Prof. Uriel Abolof from the School of Political Science, Government and International Relations at Tel Aviv University, teaches a course on hope and the human condition, which was named the best online course in the world in political science and philosophy
By: Michal Bachar
The year 2024 did not start with celebrations. The "Iron Swords" war, the abductees whose return we long for, the dead soldiers, the loss of the sense of security and the ongoing division in the nation - all affect the national and personal mood. Where, then, can we draw inspiration for hope?
Uriel Abolof is an associate professor of political science at Tel Aviv University and a visiting professor at Cornell University. He explores the politics of fear, happiness and hope. Many of his academic articles deal with the politics of identities, legitimacy and political violence, nationalism, revolutions and ethnic conflicts in the Middle East and beyond.
Abolof published the book: "According to an abyss: nation, terror, and morality in the Zionist discourse", which won the Bhat Prize for the best non-fiction book, and the book: "The Mortality and Morality of Nations” published by Cambridge University Press. He strives to develop "political existentialism" as a new branch of thought, and among other things he created and leads the online course "HOPE", which was crowned as the best in the world in political science and philosophy and one of the best online courses of all time. He makes his ideas accessible to the general public through two blogs, in the popular magazine Psychology Today , and on the initiative Sapienism.
On 31.12.2023/XNUMX/XNUMX, exactly at midnight, the sky of Israel was filled with rockets launched at it, instead of the fireworks we are used to. How can we find hope in last year's summaries for all of us?
"2023 was the worst year in Israel's history. As an Israeli in Israel - this is how it was, to a large extent, for me as well," says Prof. Aboloff. "The year 2023 turned the trauma into a horrifying daily reality - national and personal. To say that we are a post-traumatic society would miss the mark, we haven't even reached the post. Even now, at the beginning of 2024."
So how do we proceed from here? The philosopher René Descartes claimed: "I think - means I exist", and Prof. Aboloff explains that with this statement he provides evidence and not justification for human existence. "Descartes explains to us how we can know that we exist, but does not give a good reason for existence," he claims and offers to complete the sentence: "As long as I breathe, I hope, and therefore exist."
"As long as we breathe, and recognize that every exhalation, every inhalation, is also a choice, we can be filled with hope in the face of the human possibility to choose better - and therefore stick to life." But Prof. Abolof is sober: "It is clear that in 2023, especially after October 7, we feel more than ever before that it is 'hard to breathe', and this difficult feeling captures the existential situation and the national mood. For me," he shares, "precisely because of this, precisely in view of the 'worst year' there is value, sometimes priceless, to the 'Safinism' project."
What is "Safinism"?
"I use the term to name the effort to understand what distinguishes and unites us as human beings, and how humanity can rise to its humanity. You can simply ask 'what are we?' and reply with the same simplicity 'humans'. Well and good, but what does that mean? In the academy, we invented terms that should provide an answer: the 'Homo Biologicus' (biological man), who is motivated by evolutionary imperatives of the selfish gene, the 'Homo Economicus' who is motivated by material cost-benefit calculations, the 'Homo Sociologicus' who is motivated by social identities , and the 'homo psychologicalus' who is driven by emotions. But these are all qualities we share with animals or machines. So where are the 'homo Spaniards', where is our added value - even if not superiority -?"
What, then, distinguishes and unites us?
Prof. Abolof believes that the time has come for a new science, which will explore what is unique to humans. "Our humanity can no longer be taken for granted," he explains, "for example, in view of the challenge of artificial intelligence, many point to the possibility that machines will become quasi-human. We miss an equally important point: already today many of us, human beings, are becoming quasi-machines. To some extent we have become 'watchmen', we think of the world as a mechanistic clock with wheels of cause and effect, and no less than that we walk with a clock that is running out, constantly fearing the next miss (the FOMO) of an experience, success, promotion. If we focus on the human in the person, we may be able to complete the ticking of the clock by adjusting the compass, with a renewed intention towards the good, the right and the beautiful - a compass and a conscience that can help us navigate our short lives."
And in your life?
"Because they are short, I try to live them as consciously as I can - to reflect and challenge myself, and myself, to dare to reveal the individual 'self', which we hide, often out of fear and sometimes out of shame, in a multitude of identity guises, to share insights passing with others and thus perhaps learning from the countless mistakes I made, and still continue to make. The 'Safinism' blog provides me with this breathing space, and I always invite others, especially students, to add their impressions to it."
A shard in the heart
"As 2019 came to a close, the New York Times proudly proclaimed: 'It was the best year ever.' Do we know what happened next, or have we already forgotten?" asks Prof. Abolof and alludes to the corona epidemic that stopped the world for three long years. "Maybe this time we'll be lucky and have the opposite effect: a terrible year followed by a good one?" He wonders and adds, "But it's not a matter of luck, but of willingness to learn from experience and make the right choice. One essential lesson to learn is to recognize our arrogance, and to downplay it as much as we can. After all, our arrogance is a major reason for the great horror of the October Seven. The state institutions of our 'high-tech nation' have collapsed before our eyes, leaving us with a broken heart and heavy darkness. These are precisely the moments when we must open our eyes to the darkness, around us and within us, in order to overcome it."
If we dare to look directly into the darkness of Israeli society, it seems that we are a society with extensive and stormy internal polarization, surrounded by enemies from all sides. How do you deal with the difficult feeling, which many are now experiencing, that we have enemies both within and without?
"The title of Shalom Hanoch's song 'Don't call me a people' is appropriate here," replies Prof. Aboloff. "I am only a human being and at most 'one of the people', sharing pains and hopes, and the same is true of the other. We learned the hard way in 2023 how divided we can be, even divided, we learned that it is wrong to generalize about all Israelis. We need to apply the same insight to others. Not 'the whole world against us' and not even all Muslims, Arabs, and Palestinians. We must turn away from evil and do good - and this requires reaching out, and hope."
Chessing of thought
Can we reach out in such a challenging time? Prof. Aboloff believes that this can be done, and not only that it is possible, but also that it should be done - especially now. "I live in Jerusalem, on French Hill, and right across the balcony we can see Issawiya and the Shoafat refugee camp. On the night of Shabbat in October and many nights after that we heard D-Nor fireworks and happy shots. But on the other hand, in our neighborhood, where Jews and Arabs, religious and secular, live, we found a brave and deep partnership, and a human and interpersonal ability to find comfort and strength to continue. We need to recognize the dangers, but not give up the possibility of a better future, not surrender to the 'chesmatization' of thought - to a binary and one-dimensional assumption that everyone is only one way or another, black and white, soldiers for life and death. This is what bigots on both sides - through a cycle of humiliation and revenge - want us to think about each other. You must not surrender to them."
Israel is better
"I hold on to hope," confesses Prof. Abolof. "Throughout 2023, I found myself, like many Israelis, relearning our ability to fight for what is right. Despite all its hardships, 2023 also marks the beautiful hour of Israeli civil society and on October 7 - its baptism of fire. When the country collapsed, the citizens intervened. We can, and should, trust ourselves more. The year 2023 can still become the dark womb from which a better Israel can be born - together, with the understanding that deep humanity weaves the 'I' and the 'us'. In the last breaths of 2023 and the fresh breaths of 2024, I find myself remembering one happy moment of 2023. What can I hope for? us. What can we hope for? For everything."
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