Victimization by the Merciful

Victimization by the Merciful

by

Howard Adelman

The hardest challenge by far for any international humanitarian aid organization is the responsibility for treating those whom the NGO wants to help as agents in their own right with feelings and thoughts. They – the abductees in this case – not the humanitarians, have been the main determinants of their own survival. In the horrors perpetrated on the abducted children by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), the victims have not just been abducted and abused and enslaved; they have not just been forcibly removed from their family and friends. And they have not just been indoctrinated into becoming part of a killing machine. They are survivors. And they had to negotiate and devise ways to survive.

For there is an unbridgeable contradiction between the need of an international humanitarian aid organization in order to raise funds for their cause, the necessity, on the one hand, to portray themselves as the indispensable and sine qua non without whom the victims could not survive and escape from their victimization, and the need to portray those they are helping simply as hapless victims. Yet those abductees have done for themselves far more than any outside agency can bring to the task, for it is they who have survived. It is they who had to scheme and plan and calculate how to get through each day. The NGOs must realize and recognize the relatively minor added value an aid organization brings to the situation. But if that organization does not portray itself as indispensable, as the sine qua non without which the victims will remain hapless and helpless, why would anyone donate funds to the organization?

Look first at the situation the young boys and girls found themselves in as soon as they were abducted. They were suddenly cast into a totally alien environment. Instead of the security of home, instead of the support of family and friends, they have been thrust among total strangers. If they were abducted with another friend or family member, which most are, they must almost immediately learn to hide that fact just when they most need the support of another. For if they do not immediately learn to hide and disguise the fact that they know another, if they do not quickly master the art of dissembling and misrepresenting what they really know, they pose the greatest danger to both themselves and their friends and relatives.

If they reveal that another abductee is a close friend or family member, if they do not almost immediately learn to hide their relationships, if they slip and the abductors realize that another member of the abducted group is a close friend or family member, then they will have to learn the hardest way of all the first lesson that the abductors must and do teach the abductees – that they are all alone, that they are totally dependent on the LRA for their survival. At the same time, they must retain the sense that they must rely on themselves for survival. Further, if they fail to learn that lesson, if they reveal what must remain hidden at precisely the time when the abductees most need another for support, then, at best, they will be separated and find themselves further alone, or else one of the two will be killed, or, worst of all, they will be “asked” to murder the other as the first act in their initiation in the new laws of the jungle.

Further, if they have already been raised and taught that the jungle is an alien place haunted by malevolent spirits, if they have already been acculturated into the magic and superstitious beliefs about this alien and threatening environment, then the task is all the harder and their fears are much greater. So the abductor has the task of isolating and alienating the abductee from his or her home environment. The abductee is then most in need of security of home and hearth. It is the first and most formidable challenge facing an abductee to negotiate this most fundamental and most difficult initial hurdle.

Assuming these very young boys and girls learn that lesson – and they have to learn it in order to survive – they then have to quickly master the “rules” of their new rulers and masters. And those rules are best absorbed if they are totally incorporated into one’s mind and heart. And the first and foremost rule is that they must be heartless, heartless in their treatment of others and, most importantly, heartless in their treatment of themselves. They must first betray the very essence of their being as a human. Yet if they surrender their essential humanity, they are totally lost and simply become one of the walking dead. They must learn to be schizophrenics.

They must retain their ability to master and manipulate a situation which will, at one and the same time, allow them to survive and, on the other hand, allow them to survive as humans. It is an absolutely impossible task. One comes only at the expense of the other. But if the expenditure is too great, then they are lost. So how do they learn to successfully manage and manipulate the situation in which they find themselves? This is a challenge thrown at those almost least equipped to overcome the difficulties – young teenagers and children below ten.

Look at the tasks that face them. They cannot have a mentor who openly teaches them the tricks of the trade. They must pick up those lessons by osmosis and acute observation. Where just hours and days before, they were primarily taken care of by others, they suddenly must fend for themselves. They must acquire the necessary skills to survive in a polity not committed to their survival and in a natural environment that they have been taught is filled with malevolent spirits. They must learn to interpret the everyday, not as friendly and supportive, but as alien, which they have already been taught. For those religious precepts are the only basic framework which they have inherited, to become masters of their own situation lest that new situation overwhelms them and drowns out their spirits.

All this must be accomplished within an environment of constraint and fear. Which beliefs are reinforced by what is happening to them? Which beliefs – such as beliefs in helping another – must be discarded, or, at the very least, repressed, in order to survive? So they must develop the outlook and the skills using whatever inherited resources at hand to control whatever small degree of freedom of action they can possibly squeeze out of a situation. And they can only do so by driving their most deep-seated beliefs even deeper into the underground of their own souls. They must develop not only the tools of survival, but the tools of hidden resistance as well. They must learn the most fundamental lesson of all, the one that the abductors are most determined to exorcise, that they are the masters of their own souls, that they are not passive victims but are agents of their own destiny.

