A single episode of suffering and death is a tragedy – Yet a million such deaths is a statistic .
Although we can understand statistics intellectually, we are not wired to relate to them. To feel empathy, we need to engage with individuals and their stories – otherwise we dehumanise their suffering and fail to convey the central truth that each of us is made in G-d’s image and therefore is deserving of dignity and respect.
As an academic my passion is to understand how contemporary media reports faraway humanitarian crises. What is it that makes us turn on and turn off? If we want to be responsible world citizens and not simply allow the media to choose where to place our empathy and attention, we need to explore how the media reports distant suffering and how we can engage with faraway others.
I argue that our experience as Jews can be instructive here. The Torah tells us to care about the stranger in your midst , thereby attuning us to be aware of our own experience of alienation and needing to make sure we don’t alienate others. Jews do this through stories –using stories about individuals to frame and understand events.
One of the most innovative ways I’ve come across to restore this individual humanity is the Stolperstein Project – literally stumbling stones – and arose from the Jewish tradition of placing stones on graves. My talk is about ways such as this, in which we can search out the individual humanity in stories to help us comprehend the scale and magnitude of mass suffering.