Reflections on Humanity in Action

Dr. Judith Goldstein, Humanity in Action Founder and Executive Director

2012 – New York City

Almost 16 years ago, a former French Resistance fighter, a Jew and immigrant in America, posed a perplexing question when we met for the first time for a serious conversation: how do we educate young people about the need to resist oppressive, authoritarian forces? The query came out of the blue to me but clearly not to this survivor, successful businessman, father of four children and philanthropist. He wanted an answer right away. I was hardly prepared for the challenge. I had read about European resistance movements, especially in Scandinavia, but was hardly knowledgeable. 

Seemingly out of nowhere I put forth an idea: why not identify a small group of smart, socially conscious university students in Denmark and the United States, put them together in Copenhagen for several weeks of inquiry into Danish history during World War II and let them probe the deeper explanations for the unique national rescue of the Danish Jewish population. Somewhat desperate to do something, he said he liked the idea. Could I put such a program together? I said yes. Could he find the financial resources to develop a program? He said yes. 

A year later, we started the Danish-American Dialogue on Human Rights in Copenhagen with 10 American and 10 Danish university students. It was a project of Thanks to Scandinavia, an American organization dedicated to promoting knowledge of Scandinavian resistance during the World War II and providing scholarships to Scandinavian students for study in the US. The time was right: European social welfare states were thriving; the Cold War was over; Human Rights provided the ideology of international aspiration for idealistic youth; the Holocaust and World War II remained vital concerns, subject to historical studies, education and processes of restitution. Europe, except for the Balkans, appeared on the surface to be free of pernicious national, religious, racial and ethnic tensions. 

In 1995 we put together a small advisory group to select the American Fellows and sent out notice of the program to hundreds of American four-year academic institutions seeking outstanding applicants. We depended upon a remarkable committee of Danish journalists and historians, headed by Herbert Pundik, the editor-in-chief of the newspaper “Politiken,” to select Danish Fellows and to identify a broad range of speakers of the highest quality. The small organizational staffs in Denmark and the United States were tasked with informing the Fellows about the history of World War II, individual and group behavior, values and the complexities of Danish political, religious, cultural, economic and international issues. For the American students, the program began at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum working closely with its educational and research staff.

Our aim was not to engage in a romantic whitewash, simply extolling the heroism of the Danes but investigate the unique historic circumstances—as well as choices and values—of that society. The Fellows were to work hard in a cooperative, international exploration of Denmark’s immediate past and present and, in the final week, team with an international partner to write and publish cutting edge journalist report. At the end of two years the program was a success from the perspectives of the 40 American and Danish students and project staffs. Thanks to Scandinavia, however, decided to focus on other educational areas. 

The idea of the fellowship, however, had taken root with the Fellows and funders. With amazing speed, the two-year experiment was transformed into Humanity in Action, a US based non-for-profit educational organization. It established a board of directors in the United States, maintained its Danish supporters and sought to expand its reach beyond Denmark. Guided by the Danish advisory board, The Netherlands was designated as the second country to incorporate in the European educational effort. Ed van Thijn, a political leaders and former Mayor of Amsterdam, established a Dutch board. In June 1999, Humanity in Action organized two five-week summer programs for a group of 40 university students from Denmark, The Netherlands and the United States that focused on diversity and human rights issues in the two European countries. 

The educational objectives were ambitious, experimental and idealistic: engage and mentor outstanding Fellows through exposure to an eclectic set of scholars, writers, government officials and activists; provide rigorous programs; encourage action through civic engagement with particular focus on responsibility towards ones own country; require Fellows to create action projects after the summer programs; enter the broad field of human rights programs; maintain focus on genocide, the Holocaust and World War II for their absolute historical importance and significance for contemporary minority and human rights issues; and expand summer programs to include more European countries; and create a vibrant network of alumni, dedicated to the organization’s political and moral issues, to benefit the Fellows as they pursued their professional careers and further the aims of the foundation. Clearly, the future of the Fellows would be intertwined with ours. We, however, did not know exactly what that would mean.

