The binding of Isaac is one of the most disturbing stories in the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish traditions. We are asked to consider where we are in our moral world.
In the narrative, God orders Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. As Abraham is on his way to do so, God asks him, “Where are you?”
Abraham replies, “Here I am,” and he begins to bind Isaac to the sacrificial altar. A messenger from God intervenes and a ram is given up instead.
I’ve thought about Abraham’s answer, “Here I am,” which in Hebrew is hineni (hee-nay-nee).
Modern scholars suggest that the question and the answer are not literal ones about Abraham’s physical presence; they are, instead, profound and searching words asking us to consider the implication of our actions.
I am a sociologist and a professor. I had been teaching about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda for several years. In summer 2005 I went to Rwanda to meet with survivors and to learn about the almost insurmountable obstacles that exist in a post-conflict setting.
When I returned to the university the following fall, I continued to teach about the crisis in Rwanda but with the deeply disturbing information from my travels.
A devastating question
One day Ina Ziegler, a student in the class, came up to me after a discussion about the genocide. She said, “What are we going to do about this?”
I was devastated by that question. I thought I had been doing a lot. I had taken a difficult trip; I was sharing people’s personal accounts; and I was directing a university-wide program that partnered several hundred mostly white, Christian, suburban students with youth at an inner-city high school for immigrants and refugees. I was patting myself on the back. But Ina was clear: I wasn’t making a difference where these catastrophes had occurred.
Ina essentially asked me, “Where are you?” and I wasn’t able to answer ‘hineni,’ here I am. Ina thought everyone was asking that question – but she was the only one.
Her question haunted me.
Mission: to educate and advocate
Four months later I started the organization that today is World Without Genocide. Our mission is to educate and advocate: to educate people about genocides and mass atrocities in the past and those happening today and to advocate for laws and policies to protect innocent people, prevent violence and discrimination, support the prosecution of perpetrators, and remember those whose lives have been affected by violence.
The crises in Rwanda also forced the international community to reflect on the question “Where are you?” And, like me, the world could not respond with “Hineni, here I am.”
On Dec. 9, 1948, the United Nations ratified the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The very next day, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was ratified. But we know that since the Holocaust, despite these important steps and the promise of ‘never again,’ there have been horrific mass tragedies in many places, including Rwanda.
In 2001, a group of members from the United Nations General Assembly met in Canada. This International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) was to answer the question posed by Kofi Annan, then UN secretary-general: “If humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica — to gross and systematic violations of human rights that affect every precept of our common humanity?”
This commission essentially asked global leaders, “Where are you?” And they responded, “Hineni.” ICISS popularized the concept of humanitarian intervention under the name of “Responsibility to Protect.”
The work of ICISS was followed up at the United Nations 2005 World Summit with a document titled The Responsibility to Protect (R2P or RtoP) that was endorsed by all member states of the United Nations. R2P is a political commitment with four key concerns: to prevent genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.
A new, supportive infrastructure
The U.N. created an infrastructure to support these efforts. The Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect includes two Special Advisers who report directly to the U.N. secretary-general. The Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, a position that began in 2004, raises awareness of the causes, dynamics, and current risks of genocide and advocates and mobilizes for action. The Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect, in place since 2008, leads the conceptual, political, institutional, and operational development of the Responsibility to Protect.
This global commitment encourages international interventions when a state is unable or unwilling to protect the people within its borders. Then why are innocent people still targeted and persecuted in Syria, Yemen, Myanmar, China, Artsakh, Ethiopia, and other places around the world?
Not enough people are saying “Hineni, here I am.” But we are here. We must raise our collective voices. We have the global tools. We need the political will.
Leonard Cohen, on his last album before his death, sings “Hineni, hineni; I’m ready, my lord.” We are approaching days of increasing daylight, a new year, and a fresh start. Let’s be ready. Let’s be here.
Ellen J. Kennedy, Ph.D., is the executive director of World Without Genocide at Mitchell Hamline School of Law.
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