When Do We Speak Out About “Someone Else’s” Atrocity?

October 1, 2007
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Aryeh Cohen

“If you’ve grown up taking [the practice of female genital cutting] for granted as the normal thing to do, you will probably respond at first with surprise to someone who thinks it is wrong. You will offer reasons for doing it — that unmodified sexual organs are unaesthetic; that the ritual gives young people the opportunity to display courage in their transition to adulthood; that you can see their excitement as they go to their ceremony, their pride when they return; you will say that it is very strange that someone who has not been through it should presume to know whether or not sex is pleasurable for you. And, if someone should try to force you to stop from the outside, you may decide to defend the practice as an expression of your cultural identity.”

These words were written by the eminent political philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah (in his book Cosmopolitanism), who immediately continues: “I am not endorsing these claims….” Appiah’s point is that “a large part of what we do we do because it is just what we do.” In other words, it is one’s cultural context that determines judgments and actions and not some elaborate ethical system. If this is true (and there is undoubtedly some truth to it) how do we heed the Talmud’s charge:

All who can protest against [something wrong that] one of their family [is doing] and does not protest, is held accountable for their family.

[All who can protest against something wrong that] a citizen of their city [is doing and does not protest], is held accountable for all citizens of the city.

[All who can protest against something wrong that is being done] in the whole world, is accountable together with all citizens of the world. Bavli Shabbat 54b

Are there criteria by which to tell the difference between an outrage that must be stopped and a cultural practice that should be tolerated?

Female circumcision, or genital mutilation, is a good case in point. Until African feminists challenged the practice (publicly in 1984), many viewed Western outrage as an example of cultural imperialism — especially since male circumcision was not being disputed. When African women began speaking out against the practice, they made clear that genital mutilation had victims.

It seems to me that when there are victims — even if there are ways to rationalize the victimization within a culture — there is an obligation to intervene.

The first principle regarding intervention, then, is that there are identifiable victims. A second principle would be some form of what Immanuel Kant called universalizability. Are we critiquing a practice because it seems odd when someone else does it although it seems okay when we do it? Are we ready to apply that same critique to our own behavior? Can we differentiate male circumcision from female genital mutilation? Can we distinguish Santeria sacrifices from shechitah without a culturally-bound (i.e., halakhic or aesthetic) rationale?

At the end of the day, we must speak out against injustice wherever it is happening. At the same time we have to be self-critical about why we are choosing certain injustices. The International Crisis Group lists in alphabetical order 83 crisis situations around the world that it monitors. When we get to “s” in the list we find Sudan together with other “s” crisis-countries such as Sri Lanka and Sierra Leone. Why is it that Darfur in Sudan has become a rallying point for activism while most of the same people have not heard of either Sri Lanka (the government is accused of extra-judicial killings, the rebels of suicide bombings) or Sierra Leone (on the verge of destabilization and possible civil war)? During the Cold War, the United States overlooked the human rights abuses of Western-aligned dictators while being very vigilant in pursuing human rights abuses in Communist countries.

On Erev Rosh Hashana in 1982, the Christian Phalangist militia entered Sabra and Shatila, two Palestinian refugee camps and indiscriminately slaughtered hundreds of Palestinians. The Israeli commission of inquiry found that Israeli troops under direct commands from Ariel Sharon had surrounded the camps and offered logistical support. Public opinion was divided between those who were appalled that the IDF was implicated and those who thought that since the IDF didn’t do any direct killing the responsibility was all on the Phalangist militia. When interviewed by Israeli Radio, the head of my yeshivah said, “The first line of the Avinu Malkenu prayer is ‘Our father, our king we have sinned before You.’” What I have always taken from this verse is that the prerequisite for intervening when someone else is silent is clean hands.

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Dr. Aryeh Cohen is Associate Professor of Rabbinic Literature at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. A member of the Sh‘ma Advisory Board, he also sits on the board of the Progressive Jewish Alliance and was one of the founders of Jews Against the War (www.jewsagainstthewar.org).

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