Terror and Absolute Power: Sh’mini (Eighth) Leviticus 9:1-11:47

Yesterday, I wrote about Brave New World and made reference by way of contrast to the novel, 1984. The former was a 1932 dystopic novel about a consumer society in which obedience to central authority is extracted by the use of drugs and advertisements to keep everyone complaisant on the drug, soma. The contrast to Aldous Huxley’s novel was another dystopic one written by George Orwell, but this was about a central command economy focused on production in which obedience to central authority is extracted by terror. This week’s Torah portion is an early version of 1984 in which obedience is ensured by intimidation and dread.

Look at these 10 key elements of the story:

  • Mass intimidation as the entire population is collected to receive the commandments of a divine authority.
  • A leader in a uniform and covered in the equivalent of epaulets.
  • A fearful setting, effectively an altar treated as an abattoir in which one large animal is slaughtered and blood is scattered around and against the pillars of the altar like wild rain in a hurricane.
  • The ceremony of fire was an offering to the Lord.
  • The ceremony was turned into a populist feast.
  • Collective hysteria followed when what was left disappeared in a puff of smoke.
  • The ultimate punishment followed for a minor deviation in the rigid ceremonial order, for even the minutest improvisation was forbidden.
  • A father, in this case, the High Priest, as well as relatives and the rest of the congregation, were forbidden to mourn or even cry.
  • The agent to whom the sacrifices are made is God who is also the source of a truly frightening dictatorship wherein a rigid line is drawn between the secular and the sacred, the sacred and the profane, the holy and the common, and the clean and unclean such that the sacred, the holy and the uncommon are held to be both above the law and the source of the law.
  • Though the economic situation remains precarious, the rewards go to those who totally conform; no deviation let alone disobedience is permitted and that way, social unrest is absolutely contained reinforced by rigid rules about what and how we eat reinforced by the repetitive pronunciation of the message akin to propaganda and advertisements; in this way, the will of one is imposed on the many.
  1. A Commanding Authority

God does not work by persuasion or argument. Instead, we have a command authority. Leviticus 8:1 opens: “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying:” and continues (8:2-5) “take Aaron and his sons, his garments and anointing oil, the bullock of the sin-offering, and the two rams, and the basket of unleavened bread, and assemble the entire congregation at the door of the tent of meeting. Moses did as the Lord commanded him…and Moses said to the congregation, ‘This is what the Lord hath commanded to be done.’”

  • The Adornment of the Leader in a uniform and medals,

Moses put upon Aaron, “the tunic and girded him with the girdle, and clothed him with the robe, and put the ephod upon him, and he girded him with the skilfully woven band of the ephod, and bound it unto him therewith, and he placed the breastplate upon him, and in the breastplate he put the Urim and the Thummin, and he set the mitre upon his head, and upon the mitre, in front, did he set the golden plate, the holy crown.”

  • The Altar as an Abattoir of Slaughter

After adorning Aaron’s two sons in the same way, the bullock of the sin-offering was brought forth, And when it was slain, Moses took the blood, and put it upon the horns of the altar round about with his finger, and purified the altar, and poured out the remaining blood at the base of the altar, and sanctified it, to make atonement for it, And he took all the fat that was upon the inwards, and the lobe of the liver, and the two kidneys, and their fat, and Moses made it smoke upon the altar, but the bullock, and its skin, and its flesh, and its dung, were burnt with fire without the camp; as the LORD commanded Moses. This was repeated with the ram of the burnt offering, for it was killed and Moses dashed the blood against the altar round about, and “took of the blood thereof, and put it upon the tip of Aaron’s right ear, and upon the thumb of his right hand, and upon the great toe of his right foot,” an action which he repeated with Aaron’s sons. The performance did not end there. Moses “took the fat, and the fat tail, and all the fat that was upon the inwards, and the lobe of the liver, and the two kidneys, and their fat, and the right thigh, took one unleavened cake, and one cake of oiled bread, and one wafer, and placed them on the fat, and upon the right thigh,” placed them in the hands of Aaron and his sons who “waved them for a wave-offering before the LORD.”

  • An Offering

Blood and oil and the smell of burnt flesh was everywhere as the sacrifice was delivered as an act of devotion to a deity as an oblation.

  • Popular Participation

After Aaron and his sons went through a seven-day consecration, the people were gathered around, along with a bull-calf, a goat, a calf and a lamb and they too were sacrificed in a similarly bloody way as Moses said, “This is the thing which the LORD commanded that ye should do; that the glory of the LORD may appear unto you.”

  • Collective Hysteria and Mass Supplication

“There came forth fire from before the LORD and consumed upon the altar the burnt-offering and the fat; and when all the people saw it, they shouted, and fell on their faces.” (9:24)

  • A Rigid Order: even a trivial improvisation, was forbidden.

“Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them, and there came forth fire from before the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD.” (10:1-2)

  • Silence was commanded even after the death of one’s own sons.

“Aaron held his peace.” (10:3) and no one was permitted to mourn lest they too be put to death. “Let not the hair of your heads go loose, neither rend your clothes, that ye die not, and that He be not wroth with all the congregation.” (10:6) 

  • There is one above the law who makes the law.

“Ye may put difference between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean; that ye may teach the children of Israel all the statutes which the LORD hath spoken unto them by the hand of Moses.”

  1. Conformity Rewarded and Social Unrest contained

Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron’s wo remaining sons, took the place of the older brothers who were slain and shared in all the spoils of the office of the High Priest, but only so long as they strictly conformed to the commands of the absolute ruler. Conformity was rigidly reinforced with detailed edicts and repetitive messaging.

What we have is a very early version of a 1984, a rigid system demanding absolute conformity and obedience. When Abraham was commanded to go to the top of Mount Moriah to sacrifice his son, his one and only beloved son from his wife, Sarah, he did what he was told. But there was a reprieve. Aaron’s sons were not even given explicit instructions not to perform the sacrifice in the way that they did, only rigid instructions on how to do it.

The result was more than disproportionate to the action that provoked the Lord’s response. It was obscene. It is one thing to test a man’s faith by demanding what for him would be the most extreme sacrifice, possibly as a test of faith. It is quite another to mete out such an extreme form of punishment when the variation was not even explicitly forbidden, when it was trivial, when there was no warning, when no time for appeal was allowed, and when there were no known negative consequences except the message that an iota of creativity was definitely not permitted.

The Pirates of Penzance, the comic opera in two acts, with music by Arthur Sullivan and libretto by W. S. Gilbert, was also calledThe Slave of Duty. In that musical, the lyrics of “I am the Very Model of a Modern Major General” go as follows: 

“I am the very model of a modern Major-General,
I’ve information vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical
From Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical;
I’m very well acquainted, too, with matters mathematical,
I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical,
About binomial theorem I’m teeming with a lot o’ news,
With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse.

I’m very good at integral and differential calculus;
I know the scientific names of beings animalculous:
In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General.