But it is much worse. They are forced to become complicit in committing atrocities. Not only atrocities against a purported enemy, not only atrocities against their fellow abductees, but atrocities against their very sense of what it is to be a decent human being. The challenge of survival has been compounded by an almost impossible task in a situation in which they have been deprived of the most basic security and the emotional and intellectual supports to meet such a challenge.

Then imagine their escape. Imagine their return. Imagine the task they have of both learning to forget and re-learning who they once were and are no longer. And imagine facing that task in a context in which those dedicated to helping you, by the very nature of the support those agencies need to muster, also view you as a hapless victim rather than the agent of your own survival. Now in this most benevolent environment, the skills of deception and disguise acquired in the jungle are reinforced rather than discarded.

However, in this case, they are not just victims. They have been perpetrators. Not one can escape that label. They must deal with their own shame and guilt without full acceptance of that fact by those trying to help them. For, at the same time as humanitarian NGOs are pressured by their own circumstances to portray those they are dedicated to helping as victims in need of help and not agents who have demonstrated an extraordinary capacity to survive, the former abductees must be complicit in reinforcing an image of themselves as innocent victims and not agents of the most atrocious crimes.

So they are doubly deprived of agency – as agents of their own survival and as agents complicit in denying the survival of others. In the choice of whether to kill or be killed, they were forced to choose to be killers in order to be agents who survive. To the extent an NGO recognizes and publicizes this latter essential phenomenon, to that extent do those agencies undermine their own efforts in fundraising. After all, who wants to give money to support those guilty of heinous crimes? The very act of charity then will almost certainly induce an initial feeling that, in doing so, one is complicit in the crime itself.

So the former abductees must, of necessity, rely on the very same tools of deception and misrepresentation that they were taught in the jungle. They must, in the case of female abductees, now become complicit in portraying themselves as rape victims and sex slaves in the hands of their abductors rather than as active explorers of the world of sex, never mind as porters, cooks, and even enthusiastic participants in attacks, abductions and slaughters. They must participate in the construction of an identity so essential to the agency dedicated to helping them. Once complicit in murder, it is far easier to be complicit in reinforcing the basic lie necessary to the very essence of humanitarian aid, the lie of their pure victimhood.

Once relatively powerless as abductees, they must again be portrayed as powerless by their ostensible saviours. Once subject to the imperious barking commands of their overlords, they now must submit to the soothing care of those who would bring them help rather than fill them with fear. But it is care accepted at great cost – they must be cast in a movie once again of themselves as merely victims and, thus, be doubly victimized as they seek survival, not in an atmosphere of extreme repression and oppression, but in an atmosphere of loving care. Having been indoctrinated to spit on pity for others as well as for themselves, they must now repress that deep and hard-won lesson.

Having returned from a moral order that was harsh, brutal and usually short, they have come back to a context in which they are similarly subjected to the whims and fantasies, not now of their tormentors, but to the bleeding hearts who offer them help and assistance. And they must hide the fact now that they have acquired at a very deep level a disdain for sympathy and empathy. It is hardly the best environment conducive to facing the depth and extent of their own spiritual contamination. Once again, the rules of the game, however well-intentioned and benign this time, are being set by others. And this is almost more difficult, for, at the very least, the bad guys were clearly identifiable previously. Now, to survive as an agent responsible for one’s own being and destiny, one must again master the art of becoming internal strangers, but this time in an atmosphere where one’s masters have come to the situation, not with whips and guns, but with a helping and supposedly loving hand, but a hand resistant to grasping the horror that has penetrated your own soul.

Finally, in defining the Acholi conflict as a humanitarian rather than a political crisis, international human rights and humanitarian organizations undercut and help hide the reality that behind the moral conflict there is a deeper political one, one between the Acholi and the Ugandan government in Kampala. And these humanitarian agencies are in league with that government. Thus, their ostensible friends are cast into the camp of enemies. Instead of facing a command structure simply of evil, they now have to face one in which good lies in bed with evil. The alien other has a much stronger hand than the simple evil of a Joseph Cony. It is even more difficult to resist and survive as an individual responsible for oneself in such an ostensibly benevolent atmosphere.

Is it any surprise that re-integration is so difficult for abductees?

Tomorrow: Justice Without Mercy: The Paradox of the International Criminal Court

Life versus Desire – August: Osage County

Life versus Desire – August: Osage County

by

Howard Adelman

Last night, August: Osage County did not win a single Golden Globe Award. Though Meryl Streep was nominated for an award for the best performance by an actress in a motion picture – comedy or musical, Amy Adams won for her excellent performance in American Hustle. And although Julia Roberts was nominated for best performance by an actress in a supporting role in a motion picture, Jennifer Lawrence won for her exceptional and quite unique part in American Hustle. Amy and Jennifer were both superb and gave outstanding performances. But they were just that, performance, brilliant improvisations and great exhibitions.

