The Jewish Struggle for Universal Human Rights
One of the conundrums associated with the enduring nature of global anti-Semitism which has soared exponentially in recent years, is why, having made such disproportionate contributions towards all levels of civilization and left major imprints on science, ethics, medicine, culture and the arts, we Jews continue to act as a magnet for such virulent hatred…writes Isi Leibler.
Equally bizarre is the failure of formerly oppressed groups and nations to reciprocate or even acknowledge the extraordinary Jewish contributions in support of their struggles towards overcoming persecution, discrimination, abuse of human rights and achieving independence.
This is typified by the fact that whereas there is no American group comparable to the Jews who sacrificed so much to help African-Americans to overcome racial discrimination and their struggle for civil rights, ironically, today they are amongst the foremost US racial or ethnic groups promoting anti-Israelism and anti-Semitism. The recent loathsome outburst by the African-American writer Alice Walker who sought to prohibit her novel – relating to racism – from being translated into Hebrew, typifies this. Walker’s demonization of Israel even extended to accusing Israel of practicing “racism” in a more extreme manner than was the case in apartheid South Africa. This is all the more perverse because aside from being the only free and democratic society in the region, the Jewish State probably also comprises the greatest mélange of racial groups in the world committed to equality.
The same criticism would apply to the current South African government which is today bitterly anti-Israeli despite the fact that individual South African Jews were at the vanguard of the struggle against apartheid, many having been forced to leave the country during apartheid regime.
Yet, even Archbishop Tutu, whose anti-Israeli outbursts have now morphed into vulgar populist anti-Jewish diatribes, concedes that “in our struggle against apartheid, the greatest supporters were the Jewish people… They almost instinctively had to be on the side of the disenfranchised, of the voiceless ones”. But in the same breath he paved the way for his government’s recent anti-Israeli initiatives by calling for divestment from Israel which “has oppressed more than the apartheid ideologues could ever dream about in South Africa” and descends into primitive anti-Semitism referring to Jews as “a peculiar people” who “once oppressed and killed” are now “empowered”, and “refuse to listen and disobey God.”
Similar attitudes prevail amongst a number of Third World leaders. I will never forget a meeting in New Delhi in 1981 with the late Indian President Indira Gandhi in which she erupted in a frenzied anti-Israeli outburst laced with rage against “international Jewish power” which she claimed was responsible for having turned the US against India. In response to my rejoinder, she conceded that whilst in England, the majority of the closest friends of her family were British Jews who passionately supported their struggle against colonialism and efforts to achieve independence. Yet, this in no way mitigated her hatred against Israel or her conspiratorial fantasies about international Jewish power.
History records the numerous misguided Jewish idealists in Europe and the United States who, in the 1930s, abandoned Judaism and Zionism and devoted their lives towards promoting and even worshipping the false messianic cause of communism. Even distant members of my own family in pre-war Belgium, in their passionate desire to combat Nazism, relinquished their Jewish heritage and in 1936, needlessly sacrificed their lives for Stalin on the battlefields of Spain.
Yet these same Jewish communists who, out of a misplaced exclusive commitment to universalism, devoted their lives to fanatically serving an evil totalitarian system, subsequently themselves became victims of the anti-Semitic purges and bogus trials initiated by Stalin in the late 1930s, the murder of the Jewish writers in 1948,which culminated with the infamous 1952 Moscow Doctors’ plot. These initiatives, unquestionably motivated by feral anti-Semitism, would probably have resulted in massive deportations of Jews to the Gulag were it not for Stalin’s timely demise in 1953.
There are Jews today who still maintain that the universalist tradition in Judaism obliges us to set aside our own “parochial” Jewish interests and in order to concentrate exclusively on making the world a better place by combating injustice.
Yet in reality, the alleged tension between the Jewish role in maintaining itself as a particularistic nation and promoting universalistic ethical values is often exaggerated and not mutually exclusive. Abraham did not smash the idols and Moses did not struggle for his people’s freedom in order to create a cult. They served the Jewish people but were also providing messages of universal significance to humanity.
An example of the fusion between both concepts is reflected in the oft quoted sentence from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers) “If I am not for myself who will be for me?” But it is balanced by the following sentence stating “And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
There is thus every justification for us to take pride in the actions of Jews who contributed towards “tikkun olam” - repairing a fractured world – and making it a better place for mankind.
That many oppressed groups struggling for freedom, on whose behalf we fought frequently at considerable personal cost, subsequently turned against us, must not deter us from our universalistic obligations towards humanity and ongoing commitment to promote justice and human rights.
Yet, when viewing the world in today’s troubled times, we, the Jewish people who have overcome powerlessness and miraculously regained nationhood, are obliged to recognize that our overriding priority must be to safeguard ourselves against those seeking to destroy us. In times of peril, it is both rational and incumbent to focus on our families and our own people before attempting to reform the world. By prioritizing the particularistic goals of defending and securing the well-being of the Jewish State and the Jewish people against those still seeking to fulfill Hitler’s objectives, we are ensuring that Jews will survive. One of the by-products of this will enable us to continue as in the past to contribute towards Tikkun Olam – repairing the world.
Isi Leibler lives in Jerusalem. He is a former president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry.