January 29th, 2010

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First off, let me apologize for having not written you in over a week. I’ve been busy with school and work and well, you know the spiel. In any case, it just so happens that my current assignment for University Writing is to write a letter so I thought why not kill two birds with one stone. Of course this means that this particular letter will not be what you’re used to, stories about living with girls and cats and trying new shampoos. Instead I’ll be using you as a sounding board for an essay on international justice and my Israeli heritage.

I accept your forgiveness in advance.

Let me begin by introducing the central text of my essay, a piece by Martha C. Nussbaum titled Compassion & Terror. Nussbaum is a philosopher of ethics with a special interest in classical texts. Also, judging from this picture (http://exiledonline.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/05/martha_nussbaum3.jpg), she works out. In the essay Nussbaum frames terrorism, specifically the 9/11 attacks, within the philosophical argument over which approach best leads to justice on both a local and global scale. In short, she argues that compassion is our best bet; however, she freely admits that compassion has its own pitfalls. The same emotional base that leads to compassion can also incite anger and fear. Taking her example of the World Trade Center attacks, we can see that it elicited a compassion in Americans for those killed but also fueled a fire of jingoism and hate towards Arabs worldwide. Compassion can lead to the sports-fan mentality, us versus them. Also, emotions, being so immediate and so present in their manifestation, tend to apply themselves locally. How can compassion be used globally within those limitations? Well, to be honest, Nussbaum doesn’t exactly clear that up except to say that we can train ourselves to feel compassion on a larger scale through storytelling (specifically tragedies). I’d also recommend travel.

But despite these flaws, she feels that compassion trumps the next best alternative which she claims is the principle of human dignity. The principle holds that all humans, no matter race, class, or creed, are equal in dignity and therefore deserving of justice. It’s basically the idea of human rights on which most contemporary theories of international justice are based. Sounds good, right? Well, not to Nussbaum. One, it doesn’t include animals. Human rights. Clearly, any true foundation of justice includes cats and dogs and I guess other less cute animals, so right off the bat the idea of dignity becomes too anthropocentric. Two, the Stoic philosophers of ancient Rome argued that dignity must be separate from fortune because if it wasn’t then someone could lose dignity through bad fortune and therefore not be deserving of justice since justice is a right of those with dignity. As you can see, the logical flow can get pretty tricky pretty quickly, but basically Nussbaum takes their argument to the extreme and claims that if dignity can’t be taken away by fortune than no behavior is off limits. Why not rape someone? They still retain their dignity, right? So what’s so bad?

Anyway, she goes on for the better part of her essay following a logic that seems less than useful if our goal is to talk about actual global problems. But eventually, in the last few pages she finally lets on to the complexity of the matter. She admits what we need is in fact “compassion within the limits of respect [for human dignity]” and that each of us must ask ourselves difficult questions about our responsibilities regarding social justice. How much do I owe the world? The people of Haiti? The poor in my neighborhood? How much wealth am I allowed to have? To me, these are the important questions concerning both local and international justice.

Okay, so I need to take Nussbaum’s point of view as well as my own and analyze what we’re calling an exhibit. A story, an object, a perspective, a thing, you know. Not like in court, more like in science class. We need to put something under the microscope. But in this case, just as Carl Sagan flies around the universe in his spaceship of the imagination in Cosmos, I need to use a microscope of the imagination. A microscope that will put my exhibit in context. It’s one of those microscopes that has multiple lenses on it, I know you know what I’m talking about. You may even have one. One lens is my point of view, the other is Nussbaum’s. In some ways you could argue that an exhibit can’t even been seen without a lens. But anyway, that’s neither here nor there.

I’ve decided to examine something you’ve probably never really heard me talk about. And not just because you rarely listen to me, but because it’s not something I wear on my sleeve. As you may know, I’m an Israeli citizen. To be accurate, I have dual-citizenship. But what you may not know is that my parents, on the scale of member of Hamas to West Bank settler, fall much closer to the West Bank settler. To put it in perspective, they feel the Palestinians are getting what they deserve. The argument goes something like this: if the Palestinians don’t want to be attacked, then they need to stop attacking Israel. All violence, both structural and physical, visited upon the Palestinian Arabs is a direct consequence of their own actions and therefore just. Nussbaum does talk about this sentiment. She calls it the judgment of nondesert. One can only feel compassion for another if they believe the other isn’t deserving of suffering.

