How to Live With the NIMBY Syndrome

by Sy Schechtman

Nimbyism is an old, well established, and fairly reputable cultural custom. That is, if you give it its more euphemistic phrasing as “charity begins at home”. This is more optimistic and welcoming than “ not in my backyard”, which is a more negative way of emphasizing this essentially separatist attitude. Not in my backyard rejects intruding elements--strangers, usually--while the other statement is positive, building on the wealth possible to oneself by saving and accumulating, sort of by passing the negatives of the plight of one’s fellow man. But self centeredness is also an ancient and honorable emotional reflex. Basically part of the self preservation syndrome, for as the Jewish sage Hillel said over two thousand years ago “if I am not for myself who will be?” Or to state it in short trenchant Calvinist theology, “God helps him who helps himself.”

But of course, Hillel also is believed to have formulated the Golden Rule, “Do not do to others what is hurtful to you”, and the Torah at very beginning, in the story of Cain and Abel has Cain challenge God with his defiant answer “Am I my brother’s keeper?” And the Lord’s reply was a resounding “Yes!”, and Cain is severely punished and banished for murdering his brother Abel. And the Bible repeatedly admonishes the Jews to treat the stranger well, ---”Remember, you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

But then again, somewhere in between is nepotism; also an ancient an generally honorable custom. If not for survival of one’s self and immediate existence then also for the children and grandchildren and the clan and its name into the future. Trying to maintain a pool of assets for inheritance of the immediate family is certainly an exclusionary attitude --- a “do not invade my backyard” financial stance. We are now in the midst of this legislative tug of war with the inheritance taxes presently in place under heated debate and hopefully to be amended and curtailed, leaving only in the future the very wealthiest of the country to part with some of their forebears assets.

Throughout history we see a preoccupation with one’s own destiny in the face of potentially disruptive or even overwhelming societal forces surrounding oneself. As indicated above sometimes the individual has a reflex self preservation attitude to “go with the flow” -- the prevailing mass opinion-- which essentially is the accustomed “don’t rock the boat” approach. Also, “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it”. Indeed, in the very early stages of a truly dysfunctional societal course, it is not easy to convince most people to change, so mired in tradition are most people,---“my mind is made up, don’t confuse me with the facts.” In the last century the Holocaust is the prime example of this lamentable lapse of human concern for one’s fellow man. And in the highlight country of our western civilization--replete with peak accomplishments in philosophy, and all the arts and literature and science--Germany before the Nazi infestation. Many attempts have been made to explain this most horrendous example of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man, and understandably anti-Semitism is the prime reason put forth. Just a few years ago, indeed, Daniel Goldhagen’s book “Hitler’s Willing Executioners”, reinforced this position by insisting that many more Germans willingly complied with the killing of the 6,000,000 Jews in World War Two than the accepted 200,000 figure ,the personnel of Himmler’s Schutzstaffle, who operated secretly to carry out the Jewish extermination---the Final Solution. But even Goldhagen’s computations of the actual numbers of Germans who were “willing executioners”--people who knew of the killings that were supposedly secret, and who aided and abetted them actively--raise the total of complicit Germans to only about one million, in a population of about sixty million.

Clearly most German citizens at that time were involved in Nimbyism. Turning their backs on their Jewish neighbors as they gradually lost civil rights and then their property under the heel of the Nazis tyranny. Most of them were anti-Semites and lost little sleep over the gradual Jewish depredation; many even profited from the loss of Jewish jobs and property. For those who silently deplored what Hitler and the Nazis stood for, a helpless shrug of the shoulder was all even those who were pro Jewish could muster. The Jews were, after all, strangers in the land, citizens but still somewhat foreign, and even if all those “Christ killer” appellations and Blood Libel innuendoes were childish, it would be best to let well enough alone. Hopefully things would quiet down and even those poor Jews would soon experience better times. These were the ‘good” Germans, as they did not hesitate to tell you after the war and they, as the rest of the world, were profoundly shocked by the ultimate extermination solution the Nazis had devised and devilishly executed. The grim pile up of corpses revealed at the bitter end of the war perhaps even made these neutral Germans a bit reflexively guilty at the monumental evil perpetrated by other, not so good Germans.

