Not the 'Orthodox Jews Can't Be Leftists' Canard - Again

Once again, it's necessary to refute the false accusations, this time made by Uri Avnery, that Jews don't save non-Jews on Shabbat, and that Orthodox Jews can't be leftists.

"The left is the opposite of fascism" writes Uri Avnery in Haaretz ("Ultimately, Israeli leftism is based on one’s view of the occupation," October 16, 2013), then barely pausing for breath, he adds, "The left is also the opposite of Orthodox Jewish religious law." He backs up his assertion with the oft-repeated calumny that religious Jews don't save the lives of non-Jews on the Sabbath.

If this were written by a gentile and printed in a non-Jewish publication, the entire Jewish world would rise up to protest such anti-Semitic language and associations and they would find considerable support amongst liberal minded gentiles. Regretfully, here in Israel, such offensive and inflammatory language is standard discourse. Still, it requires a response.

Traditional Jewish texts make no assumptions; everything is open to analysis and debate. A cursory perusal of the Talmud will reveal a no-holds-barred discussion of every possible moral conundrum, clarifying priorities and establishing values. But when the debate is over, the law is established: We save any and every human life on Shabbat.

More interesting is Avnery's mischievous accusation that Orthodox Judaism cannot be reconciled with left-wing politics.

Undeniably, just as some secular Israeli politicians hold outrageous, racist views, there are observant Jews and even rabbis whose offensive outbursts against Palestinians, Bedouin, refugees and non-Orthodox Jews put them beyond the pale of democratic debate. They should be met with the full force of Israeli law.

But these fanatics do not define the essence of Orthodox Judaism; the Torah that I learned at the feet of the greatest scholars whose tradition stretch back to Sinai is one "whose paths are pleasant and all of whose ways are peaceful."

Deeply etched into our consciousness is the opening chapter of the Bible which teaches that all of humanity is created in the image of God meaning that every life is of infinite value and each human being must be treated with total respect.

No less important is the most oft-repeated commandment of the Bible obligating Jews to love and care for the stranger in our land.

At the foundation of the State of Israel when scholars were clarifying the relationship of the nascent Jewish State to its non-Jewish minorities, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Isaac Herzog, insisted that every law-abiding resident of the land is entitled to full human and civil rights. His rulings were echoed by his successor Rabbi Isser Yehuda Unterman.

This concern for gentiles is firmly rooted in the actions of our Biblical ancestor Abraham, who warmly welcomed strangers of all faiths into his tent. It finds backing in the Talmud's demand that Jews take care of the non-Jewish sick and poor alongside our own.

These are not just academic interpretations; they find practical expression in the prominent Israeli Orthodox Rabbi Yuval Cherlow's responsa obligating Jews to donate to victims of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and Rabbi Aviner's responsa commending Jews to donate to poor Palestinians living in refugee camps.

On a larger scale, these are the principles that motivated the head of my Yeshiva, Rabbi Yehuda Amital, to found the dovish Meimad Party, whose platform was a powerful blend of Jewish, democratic and left-wing values. The party campaigned hard to promote peaceful dialogue with our neighbors and a fair deal for the poorest Israelis.

Over and over again, Meimad's party leader and former government minister Rabbi Michael Melchior has stressed that Israel must express its Jewish character not only through ritual observance, but through its moral character in particular through exemplary treatment of minorities. During his years in the Knesset, he backed up these assertions with an impressive list of Knesset legislation.

It's not just the left wing politicians who recognize these principles. As many in the country mourn Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, we recall his landmark ruling that Israel's government could exchange land for peace. And while in later years, under the leadership of Eli Yishai, his Shas party took various unpleasant, xenophobic positions, at its peak it championed the rights of Sephardim and the Druze minority suffering discrimination at the hands of the secular Ashkenazi elite.

Those who watched the farewell ceremony for the U.K.'s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks will have seen the leading British journalists, the heir to the throne, four Prime ministers and the leading Bishops of England declaring their gratitude to him as "a national treasure" who has raised the profile of compassionate, tolerant religion and intellectual debate in Britain.

These leading British non-Jews recognized that Orthodox Judaism can teach profound lessons in tolerance, respect and loving kindness - the essence of left-wing politics. Let's hope Mr. Avnery can learn the same lesson.

Rabbi Gideon D. Sylvester is the British United Synagogue's Rabbi in Israel and Senior Rabbinic Educator in Israel for T'ruah – The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. Follow him on Twitter.

Ofer Vaknin
Reuters