Well, that begs the question, do the Palestinians deserve their lot? Well, my good friend, that is a very touchy question. I spent last summer reading several books on the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and of the Middle East in general. My goal was to educate myself to the point at which I could answer a question like this with some certainty. What I found was a complex history with no clear moral orientation. Both the Jews and the Arabs have a claim to the land and both have committed deplorable acts. Nussbaum makes no clear reference to situations of this sort. What happens when it is not clear who is right and who is wrong? She does write that “there will still be important sources of good to be protected from harm, and there will still be justified anger at damage to those good things.” In other words, the good will be hurt, justifiably angry, and presumably in a position to retaliate. But who or what is good? Which acts of retaliation are justified?

As mentioned, my parents see much less ambiguity in the issue. My father was raised in Israel. He was brought up in a small country surrounded by enemies. Israel goes to war with one of its neighbors about once a decade. As you may know, the military is a mandatory part of Israeli life. Like all Israeli citizens who live in the country, my father was conscripted into the army at eighteen. He fought in the Six Day War. He was taught from an early age how to feel on these issues. Here, Nussbaum does make a point that resonates with me. She calls for all people to be educated in compassion at an early age. Children should learn of their own weakness and through that knowledge hopefully understand the humanity of others. In essence, children should receive an education opposite to that which my father received. An education of humility and understanding. Nussbaum hopes that such educations would allow people to feel compassion over large distances. In the case of Israel and Palestine, that distance isn’t so great.

So where do I stand, you ask. Well, it’s hard to say. There are so many complicated issues. I fancy myself a compassionate person. But that compassion leads me to feel for both the Palestinians and the Israelis. Also, there are individuals on both sides of the conflict that act immorally. It’s hard to reconcile many of the facts into a clear position. I certainly believe that Israel, with its superior resources, has some responsibility to the Palestinian people. Also, I believe that Palestine has some responsibility to educate its own citizens. It’s my opinion that peace is a noble cause and therefore both sides should drop their grudges in the name of a better future. But I also recognize there is naïveté in that hope. When Nussbaum writes about human relations, she seems to share that innocence. She never takes the time to discuss the realistic side of international affairs. There are more factors at play than simply a lack of love. Filling that void may be one solution, but it may not really be the best solution. I think I may side more with the Stoics – at least generally. It’s not necessary in my mind for the Israelis and Palestinians to love each other. It’s necessary for them to grow up and realize that people are suffering. It’s necessary for my father to see that an endless grudge match is futile. Instead of pointing to Euripides’s The Trojan Women as Nussbaum does, I would point to Aeschylus’s Oresteia in which a cycle of revenge is ended by an impartial jury. In this case, the ingrained resentment may be too much for the emotions to overcome. Instead what may be needed is a call for humanism.

And what about me as an individual. What is my personal responsibility? As an Israeli citizen do I owe the Palestinians anything? Do I owe Israel anything? Do I have a responsibility to do anything at all? To speak my mind. To try and make things better. And what about shame. Should I be ashamed of my heritage? If I were to take Nussbaum’s lesson to heart and exercise compassion, maybe I should be ashamed. At the moment though, I’m not sure. I guess I have about two weeks to flesh it out.

Alright, Charles. Thanks for bearing with me on this one. I apologize for the lack of organization and roughness of my thoughts (and also the lack humor in this letter), but I think I’ve made a lot of progress working out my ideas . I’ll be sure to send you a copy of the final draft of the essay, ‘cause I know you’re dying to read it.

Anyway, how’s it go down in Philly? Made any progress on your robot or the pieces for the show in Portland? See you in two weeks for your epic twenty-seven hour birthday party. I’ll be sure to bring Mountain Dew, Doritos, and other such accoutrements that you video game players love so much.

- Ben