'It's Hard to Get People to Kill Each Other, but You Can Easily Get Them to Hate'

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: A political scientist explains how the Nazis got Poles to kill Jews during WWII

Liat Elkayam
Liat Elkayam
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Jeffrey Kopstein.
Jeffrey Kopstein.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Liat Elkayam
Liat Elkayam

Jeffrey Kopstein, 56, from Irvine, California; arriving from Los Angeles

Hello, can I ask you what you’ll be doing in Israel?

I’m participating in a conference at the Hebrew University [in Jerusalem] and I’m also on vacation. I love coming to Israel. I connect here to who I am. In another life, maybe I’d have immigrated. But by the time I thought of it, it was too late for me, professionally and personally.

What do you do?

I’m a professor and the head of the political science department at University of California, Irvine. My research deals with interethnic violence, why certain groups get along with each another, and others, less well.

Tell me why.

There are more questions than answers on this subject.

How would you characterize groups that get along?

For example, it’s very hard to get people to kill one another, but you can get them to hate each other easily. All you need to do so people won’t hurt each other is to get them to spend time together. That ends the prospect that they will shoot each other. The problem is that today people don’t do things together – people even go bowling alone.

How did you arrive at that conclusion?

Research and facts. I’ve just finished the work on a new book, which is being published by Cornell University.

What’s the book about?

It’s called “Intimate Violence,” and is about anti-Jewish pogroms on the eve of the Holocaust. During World War II – June-July 1941, when the Germans invaded Eastern Europe – they told the local inhabitants: Do what you want; if you feel like it, kill the Jews.

And what did the locals do?

In 10 percent of the places, they killed the Jews, but in the others, no. So I ask: Why precisely in one place and not in another? It turns out that the Germans couldn’t make the Poles kill Jews if there was solidarity and cooperation within the community – only if there was already a type of polarization. This is a very important subject. In the United States, we deal quite a bit with relations between different ethnic groups. It’s important that we know what happens when things escalate, whether there’s a possibility of violence. Like, will there be lynchings?

Are comparisons permissible in your field?

The Holocaust is similar to other cases of ethnic violence, such as in Rwanda, but obviously it’s not the same thing. Don’t get me in trouble! Still, it’s important for me to say that in political science, we don’t deal per se with the Holocaust. Only historians study the Holocaust. Political science focuses on Cambodia, Yugoslavia, as places of violence against masses, but not the Holocaust. And there are many reasons for that.

Because it’s wrong to compare?

That, too. The Holocaust is a huge subject and is still considered controversial, problematic. People don’t want to offend others. There are also many American Jews who don’t want to learn about themselves.

And you wanted to? Did you arrive at this subject through a personal story?

I’m Jewish, my sons had bar mitzvahs. My maternal family is from Poland and my father is from Russia. People who study the Holocaust are generally looking for a specific story. I’ve studied many small holocausts from which I sought to generalize about something broader. I collected data about many villages in Eastern Europe, the communities that lived there. I found it interesting to study how they lived and not how they died, even though I discovered that the two were connected. As I said, it was difficult to spark most of the pogroms.

From which you inferred that it’s difficult to make people kill one another.

Right, and let me add that most people will also help the victims. A community will condone violence only if it is already seething. That’s the reason that all the small places where communities succeed in connecting with each other are significant. There are places like that in Israel, too – mixed schools, say. Every type of contact is very important for reducing suspicion and destroying prejudices. Even playing soccer together, even when one of the players on the team is an Arab player, for instance. Those are the truly important things.

The Bermans.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

From left, Orli Berman, 3, Katie Berman, 39, Zalia Berman, 5, and Jeremy Berman, 40; from Seattle; flying to Toronto

Hello, can I ask how you spent your time in Israel?

Jeremy: We were here to visit my brother and his family. He made aliyah 14 years ago and lives in Moshav Eviezer [southwest of Beit Shemesh]. We stayed with them for two week.

First time in Israel?

Jeremy: No, we come every few years. The last time we were here, Zalia was a year old.

Is he your older brother or your younger brother?

Jeremy: He’s two years older than me, and the only one in the family who made aliyah. Our parents live in Seattle. No one else is planning to immigrate to Israel, and my brother isn’t talking about returning to the United States. I think we all understand that our life is good exactly where it is, but we’re very close to one other and support one other. We Skype a lot.

Are Zalia and Orli ready to Skype?

Katie: Of course. They’ve been doing it since they were babies, so it seems natural to them. Zalia takes the phone and goes through the house with it and shows her room and toys to whoever’s calling. They enjoy their cousins on video.

Katie, what do you do?

Katie: Before the girls were born, I worked as an analyst in the government service, but at the moment I’m mainly a mom. Besides that, I teach vinyasa yoga.

How did you go from being an analyst to a yoga teacher?

Katie: When I was a girl I did modern dance, so the transition to yoga seems natural. There’s a lot of yoga in Seattle, maybe too much, but the truth is that it’s good for the teachers, there are plenty of opportunities.

Jeremy, what do you do?

Jeremy: I’m a physician. I worked in an ER for years, but now I’m with a company called Landmark Health. We treat people who are very sick, but in their own homes.

What do you mean, at home?

We bring hospital equipment and test kits to them at home, we can even do a transfusion at home, or an X-ray, depending on what the problem is.

Don’t people prefer to come to a hospital?

These are generally older people who are in and out of the hospital for treatment and tests, and it’s better for them to stay home; it’s certainly safer. In some cases they are simply older people who don’t have much time left and would rather be at home with their family.

In other words, terminal patients.

Not necessarily, but you have to have serious medical problems to be eligible for the service, such as heart problems, a stroke, diabetes or kidney failure.

And if I suffer from those problems, what exactly will I get?

When we enter the picture, we create a program with the patient, and we have a whole backup team: social workers, nurses, pharmacists and of course doctors who are available to patients 24 hours a day.

Is one of you with the patient at all times?

No. Besides us, there’s also usually the family that treats them, or a nursing therapist, but we can also help find people, if needed. It’s hard for these patients to cope with the system; they don’t necessarily know what they need and what they have the right to. We have a whole team that handles the complex medical bureaucracy.

Sounds expensive.

It’s a service that’s offered free to people who have medical insurance; you don’t need to pay extra for it.

What’s the economic logic?

The insurance companies pay us based on proof that we are improving the patient’s condition, instead of paying us for the number of times that we see the patient or on the basis of medication and surgical procedures. Exactly the opposite of what’s happening in medicine in general today. It’s medicine based on quality, not quantity.

Sounds like a medical revolution is at hand.

I believe that this is the future. I feel that I am improving my patient’s quality of life – and that has to be the true goal of physicians.