“Truly inspiring to be able to come here. Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a belieber.”
By now, the whole world knows Justin Bieber’s comments in the visitor book at Anne Frank House. On his busy European tour, Bieber had a day off – a “chill day” as he put it – and he spent it in part touring the museum devoted to Anne Frank, a Jewish girl who hid with seven other Jews in the attic of an Amsterdam office building.
Anne entered the secret rooms in the attic in 1942 when she was 13, and hid there with her family and others for over two years, never more going outside, living in silence, and with the constant terror of discovery. That moment eventually came on a summer morning in 1944, when the secret annex was raided. Anne recorded her life in hiding in a journal, and her Diary of a Young Girl, published after her death at 15 in Bergen Belsen, has sold 30 million copies and become perhaps the defining text of the Holocaust.
After Bieber’s visit, the Museum posted his comments on its Facebook page. Reaction – especially to Bieber saying Anne Frank might have been a “belieber” as his fans are sometimes called - was swift. The most popular comment on the museum’s Facebook post gives a sense of the overall tone: “pity the guy, after making the effort to visit, wasn’t grown up enough to have a break from being so self centered and make a comment like that.” A consensus quickly emerged in the blogosphere and news coverage around the world: Bieber had missed the point of the museum. He was crass. He was self-centered. Shallow and superficial.
Yet amid all the criticism, another word can be applied to the singer too: inspirational.
In fact, from a Jewish point of view, Bieber’s actions that day were the mark not of an immature or self-centered young man: quite the contrary. They were the mark of a person who is growing, and moving in a positive direction. How?
Judaism dares us to challenge ourselves. No matter where we are in life, there are always new heights we can aspire to: greater levels of knowledge and character that we can work to make our own.
One prayer that’s traditionally recited by Jews around the world each morning asks God to help us overcome our temptations that day: to succeed in mastering our lesser natures. It recognizes that we each have many choices each day. Every day, no matter what our station in life, our education or lifestyle, each of us is challenged with times where we can take the easier way, or stretch ourselves and grow.
This isn’t always a smooth process. It can be difficult, it can be messy. It can be painful to admit that we don’t know something, or to grope for the words we need to understand new concepts. It can be hard to ask simple questions, or not to even know which questions to ask. But, as teachers sometimes tell students on the first day of class, there’s no such thing as a stupid question. For without simple questions, we could never embark on learning anything new.
What does this have to do with Justin Bieber and his infamous comments?
It would have seemed understandable – natural even – for the singer to spend his precious “chill day” between performances in his hotel suite, or else enjoying some less demanding attractions in the city. Choosing to visit the Anne Frank Museum suggests that Bieber was pushing himself: pushing himself to expand his horizons, to learn something, to experience something new, rather than spending his time not taking the easiest path.
Yes, his comments in the museum guest book were clumsy. But they were at least written by a man who that day was challenging himself to experience something new, a man who spent an hour confronting some of the horrors of the Holocaust.
Bieber’s visit to the Anne Frank House didn’t just challenge and educate him; it also helped open a dialogue and educate many of his fans. In all the media coverage of Bieber’s remarks, some of his fans Tweeted that they didn’t know who Anne Frank was. One infamous study found that a third of Americans were open to the idea that the Holocaust never took place. By drawing attention to Anne Frank and her story, Bieber’s attempts to educate himself have reverberated with others, too, and spurred some of his fans to learn more about the Holocaust as well. How many other pop stars are spending their free time learning about the Holocaust?
In Jewish thought, we’re advised that God will judge us as we judge others. If we are overly strict with others, then God too will judge us by rigorous standards. And if we give others the benefit of the doubt – if we allow assume they have good intentions and are trying to grow – then God will assume the same of us.
Perhaps as he was touring Anne Frank House, Justin Bieber came across a well-known quote from Diary of a Young Girl: “Despite everything,” Anne Frank wrote, “I still believe that people are really good at heart.” It’s an assumption we can extend to Mr. Bieber, too.