But they will not be remembered through the years. Because playing Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) and Rosalyn Rosenfeld (Jennifer Lawrence) had none of the depth and profundity of the roles that Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts had to exhibit in August: Osage County which I saw yesterday late afternoon. (I actually forgot we were going to see that movie and mistakenly thought we were going to see Saving Mr Banks and I had been reflecting on the notion of sentiment in preparation for watching the film so I was totally unprepared for the dark troubled tale of August: Osage County.)

Before I discuss the film itself and their two performances, I am going to make my argument in a round about way, first by discussing, very briefly, the ethnic cleansing of the Shawnee tribe and then, hopefully even more briefly, one small but crucial section of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, the one dealing with desire and life in the first section of self-consciousness.

In my scholarly work, I have written before about the American War of Independence as primarily a war against the British for the Indian territories and, after the Americans defeated the British and the thirteen colonies gained their independence, the Americans returned their focus to ethnic cleansing of the Indian tribes in Ohio and westward. After the American Revolution, the Northwest Indian War took place between the Americans and the Shawnee in alliance with the Miami. The latter were finally defeated in the Battle of Timbers in 1794 and the Shawnee were coerced into signing the Treaty of Greenville ceding most of their territory in Ohio to the new United States of America and were forced to move further west largely into Missouri.

In 1811, Tecumseh wrote: “Where today are the Pequot? Where are the Narragansett, the Mohican, the Pocanet, and other powerful tribes of our people? They have vanished before the avarice and oppression of the white man, as snow before the summer sun … Sleep not longer, O Choctaws and Chickasaws … Will not the bones of our dead be plowed up, and their graves turned into plowed fields?” Tecumseh saw not just ethnic cleansing but genocide. The War of 1812 on the American side of the border was centred on Tecumseh, who led the Indians who refused to sign even further treaties of concession in 1809 ceding a further 3 million acres to the United States of America (Treaty of Fort Wayne). Tecumseh joined with Joseph Brant leader of the Mohawks in fighting the Americans after Tecumseh lost the initial battle at Prophetstown in 1811. In May 1813, Tecumseh won the battle at FortMeigis in northern Ohio but could not consolidate his victory and had to retreat to Canada. He was subsequently killed in the Battle of the Thames in Upper Canada in October of 1813.  Henceforth, the Absentee Shawnee, as the portion of the Shawnee were called because they were not initially part of the original treaty of settlement, went south first to Kansas and then largely to Oklahoma but also Texas as part of the forced resettlement known as the Trail of Tears.

The movie is set in OsageCounty. Osage are a Shawnee people who speak the Siouan language, akin to the language of the Algonquin Indians who are descendents of the Paleo-Indians of the American midwest, hunter gatherers in the Pleistocene Age that ended in 11,700 BC with the coming of the last Ice Age. Meryl Streep as Violet Weston is at the opposite pole from any shrinking violet and ruthlessly derides the new servant hired by her husband Beverly at the very beginning of the film. Beverly was once a male name that meant a a beaver stream that fowed with creativity and energy but it was usurped for women as the poet became damned up with the vituperative wrath of his wife. Violet asks belligerently, “Are you Cherokee?” Johnna Monevata played by Misty Upham stands her ground against what is clearly an oppressive and overbearing new boss and replies, “I am Shawnee.”  (In the play, I believe she was Cheyenne.) This conversation all takes place “in a dim room, the blinds grimly endure the dead light, protecting the machined air, as the watchers watch the old lady die.” (Howard Starks)

Later there will be an early confrontation between Violet and her daughter Barbara played by Julia Roberts who insists that the servant be referred to as a native American and not an Indian because that is the name they prefer. Throughout the play, and in some revelations, it is clear that what Violet most wants is a reconciliation with her daughter but she will never risk trying for one and instead relies on barbiturates or barbs rather than Barbara. Violet replies to Barbara’s challenge, “I am as native as she is.” The reply is ironic both in Violet’s total ignorance of native American history in her overt racism, but also because Violet in her reduction of all of life to bare survival is, in another sense of the term, more native than anyone in the movie meaning not just indigenous to an area but identified with an area, in this case, with the heat, with the emptiness, with the deep overriding sense of desperation of the place, with all the ghosts that haunt the landscape of Oklahoma, both historical and family shadows. Oklahoma is not doing fine and is not A-OK. Those shadows include Letts’ own family; his grandmother was an addict who abused all her children.

