Am I My Brother's Keeper If My Brother Lives Halfway Around the World?


Am I My Brother's Keeper If My Brother Lives Halfway Around the World?

By Ruth Messinger and Aaron Dorfman

From Rose, Rabbi Or N., Jo Ellen Green Kaiser, and Margie Klein, eds., Righteous Indignation: A Jewish Call for Justice. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2008.

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In March of 1991, a tsunami struck Bangladesh and killed 138,000 people. Both citizens and governments in the West scarcely registered the disaster, and the few who did scarcely acted. The news media barely covered the story, and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) provided limited international humanitarian response. Likewise, the Jewish community's reaction was muted. The disaster was too far away to connect with. CNN was a nascent network; there was no Internet, nor were there tourists with video cameras to record the damage. The essayist Annie Dillard described a conversation with her daughter that tries to make sense of our apathy:

At dinner I mentioned to my daughter, who was then seven years old, that it was hard to imagine 138,000 people drowning. "No, it's easy," she said. "Lots and lots of dots, in blue water."[1]

Lots and lots of dots in blue water. It's a childish image, but how far is it from our own? Annie Dillard recounts the image because it helps to explain why we were unable to connect with what happened. These people are so far away and so anonymous, their problems are so different from our own, that we can't imagine ourselves in their circumstances. And because we can't imagine ourselves in their circumstances, we don't act.

Fast-forward thirteen years. A tsunami once again strikes in the Indian Ocean, killing 225,000 people. This time, the international response is overwhelming. More humanitarian aid was committed by governments and individual citizens in response to the 2004 tsunami than has ever been for any other natural disaster in human history.

The disasters were nearly identical, but the world's responses were radically different. Why?

We watched the 2004 tsunami on television. As the giant waves struck Phuket, Thailand, wealthy European and American tourists, video cameras in hand, stood on hotel room balconies, filmed the waves washing over the beaches and sweeping people away, and transmitted those images almost instantaneously to viewers around the world. You can still watch the videos on YouTube.

A skeptic might argue that we could empathize with the mostly white and relatively affluent tourist-filmers, that their similarity to us accounts for the difference in response. But we think it was something else. The first time, the area hit was a poor one and didn't support a tourist industry. No tourists = no video cameras = no images on the evening news = limited access for an international audience = little humanitarian aid.

The second time, we watched what happened nearly in real time. And in watching, we were brought into the lives of people halfway around the world; we could see their humanity, if only for a moment. But in that moment, we became obligated to them as fellow human beings. The essence of the distinction rests on this shift: these people, so dissimilar from us, so foreign, had entered our universe of obligation.


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Ruth Messinger is the president of American Jewish World Service (AJWS). Prior to assuming this role in 1998, Messinger was in public service in New York City for twenty years, including having served as Manhattan borough president. In 1997, she became the first woman to secure the Democratic Party's nomination for mayor. Messinger is currently a visiting professor at Hunter College. For the past four years, Messinger has been named one of the fifty most influential Jews of the year by the Forward newspaper.

Aaron Dorfman is the director of Jewish education at American Jewish World Service (AJWS). Before joining AJWS, Aaron completed the Wexner Graduate Fellowship with a master's degree in public policy from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and a year of study at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.

1 Annie Dillard, For the Time Being (New York: Vintage Books, 2000), 46.