Saturday, June 18, 2011

My Man in Cairo: Grapel & Global Justice

You choose a side the day you join the army.

Ilan Grapel’s arrest in Egypt really angers me. While the Egyptians were accusing Ilan, an American Jew, of fomenting unrest in Egypt as an agent of Israel’s Mossad, the actual case rests on his biography: Jewish, Israeli, Arabic speaker, and— courtesy of a few indiscriminate Facebook photos—former Israeli soldier. Good thing they did not cite Ilan’s university as further reason to arrest him, I joked to a friend, since a shared alma mater is one more similarity Ilan and I have in common.

While Ilan and I never crossed paths in university (he graduated the year before I arrived), we have walked in each others’ footsteps in the Arab world. Like Israel’s supposed man in Cairo, I know what it is like to be a Jewish American with ties to the Jewish State and a passport filled with Arab visa stamps. Those stamps do not come without risk. But the inherent danger, or some naïve wanderlust, is not what drives the Grapels of the world to spend time in Arab countries (disclaimer: I am not actually claiming to know exactly what drove Grapel himself to be in Cairo, I am only referring to your average savvy young Jew that spends time in Arab countries, such as me, despite the inherent risk). Our motivation comes from the otherness of Israel’s neighbors, a desire to transcend entrenched biases and understand Arab society in a way that cannot be grasped from a FOX News telecast or a Bernard Lewis critique of the Arab psyche. We seek to make the foreign more familiar. And we do so without apology, convinced that what we do rather than who we are should determine our fate.

Accusing Ilan of being an Israeli spy because he is Jewish, has served in the Israeli army and has the gall to spend his summer break from law school assisting African refugees in Cairo is a reminder that the world has little patience for cross-cultural idealists. While his arrest is disheartening, my anger is fueled by the fear that a close friend of mine could meet a similar end. Like Ilan, my friend is working in the Arab world over the summer despite his Jewish faith and past Israeli military service. A mutual friend bemoaned our Lawrence of Arabia’s stubborn naivety. He does not understand that a person cannot play both sides.

Sides?! When did we choose sides?

You choose sides the day you are born, the mutual friend explained, the day you make aliyah, the day you join the army.

Lawrence, my friend the former Israeli soldier now working somewhere in Arabia, wrote to me a few days later, explaining his motivations as follows,

If I get kidnapped tomorrow, I hope that the following thoughts are what endure of my legacy. …I've come to realize in the past few years since the army that our beliefs and values do not matter for anything unless we live them out through our own choices. At the risk of sounding trite, my most central personal value at this point in my life is to aspire to a future without borders between people and nations, in which each person is equally free to seek opportunities throughout the world as anyone else. It galls me that there are places that I am not "allowed" to go, or not "supposed" to go, places where I know that I can make an impact but am prevented from going because of arbitrary administrative reasons. I don't care if this is idealistic - it is what I want for myself and I refuse to live in any other kind of world.

As you say, being smart and well-intentioned is not a defense against [getting in trouble]. But I fully believe that, as long as you are genuine, more good than harm will befall you in the end. I may be kidnapped, I may even be killed - but eventually it will be learned and taught that I was not who they accused me of being, and my captors or killers will be brought to justice and my legacy redeemed. I really believe this, because the alternative to believing this is a state of constant agonizing choices that you have to face, each of the following form: “Is the marginal increase in impact that I can make worth the marginal increase in risk?” In economics this is called being rational but in life it is a recipe for misery - we should all seek to make the greatest impact we can make, let the risks fall where they may.

(Warning: stop reading now to avoid the philosophical moralizing that follows)

My friend’s conviction is refreshing. Yet as much as I admire his determination to live by certain ideals, it is those ideals themselves, “a future without borders between people and nations, in which each person is equally free to seek opportunities throughout the world as anyone else,” that, like Ilan’s arrest, challenge me to reconsider my own loyalties.

