Recently I had a conversation with a recent immigrant to Israel and he told me he never picks up ultra-religious men who are hitching a ride. He feels they are lazy, exploitative of community funds, and are disloyal to the state of Israel. In sum, they are takers and not givers and should be less influential in the Israel political scene. Therefore, he does not want to reward them by giving them free rides. I told him that I do pick up such hitchhikers because I really don’t know them well and do not want the actions of a few to permeate my consciousness and cause me to view all the ultra-religious as takers.
Stereotyping those who are unfamiliar to us is the subtext of Witness, a police thriller which utilizes the Amish culture of Pennsylvania as a backdrop for its story. Rachel Lapp, a young Amish widow traveling by train with her 8-year-old son Samuel to visit her sister, stops at the Philadelphia station. Here Samuel wanders into the men’s room, where behind closed doors, he witnesses a brutal murder. Captain John Book is assigned to the case; and at the police station, Samuel identifies one of the killers as a narcotics officer who was involved in a drug raid in which the drugs mysteriously disappeared.
As events unfold, we learn that Book’s superior officer was behind the robbery of the contraband, and Book is now targeted by his sinister boss for execution. A gunfight leaves Book wounded and he flees to Amish country with Rachel and Samuel who are now in mortal danger.
Collapsing from loss of blood, Book stays with Amish until he gradually heals. Rachel and Book develop an affection for one another during his recuperation period and Book’s view of the Amish changes. They are no longer strange and backward, but people whose uncomplicated, wholesome perspective on life impresses Book as honest and purposeful. Book and Rachel both know that, coming from two different worlds, their relationship is a non-starter; but that does not stop them from caring for one another and seeing the world from the other’s vantage point.
Eventually, the corrupt police officers locate Book and travel to Amish country to kill him, and it is the Amish tradition of non-violence that figures prominently in the film’s denouement. Book is traveling into town by horse and buggy when his party is accosted by local bullies, who stereotypically regard the Amish as weak and out of touch with modernity. They pick a fight with Book’s group, not realizing that Book is not Amish. Book, incensed at their brazenness, decides to retaliate by breaking the nose of one of the bullies, an action totally out of character for the Amish. This leads to a police report which finds its way to his corrupt superiors, giving them Book’s location, the scene of a tense and bloody climax.
Jewish tradition tells us everyone is created in the image of God and, therefore, has infinite value. Being different does not mean being less worthy or less important. The Talmud states that baseless hatred was the cause of the destruction of the Second Temple. The great medieval scholar Moshe ibn Ezra said “Love blinds us to faults; hatred to virtues.” When we view others who are different from us in a negative light without even knowing them, we do not appreciate the good that is often within them. The Ethics of the Fathers further tells us that “hated of people removes a man from the world.” Witness reminds us that beneath the strange clothing of a religious sect, there may be values worth emulating. When we view the unusual looking stranger as a friend, we open up ourselves to growing intellectually and emotionally.