This is not the happy singing Ooook-lahoma, where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain and the wavin’ wheat can sure smell sweet when the wind comes right behind the rain. There is no rain in sight in this movie. And no wind either. What we feel is the interminable heat and deadness in the air of a very opposite Oklahoma. As Howard Starks, the poet, wrote in the poem from which Letts openly stole his title, in “the heat thickened air, no rain in three weeks, no real breeze all day.” We are in the midwest version of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.  We are in the land of shadows where whole populations of people have vanished before the avarice and oppression of the white man, as snow before the ninety degree summer heat.

But more of that later. Readers may complain that I am reading too much into the film when I suggest that the movie is as much about Oklahoma, initially called the Indian territory, that  was in turn also stolen from the native Americans, as it is about a dysfunctional family. Since I now want to suggest so much more, I will hold my firepower for now and turn to Hegel.

Consciousness depicts what our minds do when we look at things (including people often) as objects. Self-consciousness is when we look at ourselves as subjects and not just objects, as agents acting in the world and not just sensing, observing and understanding. As self-consciousness begins to develop, we become aware that other humans also regard themselves as subjects or agents. But at a more primitive stage, before engaging in the life and death struggle for recognition between selves, there is a battle within each self acted out in relationship to other selves between the need to survive as a physical being and the desire to overcome mere survival to become much more than simply someone out to survive, to become a fully self-conscious human being. This can only be done by connecting to and in relationship with an Other person. As Hegel writes, “self-consciousness is desire itself” that only attains satisfaction in another self-consciousness and you find peace with yourself only in another self-consciousness in the binding form of love. The characters in August: Osage County, with enough exceptions to prove the rule,  never find that peace and tear each other and mostly themselves to shreds because they never learn the first meaning of love.

But this opposition between its appearance and its truth has only the truth for its essence, namely, the unity of self-consciousness with itself.  This unity must become essential to self-consciousness, which is to say, self-consciousness is desire itself. (PofS 167)

Desire once fulfilled becomes the realization and expression of love. But that is not how it starts. The pathway begins in the fight to survive versus the desire to realize oneself. Violet, as she explicitly states as she reduces all the members of her family to quivering cowards in various ways using cutting comments thrust out by a razor-sharp tongue that shrewdly and cunningly probes the members of her family at their weakest points, tells them what it took for her to survive her own cruel mother who, knowing her daughter wanted riding boots to get recognition from a potential beau, in her mother’s wrapped present for her for Christmas and her black humour, gave her daughter Violet boots encrusted with mud and with holes in the soles. To survive a mother like that, one had to be strong, including the strength to devour your own children in turn and steal their inheritance to boot, which is precisely what Violet does at the family dinner. The story is about the hooks a parent puts into his or her own children, not out of love but out of blood greed. As the poet, Robert Penn  Warren wrote in All the King’s Men, “When you get born your father and mother lost something out of themselves, and they are going to bust a hame trying to get it back.” Survival demands eating your own children.

The movie is not just about a dysfunctional family – the Westons, that literally means a western town or settlement – though it is certainly that. Barbara Weston’s married name is Fordham, which combines ford and ham, transit across the waters to a home or founding a homestead. The name goes back to the tenth century and the Norman conquerors of the British Isles. This dysfunctional family are descendents on all sides of the homesteaders who took the lands of the native peoples but have never come to recognize their crimes. The unacknowledged past has rotted their souls. In the ruthless quest for survival and acquisition and appropriation of lands as they made their homesteads, they engaged in betrayal, theft, mass murder and expropriation.

There are exceptions in the family. Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae Aiken, also performed brilliantly by Margo Martindale, is not one. She is as much in her own smiling way a castrating bitch as her sister Violet with her withering twists of her verbal knife at the weaknesses of each of her children, but in the end Mattie Fae’s husband, Charlie Aiken, played by Chris Cooper with total conviction, stands up to her and on behalf of his almost totally destroyed son by his own mother, resumes the meaning of his namesake, “Aiken”, an oak tree. He expresses un unqualified love for his son, little Charlie, played by Benedict Cumberbatch with equally exquisite precision, and finally declares war on his wife.

The centre of the drama of the movie is the struggle between Julie Robert’s character (Barbara) and her mother, Meryll Streep (Violet). Meryll Streep is one of the best actors in the world. Julia Roberts surprised me. Not only is the movie a struggle between a mother and daughter for supremacy, a struggle between life as the will to survive versus desire as the passion to realize oneself through and in the love of another, but Julia Roberts matches all the brilliant acting skills of Meryl Streep and proves herself an actor of the first order.