I know our mythic history, King Arthur’s and Sir Caradoc’s;
I answer hard acrostics, I’ve a pretty taste for paradox,
I quote in elegiacs all the crimes of Heliogabalus,
In conics I can floor peculiarities parabolous;
I can tell undoubted Raphaels from Gerard Dows and Zoffanies,
I know the croaking from The Frogs of Aristophanes!
Then I can hum a fugue of which I’ve heard the music’s din afore,
And whistle all the airs from that infernal nonsense Pinafore.

Then I can write a washing bill in Babylonic cuneiform,
And tell you ev’ry detail of Caractacus’s uniform:
In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General.

In fact, when I know what is meant by “mamelon” and “ravelin”,
When I can tell at sight a Mauser rifle from a Javelin,
When such affairs as sorties and surprises I’m more wary at,
And when I know precisely what is meant by “commissariat”
When I have learnt what progress has been made in modern gunnery,
When I know more of tactics than a novice in a nunnery
In short, when I’ve a smattering of elemental strategy
You’ll say a better Major-General has never sat a gee.

For my military knowledge, though I’m plucky and adventury,
Has only been brought down to the beginning of the century;
But still, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General.”

It is certainly easier to read a satire of a strictly authoritarian order and its empty folly entailed, than the one represented by a frightening dystopia and certainly much less terrifying than the depiction of the real thing. Perhaps a performance of The Pirates of Penzance might be preferable to reading Leviticus 8-10.

Yom HaShoah, British Royalty and Brave New World

Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, began at sundown last evening. It is the holiday, the holy day, in the annual calendar when Jews all over the world remember the 6 million Jewish men, women and children who perished in the Holocaust. Not that we can ever forget during the rest of the year. But those martyrs and heroes have our singular focus and attention on this day.

And what do we remember? We recall that they were all murdered, and they were murdered simply for being Jews. While there is still time, and there remain a few survivors among us, we honour them. Commemoration and remembrance are the central motifs. And we remember them not simply as an instrument of commemoration as we do when we honour the war dead in Israel (11 November, Remembrance Day in Canada.) We remember those lost in war as a lesson and a promise. Never Again! For Holocaust remembrance, the phrase is repeated over and over, even though we are well aware that the killing of others because of their identity has been repeated many times since – the Tutsi in Rwanda and the ethnic cleansing and murder of the Rohingya from Myanmar. In Rwanda, the victims were called inyenzi or cockroaches.

We remember to pay tribute to diversity even as Israel, the country created by the Jews and for the Jews – but not exclusively – the country that, in the last election in March, voted in its first unequivocally racist party to the Knesset.- Jewish Power led by Itamar Ben-Gvir – a party that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) labeled “racist and reprehensible.” Jewish Power is the heir of the ideology of Meir Kahane, an American-born racist rabbi who promoted a Jewish theocracy, the banning of intermarriage between Jews and Palestinians and the expulsion of those Palestinians.

Jewish Power is one of the three parties that forged the Religious Zionist Party under the leadership of Bezalel Smotrich; it won 7 seats. Party members advocate driving the Arabs out of Israel. They advocated instituting apartheid in the Israeli health system so that Jewish women would not have to give birth to Jewish children beside Arabs. And they espouse such ideas even though 20% the workforce in the health field – researchers, specialists, general practitioners, nurses, health technicians and aides – are Arabs. Instead of a health sector consisting of Arabs who work side-by-side Jewish Israelis at every level, they would exorcise the Palestinian Israelis.

Yet Yom HaShoah is a testament to diversity. Further, every religious and ethnic group struggles with the tension between that diversity and the celebration and continuation of unity. Yesterday, at the invitation of Dr. Payam Mohseni, I attended a symposium (a virtual one) on Diversity and Unity in Transnational Shi’ism. Every people, every religion, has the same problem. Yet Jews do not honour the minorities slaughtered everywhere, but only the six million Jews murdered in the Shoah and the extraordinary survivors. We honour particularism, not universalism.  

How then by remembering such a past can we educate our children? How can we say, “Never forget!” and “Never again”?  How can we use remembrance to educate and inspire all Jews to respect the dignity of others? It is a day which is solemn. It is a day which is poignant. It is a day of readings, of poetry and memoirs, of testimonials and of music – and it is mostly the music that I remember and that stirs up memories in me. And I remember not only what was lost and who was lost but also what endures and who endures. It is a day to recall a period in which a mighty chasm opened up in the history of the Jewish people and swallowed up one-third of us. But it is also a commemoration of continuity.

There are many occasions to celebrate survival and continuity. But there are also occasions that threaten that same survival. The election of the Kahanists is one of those threats. On a much lesser and lower note, the Oprah Winfrey interview with the duke and duchess of Kent, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, took place. Peggy Noonan, the Pulitzer Prize winning political columnist of the Wall Street Journal, insisted that this was not just “a highly charged celebrity interview,” but an occasion which threatened the continuity of a millennium-old institution, the British monarchy. “It was history, a full-bore assault on an institution, the British monarchy, that has endured for more than a thousand years.” Not quite in the same league as the Nazi assault on the Jews who have endured for over three millenia, but nonetheless. a verbal and performative assault.

What does this event, the Oprah Winfrey interview that I already wrote about, that event that occurred in a very minor note, have to do with the resounding and stirring music of the Holocaust? Racism, for one. That was a common theme. But there was another. As Peggy Noonan pointed out, Harry claimed his brother and his father were bugs, bugs trapped by the tabloids that control whether the throne will be sustained. Populist people power using the press has entrapped the institution of the monarch that, at one and the same time, is held in awe because of that press, at the same time as it is periodically denigrated by that press to such an extent that the continuity of the institution is threatened.

The monarchy was revealed as not only fallible given contemporary dominant values – racism runs rife through the institution – but the members of the royal family are weak and vulnerable. The Jews, though they have lasted over three millenia, were also shown by the Shoah to be weak and vulnerable. Thus, one of the purposes of Yom HaShoah is to show that the Jews have survived, that they have come through the fire of Nazi persecution and ovens to re-emerge as stronger and more creative than ever.

But the pain and suffering caused along the way are central. There was an enormous cost. Sometimes the Jews are accused of wielding that pain like a weapon to advance the Zionist cause and to play on the guilt of the others. But, contrary to myth, Israel was not created to salve guilt, but to get rid of a problem – the Jewish refugees languishing in the camps three years after the end of WWII. The Jews are and have always been a nation, a long persisting one, and the holidays Jews celebrate and the memories they honour are part of the mystique that ensures stability and continuity to its members. Indeed, memory is weaponized.

Why? Because, to quote the great philosopher Meghan Markle, “Life is about storytelling. About the stories we tell ourselves, what we’re told, and what we buy into.” It is “storytelling through a truthful lens” that, however horrific, offers hope and is uplifting. Peggy Noonan complained that “public life has gotten extremely, unrelentingly performative…everyone is always performing—the politician, the news anchor, the angry activist.” In such a world, the actor has a distinct advantage.

Which brings us to Brave New World., Aldous Huxley’s dystopic novel published in 1932 that is lauded as predicting with greater clarity and insight the perilous state of the present world in which reproductive and media technology and drugs seduce us into a somatic world of sleep learning and pleasure-seeking to create a society of classes and castes each living in its own characteristic silo.

