donderdag 23 januari 2014


Just one article from the newspaper,  and a whole year program lies before you .

My paper last month reviewed the book My promised land. The triumph and tragedy of Israel, written by Ari Shavit . It's about Israel and its history, and the author makes an attempt to be as open and honest about the subject as possible.

In the book, and therefore in the review, a series of remarkable questions is presented. Weird questions or pat ones, I do not know yet.  In any case, questions that trigger an explosion of still further questions in me.

For example, somewhere in the headline it says : “ How long does Israel have?”  That’ s a remarkable question indeed.  Anyway, I’ve never heard that question with regard to China or Spain or the Netherlands. Where does that question come from? And what does it mean for the people of a state, if apparently its existence can be considered shaky? Does that justify extensive security and demographic measures to insure its existence? Or do these measures precisely undermine the acceptance of that state by others, and thus its stability ?

Another statement which gives rise to many more questions. Shavit writes that if his grandfather had remained English, his descendants would be assimilated. Shavit himself would probably have been half – Jewish “and have had a less rich inner life”.  Do Jews, then, generally have a richer inner life than non-Jews? What is such a statement based on? Does the concept of ‘chosenness’ play  a role here? And what does the statement to non-Jews who read it? Might it arouse indignation, or envy? Is there a possible connection to anti-Semitism?

Clearly , I need to read that book. And already in advance I have enough questions to fill a whole new year.

Also see Are Jews smarter?

zondag 12 januari 2014


In several speculations following the death of Nelson Mandela there was talked about the African philosophy of Ubuntu by which the South African statesman was supposed to be inspired. Especially Mandela’s ideals of equality and reconciliation were to be traced back to it.

In the references to Ubuntu it is often said that the word is hardly translatable. In one of the attempts at explanation, I encountered the following statement : “The essence of man is that he is inextricably linked with other people. Westerners say: I think, so I am. Africans say: I am human, because I participate and share”. Hence follows the incentive to solve conflicts by  social harmony, endless consultation and dialogue.

Although this statement is attributed to Bishop Tutu, it seems to me just as well to reflect a romantic Western view of Africans. Up to the generalizations and inaccuracies associated with all romantisations.

Such an inaccuracy, in my view, is the assumption that the West would not know collectivity. On the contrary, I would say, what else were the patriotic movements in many European countries in the nineteenth century, up to the enthusiasm with which those countries attacked one another in the Great War of 1914? And to what extent citizens, even after that war, could be enraptured by a sense of togetherness can still be seen in films from Nazi Germany from the thirties. The problem is: we had our fill of it. Reasoning along these historic lines we may also settle with another assumption that is implied in the romantic image. Because the idea that collectivities, not only in Western Europe but also in Africa, are not beatific can become sufficiently clear from the terrible massacres that have occurred on the African continent over the past twenty-five years between African peoples. Often fought out not with Western armaments, but with authentic African machetes.

Finally, if Mandela made clear anything, it is the indispensability of individual conscience. In comparing Mandela with some other great contemporary minds like Havel and Sakharov, commentator Stevo Akkerman arrives at a feature they have in common. “Their greatness is inseparable from the efforts of the prevailing power to make them small – that these efforts  were not successful was due to a sense of personal autonomy which no executioner can compete with. The greatness resides here in the stubborn adherence to the ideals of equality and dignity, knowing – which applied very strong for both Havel and Mandela – that human rights are inalienable, for everyone, always. So even for evildoers”. It is hard so say this in a more abstract and less collectivist way.

My conclusion is that Ubuntu, at least in the popular romantic sense in which it is used a lot, cannot inspire me very much. For that to accomplish it too much extols the ‘collective’ and ‘participation’, and the concept does not help to discern between participating in a good and a bad way.

I do not mean to say that one does not need a social context. Indeed, I think humans need that very much. What I do say is that one should be careful with collectivities when it comes to distinctions between right and wrong. In spite of all it might be the individual which is the find-spot for hat kind of distinctions. In any case, a great deal of loneliness has indeed been characteristic of the life of Nelson Mandela.

Also see The Heroic Cosmopolitical Individual