The movie was adapted by Tracy Letts from his own play that won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama as well as five Jeff and five Tony Awards and three Outer Critics Awards and the New York Drama Critics Award for best play.  The play was three hours and the movie is only two hours. Since the movie also includes the many scenes outside of driving alone on the seemingly empty roads of Oklahoma, of necessity there had to be many excisions, including the reduction of roles such as that of the sheriff who was Barbara’s Weston’s love interest in high school, and, more importantly, the role of the Shawnee servant, Johnna with the feminized male name, who is hired at the very beginning of the movie as a cook and caregiver by Beverly Weston (Sam Sheppard) for his wife, Violet who is suffering from cancer of the mouth, aptly so given her poisonous cascade of words and her ingestion of barbiturates and other pills in inhuman quantities. The relationship between Barbara Weston’s daughter and Johnna was dropped. But the essence of the play is kept. Of course, the movie cannot lose all the concentration on one place of the play, but the passions that are so raw and are thrown with such rapidity with only the odd concession to comic relief carries us past the static quality. In fact, the static sense adds to the sense of a place frozen in a purgatory of the shadows of the past.

Beverly, a former once highly recognized poet who has given up to the bottle, when he hires Johnna, gives her a book of poetry by T.S. Eliot and says “Life is lived too long” to which he comments cynically that now we cannot utter such a truism because a famous poet used it and now we have to add the credit: T.S. Eliot. The sentiment is the exact opposite of  “Nothing lives long except the earth and the mountains,” taken from Letts’ friend, Carter Revar, and his poem “A Song That We Still Sing” about the displacement of the Cheyenne.

The quote both adumbrates what Beverly is about to do to himself, but also echoes the sentiments of T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Hollow Man”: “Between the idea and the reality, between the motion and the act. falls the shadow. Between the conception and the creation, between the emotion and the response, falls the shadow. Between the desire and the spasm, between the potency and the existence, between the essence and the descent, falls the shadow” to answer his own question: “Where is the life we have lost in the living?”  It is lost when we descend into the shadow world before creation towards thoughts, before responses to raw emotions, towards spasm instead of desire, towards bare existence instead of potency, in descent instead of the realization of one’s essence. The movie is the world of shadow boxing in the struggle just to stay alive. And the film ends with Violet’s head in Johnna’s lap and alluding to another line and poem of T.S. Eliot’s, “This is the way the world ends”.

I won’t go through the plot. The movie simply bounces from one bang on the head to the next just when you begin to believe that surely in this shadow world there is not another bombshell to be released.  Suffice to say, Violet is not only one of the most castrating roles in fiction, but she also practices symbolic vaginal mutilation. Her greatest victim is not her middle daughter, Ivy (Julianna Nicholson) but her youngest daughter, Karen who has opted for empty clichés and an engagement to a “successful” real estate developer who we are led to believe belongs to the same class of skanks and scumbags as the heroes in The Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle.  She is merely acting out the same self-destructive story. In doing so, she reveals the essence of the American murderers and thieves who stole Indian land. They were not courageous homesteaders pioneering in an empty land but used force and coercion to steal land and get the defeated peoples to concede more and more time and time again, just as Violet cuts deeper and deeper each time when you begin to believe things cannot get worse. She is a spiritual rapist. The whole movie is captured in one moment when Johnna bursts through her retiring and quiet demeanour to express her wrath on the world of rape  in the widest sense. That brief scene and the other with little Charlie at the bus station when he arrives late compete with the long family dinner scene for the most powerful moments in the film.

The movie ends as the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper but with a glimmer of hope for Barbara as she drives in her pickup in pajamas and a dressing gown back to Colorado, abandoning her mother. This is not a spoiler, just inevitable.

Survival and Slavery: Behar-Bechukotai – Leviticus 25:1-27:34.05.05.13

Survival and Slavery: Behar-Bechukotai – Leviticus 25:1-27:34 05.05.13

by

Howard Adelman

It is Sunday, May 5th. This parsha should have been sent out on Friday, May 3rd. However, Friday was a gorgeous day in Toronto with the sky clear and temperatures in the twenties centigrade. When I failed to complete the blog in the early morning, I was doomed. For after a long winter, there was so much clean up work to do outside. The day was so beautiful, that it was six o’clock and I had not even noticed the time fly. Such are the seductions of sun and sky and warmth, especially after the deprivations of a long and harsh winter. Maybe the experience is relevant to today’s subject matter – giving in to the seductions of slavery to the Ba’al Hadad, the lord or master in heaven who rules over the assembly of all the other natural deities or spirits. Today, Sunday, has been as beautiful a day as Friday and Ba’al no less enticing.

This section of Leviticus that was read yesterday in synagogue is largely about the jubilee year, the second sabbatical year after seven, that is, every 50 years. A number of principles of business ethics are set forth, largely a tribal rather than a universal ethic as when 24:14 advises: “when you make a sale to your fellow Jew or make a purchase from the hand of your fellow Jew, you shall not wrong one another.” It even has a strange formula on the price you should pay for a crop depending on the length of time between jubilee years. “The more [the remaining] years, you shall increase its purchase [price], and the fewer the [remaining] years, you shall decrease its purchase [price], because he is selling you a number of crops.” (24:16) Moral norms and not the invisible hand of the market were major factors in determining prices.

