Human rights should be a Jewish priority

Human rights should be a Jewish priority

Sunday, Dec. 10, is International Human Rights Day (IHRD). On that date in 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which asserts that the “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.” 

The horrors of World War II, especially the murder of six million Jews in the Holocaust, provided the impetus behind the development of this document, which has served as the foundation for international human rights law. 

This year, a special campaign will be launched leading up to the 70th anniversary of the declaration’s adoption. You would think that, given our core values and history of persecution, the Jewish community would be at the forefront of activities surrounding IHRD. Yet, the upcoming anniversary of the declaration, with some exceptions, has largely flown under the Jewish community’s radar. 

I discussed this issue with Rabbi Elliott Tepperman at Bnai Keshet, the Reconstructionist synagogue in Montclair, who agreed that the Jewish community should be more assertively taking up the cause of human rights.

“The very first thing the Torah tells us about humanity is that humans were created betzelem Elokim, in the image of God,” he told me. “It is central to Jewish theology, ritual, and practice that all human beings must be treated with dignity.” 

I also spoke with Rabbi Cecelia Beyer at Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael in Springfield. She too expressed surprise that this issue doesn’t receive more attention in the Jewish community. “Our responsibility is not simply to keep our traditions and rituals,” she said. “Our Torah and our historical experience obligate us to not idly stand by when the blood of our neighbor is shed.” 

At times, it almost seems like members of our community view the term “human right” negatively. To a certain extent, I understand why. On the international stage, at the UN Human Rights Council and elsewhere, Israel has long been unfairly targeted for alleged violations of human rights, the accusers themselves often being the most egregious violators. Some of the prominent international human rights groups, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, are widely regarded as biased against Israel. Community and campus activists, including those in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS), often build their campaigns around distortions of Israel’s human rights record. 

Yet it would be a huge mistake to use these negative human rights manifestations as a rationale to walk away from the arena. As Jews, we understand all too well the consequences of living in a world in which human rights are grossly disrespected. And although our mainstream institutions generally have failed to provide meaningful opportunities, I believe there is a strong desire among American Jews to be actively engaged with the human rights agenda. 

Why? In 2004, as senior vice president at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, I assumed a leadership position on the board of the Save Darfur Coalition. Together with the American Jewish World Service, an organization that has consistently been a powerful voice advocating for human rights, we urged the Jewish community to get involved in what had emerged as the first genocide in the 21st century — and they responded. 

Many Jewish community relations councils established local and state-wide interfaith Darfur coalitions — including the Community Relations Committee of Greater MetroWest — and congregational and Jewish organizational Darfur committees seemed to be everywhere. In fact, in “Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide,” his memoir of the time he spent as Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael B. Oren expressed surprise that he saw more “Save Darfur” signs on synagogue lawns than signs associated with Israel. In 2006, the SDC sponsored two massive rallies in Washington and New York City, both with disproportionately large Jewish participation. 

Over time, the enthusiasm generated by the SDC waned, but my experience in those peak years of activism proved to me that American Jews are interested in being part of a pro-human rights movement. Parenthetically, for those thinking about how to create a vital Jewish future, it’s also worth noting that there were many Jewish youth groups present at the 2006 rallies. 

Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, the global Jewish nonprofit that protects and advocates for refugees, shares my assessment about the absence of mainstream Jewish institutional involvement. “While human rights issues are so important to American Jews and even to their identity as Jews, this has not been reflected in the American-Jewish community agenda,” he said. On that point, Hetfield lamented that the cause was “totally absent” from the agenda of the recent Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in Los Angeles.

One organization that has promoted observance of IHRD is T’ruah, the nonprofit which uses its network of 1,800 rabbis and cantors from all streams of Judaism to advance human rights in the United States, Israel, and the Palestinian territories. One of T’ruah’s initiatives is to sponsor Human Rights Shabbat programs, through which the organization provides participating communities with background materials and ideas for action. For the first time Beyer’s Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael will be one of New Jersey’s eight participating communities. She said there will be sermons and text study devoted to the issue on Shabbat. 

Of course, there may be other programs taking place around the state not linked to T’ruah’s initiative, but I have yet to see other event announcements. 

My hope, my dream, my vision is that eventually virtually all synagogues, Hillels, community relations councils, and other Jewish institutions will come to regard Dec. 10 as a day for almost obligatory programming, the way we regard Yom Hazikaron or Yom Ha’atzmaut. The cause for human rights shouldn’t be one and off, either; just as we remain involved with Israel throughout the year, so too should we should maintain engagement with human rights. 

Speaking of Israel, it’s true, as I noted above, that the Jewish state has been systematically and unfairly targeted for alleged human rights abuses. Israel, facing perhaps the most challenging security situation of any country in the world, is a robust democracy that, overall, places a priority on respect for human rights. That doesn’t mean Israel is above criticism. Since American Jews express great pride in Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, we have every right — I would argue an obligation — to call Israel’s government out when we believe it is not living up to core Jewish values. 

One example: Myanmar’s military junta has been widely accused of engaging in a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya Muslim minority, which U.S. Secretary of State Rex said has characteristics of “crimes against humanity.” The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has taken it a step further, warning that there is “mounting evidence” of genocide. And yet, Israel stands accused of selling sophisticated weapons to the Myanmar regime, with members of the junta apparently boasting of their military relationship with Israel. 

I reached out to an official Israeli government source who told me that “Israel doesn’t discuss, deny, or confirm any defense, assistance, and cooperation interaction we have with any state in the world. We never discuss publicly our defense exports, and Myanmar is included.” 

Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued the following obfuscatory statement: “Israel is not involved in the tragedy in the Rakhine region of Myanmar. The oversight policy of Israel’s security exports is examined frequently in keeping with various considerations, among them the human rights situation in the destination country.” 

Regardless, moving forward, Israel should refrain from any military relationship with Myanmar’s regime. T’ruah recently organized a petition with hundreds of signatures from rabbis and cantors protesting Israel’s alleged weapons sales. Tepperman and Beyer were among the 15 NJ signatories. The national leadership of the Union for Reform Judaism and the Reconstructionist movement also joined, but it would be encouraging to see other mainstream Jewish organizations speak out as well. 

Yes, we must continue to vigorously defend Israel’s record against misrepresentations promulgated by the UN Human Rights Council and others. But no less effort should be expended in seeking to advance the cause of human rights in Israel or anywhere else. By doing so, we will fulfill our sacred mission of serving as an “or Lagoyim,” a light unto the nations.

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