Both Ilan’s arrest and my friend’s defiant words touch on the concept of cosmopolitanism, the ideology that man owes his primary allegiance to the global, rather than local, community. Or in other words, that individuals rather than states and other group entities are the fundamental units of moral concerns--that every individual is entitled to my equal concern and respect. A “citizen of the world” is how history’s first self-consciously cosmopolitan described himself, a Greek philosopher by name of Diogenes the Cynic who (echoing Socrates) rejected the fierce city-state allegiances of his time in favor of the universal community of man. Ancient Greek philosophers who follow the cosmopolitan tradition describe man’s moral responsibilities as a series of concentric circles. The innermost circle is the self, followed progressively by circles that represent family, relatives, friends, local group, and countrymen until a final, outermost circle that represents all of humanity. Martha Nussbaum, a contemporary moralist, Jewish convert and the first thinker whose work I seriously engaged as a freshman in university, explains that the task of world citizens is to “draw the circles somehow towards the center, making all human beings more like our fellow city dwellers, and so forth.” The basic idea of cosmopolitanism, in short, is that all people, not just family members or fellow citizens, belong to a single community based on our common humanity.

Ascribing to a cosmopolitan outlook has real consequence. While not every cosmopolitan will come down in favor of a single world government, someone who prioritizes the global over the local community (alternatively, someone who seeks to make the global local) would insist that there is zero moral ground for curtailing cultural freedoms (language, religion and customs) in the name of nation, church or party. With the world growing more interconnected thanks to modern travel and communication, man is no longer blissfully ignorant of the suffering of others. Television and the internet abolish distance, prompting a moral consciousness that allows cosmopolitans to insist that political and economic barriers that prejudice one local community over another are morally bankrupt. Or in other words, being an American, a football fan or a religious Jew does not grant me and mine any moral superiority, nor the right to privilege folks like myself over those outside my particular nation, custom and creed.

There are any number of knee-jerk reasons to reject cosmopolitanism (most of which are variations of a social-Darwinist rejection of moral altruism). A more compelling criticism however, lies in demonstrating that cosmopolitanism in fact undermines morality. That is, the ideology that says mankind belongs to a single community acts against the ethic that calls for man to put others interests’ before his own (i.e. altruism, though I use the term morality and altruism interchangeably). Such a counter-intuitive assertion follows from understanding that the two building blocks of morality, a sense of mission and familiarity, do not jive with cosmopolitanism. Ergo, cosmopolitanism does not promote altruism.

Evolutionary biologists have long argued that morality evolved naturally among advanced species. Doing good for others, they argue, is hardwired: we do good because it feels good. Unfortunately for the Darwin crowd, they cannot explain what makes altruism different from others pleasures which man controls when doing so is in his best interest. Unlike food, for instance, which man limits his enjoyment of to stay healthy, people do good for others even when they may themselves suffer. So there must be other reasons, rationale reasons, why we are moral.

Fortunately for the non-Ayn Rand crowd, there are. The first is familiarity. I am my brother’s keeper because he is my brother. Because I know and love him, I will do things for him I would do for no one else. Or as Michael Walzer argues, ethical standards arise from shared customs that can only be nurtured within discrete cultures and societies. The second reason is a sense of mission. In order to make the world a better place, I am prepared to give charity, help old ladies across the street and generally help others at my expense. A larger goal, a purpose, prompts me to feel the pain of others as keenly as my own.

Familiarity presents the starker challenge to the world citizen mantra. Even with all the advances in modern technology, it is impossible to become as familiar with strangers as you are with your family and friends. And even if you could take a pill that made you feel as close to everyone in the world as you do to your immediate family, the emotional necessity of exclusivity that powers familiarity to serve as a reason to be moral would be lost. (Marriage, as it happens, builds on this same need for exclusivity in an intimate relationship. Judaism teaches that marriage is in fact man’s attempt to realize the otherwise near impossible biblical mandate of loving your neighbor as yourself.) Thus in the cosmopolitan utopia, morality is undermined by the absence of intimacy. If everyone is my brother, then the power of brotherhood no longer has meaning, and I no longer am willing to place my brother’s interest before my own.

The second pillar of moral behavior, a sense of mission, also causes problems for the cosmopolitan agenda. Mission-minded folks can only effect real change by teaming up. The teams they form, be they nations, religions or fan-clubs, become the means through which the greater good (a future more democratic, godly or obsessed with football) is accomplished. Team members, and only team members, are the moral agents of change. And accomplishing the mission is of such importance that fellow agents must be prioritized over others. A mission-driven moralist, in other words, views himself as having a greater responsibility to his fellow moralists than to others. Humankind may be one, but my group demands greater allegiance due to our unique work for the greater good.