Beyond these admonitions to be fair, never wrong a fellow Jew and consideration for the destitute, what I find most interesting are the commandments concerning slavery in chapter 25. There are four kinds of slaves:
a) Jewish slaves of Jews;
b) Jewish slaves of non-Jews;
c) non-Jewish slaves of Jews;
d) non-Jewish slaves of non-Jews.
There are no prescriptions for the fourth category, reinforcing the principle that these ethical norms are tribal or national rather than universal.

Further, how you handle each of the first three categories reinforces this perspective. Jewish slaves of Jews have to be freed by the Jubilee year – or, according to Deuteronomy, in a sabbatical year. During the period of ownership, Jewish slaves cannot be worked with rigour. (25:46) Thirdly, there is no provision for making the children of Jewish slaves your slaves or bequeathing Jewish slaves as part of your inheritance to your children. In contrast, chapter 25 reads:
44. Your male slave or female slave whom you may have from the nations that are around you, from them you may acquire a male slave or a female slave.
45. And also from the children of the residents that live among you, from them you may acquire [slaves] and from their family that is with you whom they begot in your land, and they shall become your inheritance.
46. You shall hold onto them as an inheritance for your children after you, as acquired property, and may thus have them serve you forever. But as for your brethren, the children of Israel, a man shall not work his brother with rigor.

Jews have a duty to redeem other Jews from slavery to non-Jews. They have no such obligations to non-Jewish slaves of non-Jews. Further, their own non-Jewish slaves are an inheritance for their children. Jewish slaves have to be freed. The children of non-Jewish slaves become your indentured servants. These strictures vary between Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy and are quite different than the provisions of the Talmud which offers universal norms governing the treatment of any slave. But this is not a Talmudic but a Torah commentary, and only very incidentally a comparative Torah study.

How do slaves become slaves? They are captured in war. Or they are indigent and enter into slavery so they will not die. Or they enter into slavery to satisfy a debt. Slavery is a product of economic or physical coercion. Bondage to another is slavery. On the other hand, bondage to the Lord and God of the Israelites is chosen by a free person, by someone who stands upright and was freed by the Lord their God from slavery to a human master in Egypt. But is the contrast between the two forms of bondage so clear?

Certainly, if the Israelites obey God, keep shabat, follow His commandments, do not worship idols and make God a centre of their lives, they will be rewarded with prosperous, secure and healthy lives with productive farms and freed from the scourge of their enemies. But, as chapter 26 makes abundantly clear, if the Israelites fail to let God live in their midst and if they break His commandments, then they will suffer from all manner of physical and psychological diseases, from tuberculosis to depression. Their enemies will smite them, wild animals will attack them, their livestock will die and their land will yield no crops. Buildings will collapse around them, the cities laid waste and the Israelites will be scattered among the nations. They will live in paranoid fear frightened even by the shaking of a leaf. If that were not enough, they will become cannibals and devour their own children.

It is a choice without an option. Israelites can either live as free men with secure and prosperous lives in bondage to their Lord or be destroyed as a nation and as healthy individuals. Slavery to another offers no positive inducements except survival. Bondage to the Lord freely undertaken offers enormous benefits. Not making that choice offers consequences far more dire than simply being enslaved by another human being.

It is important to link the bondage to the Lord in contrast to the bondage to other human beings to make clear that they are both forms of bondage, but with radically different outcomes. Further, the connection is important to discard all the Torah apologetics that, in the desire to portray Judaism as enlightened, want to rationalize slavery either as a concession to surrounding society until the ideal of emancipation could be realized while trying to be humane and limiting its injustices, or as a form of witnessing to a higher standard of ethical practice while engaged in slavery. The rationalizations are just so much hogwash. Jewish provisions for slavery may have been doctrinally much more moderate, but in behavioural terms, the treatment offered was just one variation among a wide spectrum of practices without any evidence that they offered the most enlightened form of servitude. Certainly Jews treated non-Jewish slaves somewhat differently for they were partially converted and, if freed by various routes, they could join the Jewish community as full citizens. Further, slaves could marry their masters. Ancient slavery, whether of Jews or non-Jews, was not based on a somatic racist presumption.

There were, nevertheless, other principles and conceptions that undermined the possibility of manumission than a somatic racist conception. Though Plato also did not have a racist view, and though slavery was a side consideration in his concerns, nevertheless, Plato depicted slavery as an intellectual deficiency. Slaves, in Gregory Vlastos’ depiction of Plato’s views, suffered from a deficiency of logos. A slave could comprehend and understand but only had doxa. Therefore, it was useless to reason with a slave. You merely issued orders and did not “spoil” them by admonitions or explanations. They were to be motivated by rewards and punishments, fair ones in each case, but through external pressures rather the any internal intellectual cultivation or intercourse.