There is a misfit in this world, Bernard Marx, though an Alpha Plus and member of the elite in terms of his mental attributes, is a resentful depressive, cowardly, jealous, unmistakably Jewish and an outlier – then shorter in stature and lacking the civil graces of the British as his abrasive personality challenges not only the methods of keeping people peaceful, but the whole enterprise.

Marx and his partner Lenina travel to New Mexico and a “Savage Reservation” where they see people who grow old, suffer from diseases and speak other languages. And practice exotic religions. What motivates Marx is revenge, revenge against his boss who wants to “ethnically cleanse” the Brave New World and exile him to Iceland. Marx returns from New Mexico with John who turns out to be the illegitimate son of his boss. Marx exposes his boss to public humiliation and shame, thereby averting his own punishment. At the same time, the one skill John, the illegitimate son of his former boss, possesses is as a performer since one of the two books he had when he grew up was the Complete Works of Shakespeare. In effect, a professional and thoroughly trained and cultivated performer is used as a foil to reveal the emptiness of the performances of everyone living in the Brave New World.

It is a world of hypnopedic conditioning for most and, for the odd exception, like Marx and John, a differential conditioning that makes them both misfits in the programmed life of Brave New World. Aldous Huxley in an interview in 1958 with Mike Wallace of NBC (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=alasBxZsb40), described that dystopia as a product of overpopulation – Huxley, thereby, seemed to endorse physical, pharmaceutical and technological birth control methods in his novel, even as he satirized them. However, ultimately the society was more a product of social conditioning than of genetic engineering. The enemy of freedom, the enemy of rational thought, was brainwashing and thought control, but not through terror and threatening violence as in George Orwell’s 1984, but through advertising.

Drugs were used to alter our minds without any physical side effects. Drugs and propaganda. Propaganda and drugs. Not terror. Aldous Huxley preached how to save democracy. It was necessary to free the rational side from unconscious forces that condition us and exert thought control through influencing our appetites and desires. Thus, advertising was the tool for imposing a social order of compliance. In Orwell, the objective in itself was power. It was not just an instrument. In Huxley, formal authority was an instrument to exert control without coercion. Instead of society kept in check by fear, the management of our frustrations was used to accomplish the same ends. Soma rather than LSD was the drug of choice.

Supplemented, of course, by the control and manipulation of what you could know. This psychological and chemical condition was complemented by small doses of oppression, but otherwise the oppression was unseen and unrecognized. As Will Self put it in his debate with Adam Gopnik over whether Brave New World or 1984 was the most prescient novel, the Alphas in Brave New World simply suffered a life of constant deprivation by being kept soaked in the equivalent of bathtub gin.

The solution was not a command economy and coerced production, but the consumer ideal of satisfaction through the ingestion of one chemical product or another. Natural reflexes had to be deconditioned. The love of nature had to be abolished for natural feelings were the enemy. Instead, manufactured nature was nurtured as the object of desire. The satisfaction of needs and wants were directed by advertising to such an extent that one did not feel one was being conditioned as that very process took place. Instead, what was prevalent was mandatory promiscuity and internet pornography that was as chemically satisfying as the real thing without the emotional side effects.

Instead of terror, hardwire the mind and expose it to sensuous satisfaction through its lifetime. Distribute morality in a bottle of pills. Oxy-Contin and prozac are but different versions of soma – and less effective. In a world of consumption and conditioning, advertising, war and strife had become superfluous.

The problem is that Yom HaShoah reminds us that, while such an exaggeration of our current condition in the developed world is full of insights, George Orwell is equally if not more important because, as the 6 January attack on The Capitol made clear, filling our minds with lies and operating only to satisfy self-interests was not sufficient. In the end, you had to gain control of the command centre. Then, violence was needed. Fortunately, the amateurs and misfits behind the uprising and the effort to hijack an election were not only rank amateurs. They were incompetents. The centre of power was effectively unguarded. But they failed to take control though they also recognized that violence was needed to achieve their goals. The estimates of what was really required were grossly insufficient. .

More importantly, YomHashoa not only reminds us of the importance of terror and torture in exercising control, but the importance of defining and oppressing the other – whether that other be Black or Asian, Jew or Muslim. We require not only the dystopia of Brave New World, but of 1984, now rampant in the Third World where that is a primary method of social control. Aldous Huxley is insufficient. We also need George Orwell’s prescience.

However, even taken together, they may provide a negative alter-world, but they do not provide a solution. For both books and authors are products of their time, seeing as the ideal rationality freed up from the passions or imprisoned by them. They eulogized independence of choice when, individuality was put on a pedestal, when, in reality, we must learn that we are not primarily our own decision-makers but tellers of collective tales. Narratives more than individual reason provide our benchmarks. And it is emotional not rational intelligence that needs emphasis. Both Huxley and Orwell were fundamentally wrong in their conception of the individualistic rational ideal underpinning their stories which were narratives of a possible, and horrendous, world, rather than narratives of our actual existence.

Celebrating and honouring the dead and survivors of the Holocaust offers a concrete antidote to the warnings of both Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. For the implication of the distilled remnant of what is left when the dystopic elements are evaporated is a portrait so unappealing and so contrary to life and experience that it becomes at least understandable why the dystopias they describe might be allowed to be developed. YomHashoa is a reminder.

Memory and Food

I am arrogant. Also, ignorant. I presume too much and really know so little. For example, I sent out my last blog about Sweden and the television series The Restaurant assuming in the back of my mind that few if any of my readers would know about this series from a country the language of which few of my readers speak. And it was a family melodrama. Surely, even though I was interested, MY readers would not spend their time watching that kind of material. What a surprise!

I will not list all of the responses, but a selection of criticisms. I will end with two relatively complimentary ones and then explore a dimension I did not emphasize at all, for the series was as much about food and how ways of eating and what we eat change our culture. This was a very different kind of food show and a much more holistic way of dealing with food than your typical cooking show set in a kitchen. In fact, one whole episode in the series was, in effect, a critique of the usual way cooking shows mis-represent the preparation of food, on the one hand, and fail to capture the creativity and cultural nuances that go into the selection of food to be served, the presentation of that food, the decisions on menus and the atmosphere for dining.

But first my outright possible errors and misleading statements.

I was chastised for expecting any TV series to mirror and explore in any depth cultural shifts over seven decades. Downtown Abbey does not do that. And, certainly, a much earlier version of a TV family drama, Dallas, did not do that. There have been many TV shows that probe one aspect of a culture, whether it be race or the new ways in which singles engage in friendships and relations. However, I was focused on a family drama stretching over decades, but one also deliberately intended to provide an historical sketch of a country and its people. America may be too complex and various to make such an effort and, thus, shows like Frazier or Friends, Breaking Bad and Mad Men, do that. But The Restaurant ranges from class warfare to revolutionary claptrap, from cultism to homophobia, and mostly poking holes in the image of the solid good Swede with a commitment to equality and fairness.

However, puncturing holes in stereotypes is not the same as any in-depth critique. TV just cannot do that. Such an expectation is misplaced. That perspective should have been emphasized.

