Ending Injustices, Winning Respect: Israel, It’s Time to Shape Up

Saying, ‘We are bad but others are worse’ is no form for the Jewish people. We must behave in a way that brings honor to the Creator and elicits honor from others.

When five-year-old Wa’adi Maswada was detained for throwing a stone at a settler's car, Israel hit the headlines. International news networks screened images of the terrified little boy surrounded by seven heavily armed Israeli soldiers.

Many Israelis were outraged. "Brutal massacres of innocent civilians take place across the world", they said, "so why shine the spotlight on someone who committed a potentially lethal crime, was questioned and then returned to his family unscathed?"

Then came the earthquake. European Union sanctions targeting Israel. Once again, Israelis feel under attack. Compared to events elsewhere, our country's crimes seem trivial.

But as a Zionist, Orthodox rabbi, I know that we should judge ourselves by higher standards. Otherwise, we stand in danger of becoming a grotesque caricature of the joke about the rabbi who takes up his first position just in time for the funeral of a notorious rogue. Stuck for anything to say, he turns to the assembled congregation, "You who knew him so well, surely one of you has a good word to say about him," he appeals. Everyone shuffles awkwardly, no one has anything positive to offer, until eventually one old man steps forward, "His brother was worse!" he says.

Pointing out that other countries are worse is an ironic role for a people charged with being "a light to the nations, so that all the world may be saved” (Isaiah 49: 6).

When, many years ago, interviewers asked civil rights campaigner Archbishop Trevor Huddleston how long he thought the South African apartheid regime could last, his response was memorable. "People," he said, "toy with the possibility that these injustices may end in a week, a year or perhaps a decade. What they fail to recognize is that every moment injustices continue is an abominable disgrace." He therefore called vigorously for sanctions against South Africa.

In his book "Naught for Your Comfort" Huddleston explains that while we remain connected to the unnecessary suffering of others we have no grounds for comfort.

Israel is not South Africa and ours is not an apartheid regime. But so long as there is injustice against the weaker members of our society - be they Holocaust survivors, the poor, the refugees, Palestinians or Bedouins - the message of "Naught for Your Comfort" remains pertinent.

Last week, we marked Tisha B'Av. It was the culmination of three weeks of mourning during which traditional Jews relived the destruction of the Temple recognizing that while we celebrate our miraculous return to the Land of Israel, our redemption and the redemption of the world is not yet complete. We must face up to our failures, and reckon with our responsibilities.

Now we are in the "Seven Weeks of Comfort", when synagogues around the world read comforting passages from the Book of Isaiah. When we refuse to tolerate the slightest moral lapses, we may seek comfort with God. "For Zion shall be redeemed through justice and her penitents through righteousness" (Isaiah 1: 27).
In the face of Islamophobia and attacks on British mosques, London's ultra-Orthodox community has reached out with magnanimity. Their Hasidic and Haredi guards, who normally stand watch over communal buildings and patrol Jewish neighborhoods, are now operating in local mosques and ensuring the safety of local Muslims.

In London the wolf is living with the lamb (see Isaiah 11:6).

This sort of activity shows generosity, integrity, and compassion. It creates not condemnation and sanctions, but plaudits to the Jewish community and a sanctification of God's name.

As our rabbis teach:

"Which is the proper course for a person to choose? That which brings honor to the Creator and elicits honor from other people" (Ethics of the Fathers 2:1).


Rabbi Gideon Sylvester is the British United Synagogue's Rabbi in Israel and directs the education program for the Jerusalem branch of the Rene Cassin Fellowship Program in Judaism and Human Rights. He was recently appointed Senior Rabbinic Educator in Israel for T'ruah – The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.