Bakers for Bread, Cobblers for Shoes, 'Rabbis for Human Rights'

Religious Zionism must show concern for the 'other' so as not to become morally bankrupt.

I am proud to belong to an organization even though it has a funny name. It's called "Rabbis for Human Rights".

I find the name strange for two reasons. Firstly, it’s a tautology. At the heart of Judaism lies the need to care for others, so this name seems as silly as bakers for bread, cobblers for shoes or tailors for suits.

The other peculiar thing about the name is that Judaism tends not to express itself in terms of "human rights"; instead it speaks of "human duties". Rather than stating that everyone has a right to education or health provision, Judaism commands our communities to set up schools and our doctors to heal. The reason for this is best expressed by my teacher, British Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks. He compares human rights to checks; "They have value only if there is money in the bank. They presuppose a society in which we are collectively willing to pay the price of the many claims made upon us." Without the willingness of society to grant human rights, they are worthless.

So why is this strangely named organization so important?

The Bible opens with the idea that humanity is created in the image of God, bestowing infinite value on every individual. Abraham is chosen by God to lead the Jewish people because, "He will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just" (Genesis 18: 19) and the prophets echoed this endlessly; "Let justice roll on like an ever flowing river and righteousness like an powerful stream" said the prophet Amos. (Amos 5: 24).

Religious communities are justly celebrated for being charitable and caring societies, but they can also be insular. We don't always know our neighbor: "the other".
Two weeks ago, a yeshiva was closed down because it was fostering hatred and racism, shortly before that, the rabbis who stands at the head of one of the religious parties led a campaign to deport the children of foreign workers, and we listen in vain for a loud rabbinic condemnation of the "price tag" attacks on mosques, olive groves and army bases.

The demonstrations against the withdrawal from Gaza and the Shabbat protests in Jerusalem demonstrated beyond any doubt that religious communities are capable of mobilizing themselves and making a powerful impact on Israeli society. So why are we silent in the face of injustices to anyone other than our own narrow constituency?

Every morning, in the newspapers we read about a litany of injustices in Israel, whether they are against women, Sephardim, Palestinians, Bedouins, or foreign workers – the list goes on. It's reasonable to be a little skeptical about what we read in the press, so let's assume, for the sake of argument, that ten, twenty, fifty, even ninety percent of these reports are exaggerated or even baseless. Doesn't that still leave a fair amount of work to protect the vulnerable in Israel?

Honorable people step in to help when they have some acquaintance with the victims, but where we have never personally encountered the suffering of women, foreign workers and refugees in South Tel Aviv, or the Palestinians who live on the other side of the separation fence; we are far less likely to do anything about their plight.

That's why, sometimes, it's not enough to focus only on our own assessment of our duties. We must look beyond our own immediate circle to ensure other people's rights.

I am an Orthodox Rabbi and a proud Zionist, but I believe that if Religious Zionism is to have a compelling message for the next generation, it cannot restrict its activities to concern for the Land of Israel. If it shows no concern for "the other", it will become morally bankrupt.

While protecting our sovereign state from existential threats, we must strive to be the most decent, caring people in the world. That is the mission of the Jewish people. The guardians of that mission are the rabbis. Until we have perfected our society, membership of Rabbis for Human Rights remains a badge of honor.

Rabbi Gideon Sylvester directs the Rabbis for Human Rights Beit Midrash at the Hillel House of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and serves as the British United Synagogue's Rabbi in Israel.

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