also part of London’s sample, had been a stutterer as a child and in an interview confessed that he had always felt friendless. The residents of the French village of Le Chambon, who saved thousands of Jews during the war, also had a certain social marginality: they were Huguenots in overwhelmingly Catholic France.

That seems to make more sense to me. You could almost summarize these personality traits as (1) courage; (2) moral conviction; and (3) social marginality. For me at least, it is unsatisfying to say that there is nothing unique about a rescuer. But it also makes sense to say that it’s not religion per se that defines a rescuer, for religious people are perpetrators, bystanders, and rescuers. So perhaps what distinguishes the average person who is a bystander from the exceptional person who is a rescuer is that the latter has courage, conviction, and detachment. Or perhaps Rabbi Schulweis is right. Perhaps there is nothing unique about a rescuer, except that he is utterly ordinary and happens to perform extraordinary deeds.

5 Responses

  1. Roger,

    There is a rather thorough treatment of this topic in, of all places, Norman Geras’ book, Solidarity in the Conversation of Humankind: The Ungroundable Liberalism of Richard Rorty (London: Verso, 1995). Geras surveys the literature on ‘rescuers’ as part of his argument against Rorty’s contention that what matters with regard to motivation is ‘the group,’ some collectivity narrower than the class of human beings qua human beings:

    ‘Our sense of solidarity, Rorty…says again, is strongest with collectivities “smaller and more local that the human race” and “imaginative identification” easier; whereas “‘because she is a human being’ is a weak, unconvincing explanation of generous actions.”‘

    As Geras writes, ‘As for religion, the research all points toward the same broad picture: many rescuers were religious, and many resucuers were not. There were devout Christian of all denominations, people of a more general, less attached kind of faith, humanists, atheists.’

    Geras notes that London’s published work (1970) resulted from an unfinished study, but several researchers later did confirm his findings. Yet other studies did not find a high proportion of ‘socially marginal individuals.’

    What remains important, and contra Rorty, is Geras’ discovery that parochial identifications and commitments were not more common than universalist ones amongst people who risked their lives on behalf of Jews.’ What was important, in other words, was a ‘humanitarian motivation which dictates a charitable attitude toward one’s fellow man,’ or, the ability simply to be moved to action in the presence of intense and unnecessary human suffering, or, an awareness of ‘our shared humanity,’ or, having learned to ‘value other human beings,’ or, possessing a ‘love of humanity,’ or, a sense of ethical responsibility capacious enough to extend to all human beings, or….

    Geras notes that ‘people who help friends or acquaintances and who help people other than friends or acquaintances, help people who are strangers to them; and who give universalizing reasons for doing what they do. About poeple like them it would seem safe to conclude that those reasons are not then merely rhetorical superstructures on or rationalizing derivations from friendship–as the putative “real” cause (or essence) of rescuer behaviour. [....] For I do not seek to belittle or minimize the part which might have been played by friendship and other particularist loyalities in contributing to individuals’ motives for rescue. I simply meet here the effort to belittle or minimize the part played by universalist moral attachments, setting down what I have found. Nor does setting it down imply any claim that, as a matter of ethico-sociological generalization, universal moral attachments might on their part be a sufficient condition of rescue. The point is only that it is a complicated question just what combination of reasons, motives and other factors–temperamental, situational and so on–does, and just what combination does not, move people to act under risk for other people; a question to which no one, so far as I know, has the answer, if indeed there is an answer. All I do is report that a universalist moral outlook appears to have had a very significant part in motivationg Jewish rescue.’

    That said, I’d certainly rather be discussing this than ‘the Lucifer effect.’

  2. Patrick,

    That’s very helpful. Another speaker at the conference, Kirsten Monroe, a professor of political science and philosophy at UC Irvine, has called what you are describing as the “John Donne” Effect As this post puts it, “‘No man is an island, Intire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, A part of the Maine;… Any man’s death diminishes me. Because I am involved in Mankinde; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’ The employment of the phrase to Holocaust Rescuers expresses how Rescuers viewed a common humanity among all people as opposed to singularity of the individual.”

    Roger Alford

  3. I always liked the response I got from a resistance person on why he had fought against the French “This was not possible in France.”



  4. An interesting study would be to look at what motivates people from outside a society to be an ‘upstander’ not a ‘bystander’. In the Holocaust and interesting example is the works of Martha and Waitstill Sharp, Unitarian Universalists who went to occupied Europe and rescued a number of children. The UUSC did a very moving documentary on them in honor of their recent recognition as Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem. The Sharpts were clearly motivated by religious and humanitarian impulses, but I’d be interested in learning more about them with this study in mind.

    A book, called Not on Our Watch: The Mission to End Genocide in Darfur and Beyond came out this past weekend highlighting many of the people who have stood up and tried to stop the genocide in Darfur. It’s interesting to think about what motivates people half way around the world – many of whom don’t go to Darfur, so they’re not ‘rescuers’ – but that still give up much of what was their normal life to try and stop atrocities far away. In some ways it’s harder to be motivated, because their daily lives don’t have to change in any way. But in some ways it’s much easier, because they’re not going to be harrassed or killed.

  5. From a sociological stand point, isn’t it some level of narcissism? What would the ethicists say? On one hand, morality is best expressed through one’s actions, but there exists the other argument that says self-verification is indicative of morality; they do it to make themselves look good. Are the rescuers benevolent in the sense that they feel a calling to give of themselves for a greater cause, or is there some sense of honor through sacrifice? Why is it the Walter Reed hospital, Johns Hopkins, Carnegie Institute, etc. The economist Milton Friedman calls this the cloak of social responsibility; we are driven by a self-interested goal and benevolence is just a fortunate byproduct.

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