Jewish Journal

Humanity before Politics

by Rav Yosef Kanefsky

December 21, 2010 | 4:06 pm

A bunch of years ago while attending a Darfur rally, I came into possession of a T-shirt whose front reads, “Humanity before Politics”.  It’s become one of my favorite T-shirts to wear while hiking, and each time I do complete strangers stop me to, for the most part, enthusiastically endorse the sentiment.

I thought about my T-shirt as the fire-fighting relief arrived in Israel from Turkey and the Palestinian Authority a couple of weeks ago. Israel is herself, of course, a champion of providing humanitarian assistance to anyone around the globe who will accept it, and nothing makes us prouder as Jews. And it’s possible that this might have played some role in the decisions made in Ankara and Ramallah. In any case though, the Turkish and Palestinian decisions to place humanity before politics in this instance, were heart-warming.

As soon as the fire was out though, politics predictably returned to its dominant place. The outflow of humanitarian concern did not spill over into the still-deadlocked peace talks. Over the past few days though, I’ve been trying to imagine what the world might look like if “Humanity before Politics” governed not only emergencies, but international relations.

Within this exercise of the imagination, the tough issues that dominate the Israeli-Palestinian debate would all be recast and re-understood in humanitarian terms. As a result, the Palestinian leadership would, for example, intuitively grasp our primal, universally-experienced human yearning for the land of our ancestors, and would appreciate the urgent need for a sovereign Jewish homeland in light of the continuous human catastrophes that punctuated our life in the Diaspora. Placing humanity before politics, Abbas and Erekat (maybe one day even Haniyeh?) would be able to view the narrative of the Jewish people objectively and compassionately, and bring the resulting humanitarian sentiment, to the negotiating table with them.   

Simultaneously, leaders across Israel’s political spectrum would draw the striking parallels between recent Palestinian history and our own centuries-long story. They would intuitively grasp what it feels like to have been displaced from one’s home and to have become a refugee, and what it feels like to be subject to the governance of a foreign military. And as a result, in addition to maps and real-world security concerns, Israel would also bring empathy to the diplomatic discussion.

And both sides would take as a given, that the use of violence is simply, humanly, unconscionable.

I know this sounds pretty Pollyannaish. I’ve spent time imagining it only because as we look back at the last 25 years, it’s clear that everything else has failed. We’re coming to that point to which Abba Eban was referring when he said, “men and nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives”. We’ve exhausted all other alternatives. And the wisdom of humanitarianism beckons.
Humanity before Politics is of course a two player game. But both players here are human.

Can you imagine it?

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