We shaped rigorous programs that were international, interdisciplinary and intergenerational. We entered the field of university oriented educational programs without the institutional support or financial backing of a major foundation, academic institution or non-for-profit. We were on our own taking risks, making adjustments when required and constantly looking for new programmatic opportunities to enrich the Fellows. We were also perpetually in fund-raising mode that required constantly explaining and justifying the complex educational mission and program. 

Embedded in the tendency towards flexibility and opportunistic expansion, there were fundamental ideas and methods that grounded our approach. We engaged college and university students on the assumption that they were sufficiently well educated and inquisitive to explore the nature of conflict, including the behavior of perpetrators, resisters and bystanders. We expected that the Fellows would be mature enough to handle the social, intellectual and psychological pressures of intense and constant dialogue in an international group and setting. We sought Fellows from diverse backgrounds—ethnic, religious, racial and economic—pursuing a broad range of professional careers. We would pay the costs of all Fellows to insure the inclusion of those who might lack adequate financial resources. We would require post-summer program action projects to insure that the Fellows reached out to a broader public beyond the narrow contours of the small summer cohort. 

We insisted upon collaborative learning in connecting past to present as an effective way to gain knowledge, facilitate understanding and build sustained connections and trust for future action to benefit the Fellows, Humanity in Action, civic society and the Trans-Atlantic relationships. We were determined to maintain a program dedicated to minority and diversity issues but not just for minorities or any particular minority. Although the historic focus central to the program was on the Holocaust, we would not seek or accept designation as a Jewish organization. We would organize programs only in democratic societies in the Europe and North America. We would explore minority issues in the context of identity, attitudes and histories in the Humanity in Action designated- countries—but not on a global scale. We expected that the particular national focus would enable Fellows to think more broadly and comparatively about their own domestic minority issues. We would rely on the national boards and staffs to form the highest quality programs about history, culture and contemporary minority issues in their own countries. 

Over the years we have been challenged—and challenged ourselves—to revaluate and justify the subject matter, concepts and broad goals by board members, staff, donors, potential donors, government officials and others. Were we targeting the most valuable and strategically important age group? Why focus on World War II and Holocaust instead of colonial histories, the Balkans, Darfur, and America’s racial history as the base for exploring minority issues? What impact could a comparatively small program have on public issues of prejudice, discrimination, divided societies and extremists devoted to violent, destabilizing practices and goals? What is the relationship between study and action? What constitutes an effective alumni network? And finally, how would we measure success? 

We have addressed these questions as we have expanded from the initial base of summer programs in Denmark and The Netherlands. At first, we tested enlargement by establishing a program in Germany engaging a total of 60 Fellows in the three summer programs. Building upon that successful integration in 2006 we boldly established programs in France and Poland. We also established a US program based in New York that focused on black/white and immigration issues, consistent with exploring diversity issues. After the 2008 recession, however, we were unable to sustain funding for the US based program. Nonetheless, we have continued to increase the number of participants in five national European programs to total over 100 each year, by including Fellows from Bosnia, the Ukraine and Turkey.  

The Programs

In the dynamic process of self-critical inquiry by the boards and staff we have sought to find cogent answers that transcend mission statements and organizational messaging. The programs are under constant review and the educational methods are ever subject to improvement. In fact, revisiting the basic educational subjects and methods is essential to the organization’s ambitious and dynamic means of exploring critical historical and contemporary issues. 

The answers to some of the questions are built upon an integrated base of programmatic concepts and methodology. The first major aspect for review concerns the university population. The consensus is that university students are the most promising and important ones to engage as many of them are on the edge of transformative thought and action. Walter Laqueur in an article about Europe in the 1920s, quoted Martin Buber on the potential of youth in their 20s and 30s. “Youth,” Buber wrote, “is the eternal chance that mankind possesses.” Laqueur expanded on the theme: “Older generations generally focus on the difficulties, dangers, and risks of political change. But young people have always had the passion, idealism and enthusiasm to struggle for political change.” The optimism, however, was well tempered for Laqueur who apprehensively cited the young age of the Italian and German fascists and many of the Russian Communist revolutionaries. Buber was even more pessimistic about the course of eternal hope and opportunity of younger generations. The reality of youth is often different. “What a pity,” he wrote, “this chance is usually wasted.” (New Republic, August 2, 2013, p. 16.)

