This week, I attended two lectures sponsored by Yeshiva University’s Center for Ethics, by Kwame Appiah, a prominent professor of philosophy at Princeton. His topics pertained to cosmopolitanism, which he defines as an outlook that is both “universalistic” and accepting of difference.
As an offspring of the marriage between an English mother and a Ghanaian father, he himself embodies cosmopolitanism; he was raised in Ghana, received his university education in England, and is laboring in his academic career at elite universities in the US. If not yet there, he is surely an academic superstar in the making.
Interestingly, in his definition and in his talk, Prof. Appiah indicates that people who extol a form of universalism that does not accept cultural, ethnic or religious differences are not proper cosmopolitans. During the Q & A after the first lecture, I asked him to comment on the Jewish dilemma as posed by Stalinists on the one hand, who condemned Jews as “rootless cosmopolitans,” and Prof. Tony Judt’s famous salvo of a few years ago, from a different perspective, that Israel as “an ethno-religious state” is “an anachronism.”
Prof. Appiah made it clear to a prior questioner that it is “rooted cosmopolitanism” that he especially values. His response to me confirmed my view that Israel is not at all unusual as a country identified in its majority with a single particular people, nor even one that is steeped in a specific religious tradition.
Regarding religion, however, he said that he, for one, would not want to live in a state that was dedicated to a religion other than his own. And of course, as liberal or left Zionists, we find the institutionalized religious aspects of the State of Israel to be troubling; our colleagues in Israel struggle politically for a disestablishment of Orthodox Judaism, and all religion, from the workings of the state. But we have no objection to Israel’s identity as a culturally Jewish society, as long as its minorities are treated fairly and equally.