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Placing Your Flag Somewhere

January 10, 2013 – 10:11 am194 Comments

Photo by James Faris, from his book Nuba, Personal Art (1972)

By Joel Lazar
One Shabbat last month, I deliverd a dvar torah to my congregation, Beit Aharon (Gandel Besen), about the war crimes and atrocities perpetrated daily in the Nuba Mountains, Sudan. With the same heart-wrenching difficulty that I face every time I speak of what is happening over there, I spoke of the abductions and the rapes; I told of the systematic waves of government-sanctioned bombings, killing defenceless families; the ethnic genocide-by-attrition that is starving hundreds of thousands as villages and farms are torched. The measured attempt to destroy any trace of the Nuban people – indigenous to the land since the ancient Pharaohs.

I spoke about the parashah too; the importance of the ‘ish’ (‘The Man’) in the story of Joseph. The ish was a random, unnamed man who, on account of giving Joseph the correct directions to find his brothers grazing in the field – the beginning of the descent to Egypt, the Exodus, Sinai and a return to the Promised Land, he likely set the course of Jewish – and hence all of – history.

After shule, one member approached me as I reached for the egg salad:

I agree, Joel. About what you said today. Terrible, terrible things happening over there. Everywhere really.

I nodded and wiped the eggy residue from my lip.

The thing is….

I waited for the kicker.

…people find it hard to pick something to care about. There’s a lot out there. You’ve chosen Nuba, and that’s great. But it could well have been anything else, and people have limited time and precious attention.

In the most pragmatic of ways, he’s right. When you’re campaigning for a cause it’s not enough to illustrate why we should care about the people we hope to help. That’s undoubtedly seminal. However, much of the story is convincing people that this person and this cause is one worth fighting for and giving time and/or money to.

That puts me, and all others who campaign for any cause, in a precarious position; because you are inadvertently saying: Choose this cause. Not that one.

That’s a difficult moralistic and existential environment in which to dwell. Raising funds to save a three year old, malnourished, or dehydrated child in the Yida refugee camp who has fled the bombings of the Nuba Mountains could have been funds directed to a Melbournian mother of three from an abusive relationship or a Sri Lankan teenager from the sex slave trade. The same applies in volunteering time to one cause and not another. The world, it seems, is a large public hospital with bed, nurse and doctor shortages a daily reality.

And in placing my flag somewhere, some would argue that I’m playing God; I’ve chosen and valued one life, and indirectly unchosen another. And yet, in truth, that action isn’t playing God – it’s just playing Man as man has always played; making choices as best he can.

So when I hear this dilemma posed – how do I decide? – I find myself answering an altogether different question: Have I done all I can do?

Because truthfully, many people do have an extra minute or two and dollar or two; often more. That applies even to those who ask: How do I decide? as though they’re entire life is booked sunrise to sunset and only a single slot remains.

And the answer to: ‘Have I done all I can?’ tends to trigger generalisations of broad proportions: No matter how much I do – it will largely still say the same.

So what is this ‘it’ we refer to when we argue that, no matter our effort, it stays the same? We refer to conflict, death, disease and misfortune as a global whole; a unified cesspool of misery. We speak in large, unfathomable numbers because this world is an unfathomable calculation and numbers purport to grant catharsis of understanding. We speak in flavours of distance, with words like ‘they’ and ‘those’; with phrases like ‘the 3rd world’ and ‘those places’. We speak at arm’s length. We feel we must – consciously or not – lest we be faced with the true choice of this mother versus mother. This child versus child.

Yet there are two antidotes to this attitude: adopting personalisation and sum of parts philosophies.

Personalisation means appreciating the sanctity of life. It means recognising the cognitive dissonance that should rage when we realise we would cry a thousand more tears for the death of a child than a thousand others. I’m not about to propose solutions and approaches to Singer and Kantian philosophy. What I do demand is that we appreciate when we are placing an emotional value on life, and distancing that, to the degree that we can, from the essence of life. In the vein of Talmudic thought: He who saves a life has saved an entire world. In simpler terms – every life is someone’s world.

The second philosophy is a belief that everything counts. The evidence of history points unflinchingly to the causes of historical change: a combination of small acts. We must not shy away from the perceived cliché of this idea. It is the purest of Truths. No sociologist has ever identified an action that is – at its essence - a ‘big’ or ‘small’ action. All acts are the same ‘size’; it is their effects that oscillate between rain drops and oceans. All change is comprised of a gesture, a glance, a conversation, a question. A decision. This is the act of playing Man, not God. The only question is, in hindsight, did that small act create a big change?

Herein lies the rub. See all change as big change.

When we regard people as mere symptoms of some larger, ephemeral sickness of humanity, we are bound to misdiagnose and worse, mistreat. Do the reverse, see each set of eyes for the unique snow-dome worlds that they are, and we will no longer question: ‘How do I chose’ and ‘it will never change’. The point is to choose as much as you can, perform lots of little actions – with money or time – and believe in the truth that is change.

Joel Lazar is the Education Coordinator at Jewish Aid Australia.

You can book to host a 25 minute Nuba Now presentation by emailing Dean Levitan – dean AT jewishaid.org.au

You can donate to JAA’s Nuba Now appeal to support the Yida refugee camp in South Sudan at http://www.givenow.com.au/nubanow.

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