Further, even in presenting the characters, I evidently tended to take the individual’s character at one point in the person’s history as the defining one around which there were some mild shifts. However, the show, in fact, has an anti-essentialist message. People do change. They are not and should not be reified. Though my review did not quite do that, it nevertheless failed to capture the very opposite presumption of the narrative. A point well taken.

Though I complimented the acting and production qualities, I merely generalized about them instead of pointing to the particular skills and talents on view. True enough, but that simply has never been the main point of my reviews and certainly was not the main point of this one. The number of reviews on-line that one can read in this vein are bountiful. I tend to take an angular view to reviewing.

However, that does not excuse either my historical mistakes or my errors in depicting the TV series. For example, even though I gave the figure, I did not pay proper attention to Sweden’s efforts after WWII to take in 10,000 Jews immediately after WWII when countries like Canada continued their policies of turning their backs on Jews. I think this was a fair point. Putting a fact in a comparative context is often so much more revealing than the data on its own.

But my comments on the absence of any reference to the Chicago riots or the death of Martin Luther King in 1968 were simply wrong. However, that is not what I wrote and certainly not what I intended to say. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination was mentioned as an important trope in the Maoist cult’s preoccupation with an imminent revolution. In one scene in the third series, around episode 3 or 4, the cult group sits around an old black and white television mesmerized by the reports of King’s death.

Those observations are correct, but what I wrote was: “Though the protests against the Vietnam War are part of the background of this episode, the 1968 Chicago riots in the United States following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. are not.” I should have been more expansive. The Maoist rebels in Sweden took the riots around the world from Paris and in many cities in the U.S. as forerunners of the coming revolution. What I should have written is that the riots are merely slogans and the series did not bothered to juxtapose the actual reality of those riots and demonstrations in relationship to the generalized and empty rhetoric of the radicals. Or perhaps the writers presumed that the audience would know that. My point, however, was that these events were dealt with too superficially to gain any depth of insight into the significance of the events.

More significantly was my implied difference with the writers. They clearly characterized the Maoists as a small group that evolved into a cult. My memory recalled a very large Maoist movement in Sweden that had more to do with the character of a controlled and disciplined Swedish society than the ragtag of long-haired unkempt ruffians and criminal cultists portrayed in the series. I took no stand on whether the Maoist ideological turn in Swedish history also had this as an aspect. But I certainly suggested, based on my direct experience rather than scholarship, that the larger flavour and character of the movement was misrepresented.

There was other information I left out that was germane to that debate. When I was working on African politics in the late nineties, I read a scholarly paper on Sweden that, using access to archives, documented that it was neither China nor the USSR that served as the many financier of African independence movements, but that half of their funding came from one country, Sweden. One would never known that from the critique of social democracy in Sweden in the series or the extremism and irrelevance of the presentation of Maoism in Sweden at the time.

Perhaps if I had more time and space, I should have given at least some indication of the nuances of the different social democratic elements in Swedish society, though I did hint at the contradictions between the supposed unity of the left and yet the dramatic differences in the priorities of the Canadian student movement versus the Swedish one. Certainly, the series, using a blonde bartender at Nina’s nightclub, was very vociferous and convincing in pointing to the lack of any base and understanding of the struggle of workers that was really what united the New Left radicals in Canada, the United States, France and Sweden. At the same time, the series did a great job of capturing both the appearance and the content of the radical newspaper which the Swedish Maoists published for almost two decades.

As far as my portrayal of the draft dodgers in Sweden in comparison to the presentation in the series, again this was my memory and experience. And I have not read anything to dissuade me that the sketch that I presented was incorrect and that the caricature in the series had little historical merit.

Of course, in both cases, it would have been helpful to make at least a reference to the split in the Swedish Communist Party when the Chinese enamored youth split from the established Communist Party in 1967 to forge their own radical agenda. Their important social contribution was not their role as a minor almost religious cult, but their alignment with the ideology of North Vietnam even after its very repressive nature had been revealed. But that alignment played an important part in influencing the Social Democrats and the views of Third World countries with which Sweden was so aligned and supportive.

It was also pointed out that I had slighted the development of the Pentecostal fundamentalist movement in Sweden and the other Scandinavian states, especially Norway. That became an important element is pro-Israeli support in those countries as the majority in Sweden shifted towards a very critical anti-Israeli position. This is important to note because the usual emphasis is only on Christian evangelicals from the United States.

Finally, let me add two communications which I interpreted as complimentary.

  1. Howie.  A perceptive view of the Swedes.  Mine comes from an intense friendship and collaboration with a Dane who had a vacation home in Sweden which we visited over Christmas many years ago. Being in rural Sweden was like returning to my summer employment in a gold mine near
    Timmins Ont.  The many Swedes there were reputed to become depressed in late winter and suicide in February by walking in front of the ever-present trains that wailed or moaned their way on through the dark scrub pine forest north of Superior.  Someone could do an epic Swedish style
    film about that region and that society.
  2. Dear Howard, I am touched by your mentioning my name. Fredzia and I left Sweden in 1957 and have only been back for brief visits, less so in recent years. As our parents died, and not having any siblings, we have had little cause to visit. We still keep in touch with a cousin and some friends. Sweden had been very important for us. Fredzia got there with her mother a few days before the end of the WWII from Ravensbruck. (The white buses of the Red Cross). Her father, who survived in another camp, joined them a year or so later. I came to Sweden with my parents from Poland in 1948. We had survived in the Soviet Union (Ukraine, Siberia and Uzbekistan). Sweden was paradise in many ways. I only started school there at age 13. Learning was a revelation! But Sweden was never home (despite our Swedish passports), though the language has remained the nearest to a mother tongue. You will find there the best and the worst in human beings – just as in the rest of the world. The rest is in my memoir “Six Lives.” Thanks again for the piece. Dow

You win some and you lose some. And I never got to the topic that I originally intended to write about, “Memory and Food.”  

Remembering Sweden – a review of The Restaurant

Available from Sundance Now and on Amazon Prime Time, but, if you are a Canadian and have a library card, free on Kanopy, the Restaurant is a four-season TV series set in and produced, directed and acted by Swedes. It first aired in 2017. The subtitle – actually, the original title – is vãr tid ãr nu, “now is our time.”

The central character is a family restaurant, the Djurgårdskällaren, a high-end initially old-style and stuffy restaurant in the heart of Stockholm that goes through several name changes, including DK and Nina’s, as the Löwander family which owns the restaurant reconfigures it to keep up to the times. Thus, the events surrounding the family conflicts over the restaurant track but do not mirror in any depth the changes that Sweden went through immediately after the war through the next seven decades.

The family consists of a widowed mother who lives in a lavish apartment above the restaurant. She has three children. Of the two sons, the oldest, Gustaf, makes his appearance initially as a repressed, very obsessive and secret alcoholic who allows circumstances and lack of self-confidence to corrupt him. The second son, Peter, enters the story as a returning soldier who worked in the refugee camps and comes back to Stockholm accompanied by a French Jewish concentration camp survivor, Suzanne Goldstein, who is gradually revealed as the love of his life. He initially comes across as a placid man of virtue who turns out to have a very ruthless streak.

