It is fitting that just one week before Passover, the Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR) organization celebrated its 25th anniversary. Founded by a group of rabbis from across the religious spectrum, from orthodox to reform, RHR have become one of the foremost human rights organizations in Israel, lending dignity to the universal messages emanating from the Jewish religion in stark contrast to the messages of exclusiveness and magnified patriotism which have taken over Israel’s public discourse during this same period.
RHR is by no means the only human rights organization which highlights the problems of Palestinian human rights during the long period of Israeli control since 1967. Foremost among the organizations is B’Tselem, along with an array of smaller NGOs and citizen organizations, which have gone some way to balancing the external image of an Israel obsessed with power and unwilling, under any circumstance, to allow the Palestinians to enjoy the same basic rights to self-government and independence that we, the Jewish State of Israel, have been privileged to enjoy since 1948.
But RHR is different in that it bases its message and its activities on fundamental Jewish religious values, as recounted in the Passover Haggadah, namely that it is incumbent upon us to “remember in every generation” that the struggle for freedom is perpetual and ongoing, and that people who were for so long slaves and oppressed and persecuted have the obligation – even more than others – to ensure that other peoples and ethnic groups do not suffer from the same conditions.
And how much more so when it relates to a people who, regardless of the political and historical reasons that brought it about, are under your own control and for whose wellbeing you have direct responsibility.
IT IS no wonder that wherever Jews have had the privilege of living under true conditions of equality and democracy they have always been at the forefront of movements aimed at promoting equality, defending the downtrodden and the oppressed and highlighting the discrimination of ethnic and religious minorities.
It is not surprising that the Jews were so involved in the fight for civil rights in the America of the 1960s.
Nor is it hard to understand that the anti-slavery movements and the movements for civil rights adopted the exodus from Egypt as one of the major motifs in their struggle.
The fact that we are so bad at defending the human rights of others in our own independent state goes well beyond the case of the Palestinians. Our attitude, especially in recent years, to the plight of migrants, fleeing unsafe conditions in their African homelands, or the attitude of too many Israelis toward the Ethiopian immigrants because of their skin color, is evidence that in this respect we have failed to educate toward a true meaning of what freedom and human dignity is all about.
It stretches a long way beyond our own independence and physical safety. To feel self-satisfied that finally, after 2,000 years of persecution, we only have to look after ourselves and no longer care for others – is a basic misconception of what freedom is all about.
Being free is as much a responsibility as it is a privilege.
It is one thing to argue that we need to defend ourselves against all those who would do us harm. But it is quite another if in the name of security, we deny another people their independence, confiscate some of their lands for settlement activity, limit their access to underground water resources, allow vigilantes to destroy their orchards, prevent them from moving freely across the separation barrier to their places of employment, schools and health clinics. This is simply not the Jewish way. It is contrary to the message of Passover.
We don’t need to be naive. We are engaged in a long and bitter conflict with the Palestinians. There are many on the other side who would prefer to see the State of Israel disappear into the sea and who still refuse to publicly recognize the reality of a Jewish State of Israel in its ancestral homeland.
Why, you will argue, should we allow the “bleeding- heart liberals” to impose a sense of guilt about the lack of human rights when there are those who want our destruction and who seek to terrorize us in our shopping malls or buses? The answer is not easy. The freedom message of Judaism is not the Christian “turning of the other cheek.”
The State of Israel has demonstrated that when and where necessary it fights back and defends itself and, on many occasions, will take preemptive action to prevent potential attacks on the state.
When and where acts which infringe upon the basic human rights of the Palestinians (or anyone else for that matter) take place, we should expect that the democratically elected government of the State of Israel will be the first to react and to repair the wrong. In their place, we should be thankful that there are organizations such as RHR or B’Tselem to undertake this holy task on our behalf. Their activities go a small way in salvaging our honor as a people. For them, being a “liberal” is a badge of honor, a badge which represents the universal values of Judaism.
Rabbis for Human Rights deserve huge appreciation for the work they have done during the past 25 years, and there is no better time than Passover, the festival commemorating our freedom from Egypt, in which to acknowledge their contribution to the basic values which have helped the Jewish people endure for centuries.
The writer is dean of the faculty of humanities and social sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.