Counterpoint: Rabbis for Human Rights - the 20th anniversary

RHR was created as a response to the indifference of much of the country to breaches of human rights.

david forman 88 (photo credit:)
david forman 88
(photo credit: )
This week marks the 20th anniversary of the founding of Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR). In many ways, this is a sad occasion for the organization and the original nucleus of rabbis there at its inception. Not long ago, when RHR dedicated its new office, much more spacious than its previous one, I remarked: "We have failed, because our ultimate goal was to go out of business; and yet we find ourselves having to expand our field of operation to engage in seemingly never-ending human rights challenges." With the creation of the State of Israel, Jews sought to educate the world that the Zionist enterprise would be unique in character; that the Jewish state would not be a nation like other nations; and that through Israel, the Jews would fulfill their mission of being a "chosen people." The concept of "chosenness," a subject of perennial controversy, should be understood to mean that the people Israel has been selected for a particular purpose. It does not connote privilege, but rather obligation, not superiority, but rather unusual dedication to become a "light unto the nations," whose commitment is to implement the words of the prophet Micah: "To do justice, love goodness and walk modestly with your God" (6:8). Throughout its first 20 years, RHR has attempted to humbly pursue righteous deeds and practice decent behavior. Yet, with all of its noble intentions, its work, like that of other human rights and civil liberties organizations, remains incomplete. But it can take pride that it holds accountable those who commit grievous offenses against the "other," including those who do so in the name of God, arrogantly fostering a belief in the concept of a chosen people that has led to delusions of celestial grandeur, whereby chosenness is equated with exclusivity and chauvinism. IT IS virtually impossible for any socially and politically progressive movement to measure its successes. Because standards are set so high, there are more failures than achievements. However, those of us in RHR are committed to what we do, not only to help those who are victims of human rights abuses and civil liberties violations, but also because we have no alternative if we want to answer that we were not silent when our children ask, "What did you do when Israel engaged in acts contrary to the best of the Jewish value heritage?" In the words of the 18th-century Anglo-Irish philosopher Edmund Burke: "All that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing." In a country where Judaism is often associated with intolerant and uncompromising beliefs and actions, RHR teaches an alternative understanding of the Jewish tradition, one that emphasizes Judaism's humanistic and universal side. The indifference of much of the country's religious leadership and religiously identified citizenry to breaches of human rights was a cause of great concern to RHR's organizers, and the raison d'etre for its creation. Further, the founders felt that all sectors of the public needed to be reminded that human rights abuses are not compatible with the Jewish tradition of moral responsibility and sensitivity, and the biblical concern for "the stranger in your midst" - even in the face of undeniable physical danger, which is the ultimate test for maintaining one's ethical standards and values. Therefore, RHR was initially established to address human rights violations committed by the IDF in its suppression of the first intifada, but since then has greatly broadened its agenda to address a host of social concerns within Israel and the territories. RHR IS the only Israeli rabbinic organization comprised of rabbis from all streams in Judaism. Its membership includes 100 rabbis, many of whom hold positions of national leadership, as well as those who are Jewish educators and those who serve congregations. RHR has no political affiliation, and its members represent an eclectic range of ideological perspectives. With branches in the US and England serving North America and Europe, RHR includes approximately 750 associate rabbinic members in the Diaspora. It has an extensive international mailing list that reaches thousands of people, making it an important resource for information on human rights issues. Frequently quoted in the domestic and international media, RHR is widely respected by journalists and other human rights agencies. In 1993, RHR received the Speaker of the Knesset "Quality of Life Award" for "enhancing the rule of law and democratic values, protecting human rights and encouraging tolerance and mutual respect." RHR has garnered many more awards, prizes and accolades for its activities. Admittedly, there are those Jews, here and abroad, who berate RHR, claiming it supplies fodder for Israel's detractors. Instead, they should be singing RHR's praises, for it is organizations like RHR that show the world there are Israelis who, while supporting the absolute right of Israel to defend itself, also concern themselves with safeguarding the country's moral integrity. Rabbis for Human Rights is the rabbinic voice of conscience in Israel - the only organization in the Jewish state concerned specifically with relating the Jewish religious tradition to matters of human rights. CONSEQUENTLY, RHR will continue to stand with Palestinians who wish to pick their olives and harvest their grapes free of settler harassment; defend Arabs who want to build homes without fear of administrative demolition orders; protect foreign laborers from draconian work conditions; advise the economically deprived and the socially disenfranchised of their basic rights; engage in interfaith dialogue and activities; promote religious tolerance for different lifestyles and respect for all streams in Judaism; join with other human rights organizations in combating human trafficking; and educate Israelis about the value of human rights as a bulwark of a Jewish and democratic state through its Human Rights Yeshiva, its Tractate Declaration of Independence and its text, "Life, Liberty and Equality in the Jewish Tradition," as RHR teaches in pre-army programs, in army and police officer training academies, in Israeli public schools, both religious and secular, Arab and Jewish. To the above ends, with the approaching new year, RHR, on its 20th anniversary, vows to rededicate itself to pursue its sacred work no matter the obstacles, and fulfill the powerful command of the prophet Isaiah, which we recite on Yom Kippur: "To unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, to break every cruel chain, to share your bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless poor into your house." (Isaiah 58:6-7). If Isaiah and Micah provide Rabbis for Human Rights with its modus vivendi, then Rabbi Tarfon accords it its modus operandi: "It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but you are not free to desist from it" (Sayings of the Fathers 2:16).