Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Jewish Group Trains Germans How to Accept Ethnic Diversity

Role-playing. Focusing on positive self-images. Learning by using not just cognitive intelligence, but so-called emotional intelligence.

All these may be familiar concepts for veterans of the sensitivity-training programs developed in self-consciously pluralistic societies like the United States.

About these ads

But they are less familiar here in Germany, where the realization is just dawning that the country is de facto an "immigration country," official pronouncements to the contrary. (Germany does not officially acknowledge that it has immigrants other than asylum seekers.)

And these new concepts are coming to Germany from a perhaps unexpected source: the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) of B'nai B'rith.

The city of Bremen is the headquarters in Germany for "A World of Difference," a diversity-training program developed in the US in the mid-1980s and brought here in 1994.

Robert Goldmann, a Jew who fled Germany in 1939, has served as the ADL's European representative and helped develop A World of Difference. In a phone interview from his office in New York, he said that of all the countries where the program has been offered, Germans have been "the most receptive."

He connects this with "the Goldhagen phenomenon," a willingness to explore difficult issues of the past.

Roland Bhs is director of the program; he works out of the Bremen teacher training institute helping train those who conduct two- or three-day sessions in schools and for groups such as social workers and police forces. One of the first lessons learned in each group seems to be just how diverse even a nominally "all German" group can be. In a session with Bremen police officers, "it turned out that 80 percent of them were really of Polish background," he says.

Regina Piontek, one of Mr. Bhs's trainers, says the program's essence, "the ADL concept, stresses a positive aspect - diversity - rather than just insisting, 'You mustn't be racist.' "

About these ads

Angelika Weber, one of her colleagues, chimes in: "The idea is to make people aware of their own attitudes and actions," even when they aren't fully rational. And the program "permits emotions - even when they take us to the brink" of our emotional comfort level. It is not uncommon for program participants openly to show emotion - anger, sorrow, joy - during meetings.

Ms. Piontek says that one of the problems with traditional education about the Nazi period "is that it is all cognitive knowledge - facts you learn about what happened and what mustn't be allowed to happen again."

What's more useful, the three agree, is "emotionally anchored learning."

Piontek cites a workshop in which a woman was allowed to express her concerns frankly about not wanting to sit next to Chileans on a bus, "because she'd had bad experiences with them before." Then a Chilean in the group got up to say, "I've noticed when I've been on a bus that the seat beside me is empty, and that makes me feel bad."

Once seminar participants are forced to put a human face on their prejudices "you don't have to say anything more," says Piontek. In other words, the lesson has been brought home emotionally, rather than merely cognitively, that the group in question is neither nameless, faceless, nor unfeeling.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.