Sinai Today: Apartheid lies and the war of words

Pikuach nefesh (saving life) clearly applies today to Israel’s reputation among the nations of the world.

By CHIEF RABBI WARREN GOLDSTEIN
November 25, 2011 00:55
The Russell Tribunal

The Russell Tribunal 311. (photo credit: Courtesy of Russell Tribunal)

 
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One of the worst modern libels against the Jewish people and the Jewish state is that Israel is guilty of apartheid. The latest manifestation of the apartheid lie was the so-called Russell Tribunal, which recently convened in Cape Town to put Israel on trial for “apartheid crimes.”

The Russell Tribunal itself is a lie, and epitomizes the lie of the apartheid accusation against Israel. The word “tribunal” implies a judicial process. For a body to be called a tribunal it must conform to the most fundamental principles of justice: have impartial assessors and both sides presenting their case. This “tribunal” had neither; it was merely a conference of the like-minded, expressing their well known and one-sided condemnation of Israel.

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All of the assessors had previously expressed their anti-Israel rhetoric, only one view was presented, and the pre-ordained verdict was delivered at a well-publicized press conference, the culmination of the event’s theatrics.

How should Israel and Jews around the world respond? Many take the view that we should ignore such outlandish accusations. Some are guided by the philosophy of prime minister David Ben-Gurion, who said: “It doesn’t matter what the gentiles say, but what the Jews do.”

This approach is wrong.

“The Torah speaks in the language of tomorrow,” said Rabbi Mordechai Pinchas Teitz of Elizabeth, New Jersey. We turn to our Torah’s prescient and eternal principles to contend with any challenge.

Judaism is not only about religious services, it is also G-d’s blue-print for every aspect of life and society, for all times and places.



What is the Torah’s approach to the modern State of Israel’s foreign policy? The Talmud says that “ways of peace” must be the guiding principle of our dealings with the nations of the world and that eivah, hatred, toward Jews potentially causes physical danger.

Obviously, the almost super-natural persistence of anti-Semitism cannot be blamed on Jewish behavior, but it is this very reality that obligates extra measures to mitigate its effect.

Anything which can generate such high levels of hatred triggers the halachic principle of pikuach nefesh (saving life), which takes priority over almost all mitzvot. Pikuach nefesh clearly applies today to Israel’s reputation among the nations of the world.

For example, military decisions which directly jeopardize the safety of Israeli soldiers and civilians are influenced by public relations considerations. Israel’s poor image also poses a physical threat to Jews around the world. Whenever there is an increase in tension and hostility in the Middle East with its attendant negative publicity, there is an increase in anti-Semitic incidents worldwide, many of which endanger lives.

The apartheid lie, in particular, poses an existential threat to Israel. Like any South African who lived through the anti-apartheid sanctions campaign, especially during the 1980s, I saw first-hand how the morale of the National Party regime and its supporters was drastically weakened. Sanctions damaged the economy, but also humiliated white South Africans.

As trivial as it sounds, even the embarrassment of the boycott of international music celebrities and sports teams had a detrimental effect on the white population’s will to continue. And that was at a time when South Africa faced no military threat. Such an international campaign against Israel could, G-d forbid, seriously undermine the will of Israelis to risk their lives in defense of a perceived pariah state. The stakes could not be higher.

There is another halachic principle guiding us: the mitzva of kiddush Hashem, sanctifying G-d’s name, which mandates promoting the truth of Torah and the reputation of the Jewish people and of Hashem.

The apartheid accusation – the reincarnation of the disgraceful United Nations “Zionism is Racism” Resolution of 1975 – is a hillul Hashem, a desecration of G-d’s name, because it seeks to bring the Jewish people into disrepute in the most fundamental way, striking at the heart of our core values. It accuses the Jewish people of desecrating one of the founding principles of creation: that, in the words of the Mishna (Pirke Avot 3:18), “Beloved is the human being created in G-d’s image.”

It is our Torah which gave the world the very notion of equality and dignity, as the famous Catholic historian Paul Johnson wrote: “To [the Jews] we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person; of the individual conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind. Without the Jews it might have been a much emptier place.”

Johnson errs in ascribing these insights to the Jews themselves; Jewish law’s righteousness comes from its Divine origins, as the Torah says, “And which is a great nation that has righteous statutes and laws such as this entire Torah that I place before you this day?” (Deuteronomy 4:8) The government of Israel and Jews around the world must embrace our Torah duty and redouble our efforts in responding to defamatory accusations.

We must never underestimate how very powerful and dangerous lies can be. As Joseph Goebbels said, “If you repeat a lie often enough it becomes the truth.”

Although the apartheid defamation is outrageously false, we cannot leave it unchallenged. Throughout our history the most outlandish lies have become true in the minds of the masses, and have caused terrible atrocities. What could be more ridiculous than the blood libels of Europe? Yet this did not make them any less dangerous. The apartheid and racism accusation is nothing short of a modern blood libel.

Many Diaspora communities have joined the battle to defend the reputation of Israel. I am proud of the South African Jewish community’s sterling work in this regard, most recently in discrediting the Russell Tribunal. But the ultimate responsibility rests on the Israeli government, which must harness the full might of its strategic, financial and human resources to fight the battle of defending Israel’s reputation. It is a halachic imperative, and the Torah’s principles must be applied in crafting truly Jewish policies governing Israel’s diplomacy.

There is much fertile ground for anti-Semitism in the world and the odds in the public relations battle we must wage seem overwhelmingly against us. But the many military battles Israel has fought and won have been no less daunting and yet this tiny country has over many decades, with G-d’s help, established itself as one of the world’s strongest military powers.

Israel needs to invest the same kind of financial, human and strategic resources and brainpower in establishing the world’s best diplomatic army to defend Israel’s reputation and especially to fight the current international boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign, which poses an existential threat to the future of the Jewish state and endangers Jews everywhere.

Our enemies understand all of this, which is why they invest so much time, money and effort in the campaign.

How ironic that the Jewish state has won the war of guns and tanks, but hopelessly lost the war of words and ideas. We cannot accept defeat in the war of diplomacy and public relations; for without victory in this arena, the military battle can never truly be won and the Jewish state and Jews around the world can never truly be safe.

A Jewish state needs a Jewish foreign policy. The time has come to move away from the philosophy of David Ben-Gurion and go back to our Torah philosophy of how to engage with the world, guided by the mitzva of pikuach nefesh and “ways of peace,” preventing hatred and promoting the cause of truth, and performing a true kiddush Hashem.

The writer is chief rabbi of South Africa.

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