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Building trust and empathy with the ‘other’

One recent evening I got a lift home with a Chinese Australian dentist. As we drove, I thought about the report that one in three people of Chinese heritage in Australia had been subjected to mistreatment such as being called names.

My companion told me he had an unpleasant experience himself on a shopping centre escalator. He was walking quickly up the escalator in the early days of Covid but was stopped by a hostile looking man who told him to stop!

I cannot know for certain what motivated the man on the escalator to order my companion to stop. It is likely that the Chinese appearance of the dentist might have alarmed. Fear of the other is often the way prejudice and generalisations are expressed. In fact, as an Australian of Jewish heritage acknowledging fear and bigotry was an important part of my Passover celebration on March 27 when we commemorated the exodus of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery. The slavery was the consequence of the Pharaoh designating the Hebrew as a threat to Egypt.

Passover is a time for gratitude and memory about the Jewish experience, but also calls Jews to stand against prejudice against others as we remember that we were mistreated as strangers in Egypt.

One highlight of Jewish memory on Passover is singing my maternal grandfather’s song. The song recalls his journey from Vladivostok during World War II. He told us how he and hundreds of other Yeshiva students danced on a rickety boat singing one of the Seder songs: “and it is this (divine promise) that has stood by our fathers and by us, because it is not just one (enemy) who stood against us to annihilate us, but, in every generation … and the Holy One Blessed Be He saves us from their hands”.

But I know that Jews are not the only group subjected to bigotry. One of the most potent elements to counter racism is when we feel empathy with the “other”. Yet, experts tell us that “we have more empathy for those we see as (being) like us” and “empathy leads to helping only in cases when the person in need is a member of the in‐group”. This sounds like a catch- 22, empathy is key to countering prejudice, yet empathy is least likely in cross-cultural situations, unless of course one can come to see “them” as one of “us”.

Once we identify with the other, our fear should decrease, and trust should increase. Trust is a combination of a choice to put our faith in others and a response to information available to us. I certainly felt little trust in my neighbours not buying up all the pasta and toilet paper in the supermarket in early Covid days because I was shocked and unsettled by the sight of the empty shelves. Ensuring everyone has what they need certainly helps with trust. Yet, there is mistrust that is not based in fact. The dentist has not recently arrived from Wuhan, he lives in Sydney and his family is from Hong Kong.

Rabbi Zalman Kastel AM is National Director of Together for Humanity, which fosters interfaith and intercultural understanding. If you enjoyed this article, follow on Facebook or consider supporting its work.



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