At the heart of Humanity in Action is the desire and responsibility to prevent wasting the potential of youth—to engage the passion, idealism, entrepreneurial dynamism and facility with communications that are boldly manifested in younger people today. No previous generation of young people has ever participated in, led and significantly profited from a major technological and communications breakthrough. Of equal importance is the fact that younger generations in Europe and America have grown up in societies that recognize the importance of human rights, including those of minorities, and distribute widespread benefits to all their citizens. While some young people still gravitate to extremists, racist and xenophobic parties, the greater number profit from diversity. They often lead societies towards more liberal, tolerant attitudes and policies in regard to gender, ethnicity and race. Significant numbers are globally well traveled in pursuit of service, development and educative projects. Surprisingly, they have done so much that by the time some of them join the Humanity in Action programs, they feel they have exhausted their idealism and sense of purpose by too many disappointing, unproductive engagements abroad and at home.

The second major area for reconsideration has been the focus on World War II and the Holocaust. From year to year Fellows and board members question the organization’s commitment to the primacy and relevance of the Holocaust for the Humanity in Action European summer programs. (The single programmatic departure from this historical reference was American program that lasted three years.) In part, this discussion emanates from Holocaust fatigue, especially in European countries. This attitude, sometimes expressed outwardly but often hidden in unspoken undercurrents of thought, assumes that there has been sufficient public and educational focus on the Holocaust and the victimization of Jewish populations. The debts of guilt, it is maintained, have been paid off through ample restitution and public expressions of remembrance and memorialization. 

While taking these perspectives into account, the Humanity in Action boards have continually reaffirmed the centrality of World War II and Holocaust to the organization’s mission. It is precisely by trying to understand that cataclysmic event, ever subject to new analyses, that the boards have reinforced their commitment to an integrated set of educational and moral responsibilities to the past and present. The programs adhere to the view of historian Irving Howe: “the Holocaust remains a problem that can be neither resolved nor abandoned.” (Art of the Holocaust, p. 11.) Western societies still live with the deep shadows of perpetrators, collaborators, bystanders and resisters—assigning culpability, honoring defiance and understanding the actions in between. Thus, the ongoing challenge to gain knowledge of the causes and consequences of the German inspired political and military upheaval that enabled the country to conquer, exploit and crush European nations. As those in the West sought to recover from genocide and ethnic cleansing, they constructed blueprints for recovery based upon the recognition of moral degradation and the frightening capacity to maim and destroy cultures and populations. The postwar Western European and American societies, however, were not built just on fears of repeating the past. They chose an architecture of renewal built with democratic procedures, social welfare states, rule of law and human rights—rights that specifically provide protection for minorities from the pernicious potential of state power and lawlessness. 

An examination of the history of World War II and Holocaust allows the Fellows to confront critical questions about human behavior, the legacies of the recent past and our contemporary challenges. It provides a moral and intellectual compass to engage in the complex present day minority issues that inform and affect the cohesiveness and degrees of equity in our democracies. It opens up awareness of what Profs. Robert Futrell and Pete Simi call the “hidden spaces of hate” which are still prevalent in our European and American societies. Those spaces, specifically part of extremist political movement in the US and Europe, provide the breeding grounds for attacks based on race, ethnicity and gender. 

We make concerted efforts to provide clarity for Fellows about the topics we include and methods that we use. Despite the recognized focus on World War II and Holocaust, many Fellows bring priorities based upon different national and individual ways of judging human rights and minority issues. Despite the fact that summer Fellows enter the program acknowledging its basic structure and mission, many struggle during the program itself to accept Humanity in Action’s conceptual and nationally based boundaries. Diversity issues that reverberate in all the Humanity in Action countries are intellectually and emotionally powerful for Fellows. By focusing on minority issues within one country, the Fellows automatically confront the wounds of class, race, religious and gender superiority and discrimination and power dynamics that prevail in a specific country but inevitably, they reflect back to their own countries. 

