The humanity of the other

The enabling step, David Broza said, in bringing together Jewish and Palestinian musicians in such a tense, fraught, risky situation was to eat together. The evening feasts organised around the recording involved up to a hundred people talking, eating, and singing with one another – catered for by Israeli and Palestinian chefs – a series of encounters that laid the possibility for everything else, an extended conversation for relationship. This, he said, is how things really happen in middle eastern cultures. But it’s also the way of humanity.

The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas makes a similar point. Discovering the human world of others, he says, is a primary moral obligation. And once you see that another person is a human being, as you are, once you enter into an I-You relationship with them, other moral obligations necessarily follow. In the face of the other you are obliged to listen, to enter into dialogue, to say what is true, to extend yourself as far as you can to understand the other’s world, and to respond with both compassion and wisdom.

Perhaps it’s this very fact that leads us to avoid the intimacy of genuine human to human contact in so many situations between communities and in our organisations (where it’s quickly dismissed as ‘touchy feely’, as if that itself seals the matter). Because when we encounter the other as human, we discover that we have responsibility towards them.

Without attending to this, anyone – lover, friend, colleague, child, neighbour, visitor, customer, a whole people – easily becomes an object; an ‘it’, a means to an end, a supply for our own need to be loved, to be right, to rage, to hate, to earn, to judge, to feel superior. When you have eaten with someone and, more significantly, when you have allowed yourself to feel what it is really like to be with them it is much harder to see them this way. When you have heard them talk about the longing of their heart, when you have shared a meal, when you have understood the feel and detail of their ordinary domestic life with its concerns and struggles, when you have looked into their eyes, when you have been in contact with their humanity it’s more difficult to see them as an object: the enemy, the boss, the subordinate, the supplier of my needs, the one to mistrust, the one placed on a pedestal, the Palestinian, the Jew.

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