Dr. Gerald H Katzman 

There must be a way of creating a safer world where security systems, law enforcement and the military would not be as required as they are today to maintain life and limb.

I read with interest the article by Rabbi Eli Meyerfeld entitled “A New Beginning for the Zekelman Holocaust Center” (DJN Dec. 22, 2022). The comment, “the darkness that descended over Europe was a result of everyday choices made by ordinary Germans and their collaborators,” I found to be particularly insightful. Clearly, preventing that apparent lack of generally accepted morality characteristic of “ordinary Germans” would potentially solve the problem. Especially, in the face of presently rising antisemitism worldwide, despite the efforts of many groups to address the problem, an approach that fosters the moral development of all peoples could provide an avenue to lessen the problem.

There must be a way of creating a safer world where security systems, law enforcement and the military would not be as required as they are today to maintain life and limb.

In an abstract of his publication, Seth Izen articulated the need for moral education (Strategies for Conflict Transformation, Fall 2011, “Roots of Moral Courage”): “In the midst of the Holocaust, courageous non-Jews saved Jewish strangers, neighbors and friends from death. Yet, it was only decades after the Holocaust that research begin into what led ordinary people to risk their lives to save others. Over the past 30 years, researchers have identified key orientations (extensive relationships and a sense of responsibility for others) and personality traits (empathy, high moral judgment and risk-taking) that distinguish the rescuers from non-rescuers. The findings are significant for two reasons: First, it is internal traits, rather than external circumstances, that led people to rescue Jews. Second, the findings point to a childhood development path that is conducive to fostering these traits. This research leads to a significant conclusion: Moral courage can be taught.”

Samuel and Pearl Oliners’ 1989 extensive European study that involved detailed interviews of rescuers and non-rescuers pointed out the place where child moral development needs to start. They found that parents played important roles both for rescuers and non-rescuers.

“Significantly more rescuers, however, perceived their parents as benevolent figures modeling values conducive to forming close, caring attachments to other people who might be different by virtue of status or religion.”

Parents of rescuers generally disciplined their children through non-physical means. Physical punishment was more frequently experienced by non-rescuers (Shofar, Winter 1990, pp, 16-34). Such physical and psychological abuse has been found to foster future depression and violence perpetration (Blum, Adverse Child Experiences, Journal of Adolescent Health, 2019, 65:86-93).

How to Foster Morality

Clearly, studies now show how the paths to helping benevolent behaviors can be fostered and malevolence avoided. The former involves authoritative parenting, modeling of helping behaviors inside and outside the family, early literacy, reading stories with a moral and that teach a lesson and human relations programs for children.

To avoid a tendency for both verbal and physical aggression, psychologically and physically abusive parenting, with its multiple untoward consequences, must be prevented.

Taking into consideration the information garnered from studies over the last few decades, recommendations can now be made for initiatives by organizations that work to prevent hatred and violence. First and foremost is to foster positive authoritative parenting by partnering with and helping to expand the resources of parenting organizations. Such counseling can actually start in the prenatal period with recently proven results.

Psychological and physical abuse of children, with its dire consequences, must be prevented. Early literacy to expand the capacity of children to understand — through reading stories with a moral and human relations — the importance and rewards of pursuing virtuous behavior is critical. Such an expanded program has a very high likelihood of bearing fruit in the future. Increased resources to initiate these programs and train the needed personnel is vital. This is an area where organizations devoted to reducing hatred and violence could contribute monetarily and through advocacy.

Lastly, I believe there is a need to correct a misconception that seems to be prevalent. Any conclusion that whole societies and individuals pursue unempathetic violent behaviors due to authoritarian abusive upbringing is viewed as an excuse. Such an etiology of genocide should not be mentioned. It is thought to be disrespectful of the victims. Modern studies indicate it is no such thing. There is the recognition that authoritarian abusive growth and development produces violent persons and societies. This is an understanding, not an excuse. From that understanding could come a solution to the problem of hatred and violence. We only need to optimize the growth and development of all children for a more caring and peaceful world.

Dr. Katzman of Farmington Hills is a retired pediatrician who has been focusing on understanding and promoting initiatives that are most helpful in optimizing the psychosocial and academic development of children.

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