This is not the view in Leviticus. Slaves from the surrounding tribes of Canaanites, even though treated differently than Jewish slaves, were regarded as fully human. They were not defined as inferior forms of being. Their situations, not their character as humans, differed. Aristotle, however he differed with Plato, and however more articulate his view of slaves, had a similar doctrine. In Book I, chapters ii-vii of his Politics and in Book VII of Nichomachean Ethics, slaves are depicted as slaves by nature fit only to be ruled and not rule. As men are to animals, so Greeks are towards Barbarians, those fit to rule and those fit to be ruled. Aristotle offered a more encompassing doctrine of slavery than simply a rule of treatment for those found to be slaves. The natural character of slaves determines their condition and not just their treatment. So obtaining a slave through war or economic destitution of the slave is not what provides any entitlement to own a slave. Rather, the relationship of the master to the slave is blamed on the nature of the slave.

In the second century BC, Cato the Elder offered a manual for how Romans should treat their slaves who probably constituted 30% of the population, a ratio akin to that of the upper south, such as the Virginias and the Carolinas, at the time of the American Civil War. They were to be given adequate provisions and clothing and drink to sustain life but not enough to support a family or to facilitate their reproduction, a situation very different from that described in Leviticus. On the other hand, Seneca, the Stoic, offered a perspective more akin to that of the ancient Israelites but even more “enlightened”. He not only considered slaves and free Romans to be equally human, but entitled to equal treatment. For all men, including Romans, were slaves. In Letter 47 to Lucilius, he wrote: “I am glad to learn…that you live on friendly terms with your slaves. This befits a sensible and well-educated man like yourself. ‘They are slaves,’ people declare. Nay, rather they are men. ‘Slaves!’ No, comrades. ‘Slaves!’ No, they are unpretentious friends. ‘Slaves!’ No, they are our fellow-slaves, if one reflects that Fortune has equal rights over slaves and free men alike. (my italics) That is why I smile at those who think it degrading for a man to dine with his slave.”
If we compare the position of Jews as slaves in Egypt to the position of Canaanite slaves in the Jewish community to the treatment by Jews of slaves in different parts of the modern world, we will perhaps understand the laws and ethical norms governing the ancient Israelites in a somewhat clearer light. For example, whereas slavery was very marginal to the economic life of American northerners in the nineteenth century who lived in a very racist society, it was not marginal to the Israelites but an integral part of their society.

In the Torah, 600,000 male heads of households purportedly conquered Canaan. For many, that figure seems implausible given that so many died of the plague before reaching the promised land and also contradicts other data, such as the actual census of first born and the number of men fit to do battle – about 40,000 according to Joshua (4:13). According to some commentators, the figure was only 600,000 if you count souls and not living men and include all the ancestors counting back to Abraham. The number of living returnees, including women and children, was likely about 120,000 rather than several million. On the other hand, if 600,000 represents all the living Israelites at the time of Exodus and, approximately the same number when they enter Canaan, then there were about 75,000 who could fight in battle but still not 600,000.

Whatever the absolute number, the Israelites outnumbered each of the Canaanite tribes including the Amorites, Hittites, Girgashites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites who, only when allied together, were larger than the numbers of Israelites. (Deuteronomy 7:1) The Israelites were in the same position as the Egyptians at the time of Exodus. Just as the tribes of Israel demographically threatened the Egyptians, the population indigenous to Canaan at the time the Israelites returned to the land threatened the population of Israelites, a situation not too dissimilar to the situation in Israel/Palestine/Jordan today.

If we compare the situation of the ratio of whites to black slaves in the early nineteenth century, the only equivalent to the situation of the Israelites, who can barely hold their own in numbers to the surrounding population, is the situation in the deep southern United States on the eve of the Civil War where the ratio of whites to blacks was about 56% to 44%. In the upper south, Blacks made up about 24% of the population while in the rest of the United States, Blacks were a relatively small minority. In contrast, in most of the Caribbean, Blacks constituted a vast majority. In Brazil, Blacks were a minority and did not threaten the white domination of the country.

Though there was a demographic battle for supremacy after the return of the Israelites to Canaan, akin to the demographic battle in the southern United States, the battle was exacerbated by the strict requirements of what was needed to keep the Israelites versus the southern whites united. In the latter case, it was race and the one drop rule. If you were part Black genetically, you were fully Black socially. The Whites only managed to keep their superior standing by huge efforts of oppression to keep family formation among Blacks very limited. In ancient Israel, the Israelites also cohabited with the local Canaanites and often took Canaanite wives. But the differences were not racial and Canaanites could become Israelites and Israelites intermarried and became Canaanites. Benjamites seemed to be the exception for they were not only the most formidable fighting force among the twelve tribes, but also the most inhospitable and insular tribe wary of intermarriage not only with Canaanites but even with members of the other Hebrew tribes until they were decimated in the civil war against the rest of the Israelites and forced to take non-Israelite wives.

