Counterpoint: The task of the state

We must promote human rights as a principle of Jewish moral heritage.

At the Goldman Promenade, on the southeast corner of Jerusalem, one encounters a breathtaking panorama of the Old City, with the golden Dome of the Rock and silver dome of the Aksa Mosque jutting high above Suleiman the Magnificent's imposing wall that surrounds the Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian quarters; along with spectacular views of the New City, Mount Scopus, the Mount of Olives, the Valley of Gehinom, the Judean Desert, the Dead Sea and the Jordanian Hills. As one approaches the observation lookout at the promenade, there is a new park, atop which stands a statue that aptly reflects the composite of Israel's manifold and varied cultural and national identities and is entitled A Monument to Tolerance. There can be no more fitting theme for this time of year. More than any other holiday in the Jewish calendar, none expresses the message of Passover better than the word "tolerance." Subjugated to enslavement, abuse and prejudice, our escape from bondage gave way to a historical mandate: to build a state of our own based on a prophetic vision of social justice, equality - and tolerance. Would that these lofty ideals be the reality of today's Jewish state. My wife was shopping at one of the major food chains. Standing in line at the checkout counter, the cashier, an Israeli Arab, gave instructions in Arabic to the delivery man, also an Israeli Arab. A supervisor told the cashier that he was not permitted to speak Arabic. When my wife questioned the supervisor, the woman responded: "It is against the law." The ridiculousness of this remark made my wife laugh - unless it is the law of the food chain itself (which would be against the law). However, my wife had the presence of mind to inquire if the same prohibition was applied to the numerous cashiers who speak Russian to each other, as does the supervisor herself. This is not just a demeaning stereotypical expression of intolerance; it is a form of racism. Sadly, virtually every survey that examines Israeli Jewish attitudes toward Israeli Arabs, especially among young Israeli Jews, underscores such racially charged feelings. IT IS little wonder that this should be the case, as such prejudicial views of Israeli Arabs find their support in the corridors of our democratic institutions and the study halls of our yeshivot. Politicians like Effi Eitam and Avigdor Lieberman spew forth a litany of xenophobic perorations. Religious leaders, like Dov Lior and Haim Druckman, twist Halacha to satisfy a narrow-minded theological outlook, which would forbid Jews from employing Arabs and selling homes or land to them. Yet, despite these examples of intolerance, we are an extremely tolerant society, because we abide such prejudice, bigotry and racism with nary a word of protest - not from our prime minister, not from our president, not from our minister of justice and not from our chief rabbis (also, not very often from our intellectual elite). More disturbing, we crown those whose venom for "the other" seems to know no boundaries with positions of political and religious authority. On the other hand, we are very quick to condemn any Israeli Arab, particularly their representatives in Knesset, for the slightest negative remark about Jews. While there are numerous social justice organizations that defend the rights of Israel's Arab minority, these efforts are not sufficient in combating a growing chauvinism in the country. What are needed are educational programs to be introduced in our schools, so that our children, from the earliest stages in their lives, will have an appreciation of the "stranger in our midst." Further, with too many of our alleged spiritual guardians exercised only about the ritual aspect of our tradition - should restaurants be allowed to sell hametz on Passover - moral lessons of our tradition get lost. THE ASSOCIATION of Civil Rights in Israel has developed a comprehensive human rights educational program that empowers individuals and groups within different communities by providing substantive rights information and methods for implementation of those rights. It has published a highly informative primer, The Citizens' Guide. Rabbis for Human Rights will be gathering 1,000 post-high school, pre-army participants in a massive one-day teach-in about human rights. They will study from RHR's recently published "Tractate Independence." Treating Israel's Declaration of Independence as a sacred Jewish document, "Tractate Independence" is set up as Talmud, each paragraph dominating the middle of a page, with traditional and modern commentaries surrounding it. Neveh Shalom, a mixed community of Israeli Jews and Arabs, not only serves as a paradigm of coexistence, but conducts seminars for people of all ages, whose emphasis is to promote tolerance and understanding. Hand-in-Hand is a bilingual school system that also fosters mutual respect among the different nationalities that make up the country's mosaic. What is desperately needed is for our official institutions - the Ministry of Education, the army, youth movements and religious establishments - to follow in these organizations' footsteps, by developing similar educational models that embrace the sanctity of human rights as both a bulwark of an enlightened society and a cherished principle within the Jewish moral heritage. For that statue of tolerance to be more than a symbol of goodwill, it must be translated into action. During this Passover, as we ponder the lessons to be culled from the Jewish people's dramatic escape from slavery to freedom, we recognize that the modern State of Israel has a powerful historical responsibility: to be certain that what determines its democratic character is its ability to incorporate tolerance as an indivisible Jewish value.