The third sibling is Nina, a distinct contrast with the repressed and schizophrenic males portrayed in Swedish society – except when it comes to Calle who begins as a helper in the kitchen and develops into The Chef. He is so honest that his honesty and need to confess his one slip, becomes perilous for him. The confession is made to Nina, his wife, the third sibling,and a spunky, spontaneous, social and very creative individual who is, perhaps, the most interesting of the three siblings in the family, though, in terms of drama, does not really evolve and change personalities as the family melodrama unfolds.

It is a very good series, excellently acted, well produced and with interesting plot lines and twists. In the first season, it won the award for the best Swedish TV series. However, my fascination was mostly about Sweden itself, my connection intellectually with that country as an insight into the last seven decades. For example, an episode at the end of the second season is set in 1968. Though the protests against the Vietnam War are part of the background of this episode, the 1968 Chicago riots in the United States following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. are not.

Instead, and understandably, the focus is on Sweden, and Stockholm in particular. I was in Stockholm is May of 1968. I sat in with 3,000 Maoists protesting and insisting on free pre-school support for children while in Canada we were fighting for freer higher education. I also accompanied an older group who were protesters against the Vietnam War and I, on their behalf, with Canadian media credentials, greeted the first deserters that arrived in Sweden having dropped out of the war when they were on leave in Japan and travelled to Russia to eventually receive asylum in Sweden. Although these were the first five deserters, there were already 160 American draft dodgers in Sweden.

The Maoists and a deserter play small parts in that episode. The timing is somewhat off, but that single deserter turns out to be a with-it optimistic American who is learning Swedish and gets a job as a DJ in the restaurant nightclub. He was unlike any of the deserters or draft dodgers I interviewed in Sweden. In the series, he is a very happy fellow indeed, a bit frustrated with mastering Swedish and adapting to Swedish electronics, but otherwise a caricature of the happy-go-lucky easy-going American.

My memory was of misfits and either 80 resigned and 80 discontented asylum claimants supported by the Swedish state. The misfits were all deserters rather than draft dodgers. These were the five deserters that I met as they landed in Sweden. I spent the whole of their first weekend with them. They had traveled through North Korea and Russia and had become believing communists without having any real clue about what Marx wrote, but were very much able to mouth slogans and denounce America.

The Swedish government was supporting the draft dodgers over two years as they studied the Swedish language and tried to adapt to Sweden. Half lived in quiet resignation trying to fit into a country far from the centre of the universe. The other half, wallowing in nostalgia, were vocal complainers. They shockingly seemed not to have a single clue about how lucky they were and how appreciative they should have been at the generosity of the Swedes.

But the most interesting was the Swedish reception team as well as the Maoist students. The TV-series does capture the aristocratic genteel paternalism of the Swedish leftists who supported these Americans. The episodes do a poorer job with the Maoists. In the TV-series, the latter are a disorderly lot, ready at hand with their slogans, leaflets and simplistic revolutionary doggerel, but what was missing in the series, and perhaps was invisible to Swedes, was the politeness and correctness of the Swedish radicals.

In 1968, as I sat with them, when asked by Stockholm mounted police to move from a huge street sit-in, they rose quietly and complied. And in the long night of speeches in the university auditorium as the students debated whether to allow the media to attend their meeting, not one student once interrupted another or shouted out of turn. They were the most polite and orderly radicals I had ever encountered.

What was more visible, and we get several glimpses, was the unusual feature of observing very well-dressed middle-class Swedes in white shirts, ties and suits, staggering drunk down a street. This was the Sweden of the Middle Way, the epitome of social democratic progress, but also a society that, on the one hand, conveyed avuncular kindness and geniality at the same time as the men, when they unravel, reveal anger of volcanic proportions – something captured wonderfully in the series.

Thus, although the series follows the standard pattern of a melodrama and traces the fortunes and failings of a family over time as a way of glimpsing changes in social patterns and attitudes, and although it has the advantage of excellent cinematography, I had other complaints about its efforts to portray a country adapting to the challenges of history. Certainly, there are the incidental references to lego and Ikea coffee tables that are delivered in flat cartons,

However, though much of the social-psychological insights into Swedish society I found very apt, there are many scenes in the series in which one character asks questions or offers an opinion or interpretation and the other character becomes very agitated and storms off to preserve the punishment of silence for years. In that regard, I know of no other society like it. So much empathy – mostly abstract – so much intellectual comprehension. At the same time, so much obtuseness and misunderstanding!

In that visit to Sweden in 1968, I was there to study their student housing and included my observations in my book, The Beds of Academe. From all appearances, the students had the best student housing I had ever seen – every student had his or her own room and, as well, their own small refrigerator and storage locker in the room where meals could be prepared. At the same time, I never interviewed students who confessed to feeling so lonely. It was as if they suffered from a loneliness epidemic. And the consequences to their mental health were significant.

These problems with mental health issues, alcoholism and drug addiction all become topics in the TV series, but while there is a great deal of attention paid to class as a social disease, there is little insight into the psycho-social dimensions of the way Swedes adapt to and manage in the world. So generous, so good to one another, and, at other times, so mean, and so trivially mean, so petty in their bitterness and yet so generous at other times. These moments are repeatedly glimpsed at from different angles throughout the series, but one watches with a sense that, yes, the Swedes see it, but, if the series provides any indication, they do not seem to have the least clue as to why this is the case. It is no surprise that viewers become somewhat frustrated when the subtitles are placed against a white background and you cannot read them, but even more frustrated when the characters learn so little.

However, this is a very romantic series. There is “true” love, love between each of the siblings and their partners, love between parents and children. Therefore, you are puzzled. If there is so much love, why is there so little understanding and tolerance of the other and, even more excruciating, a ridiculous lack of flexibility.Maybe that is what it takes for a small country to build wonderfully safe cars and rigid, repetitive manufactured products like lego and the furniture sold through Ikea.

There are, of course, production decisions that are exasperating. For example, at one point Peter runs off with his true love, Suzanne Goldstein when she reappears on the scene. Five years later, he is back with his wife. What happened? Why did it happen? Who did what and where? It is all a mystery. On the other hand, sometimes I felt like shouting out, no character would be so stupid as to do that, especially characters as intelligent and capable as these were. But my memories told me that my reaction was false, and the depiction held dramatic truths about Swedes and their perceptions of themselves.

After all, Sweden has a record of marching to its own drummer. During the COVID-19 pandemic, instead of going after a cycle of lockdowns or an objective of eliminating the virus in that society as Taiwan did with persistent testing and tracing while following widespread safety with great discipline, Sweden generally decided to stay open and let the disease run its course with the consequence that, proportionately, Sweden had a very high number of deaths among the elderly. But the program did not seem to have resulted in herd immunity. Sweden, a society which appears as the one exception in Europe in its willingness to live by strict rules, went to the other extreme and minimized the application of rules more generally.

Swedes may have changed over the last seventy-five years, but I suggest its pattern of appearing as a model of the Middle Way is belied by its actual practice of extreme mood swings.