Recall that Judges 3.5-3.7 reads:
5 The Israelites lived among the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. 6 They took the Canaanites’ daughters as wives and gave their daughters to the Canaanites; they worshiped their gods as well. 7 The Israelites did evil in the Lord’s sight. They forgot the Lord their God and worshiped the Baals and the Asherahs.

Integration and assimilation are not values held to be worthy. Quite the reverse, they are the dangers. In modern Israel, the danger of intermarriage with the competing population of Palestinians is minimized by ideological politics and religious affiliation rather than by race. Further, the only demographic group that exceeds the rate of reproduction of the Palestinians is that group which is most inhospitable to integration and intermarriage – the ultra-orthodox.

So if you do not decimate the surrounding population and do not engage in ethnic cleansing, and if you do not choose to oppress them in other ways by limiting their ability to procreate, then that surrounding population will pose a demographic danger, especially if your group is the superior and more powerful group but allows extensive intermarriage, then your inherited group faces an existential danger. The standard laws of sociological behaviour will come into play as outward intermarriage by the downwardly mobile will exceed in-migration by the upwardly mobile. More and more members of your group will either adhere to the cultural practices of the competing group or, at the very least, lose the strength of the adherence to their own precepts which provided unity and strength for the dominant group. It is the law of revenge of the bondsmen against their masters. The more you succeed in mastering the norms of the dominant culture, the more you endanger the particularist norms of your sub-culture.

What are the choices? You can try to remain insular and ill-disposed to even co-habiting with those less rigid in their methods of group survival. You can focus on both reproduction and physical strength, which is what the orthodox in Israel have done and what the Haredim are about to do now that they will be forced to serve in both the army and the economic work force. They will surrender to the force of numbers but through numbers and strict enforcement of group norms, will seek to turn the tables on their in-group masters.

Why will the secular and modern lose out? After all, with their military prowess and with the amazing reputation as the start-up nation par excellence, Israel is now an economic and technological as well as military powerhouse, even further ahead in the new knowledge economy because of the high proportion of investment in human capital. As a result of the Israeli success combined with the success of those in the diaspora, even Greek socialists now regard Israel as a model according to Anna Diamentopolou, the Greek Minister for Education, Lifelong Learning and Religious Affairs.

Nevertheless, these successful secular Israelis and the majority of Jews in the diaspora will lose out, not as individuals, but as a culture and society. Their minority sub-culture will become a minor variation is a spectrum of the modern world. Jews and Israelis will have become a nation like every other nation. When Israel finally makes peace with all their neighbours and are freed of any crushing physical danger, the threat from without will become even stronger because of the attractions of the enlightenment values of the dominant imperial culture and the gradual surrender of the norms that provide their insularity as a group. If they choose to treat those with whom they intermarry in an “enlightened” way, by inviting them in to join the group instead of strict prohibitions against, then, simply statistically, the norms ensuring group coherence and, thereby, survival will grow weaker.

The diaspora has already lost the linguistic mode of group survival with the loss of Yiddish or Ladino and without replacing it with Hebrew as the group’s subculture’s language. Israelis in the next generation will continue to keep Hebrew as the language of their sub-culture and as an in-group language as they increasingly use English as the language of the dominant culture and of the global economy, especially as they pursue success in that dominant culture. Of course, Israel will be led by the educated elites, but also by the street through the message of music which can even penetrate the Satmar sect as the Israeli movie, God’s Neighbours illustrates. Just as the dominant economic market place has an invisible hand, the cunning of reason will operate as a pincer movement from both above and below to threaten group survival and instil a bifurcation of values in both the educated elites and in the street culture of even those who take pride in their survival skills as a tribe.

What are the real choices? If the majority of the elite, first in the diaspora and then in Israel, choose success as the cost of spiritual self-exile and gradual absorption into the dominant imperial high culture, then the sub-culture dies even if it retains a patina of difference. If those groups with the highest rate of reproduction are forced into a world that esteems physical prowess as its culture is subverted through the music of the streets, then the sub-culture will survive but will eventually go to war with the dominant indigenous imperial culture and that civil war will make the war with the Palestinians seem like a piece of cake. For Civil Wars are the most cruel and ruthless.

This jeremiad as humankind is in the process of making its next greatest advance that inherently must entail the rejection of tradition and particularism, and that especially threatens the Jews as a sub-culture who sustained their identity by becoming a community of memory while also mastering the dominant culture, need not take place. But until the Jews in the diaspora and Israelis learn to become one at the same time as they develop a new form of dualism, a schizophrenia that allows them to be both moderns and a community of memory at one and the same time, neither Jews not Israelis will survive as a sub-culture. But whatever the fearsome prognostications facing Israelis, they will survive longer as a substantive sub-culture than the enlightened Jews of the diaspora.