Humanity in Action seeks to find the pedagogical balance between a Fellow’s desire to reach out to others through exposure to different backgrounds and beliefs with the compelling need to find acceptance and validation based upon ones own individual and group identity. At best this tension provides the personal and collective ground for building respect, confidence and long-term trust that cross borders. The Fellows benefit from gaining greater knowledge about another country as well as insights about their own native country. Fellows learn both from expert speakers but most significantly from continual peer-to-peer discussions that blend the native knowledge of the Fellows from the host country with perspectives of Fellows from abroad. 

The summer program is explicitly designed to establish a mechanism and prototype for understanding and overcoming some of the deeply enduring tensions related to personal and group differences, including a tendency to competitive victimization. The educational method meets the subject matter of diversity and minorities head on. We work to make difficult intellectual and emotional discussions honest, frank and constructive—to emphasize the advantages and recognize the difficulties cited in Education’s End: Why our Colleges and Universities have given up on the Meaning of Life by Prof. Anthony Kronman:

When individuals exchange views as individuals, they converse. Their exchange is characterized by the flexibility that is the hallmark of every real conversation. This is true even if their views are different or antagonistic. By contrast, when two meet as representatives, they speak not on behalf of themselves but of the groups to which they belong. It is to the group, not to their interlocutor or to the conversation in which they are engaged, that their loyalty is owed…. The individuals exchanging views cease to be individuals, and their exchange ceases to be a conversation. Its personal significance for them declines and its political importance as a negotiation increases. (P.150)

The challenges inherent in the Humanity in Action educational method—intense personal and collective conversations about diversity in a diverse group—are inextricably connected to the complex focus of the programs: understanding the basic needs and benefits of identifying with a nation, religion, race, class, gender and ethnic group while resisting the proclivity for one group to dominate, degrade and even attempt to destroy another. The complex tensions are ones that Harvard Professor Edward O. Wilson wrote about in The Social Conquest of the World. Seeking to understand the roots of human and animal evolution through group selection, he emphasized the inherent forces of evolution and the contradictory needs and proclivities of human nature and societies—aspects that drive “a great deal of what is most typical—and perplexing—about human nature.” Wilson insisted “that people feel compelled to belong to groups and, having joined, consider them superior to competing groups.” And yet being part of a group doesn’t resolve contradictory needs that drive human behavior:

Multilevel selection (group and individual selection combined) also explains the conflicted nature of motivations. Every normal person feels the pull of conscience, of heroism against cowardice, of truth against deception, of commitment against withdrawal. It is our fate to be tormented with large and small dilemmas as we daily wind our way through the risky, fractious world that gave us birth. (P.290)

Humanity in Action addresses some of those large human dilemmas though its focus on emerging leaders, the relationships among minority and majority populations, resistance, collaborative learning, history and contemporary events. It is a constant challenge as the boundaries of our knowledge of history, education and human behavior expand and the political, social and cultural circumstances of our lives change. We must revisit our presumptions and renew our efforts to understand issues that preclude resolution—tensions involving universal human rights, rule of law, the proclivity to violence and the authority of the nation or state.

Each Humanity in Action program presents a unique experiment in collective learning—mixing multiple national, interntional, individual and groups perspectives—through the interaction of the Fellows, staff, boards and speakers. Every year presents new challenges of evaluation for the programs, especially now when Europe’s post-war blueprint for binding unification and cooperation is under stress. Now we need to ask if European populations are neglecting the toxic past of national, religious and ethnic tensions of the 20th Century. Are the post-war years in fact anomalous due to the creation of homogeneous Western European welfare states that honored human rights, the protection of minorities and the imperative of peaceful solutions to conflicts? Is decisive collective action among disparate European countries sustainable? 

Fourteen years after founding Humanity in Action, its pedagogy puts its philosophy into practice. The organization remains anchored in rigorous educational explorations about diversity and promoting resistance to injustice in Europe, America and other parts of the world. Based in seven countries, its trans-Atlantic reach now goes significantly beyond the boarders of Humanity in Action countries through the active work and interests of its Senior Fellows. Large number of the 1,200 Senior Fellows are converting collaborative learning and trust—incorporating historic examples such as the collective rescue of Danish Jews based on shared national values—into productive action on an individual and group basis. In response to the aspirations and desire for continuing education of the Senior Fellows, we have generated an array of substantive programs including annual conferences, study trips, and professional fellowships; authored Reflections on the Holocaust, a book of essays by Senior Fellows and speakers; and commissioned “Just People,” a documentary film about conflict and resistance.

