The Human Rights Challenge: Protect All People, Even Those Who Scare Us

We didn't earn human rights; we were born with them - by virtue of being created in the image of God. If you care about Israel-Palestine, remember that.

Jill Jacobs
Jill Jacobs
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A student and teacher at the Arab-Jewish school in Jerusalem.
A student and teacher at the Arab-Jewish school in Jerusalem. Credit: Reuters
Jill Jacobs
Jill Jacobs

In the image of God, God created humanity (Genesis 1:27).

I wish that every single person engaged with Israel and/or Palestine would recite this verse every single day, particularly today, as the world marks Human Rights Day.

The Torah’s radical claim that every single person is a creation b’tzelem Elohim – in the image of God – compels us to reject any dehumanization of Israelis, Palestinians, or their allies; to mourn the deaths of people on all sides; and to rid even our most vociferous debates of personal attacks or smears.

The biblical sentiment is echoed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations on December 10, 1948 as the world’s response to the Holocaust:

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood."

Too often, discussions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict devolve into nasty rhetoric or personal smears. A Twitter meme launched by pro-Palestinian activists places the word “terrorist” over the face of an American rabbi — prominent in social justice work — who dares to speak of her concern for Israelis as well as for Palestinians. A Web page set up by pro-Israel activists urges potential employers to blacklist students involved in Students for Justice in Palestine. People on all sides engage in name calling, screaming matches, and social media shaming. Both seek to silence their opponents while loudly complaining that they themselves are being silenced.

None of this gets us closer to what actually matters — protecting the lives of both Israelis and Palestinians, too many of whom have died already.

The ancient rabbis pulled no punches about the value of human life. One rabbinic teaching offers the following caution:

On one tablet (of the Ten Commandments) it was written: I am the Lord thy God [the first commandment], and opposite to it, on the other tablet, was written: You shall not murder [the sixth commandment]. This means that one who sheds blood is considered to have diminished (mema’et) the divine image (d’mut). (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Tractate Bahodesh)

In this passage, Rabbi Yishmael compares spilling blood to wounding God. Too often, each side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has seen the other side’s blood as cheap. Palestinians who engage in terror attacks, and those who cheer them on, who rationalize this inexcusable violence, or who perpetuate anti-Semitic tropes that justify murder, all treat Israeli and Jewish lives as expendable. Israel’s ongoing military occupation and settlement project treat Palestinian lives with utter disdain, as evidenced through land theft, middle-of-the night raids on families, holding minors in jail indefinitely without charges, and the use of live fire on protestors. From both sides, offensive cartoons, jokes, and social media posts send the message that the other is less than human, and less worthy of life.

Some prefer to point fingers: to say that fighting the occupation justifies murdering Israelis, or that terror attacks by a small minority justify the denial of human rights to all Palestinians.

But neither Judaism nor human rights allow such an easy way out. Human rights are an absolute. We don’t earn our human rights. We are born with them — by virtue of being creations in the image of God. The challenge of human rights is to protect the rights of all people, even those who scare us.

A famous Talmudic teaching about the value of human life declares, “For this reason was the first human being created alone: to teach you that whoever destroys a single soul is held liable as though s/he had destroyed an entire world; and whoever preserves a single soul is ascribed merit as though s/he had preserved an entire world.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)

Less well known is the context for this statement: How to warn witnesses in a capital trial about the weight of their responsibility to testify beyond any doubt whatsoever.

In the context of a capital crime, it would be easy to urge witnesses to regard the accused as a horrific perpetrator, rather than as a creation b’tzelem Elohim, in the divine image. But this is the true test of our commitment to God.

Another rabbinic teaching makes this point with grisly power:

R. Meir used to say: What does the verse mean: One who is hanged is a curse against God (Deuteronomy 21:23)? There were two twin brothers, identical to one another; one ruled over the whole world, and the other took to highway robbery. After a while the robber was caught, and they hung him on a cross [a standard method of execution under Roman occupation]. Those who passed by saw it and said: The king is on the cross. (Tosefta Sanhedrin 10:7)

This parable makes a radical claim: We and God are identical twins. It follows that any degradation of a human being is indistinguishable from a degradation of God. This applies even to a human being who has perpetrated the worst crimes imaginable.

Who knows what happens after the passersby see the twin of their king hanging in the public square? Believing that the king is dead, perhaps they go home and rip up their royal portraits. Perhaps they throw away the king’s currency, deeming it be worthless. Perhaps they stop observing the king’s laws altogether, assuming that now anything is permitted.

The more we accustom ourselves to the deaths of human beings, the more we allow ourselves to believe in our hearts that God is dead, and the more we will allow ourselves to continue destroying God’s images in this world: our fellow human beings.

Human rights demand nothing less than a call to maintain God’s presence in our evermore desolate world and in our evermore broken hearts.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, which mobilizes a network of 1800 rabbis and their communities to protect the human rights of all people in North America, Israel, and the occupied Palestinian territories.

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