Look at the Swedish behaviour during WWII, clearly indicated in the opening episodes with Nazi establishment sympathizers in quiet and suppressed conflict with pro-American and allied sympathies of others. During WWII, Sweden accepted 10,000 Jewish refugees – far more than either Canada or the United States. Raoul Wallenberg helped up to 100,000 Jews escape the Nazi death camps.

At the same time, Count Folke Bernadotte headed the Swedish Red Cross and played a controversial role in the release of Jewish prisoners from the Nazi Theresienistadt camp. Of the 31,000 Danes saved from the camp, only 450 were Jews. Yet in 1947, he was chosen unanimously to be the mediator in the struggle between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. However, he was a failure, and a vain one at that, flying around in his white plane and driving in his open white convertible in which he was shot and killed by the Jewish extremist Lehi group (the Stern gang) under the false belief that he was a spy for the British. He was simply a man in a white suit in love with himself who did not listen well.

Thus, Sweden during and after WWII was a country of genteel antisemitism, well captured in the series, yet a welcoming refuge for Suzanne Goldstein who had been so traumatized by her experiences. The problem is that when Suzanne disappeared from the scene, this man of virtue descends into ruthless self-interested behaviour, though we hope for his salvation and redemption when Suzanne re-enters the scene many years later. However, it did no work out and we are not told why. That seemed to indicate that the writers had not probed deeply enough into the Swedish psyche.

Rabbi Dow Marmur, when you get this blog, and if you read it, if you watch the series, you will surely recognize the beautiful Great Synagogue, Beit Hatfutsot, in the episodes. You were a refugee in Sweden. Can you explain the extremist dichotomy of Swedish men and Swedish society?. I believe that it certainly has a great deal to tell us about the emergence of female leadership in that polity.

Reflections on the Magic of Four

Our rabbi in a recent Torah study addressed the issue of the role of the number four in the Passover seder. She noted the following:

The number four is about the order of the seder itself, but in general thought, the universe is often divided into four orders and the Passover seder is also a reflection of those four realms.

  1. In all philosophical speculation, there are four areas, what is above and what is below, what is before and what comes after.  
  2. We are commanded four times in the Torah to tell the story pf the Exodus (Exodus 12:26, 13:8, 13:14 and Deuteronomy 6:20)).
  3. There are four sources:
  4. The Tanach or Bible itself
  5. The Talmud with the governing laws
  6. The Midrash with its parable
  7. The Zohar which reveals the mystical meaning of the whole event.
  8. The four names for the holiday itself

–    The Passover Festival ((hag Pesach)

  • The Festival of Matzoh (Chag haMatzot)
  • The Festival of Spring (Chag ha-Aviv)
  • The Festival of Freedom (Chag ha-Herut).

Within the seder itself, there are four different types of sacred moments, each divided into its own set of four:

  1. The seder itself has four parts, a beginning and an end and, in between, the narrative and the meal.
  2. We drink four cups of wine, though New Age Jews have often increased the number to five to remember refugees or displaced persons.
  3. Children ask four questions – the wise, the perverse, the simple and the one who does not know how to ask.
  4. There are four matzot on the seder plate, two whole ones, the bottom and top one, and then the two halves of the middle one that is broken in two and one-half, the Afikomen, is hidden.

The four cups of wine represent four stages of transformation or deliverance from virtually any form of slavery, whether slavery to an external tyrant or slavery to a terrible habit such as in a drug addiction.

  • Sanctification
  • Deliverance
  • Redemption
  • Acceptance. (Hallel)

I could go on, but I want to note that thinking in terms of four is not a rare but a common theme in many cultures. In the Hellenistic world, in Plato in particular, there are four levels of knowledge in the story of the cave in The Republic

  1. When we take the images on the cave wall or projections of our imagination to be the truth and we are caught up in the myths of our own time and place, in so-called “authoritative” knowledge.
  2. When we take the objects in the world to prove the reference for truth – objective truth or the correspondence theory of truth wherein we rely primarily on personal experience, either individually or collectively.
  3. The liberation from this dark cave of knowledge where knowledge is only imagery or a reference to objects that are reflected by light and not the light itself, for which we must ascend out of the cave and enter into the daylight of the present through critique, through taking apart the constrictions of this so-called inherited knowledge in favour of negation and deconstruction.
  4. The highest level of all and we look towards the source of light itself, the sun, and are blinded and come to realize that the source of any knowledge is recognition, recognition of our ignorance, recognition of our mindblindness.

Plato also offers us an analogy as well as an allegory to grasp the four capacities within us and the four types of knowledge that result – the tale of the divided line. A line is bisected into two unequal parts. Each part is then bisected in turn into two parts in the same ratio as the initial bisection. Thus, representing the divisions arithmetically, we have the initial division of the line by a 2:1 ratio and then the two divided parts also by a 2:1 ratio.

                 12                             !                                    24 :


        4       !               8               !                8                !                  16                     

The four parts, A, B, C and D, represent what Socrates calls “the affections.” The four capacities in our mind, A and B represent what we see or envision, the visible world of the imaginations and our sensibility. C and D are what we think, the intelligible world grasped by our hypothetical thinking and our categorical thinking respectively. The result is four levels of truth – conjecture, conviction (together encompassing opinion) and then thinking and comprehension, the latter two constituting reason in contrast to experience.

Plato notes that each section has truth value – even the sight of images on the cave wall – our inherited beliefs that form our societies are not to be dismissed out of hand as having no value. Further, Plato had a sign over the entrance to his academy that stated that those who enter here must understand mathematics. Mathematical theory tells us that whenever you bisect a line in two unequal portions, and then bisect each part in the same ratio, the two middle parts will be of equal length. That is, B will always = C. Thus, direct experience or empirical knowledge will have equal value to critique, to critical knowledge which attends to possible and not juts the actual world.  

In Plato, our thinking is considered to have four levels. In Confucian thought, knowledge is based on four tenets:

  1. Rites or Rituals
  2. Relations
  3. Rectifications or Reconciliations
  4. Ren.

Each is divided in turn. Rites and rituals are intentional acts designed to bring a community into harmony and able to act together. Relationships also have a fourfold division based on different assigned roles in society. In Plato’s polity, society was divided into workers, both those who engaged in enforced or unwanted work, and artisans, those who did physical work of their own choosing. In the upper levels were the guardians 0 in Japan, the samurai), responsible for the security and protection of society, while at the top were found the policy makers who provided the overall direction for a polity. For a society to function, all four estates had to work in harmony, that is, their relationship to both the world and to each other must be synchronized.

In Confucianism, four family relations are critical:

  • Husband and wife
  • Sibling relations, or sibling rivalry, particularly older to younger brother
  • Parent to child
  • Brothers and sisters.

Then there are also relations with non-family members:

  • Friendships
  • Permanent landed residents in one’s society
  • Welcoming strangers – the displaced and refugees as well as foreign visitors
  • The enemy alien who poses a threat to one’s society.

Each must be regarded in a different way.

