The Western Canon informs our sense of Right

During winter break, I spoke with Eli Moyal, the mayor of Sderot, a poor city in the south of Israel. We met in City Hall. The day before, a missile struck ten meters away. In the past six years, thousands of missiles have hit Sderot. Due to the constant rain of missiles, every child in the city shows signs of post-traumatic stress, according to a Tel Aviv University study; over 10 percent of the population has left.

The missiles, called Qassams, are sent from Hamas-controlled Gaza. The Qassam missiles are very easy to make, and their launching sites can be constructed and dismantled within minutes. That is not the point of this column.

The Mayor told me that in addition to Hamas, Hizballah, Islamic Jihad and Al-Qaeda cells also have fired Qassams into Sderot. Hamas believes that the Israelis merely occupy Sderot and the rest of Israel; they seek to take it from the Jews on behalf of the Arabs of Palestine. That is not the point of this column either.

That is not the point of this column because Hamas, like Hizballah, Islamic Jihad and Al-Qaeda, has radical designs for Sderot. Hamas, an arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, advocates religious dogmatism. Hamas hopes not only to drive the non-Muslims out of what they call Palestine but also to implement Islamic law. It takes the redemption of Palestine very seriously; the Hamas charter allows slaves to fight the Jews without permission of their masters and women to fight without permission of their husbands.

Sderot is a liberal and democratic city. Children go to school; women go to work; homosexuals have full rights. Russian, European, and Ethiopian Jews more or less get along, and they elect their own officials.

According to Moyal, while many of his citizens have left for good, others, not from Sderot, have moved to the city in solidarity. These arrivals have voted with their feet to support democracy against dogmatism, putting their lives and the lives of their children at risk in order to preserve individual liberty.

On the other side of the globe, at the same time, we Yalies shop classes. We do not think about the Islamic Resistance Movement and the benefits of liberty. We think about weekend parties and the benefits of majoring in history.

Are we Yalies equipped to argue for freedom and liberty against the claims of dogmatism and tyranny? We all prefer Western-style liberal democracy to religious dogmatism. But too few of us know how to justify that preference.

The advocate for liberty we most recently remembered is the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He justified his preference for liberalism and democracy by drawing on American and Christian sources. King did not dismiss Jefferson’s Declaration and our Constitution. He called them “magnificent words” and “a promissory note.” King did not reject Christianity but reflected profoundly on it and found in it justification for racial equality. King returned to the texts and in them found the words and the ideas to express fundamental human truths: all men are equal, no matter their color, no matter their religion.

To her credit, Yale teaches these magnificent words that ground our liberal democratic tradition. We enroll in courses about that canon which equips us to make these arguments; but it is too easy to avoid the great books in favor of courses that seem sexy but cannot help us refute sexism, the sort of sexism that would prevent women from acting without their husbands’ permission (except to kill Jews).

Allow me a hypothetical. How would you dispute with a real enemy of liberal democracy confronting you, whether with firehoses or Qassams? How would you argue for civil rights of representation and religion? We need not to invent the answers for ourselves. We can return to the answers the giants before us have provided, debate them, and in them find the reasons to advocate for liberal democracy.

In honor of Rev. King, read his famous speeches and his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” They have earned a place in the canon as timeless reflections on civil disobedience and the purpose of law. But go back and reread Thomas Jefferson too, and St. Augustine, and St. Paul, and the other authors to whom King refers. Question whether King was right to break the law, to subject himself and his allies to harm. Take up the issue with your friends. Sitting pretty in a free New Haven, you may not move to Sderot, and you cannot return to march with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Birmingham.

But we may reason why, when we find injustice, we will be able to fight it.

Michael Pomeranz is a junior in Silliman College. His column usually runs on alternate Mondays.

Comments

  • Anonymous

    "Are we Yalies equipped to argue for freedom and liberty against the claims of dogmatism and tyranny?"

    "Allow me a hypothetical. How would you dispute with a real enemy of liberal democracy confronting you?"

    Dear boy, so filled with youthful idealism! How do Yalies react? Well, by gum, just trot on over to any of the Zeta Psi forums and view for yourself both a tyrannous and dogmatic assault (the bow-shot "premeditated hate speech" should chill your very bowels) and its (non-)response.

    You cry about Qassams; missiles are being lobbed at your very Constitutional rights!

    Okay, big boy: put your money where your mouth is and stand with the likes of Voltaire and defend your unfettered right to speech.

    I look forward to your future activism.

    Just an old alumnus

  • Anonymous

    I'm not really sure what you are trying to say here. Your first paragraph was actually the best - factual and to the point. Then you fell into the "I'm trying to sound intellectual" mode. How long were you in Sderot? What did you do besides interview the Mayor? Did you do anything to help the people there? Did you teach English to any of the kids? Did you bring meals to people who can't leave their apartments? As we say here - in Israel - 'tachlis!' - do what counts! That's what Dr. King would tell you to do!

    By the way, I used to live in New Haven - right before I came on Aliyah. My husband - now ex-husband - was friends with Danny Greer whom I'm sure you've heard of.

  • Anonymous

    Liberal democracy is no more rooted in what you call the "Western canon" than the terrorism of Hamas is rooted in Islamic dogmatism. Indeed, it was the rejection of the stalest of the Christian dogmas of the Middle Ages (papal infallibility, anyone?) that led to the Renaissance and with it the birth of the intellectual currents that got us to the Panglossian state we now enjoy.