Sunday, June 11, 2006

The History Mogul

In an article about some 200 Sudanese seeking refuge in Israel, the New York Times ( 6/09/06 ) quotes the Noble Prize Laureate and human dirigible Elie Wiesel as saying, "History constantly chooses a capital of human suffering, and Darfur is today the capital of human suffering.” I wonder how Elie Wiesel knows this.

HISTORY CONSTANTLY CHOOSES….what’s with this reification of history? Isn’t heaven crowded enough with angels and seraphim and old souls and new souls and divine councils and chariots and cherubim …do we really need another hypostasis, HISTORY. And history chooses the capital of suffering…, how, when, where? Is there a sort of a Cleo award show, something like the Oscars but without Joan Rivers, where they say ‘And now to introduce the award for the sink hole of the planet, are Elie Wiesel and Oprah Winfrey. (Applause). ”The contenders are Darfur, Rwanda, the Congo, Iraq and North Korea…movie clips…drum roll. The winner is …THE SUFFERING CAPITAL OF THE PLANET…DARFUR”. They play Lipa’s nigun GELT, GELT, GELT.
Everyone writes a check and goes home.

History is not a goddess or an abstract entity, but an aggregation of what historians have said and will say in the future. So again, how does Elie Wiesel know what future historians will say? Maybe they will say "While humanitarians were busying themselves with Darfur, the polar ice cap was melting. Looking back, we see Darfur as the least of the world’s problems at the time."

I remember being shocked when I walked into Bnai Jeshurun, the liberal activist shul on the West Side. There, unfurled across the entire width of the space is a bold large banner with the words ‘REMEMBER DARFUR”. At least they have moved past “NEVER AGAIN”, a slogan that is a bit run down, considering that since 1945 genocide has happened again and again and again. Looking at the warm and gentle faces of the congregants, I thought “For all that this chevra (group) will accomplish in Darfur, they might as well have the banner REMEMBER ZABARS”.

There is a substantive issue involved. How does a liberal activist congregation choose a project that both inspires its members and is not pie in the sky dreaming? Here is the conundrum: If people are to seriously commit to a cause it has to be important to them and be perceived as threatening to their values and life. Consider civil rights for blacks? You couldn’t mobilize a minyan, not anymore. Labor unions, the rights of the working man, were a depression project. No one is going to lift a finger for the AFL-CIO. What about organizing textile workers in rural India, a really important issue today involving hundreds of thousands of the poorest of the poor? Most everyone would say "Count me out. Let the Indians deal with this. Mein gesheft? It’s no concern of mine."

There are 2 big issues that come to mind, there might be more but I can’t think of them: global warming and radical Islam’s jihad against the West. The problem is there is nothing an individual or community can do. What can a congregation do about global warming, schlep an air conditioner to Greenland? In the case of the jihadists there is even less to do. It’s not like we can start outreach (kiruv) programs with Osama’s Chasidim.

I don’t know a good solution to this dilemma. I’ll take another stab at this issue when I get around to ranting about the Reform movement’s idea of tikun haolam.


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