A reader from Istanbul wrote in, asking me to comment on the war in Israel and Lebanon. In other words, he wants me to make this blog the scene of yet another intellectual bloodbath, with insult-laden rockets launched from untraceable IP addresses and complexity-theoretic civilians trapped in the crossfire. What a neat idea! Why didn’t I think of it before?
Alright, let me start with some context. No, I’m not talking about the Gaza pullout, or Camp David, or the last Lebanon invasion, or the Yom Kippur War, or the Six-Day War, or the War of Independence, or the UN partition plan, or the 1939 White Paper. I’m talking about the first appearance of Israel in the extrabiblical historical record, which seems to have been around 1200 BC. Boasting in a victory stele about his recent military conquests in Canaan, the Egyptian pharaoh Merneptah included a single sentence about Israel:
Israel is laid waste; his seed is destroyed.
Sure, the pharoah was a bit premature. But give him credit for prescience if not for accuracy. Unlike (say) pyramid-building or Ra-worship, Merneptah’s Jew-killing idea has remained consistently popular for 3.2 millennia.
Today, in the year 2006, as the LHC prepares to find the Higgs boson and the New Horizons probe heads to Pluto, Am Yisra’el (literally, “the people that argues with God”) is once again surrounded by enemies whose stated goal is to wipe it off the face of the Earth. And, in the familiar process of fighting for its existence, that people is grievously, inexplicably, incompetently, blowing up six-year-olds and farmers while failing to make any visible progress on its military objectives.
So what is there to say about this that hasn’t already been said Ackermann(50) times? Instead of cluttering the blogosphere any further, I’ll simply point you to a beautiful New York Times op-ed by Rebecca Goldstein, commemorating the 350th anniversary of Spinoza’s excommunication from the Jewish community of Amsterdam. Actually, I’ll quote a few passages:
Spinoza’s reaction to the religious intolerance he saw around him was to try to think his way out of all sectarian thinking. He understood the powerful tendency in each of us toward developing a view of the truth that favors the circumstances into which we happened to have been born. Self-aggrandizement can be the invisible scaffolding of religion, politics or ideology.
Against this tendency we have no defense but the relentless application of reason.
Spinoza’s system is a long deductive argument for a conclusion as radical in our day as it was in his, namely that to the extent that we are rational, we each partake in exactly the same identity.
Spinoza’s dream of making us susceptible to the voice of reason might seem hopelessly quixotic at this moment, with religion-infested politics on the march. But imagine how much more impossible a dream it would have seemed on that day 350 years ago.