The extent to which this sense of mission flies in the face of cosmopolitanism is evident from a classic dilemma in military ethics. In the course of a dangerous mission, a soldier has the chance to save one of two lives: the life of a civilian unconnected to the mission or a soldier whose relevance to the mission is such that losing him could jeopardize achieving the military objective. Intuition may suggest saving the life of the civilian, since protecting civilians is the very raison d'être of the soldier. Yet military opinion rules in favor of the soldier, based on the cardinal military tenet known in the Israeli army as dveikut l’misimah (commitment to the mission). Dveikut l’misimah directs a soldier to prioritize accomplishing his mission above anything else. In other words, the end justifies the means. Non-essential lives can be sacrificed to allow valuable in-group members the opportunity to succeed.

While forming exclusive groups of holier than thou brethren is at odds with cosmopolitanism, the world citizen crowd can easily respond by saying they heartily agree with the power of a cause to form strong in-group loyalty. The solution is simply to expand the group, and make all of mankind united in pursuit of a single mission. What better way to achieve the cosmopolitan dream of one global community than to inspire all men with a single goal?

If this tactic sounds familiar, it is because it is. Every cosmopolitan movement, from missionizing Christianity to modern day global capitalism, has sung this same song. The danger of such a tune, however, can be seen in history's first attempt at realizing the cosmopolitan dream. One of the most well known Biblical stories tells of a time, at the beginning of history, when “the whole earth was of one language and one purpose” (Genesis 11:1). Only a great project could sustain such unity, and so mankind began building a city, crowned by a great tower. God was displeased, however, and brought an end to man’s attempt at unity by confusing the universal language and doing exactly what the people feared most: scattering man into separate tribes across the face of the earth. The saga of the Tower of Babel, in essence, damns cosmopolitan and crowns localism as the path of the righteous.

In The Dignity of Difference, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks draws a very different conclusion. “The Tower of Babel speaks to our era like no other biblical narrative,” Sacks writes. “God splits up humanity into a multiplicity of cultures and a diversity of languages.” Human development requires diversity, and to protect that freedom, an inability to communicate is the paradoxical counterweight to man’s desire to achieve security through unity. The point of the narrative is not to defame cross-cultural communication. As Sacks explains, God's message to Abraham in the following chapter is: "Be different, so as to teach humanity the dignity of difference."

The cosmopolitan ideal would be a danger to morality and human development. But the underlying message of that ideal, the reminder that we all share a common morality that makes others no different than me, should force us to strive for a more cosmopolitan world even as we treasure local differences. Morality asks us to engulf the yin even as we further the yang. To revel in our local music while recognizing the beauty of the global harmony that comes from so many disparate tunes.

I would close by expressing hope that American pressure on Egypt’s unstable interim government will suffice for Ilan to be back with his parents before this text is splashed across the internet (Update, as of October 12 2011, the situation is sadly only looking worse). Instead I will close with a relevant passage from Israeli author Amos Oz, a selection from In the Land of Israel (pgs. 130-131) that I often reflect on when moral doubts about my service cloud my mind.

This is the place to make my first shocking confession—others will follow. I think that the nation-state is a tool, an instrument, that is necessary for a return to Zion, but I am not enamored of this instrument. The idea of the nation-state is, in my eyes, goyim naches—a gentiles’ delight. I would be more than happy to live in a world composed of dozens of civilizations, each developing in accordance with its own internal rhythm, all cross-pollinating one another, without any one emerging as a nation-state: no flags, no emblems, no passport, no anthem. No nothing. Only spiritual civilizations tied somehow to their lands, without the tools of statehood and without the instruments of war.

But the Jewish people have already staged a long running one-man show of that sort. The international audience sometimes applauded, sometimes threw stones, and occasionally slaughtered the actor. No one joined us; no one copied the model the Jews were forced to sustain for two thousand years, the model of a civilization without the ‘tools of statehood.’ The drama ended with the murder of Europe’s Jews by Hitler. And so I am forced to take it upon myself to play the ‘game of nations,’ with all the tools of statehood, even though it causes me to feel like an old man in a kindergarten. To play the game with an emblem, and a flag and a passport and an army, and even war, provided that such a war is an absolute existential necessity. I accept those rules of the game because existence without the tools of statehood is a matter of mortal danger, but I accept them only up to this point. To take pride in these tools of statehood? To worship these toys? To crow about them? To convert the state from a means to an end, to an object of ritual and worship? Not I. If we must maintain these tools, including the instruments of death, it must be with wisdom—and with caution.

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