How Much Is an Israeli's Life Worth?

Jewish Israelis have a responsibility to fight as hard for the rights of African asylum seekers and Palestinians as they do for the release of the three kidnapped teens.

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Israelis hold signs during a rally calling for the release of the three missing Israeli teens, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sunday, June 29, 2014.
Israelis hold signs during a rally calling for the release of the three missing Israeli teens, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sunday, June 29, 2014.Credit: AP

The scenes at the United Nations last week were disturbing. Racheli Fraenkel, mother of kidnapped teen Naftali, addressed the United Nations Human Rights Council, urging them to campaign for the release of the three kidnapped Israeli teenagers. She was accompanied by the mothers of the two other young men.

While Israelis have been solid in their support for the families, the reception at the United Nations was frostier. Cynical questions were asked about whether there had been a kidnapping at all and representatives of Muslim countries used the forum to challenge Israel's own record on human rights.

The Israeli response fits our tradition of caring for every Jew. In the preface to his book "The Case for Democracy," Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency, records that as a refusenik prisoner in Communist Russia, when the KGB told him, "the only people speaking out for you are bunch of students and housewives", he immediately understood that word of his captivity had spread and Jews everywhere had mobilised in an international campaign for his release.

This solidarity represents a fundamental Jewish belief that every human life is of infinite value. This, our rabbis teach, is why Adam was created alone in the Garden of Eden, to show that it was worth creating an entire world for the sake of one human being. From this, we derive the principle that anyone who saves a single human life is considered to have saved an entire world.

Outsiders may admire Israel's dogged campaign for its people, but they see a broader canvas. How, they ask, can news of the three missing Israelis trump the daily death toll of 20,000 people who die because of poverty? Is the suffering of our three young men worse than that of people trapped in the fighting in Syria or Iraq or the 200 young girls kidnapped in Nigeria?

Others challenge us by asking uncomfortable questions about the limits of our compassion regarding minorities in our homeland. People who champion the refugees whom Israel has imprisoned in Holot and Palestinians swept up in police searches and imprisoned without trial want to know why there is not the same public outcry about their fate.

As a Jewish Israeli, I feel the deepest concern and sympathy with the plight of my people. The State of Israel was created to protect us and it must do just that. Former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who was repeatedly imprisoned for his Zionist activities, once said (as recorded in Yehuda Avner's "The Prime Ministers," p468): "The first time I was arrested in Vilna, I dreamt of being back home. The second time, I was sent to a forced labour camp in Siberia where the conditions were much harsher; after six weeks I even dreamed of a return to the first prison, and on my third arrest, the Soviets put me in solitary confinement and I dreamt of being back in the labor camp. My job as Prime minister is to ensure that Jewish children do not dream of prisons and labour camps, but of freedom."

But it was the same Menachem Begin who declared that his first duty as a Jewish Prime Minister would be to rescue and grant asylum to the non-Jewish Vietnamese boat people who were desperately searching refuge in a hostile world.

Two years ago, at a Conference of the Governors of the Jewish Agency, Israel's Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor suggested that minorities campaign for human rights in order to defend themselves and promote their own interests. The test of whether we believe in human rights is how concerned we are for others once we form a majority.

Nothing can detract from the infinite suffering of parents of the kidnapped children, desperate to hear news of their children. Nothing mitigates the pain or reduces our responsibility to campaign as hard as we can to find them. I am proud that my nation takes this responsibility so seriously. Being a majority does not detract from our right to defend ourselves. But as Jews and as Zionists, whose sacred mission is to create a just world, we dare not be derelict in our duty by ignoring the plight of others who share our land.

Rabbi Gideon Sylvester is the British United Synagogue's Israel Rabbi and the Senior Rabbinic Educator for T'ruah, the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. He writes in a personal capacity.

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