In the Passover tale, these elements are all mirrored   beginning with the antipathy between the Pharaoh and the Hebrews. But there are also the Egyptians who accompany the Hebrews in their exodus – presumably, those members of Egyptian society who were persecuted as well as the Hebrews. Then there are the named members of the society and, among those, the personal loyalties and alliances that develop – as well as the alienation and falling out as a result of certain intentional decisions.

And within the family, in the narrative one finds the placing into the shadows the relationship of a husband and his wife, Moses and Zipporah. Zipporah is a Midianite, and not a Hebrew, but her father, Jethro, will act as effectively a stepfather who teaches his son-in-law how the rule of law must work, not by individual judgements of tribal leaders, but delegated to a specialized class responsible for interpreting and applying the law. There is also the close relationship of Moses and Aaron that will stand in such sharp contrast to the relations of Cain and Able, of Isaac and Esau. The variations in the politics of the family are critical to understanding how a society functions. In the tale of Moses, he has two substitute mothers – his sister Miriam who save his life, and the princess of the Pharaoh who raises him with royalist values.

Let’s return to the seder and the four instructions we are given. “This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. All those who are hungry, come and eat. All those who are in need, come celebrate the Passover. Now we are here. Next year in the land of Israel. This year we are enslaved. Next year we will be free.” Matzah is both the remembrance of slavery and the symbol of redemption; it is the bread of affliction. Secondly, it is the stuff that frees us from our biological needs, that preserves our lives. It is the bread of sustenance.

Slaves are starved of freedom. The rest of us just need to understand what freedom truly is. To really appreciate freedom, one must re-experience what it is to be a slave, what it is to be a slave under the lash of a Pharaoh. It is not sufficient to only experience the need for your next meal. Further, the underlying principle of both is “inclusion”. Friends and family, strangers, both those who lack membership in a social group – and no one with whom to share a meal – and those from whom we have become alienated and with whom we need reconciliation. The Passover festival and meal is intended to serve all of these purposes.

But it also has a temporal dimension. And it is seemingly paradoxical. There is both the present space we live in and the future space we aspire to live in, Jerusalem. On the other hand, instead of the past being epitomized by slavery and the present by freedom to have a seder and to celebrate a holiday under the values of freedom of assembly and free speech, the phrasing says that we are now enslaved and only tomorrow when we live in Jerusalem on the Hill will we be free. That is counter-intuitive, but that is precisely the point of the exercise, to help us understand the long way we still have to traverse to realize our full freedom.

That is because in the symposium that takes place around the seder, it is our duty to not only celebrate our freedom but to discover the extent to which we are still enslaved, to discover that freedom is a process revealed through critique and self-reflection. Thus, the seder has many apparently contradictory and also complementary functions.

It is well to attempt to incorporate the functions of a seder for all levels of understanding, for the very young child to simply teach him or her knowledge by acquaintance, knowledge through familiarity, to the child whom you have to teach how to question, and that knowledge is the result of questioning. In the course of such teaching, the wise child who comprehends and also tries to teach what he or she has learned in the process of asking questions, and the perverse or cynical child who engages simply in questioning as disputation and forgets the importance of empathetic re-enactment, of discovering what true slavery is by reexperiencing what it must have been like to have been a slave, as distinct from a privileged and perverse disposition. Since this year, pesach has two sabbaths, two Saturdays, and ends tomorrow night, you may want to consider having a closing seder to try t understand the various levels of order in the ritual and in the world.

Humanitarian Ethics and the ICC

Yesterday, I had a dream. No, it was not a dream, not even a daydream, but more like a vision. At the same time, it was not a hallucination because I knew it was unreal. In my study on the second floor, there are two large picture windows overlooking the backyard. One of the effects is that when I participate in webinars or zoominars, it is hard to make out my face on the computer screen because the room is so bright even on a cloudy day.

I was standing by the window looking out over all the backyards on our block as the houses marched down the cross street and up the next block house after house after house. There was no one in any of them. It was dusk, but even then, there were no lights. I did not have lights on either and, as if I was in a webinar, I myself appeared and felt like a ghost – assuming a ghost can feel.

But there was a party going on in my own backyard. Not a human party. Animals were gathered – three squirrels, one with half its fur missing from its back, a rabbit, a fox, a porcupine, a whole family of racoons, a coyote and a number of birds, a bluebird, three red-crested cardinals, and a hawk that lived in a nest high in the tree across the road and usually preyed on the infant rabbits of my mature one.

But here they were partying together. It was as if I was watching a Disney movie. They were chirping and squeaking and had growling grins. They were all clearly celebrating. I do not know how I learned it, but a virus had wiped out the human population on earth. The animals were celebrating the elimination of their greatest enemy – the most enormous monsters of their dreams that not only were the main ones endangering their lives, but the species that threatened their whole ecological niche. It was no surprise that there were celebrations. Even the trees as they blew in the wind and talked to one another through their roots seemed to be freed up from the fear that the Premier of British Columbia would be authorizing the cutting down of trees that were one thousand years old. And though I am a human, I was drawn to celebrating with them.

I was aware that my preoccupation over the last decades had been the ethics of war. Before that period started over a quarter century ago, I had been concerned more with the ethics of humanitarian disasters, the suffering of people from freaks of weather, from floods, from earthquakes, from famine. Most importantly for me – refugees from both natural disasters but mostly man-made ones. Perhaps it was the influence of Passover. Or it could have been Hurricane Hazel in 1954 when my mother came home from work on Lawrence Avenue in the Simpson’s office there and had to wade through water up to her waist. We lived on Ranee Avenue then; it was the highest point in the area, so our basement remained dry. But my mother was drenched and told us how, in the current of the water, she feared she might be swept away.

Toronto had experienced a Category Four storm usually reserved for the Atlantic seaboard of Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas or the states of Louisiana and Texas on the Gulf of Mexico. Trees had been uprooted everywhere. Houses floated down streets, especially when they had been built in Toronto’s famous ravines. Winds had roared through the gaps between the homes at over 100 kilometers an hour. Almost 12” of rain fell in the two days after my older brother’s eighteenth birthday on 12 October. More than eighty people died.

However, my concern for decades had been human not biological life, human suffering and its relief, particularly the suffering of people in flight from horrors and terrors and desperately seeking membership in a society in which they could be protected. Was that narrow minded of me? Why had I largely ignored environmental ethics? Why even in my preoccupation with human life, did I focus on victims of war even more than humans as uprooted byproducts of those same conflicts?  Peter Singer’s concern with animal rights had always seemed a strange aberration for ethics. And though I admired my two youngest sons who were so preoccupied with the ethics or lack of ethics that led to the destruction of habitats, I did not share their priorities.

Thus, periodically I get a glimpse at how relatively narrow my ethical concerns had been. I was focused on war – now a great deal on cyber warfare that could almost instantly destroy our ability to run transportation and hospitals and cause extreme devastation, even though these were often referred to as sub-threshold wars. Peripheral wars, proxy wars, civil wars and limited wars had become my beat.

