The Fifth Column: New Year’s resolutions for the universally-minded

What change would we like to be a part of in 2018?

December 28, 2017 22:36
4 minute read.

European Parliament member Terry Reintke (C) holds a placard with the hashtag "MeToo" during a debate to discuss preventive measures against sexual harassment and abuse in the EU at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, October 25, 2017.. (photo credit: REUTERS/CHRISTIAN HARTMANN)

I dislike cats.

Perhaps not the best way to start a column for a person who heads an organization that is occasionally called “racist” for supporting the human race. But there we have it. They’re selfish, not that bright and, to top it off, I’m allergic to them.

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Furthermore, people who spend their time watching cat videos have always struck me as banal. Whenever I saw one of these videos shared on Facebook I’d think to myself: “Seriously?! Has world peace been achieved? Has world hunger ended? Have all the diseases been cured? Climate change fixed? You honestly have nothing better, more meaningful to do with your limited time on this planet?”

On November 9, 2016, I clicked on my first-ever cat video. It involved a kitten chasing a laser pointer beam until it fell off a sofa. It was funny, adorable, and for two whole minutes took my mind off the smug face of the hate-mongering, self-admitted woman-molesting, insult-to-all-that-is-holy man who had just been elected president of the United States – one of the two countries where I vote.

In the weeks that followed, many more cat videos were watched, joined by panda cubs, adorable baby sloths and a suicidal praying mantis. Anything to avoid the news and to dim the pain.

Trump’s election was the peak of what in any case was a very bad 2016, and the general feeling last December was “Let this year end already.” Garfield (my favorite cartoon, ironically) gets rained on whenever he asks: “What else could go wrong today?” and we were all rained on when we asked: “How much worse could 2017 be?”

However, as 2017 comes to an end, I am more hopeful. Having successfully weaned myself of fluffy animal videos, I find that a great many people around the world have decided to no longer stand idly by, and have begun taking action in record numbers. Americans and many others around the world learned what we in Israel have been living with for many years: the need to express to the world that our government does not define who we are as a people. People took to the streets in record numbers, from Charlottesville to Tel Aviv. Throughout Europe and elsewhere, masses of people have carried the message “I welcome refugees” in the face of increasingly divisive rhetoric and government action.

At its core, I see this as a conflict between relativity and universality. The rise of populism in many places around the world has to do with relativity, pointing to a certain group of people and explaining that they are the cause of the majority’s problems: Mexicans, Muslims and people of color in the US; refugees; Palestinians here in Israel. “They” are threatening “our” way of life. The “other” is demonized, made to appear lesser and sinister, such as Trump’s “The refugees all have AIDS” or “Mexicans are rapists” (rich coming from him); “Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls” by our own prime minister.

Universality, rooted in the teachings of all major religions, was first established in national bills of rights such as the Magna Carta, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, and the US Bill of Rights. As an international framework, it was first established in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. This declaration, and the various human rights treaties that followed – such as the 1951 Refugee Convention – were created in the aftermath of WWII and its atrocities, as the world’s way of saying “Never again.”

Never again will a nation be allowed to conduct genocide, never again will people fleeing the atrocities of war be barred entry and safe haven. Whenever we allow ourselves to succumb to the rhetoric of relativity, it is at the expense and the erosion of these memories and values.

When studying history, one often wonders, “What would I have done in that place and in that time?” Well, history is being written now, too. In Syria, in Myanmar, but also in the US and Israel, there will come a day when we will get to look back, and tell our grandchildren what we did when Trump was president, when Netanyahu led Israel into its 51st year of occupation, with no hope in sight.

As we look to 2018 and consider our New Year’s resolutions, in addition to personal improvement – including one hopes fewer cat videos, let us dedicate ourselves to tackling relativity. Let us act, let us defy, let us send out a loud message that “This is not in my name!” The recent, wonderful #metoo campaign taught us an important lesson of just how much one person can effect change.
What change would we like to be a part of in 2018?

The writer is the director of Amnesty International Israel, and formerly worked for the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance, Greenpeace and the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel.

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