To reach beyond the immediate Humanity in Action community, the Fellows have generated hundreds of action plans on an individual and group basis that connect them across different annual summer programs and countries. Extensive evidence of their entrepreneurial spirit and professional advancement is one of the organization’s greatest assets. The continuing interaction of the Fellows with each other, through and beyond the organization, is an important contribution to the emerging power of social networks. Through education and action that confirms the power of human rights, the commitment of the organization—its Senior Fellows, board members and staffs in 7 countries—reaffirms the precious promise of youth. It is a promise that could not have been revealed so boldly without the guidance and financial support of many visionary philanthropists, in the United States and Europe. It is their faith in the importance of youth and change that has enabled Humanity in Action to prosper and look confidently with younger generations into the future.   

Reflections by Three Senior Fellows

Dr. Amish J. Dave, Berlin, 2006 

Over the past few weeks, as the Humanity in Action senior fellows appeal took on steam and the fundraising emails entering my inbox multiplied, I took solace in my tardiness to give back to an organization that has given me so much by thinking, “I’m poor. Surely, I can give next year and others will help this year.” After all, the move from Chicago to the San Francisco Bay Area has been exhilarating, but also financially-draining. Most of my resident physician’s salary goes toward the cost of my too-well-furnished Mountain View apartment. The remainder seems to disappear into nebulous pathways from flying back home to plan a large Punjabi-Gujarati wedding to exploring the South Bay’s beautiful farmer’s markets to paying for an ever-increasing number of smog emission tests the Bear State requires to zoom down its highways. 

But, of course, like most Indian-American men (thanks mom!) and I suspect like most HIA fellows, that feeling of guilt that arises from not doing and instead allowing inertia to reign has festered. 

Over the past six weeks, at my university hospital, I have diagnosed at least twelve young men in their twenties with metastatic cancer. The vast majority of these men have been Hispanic. All have been uninsured. I can not explain how frustrating it is to see a guy your age get diagnosed with a terminal illness and have zero options. Despite major gains within the past few years in extending parental insurance to mouth youth, ending insurance limitations arising from preexisting conditions, and bolstering children’s insurance, we remain a nation with staggering inequalities in access to healthcare. It’s virtually impossible to not feel uneasy discharging one of these young men from the hospital during the holiday season knowing that this will be their last New Year’s holiday with their family. It’s downright impossible to turn to one of these young men and say, “I’m too busy. I can work on arranging clinic follow-up next year and others will help you next year.” 

After all, there are no others. My team is responsible for providing options for our patients. I’m proud of the fact that all of these men received some form of limited insurance by the end of their hospital stay through efforts made by my wards team with our social works and case managers. And our efforts go on because what we do is so critically important.

So, when I sat down this morning with a huge cup of my father’s chai, I finally opened the emails sent to me by so many dedicated HIA supporters and I realized again that the values and passion espoused by Humanity in Action reflect my own values and my own passion: passion for opening new opportunities for those with few options, passion for teaching and learning, and passion for learning about other cultures and peoples. I’m donating this year because I believe that the fellows chosen by HIA genuinely care about others, because maybe some day they will be my allies in changing the current rules on who gets healthcare and who doesn’t, and because the friendships that I have made with passionate fellows from all over the world continue to motivate and inspire me. I’m donating today because I can help this year.

Aseem Mehta, Paris, 2012

I wanted to write to you to begin to start expressing my gratitude for your vision behind the Humanity in Action summer fellowship, knowing full well that nothing I can put in words will come close to explaining how transformative the experience has been for me. It has only been a week since we all said good bye in Sarajevo -- I thought I would finally gain a respite (a brief one at least) to let my brain take a break and for my body to decompress, but instead I found the gears in my head to continue to be turning, reflecting, reacting and synthesizing everything that I have experienced and learned in the past five weeks. And it seems as if those gears have no intention of slowing down (thank you so much for this, but honestly, its exhausting!).