Could a caring and concerned neutral nimby population have made a difference?. The mild but insistent posture of the Danish king, and many of his subjects, and the yellow star on their sleeves, resembling the Jews of all the ghettos, in “welcoming” their Nazi conquerors, may have somewhat deterred the Nazis in Denmark. And there were certainly many righteous gentiles, as the memorials at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem attest. But, alas, nimbyism followed and altered the Jewish fate world wide during the Second World War. The ship “St. Louis” -- the infamous Ship of Fools--with about 1,000 Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany was refused entry into Cuba, the United States, and other countries, in l938, when the Jews could still leave, before the start of the war in l939. Existing emigration rules in these countries, of course, precluded stretching the prescribed quotas involved in this not so important emergency. Even from a military standpoint the Jewish situation was, from a non Jewish standpoint, nothing to get excited about; indeed best ignored. While the fate of the Jews in the extermination camps became gradually apparent to the allied leaders, no attempt to bomb the rail lines leading to Aushwitz, Sobibor, Treblinka, etc. was made, even though in that latter time frame of 1943 the utterly gratuitous massive bombing of Dresden occurred, which human rights groups rightfully condemned. (Not bombing the concentration camps was defended as being perhaps beyond the range of the bombers, or that other targets were more important.)

But most damning and most typical of the utter inconsequential significance of the subject of some more Jews being killed is the lack of even mentioning the ongoing almost terminal situation of the Jews in the vast territory the Nazis controlled at the height of their power during the war. By l943 the “Final Solution” was well under way, and known, or easily inferred, to all the Allied leaders, and the Pope. Not one mention of it was ever allowed to leak out. On the back pages of the New York Times, were vague “unsubstantiated” rumors. The Jewish newspapers gave these “rumors” more currency, but still not too much emphasis. Evidently the consensus strategy was not to deflect public opinion from the grand goal of winning the war, and the Jewish plight was insignificant-- the proverbial not in my backyard, don’t rock the boat type of thing! And yet, if only from a propaganda standpoint highlighting the killing of the Jews, (and gypsies, and homosexuals) would certainly have reinforced world sentiment for the Allied cause. Most importantly a joint statement from our war leaders--and the Pope- that those responsible for these monstrous crimes against humanity would be tried after the war, would, in my judgment, have greatly reduced the continuing slaughter of the Jewish population in Europe. By l943 the traffic to the extermination camps was in flood tide. But a relatively stealthy tide. Exposing, condemning, and threatening punishment for it at that time would have saved many Jewish lives; the almost demonic, maniacal SS effort to kill Jews continued until the last day of the war. The Wehrmacht and SS competed for trains for evacuate their personnel; the Army to regroup soldiers for a last stand in Germany, and the SS to continue the Jewish traffic to feed the crematoria of Aushschwitz!

The annals of history are replete with stories of nimbyism--the majority being indifferent or undecided in the face of unfolding portentous events. The large majority of the American populace was seemingly indifferent to the progress of the American Revolution, which was started by merchants and farmers with legitimate grievances about oppressive British tax measures. Washington, our commander in chief, had less than half the troops that the British possessed, and as the war dragged on for 8 years, a relatively small band of patriots were on the American side as was about an equal group of loyalists supporting the English Tory side. And in between the bulk of the people as aloof as events allowed, waiting to see the winning side to affiliate with.

This positive aspect of nimbyism, which led to our founding fathers developing what everyone avows as the best political system around, is counterbalanced overwhelmingly by negative nimbyism, where indifference, or ignorance, or fear, kept the bulk of people neutralized and inactive. The Russian revolution of the last century comes quickly to mind. With a handful of armed seaman from a nearby naval station Lenin took over a stalled, if not chaotic session of the Russian parliament and installed his own cadre of loyal followers and seized the center of power from which to launch his totalitarian communist state, which, with the Nazi regime coexisting not far away where the two overwhelmingly “evil empires” of the last century, if not of all recorded history. Nimbyism, fear of the stranger, is an integral part of racial segregation, too. And part of this, unfortunately, is fear of the black stranger. But gradually people in a largely white society, as in this country, are changing their ways and learning to adapt. And as we see more racial intermarriage and its acceptance this too shall pass. Gradually this is becoming more apparent in our society. No legislation is necessary or feasible. While people need space and time for their prejudices to shrink and finally be assuaged, it does happen over time. Does this mean that human nature is changing?

No! After all we are splendidly and sublimely contradictory creatures! Merely adapting to changed circumstances. In time other preconceptions and mental roadblocks will arise to bemuse, beguile, and bewilder. Hopefully we will know enough to treat them more dispassionately and not let them fence us in too much. But still not force us to abandon what we know to be the core values that give inner meaning and outer dynamic energy to our lives.