I had been in the field in Lebanon after the Israelis invaded on 6 June 1982. I was in Beirut when the IDF started shelling the very camps where I was interviewing Palestinian refugees. I was on a train travelling into the north of the Jaffna peninsula where the Tamil Tigers of Tamil Eelam had taken on the Sinhalese army of Sri Lanka when the train tracks were blown up in front of us and we were transferred to buses. I had not yet been arrested by the army for coming into an area where Westerners were banned lest they discover the ruthlessness of the war being fought there. I had counted over 17,000 corpses laid out on school benches and recovered from a mass grave in Rwanda. The horrors of the war in Somalia and in Darfur in Sudan as well as in former Yugoslavia were preoccupations as we tried to create an early warning system for East Africa to detect and avoid imminent violent conflicts.

For over forty years, my preoccupation had been humanity and human suffering and the relief of such suffering. That is where I had placed my moral weight. Only in the last decade have I become somewhat aware of how I had marginalized protecting the life and health of this small spinning planet.

Yet, relatively speaking, the suffering of all these “small” wars was nothing in comparison to what happened in World War II. Only the Rwanda genocide of 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutus came close. In the Syrian War, for example, as horrific as it has been in deaths and destruction and the production of displaced persons – 13 million, half internally and half as refugees – and where almost two-and-a-half million children have no schooling, it could have been far worse. As insensitive as it may seem to write this, although over a half a million died, 80% were combatants. Only – and I say this relatively and not indifferent to how great the suffering was – 117,000 non-combatants were killed.  

The Yemen War is the greatest current humanitarian disaster. There, it is critical that humane principles be applied as much as possible to the protection of civilians and bystanders and the proper treatment of military prisoners and that banned weapons not be used. It is hard to say it, and even though Assad used poison gas on his own citizens, the standards for fighting a war given the presence of an international ethical and legal regime for observing such conflicts, have improved.  War crimes and crimes against humanity have actually decreased, even as, at the same-time and in real-time, global awareness of them has increased.

The massive famines that ravaged Somalia seem also to have receded. The recent aid campaign for Syrian displaced persons fell far short of its goal – one-third I believe – but still over four billion dollars had been pledged. Humanitarian aid is big business and that has made a significant difference. Part of the reason is that ethical norms are increasingly applied to these situations worldwide from East Timor to the Gaza Strip. Starving a civilian population – a standard practice prior to the nineteenth century – is no longer acceptable.

But what about prevention and not just mitigation? The early warning systems created in East and West Africa barely function. The doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) which Canada led in creating to lead off the twenty-first century and which the UN endorsed five years later, is more noteworthy as a document than any actual practice. Does anyone really expect anything to be done for the Uighurs of northwestern China even as the world increasingly shines a spotlight on the disaster?

Perhaps it could be worse. Perhaps, though China will not admit it, policies will be quietly modified. But what about Myanmar? It is not a great power. Surely the West could easily bring the economy under the control of the military now to its knees. But at what cost to the rest of the population? The problem now is targeted sanctions and acute intervention that is subtle and nuanced. But this is then very unsatisfactory in terms of public education where the general impression is that “nothing is being done.”

We still deal with results, not causes, with mitigation rather than prevention. That is where our maximum efforts are focused. And even there, in fact, especially there, some situations are magnified as if being observed on earth from a radio telescope that was intended to look at the total sky and the whole universe. While accountability and transparency have been our goals, more frequently we see extreme distortion and disproportionate attention ironically when a fundamental principle of ethics applied to such situations is proportionality.

And that is not simply a matter of bias. For impartiality – not neutrality -is one of the most important international norms. I am not required to be neutral in my approach to the Israeli-Palestinian problem. I love Israel intensely. It is where two of my grandchildren live. Both served in the IDF. They now are parents of four of my great grandchildren. But my love is concerned not only with their biological and physical safety, but for the way that I want them to be treated and, even more, how I want them to treat others.

The government of Israel is flawed. The governing structures of both Gaza and the West Bank are even much more flawed as they continue the hundred years of warfare between Arabs and Jews in the Middle East. But there are many signs that this long war is nearing an end. And the way it ends will be crucial for the way in which Jews and Palestinians live together and interact in the future. That is why the solution must be carried forward guided by ethics and not just interests and existing relations of power.

Which brings me to the International Criminal Court, the ICC. Criminal courts are concerned with bringing individuals to justice. They are not concerned with establishing the conditions for just solutions. The ICC has been a significant advance in the international legal system by replacing single purpose international institutions with general ones so instead of a Rwandan genocide court of justice in Arusha we have the benefit of a universal global-wide system in The Hague. 

This followed the lead of many innovations and changes internationally in other areas – for example as the universal organization, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), replaced the single situation focused organizations like UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees that tried to push for a permanent solution but could not, in part because its mandate was to be a relief and works agency rather than one focused on resolving the crisis.

But we have also failed to learn. While Trump simply cut off UNRWA funding and Biden recently restored humanitarian aid both to the Palestinian Authority and UNRWA, and such aid should be made long term so that forecast and long-term planning can be put in place, there was a failure to make such aid conditional upon finding a permanent solution in the next five years and on making reality rather than wishful politics the determinant of humanitarian aid.

For one of the downsides of any institution, whether single purpose or universal, is that its increasing collective weight creates an inertial force that undermines creative solutions that make the welfare of the individuals affected the first priority rather than the strategies and objectives of politicians.

The ICC is faced with the other side of that challenge in its desire to make the ICC as exempt as possible from political forces. That is an aspiration. However, in its priorities, in its concentration, in its actual practices, the ICC has proven that it cannot be immune to the political culture of our time. Biases not only creep in, but they glare away as neon lights. The problem is how to recognize this and still uphold the objective of advancing the cause of criminal justice on a global scale. At the same time, in such a quest, the larger and more important goal of positive justice, for the recognition of the rights and dignity of every human on this planet, must not be undermined by the efforts of the ICC and the pressures upon it, even as it is not mandated to deal with state but only with individual criminality.

COVID-19, the revolution of the digital world displacing the analog one, has created overwhelming challenges, but also new possibilities for the resolution of conflicts and crises. The ICC may be an advance, but it is an advance at the end of the analog world and has little to contribute to alleviation and prevention, the major foci of the new digital order.

For example, one of the new international ethical norms is inclusion – that is relegating dealing with and resolving situations as much as possible through local and national institutions. However, the ICC, which is supposed to operate only when national systems of justice are inoperative or ineffective, is now more generally at war with such national systems. Instead of conducting investigations to help raise the standards and the effective operation of such systems and even instigate their creation, the ICC seems more concerned with shaming states for their inadequacies and, thus, focusing more on defective systems than where systems are absent altogether. Further, there is the very great danger that its moral and legal status may be used to undermine and inhibit the development of a much higher level of ethical and moral achievement.  

“Do no harm” has become the overarching global moral principle of our time. But it is impossible to apply since any system or institution has both good and bad results and the benefits and downsides weighed against one another. We will always do some harm. Do no harm is an impossible goal and can induce paralysis. However, do less harm can be a more effective guiding principle. That applies to the ICC. In taking on a case, in initiating an investigation, and, more specifically, in the very way it does so, the ICC must ensure that the outcome will be a greater good with the least harm possible.

I am not sure that the ICC is yet up to that task.