Amidst the chaos of thoughts swimming in my head, I wanted to share with you one which I think particularly reflects my gratitude for the HiA experience. As I was looking back at the month, I sought to try to organize the progression of the program so as to better understand how my thoughts have developed and changed. What I concluded is that the HiA fellowship was, for me, much like a three-act play -- the classic hero’s journey. In the first act, we, the fellows i.e. the heroes, became privy to the task that lay ahead of us, learning the skills, tools and gaining the knowledge to understand how to combat the trials we would face. The rising action of the play is exciting and engaging -- each lecturer and guest grasped my attention and opened my mind to a new set of ideas, methods and histories that I had not before considered. I found myself immersed in a beautiful world of academic rigor, substantive debate and enriching discourse that pushed me to question my assumptions and reframe my beliefs. Starting with the compelling political briefings at the CFR and then reunderstanding diversity issues in France through a lens of a colonial past and a paradigm of gender subversion forced me to grapple with the social issues that I have spent my academic career studying in a totally new way. The training ground was difficult, but exciting and thrilling.

But at a certain point, all of the academics, the theory and the discussion seemed for naught. I had entered the second act of the play, the loss of all hope. Engaging with issues from a human rights framework, discussing real world problems in terms of rosy philosophical and moral abstractions can only take you so far. About 2.5 weeks into the Paris program, I felt myself slipping into a mindset of, “The world is a messed up place. What am I supposed to do?” Confronting national social challenges and then zooming out and realizing that these issues are transnational, complex, structural and systemic, I felt myself losing hope in the cause and in myself. 

If the play were a Shakespearean irony, it would have ended here. But the way it played out for me (thankfully) was much more like a romance, perhaps even an epic. Because there was a third act -- revival. The final week of the Paris program paired with the international conference in Sarajevo offered a mental and spiritual redemption. Tara’s workshops on community organizing -- narrowing broad social problems into actionable and specific issues that can be used to mobilize the public -- provided examples of how to overcome my feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness. Meeting hundreds of other fellows, new and old, committed to the same issues that I am, bursting with insights and optimism, inspired me to remember, “I’m not acting alone.” At the end of the day, the facts, figures and theoretical frameworks that I engaged with a month ago will likely recede somewhere into my latent memory, but the energy that I have come away with, renewing my confidence in the human rights regime, will remain. 

I know that my thoughts will continue to evolve, and I look forward to what more I continue to uncover as I continue to reflect. But I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciated the artistry and elegance of the design of the fellowship, aware that I have yet to see the full masterpiece. Thank you so much for this incredible gift Judy, it truly has (and I anticipate it will continue to be) extraordinary.

Noam Schimmel, 
Amsterdam, 2001

HIA integrated the intellectual with the experiential, the analytical with the creative, and did so in a context that was challenging, critical, intensely open-minded and provoked constant reflection on a range of human rights issues. It was exhausting in the most invigorating way: everyday involved speakers and seminars, site visits and conversations that - layer upon layer - gave me insight into human rights on both a micro and a macro level. We were constantly drawing connections between history and contemporary realities, exploring patterns of politics and culture and the way they influence the realization of human rights.

The interpersonal aspect of HIA was one of the most rewarding both during the program itself and years later as new friendships become old ones and the energy that HIA unleashed during a very rich and dense five week program sustained itself far beyond one summer.

Importantly, HIA is more than just an intellectual experience. It is an emotional one that pushes you to empathize and communicate across boundaries of difference in identity and life experience that are often profound. There’s an exceptional degree of passion for and commitment to human rights from a range of perspectives that ensures an ongoing shifting and unpredictable conversation that is endlessly stimulating, electric, and often extremely humbling as it energizes and inspires. You grow as a result in an exponential way rather than through the more deliberate, slow, and careful growth of traditional academic courses and their often linear trajectories.

HIA is more easily experienced than described. I remember fondly one experience during a visit to Tivoli in Copenhagen. A bunch of us lined up to go on the free fall amusement park ride. We were all a little nervous, enthusiastic, not quite sure what we were getting into. But we strapped ourselves in and up we went. For ten seconds or so that felt like an eternity we were held at the top before plummeting - screaming, laughing, terrified, delighted, completely in the moment, together.

That was HIA. You plunge in as an individual, swiftly become a community, and by the end you are invigorated and transformed.