Ladies and Gentlemen, Members of Promoting Enduring Peace, dear friends, From the Bottom of my heart, I want to thank you for the great honour which you have bestowed upon me, upon my friend Rabbi Ascherman and upon all our colleagues in Israel, members of Rabbis for Human Rights. We are proud and humbled to receive this prestigious award and to join the list of such distinguished people, past recipients of this outstanding award. Today’s ceremony falls on a most significant date in both the civil and the Jewish calendar. Today is May Day – a day which symbolizes the solidarity with the workers and standing for their rights. However, according to the Jewish calendar, today is also the Eve of Yom HaShoah – the Annual Memorial Day for the six million Jews, who were murdered in the Holocaust. I am a second generation. My father is a holocaust survivor. His entire family was murdered in Auschwitz. Therefore, for me, in particular, this is a most significant day and receiving the Gandhi Peace Award today makes it an exceptional unique and moving experience.
As a second generation, what is the lesson that I take with me from this tragic past? I think the most important lesson that we should all take from the Shoah is summed up in the famous words “Never Again”. We are bound to ensure that it will never happen again. However, the lesson of “Never Again” is twofold: firstly, there is the lesson which most Jews, particularly Israeli Jews take and that is: Never again will Jews be led to slaughter without being able to defend themselves. Indeed, it is a worthy lesson and for this reason, I have always taken a great pride in my military service as a paratrooper in the Israel Defense Force, continuing to serve until the age of 45 when I was released from my reserve duty. However, alongside this particularistic lesson there is also a universal one which is no less and perhaps today even more important and that is: Never again will people – any people, suffer from persecution, oppression, humiliation de-humanization and denial of their basic human rights. Don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting in any way any comparison between the Shoah and the situation between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East.
What I am suggesting however, is that we should always remember that no one is immune from racism and xenophobia. Therefore, we need to be constantly on guard less anyone, including ourselves, fall into the deadly trap of bigotry and hate. That is the reason why Rabbi David Forman Z”L, the one who really should have stand here today, decided in 1988 to establish the Rabbinic Human Rights Watch later known as Rabbis for Human Rights. Unfortunately, David passed away exactly a year ago, and so it is me – a co-founder of the organization and its first Executive Director that humbly stand before you today. Allow me to say a few words about the early days of Rabbis for Human Rights: 1988, the year our organization was founded, was the year in which the first Intifada – the Palestinian uprising in the occupied territories – took place. For me personally, it was a most significant year in my life.
Firstly, it was the year I was ordained as a Rabbi – the first native Israeli to graduate the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Seminary in Jerusalem. But in addition, it was also a year during which I served for nearly sixty days as a reserve duty soldier in the Khan Yunis, refugee camp near Gaza. This was the first time for me to see from close the living conditions in the Palestinian refugee camps and it was an eye opening experience. During my regular military service as paratrooper I had many opportunities to serve in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip but it was always within confined military bases or driving on the main roads. Only during the Intifada, when we had to chase after little children into the narrow allies of the refugee camp and into the poor homes in which they lived, that I could see the reality and get a new perspective. Upon my return home, I felt I must do something as a Jew and as a rabbi to try to change things, to show the concern for human rights and the sanctity of human lives from a Jewish religious perspective. 1988 was also the year in which the big controversy regarding the validity of non-Orthodox conversions in Israel had reawakened. A political controversy that was entitled “The Who is a Jew Question.” For David Forman as a Reform Rabbi, for me as Conservative Rabbi as well as for our Orthodox colleagues such as Rabbi David Rosen or Rabbi Max Warshawsky Z”L it was no doubt a most important question, however, with all its importance, we thought that there is even more important question and that is not “who is a Jew?” but rather “What is a Jew?” and how therefore a Jew is to behave. Dear friends, yesterday we read in the synagogue the weekly Torah portion of Kedoshim from Leviticus 19:” You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy.”
In this Torah portion we find among other things the famous words:” You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But not only that, in the same portion we also read: “And if a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. But the stranger who dwells with you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Time and again the Torah warns us: “You shall not wrong a stranger, nor oppress him; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” “For you know the heart of a stranger, seeing you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” We, who suffered for 2000 years from oppression, persecution, expulsion, humiliation and denial of our basic rights, should be more sensitive than any other people to the suffering of others. What is the essence of Judaism? When Hillel the elder in the 1st Century CE was asked to sum up the entire Torah while standing on one foot he said: “What is hateful to you do not do unto others.” Or to put it in a positive way: Treat others the way you would have liked to be treated by them. This is the message of Rabbis for Human Rights. Every human being is created in God’s image and we must respect that image and try to see God in the face of our neighbor, in the face of the other.
How shall we promote an enduring peace? By trying to see every person as family member, as a brother or sister, by following in the footsteps of our common father Abraham who was the model for justice, righteousness and the pursuit of peace. The book of Genesis tells us the following story about Abraham and his nephew Lot: “And there was strife between the herdsmen of Abram’s cattle and the herdsmen of Lot’s cattle…Then Abram said to Lot, Let there be no strife between me and you, and between my herdsmen and your herdsmen, for we are brothers.Isn’t the whole land before you? Please separate yourself from me. If you go to the left hand, then I will go to the right. Or if you go to the right hand, then I will go to the left.” Two conflicting values we find here: On the one hand the love of the land – the land that was promised to Abraham, not to Lot, and on the other hand the pursuit of peace. For the sake of peace Abraham is willing to even give up parts of the land promised to him and his seed. Before I introduce to you my friend and colleague Rabbi Arik Ascherman, allow me to conclude with a wonderful poem written by the late Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, called Tourists:
Once I sat on the steps by agate at David’s Tower, I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. “You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman period. Just right of his head.” “But he’s moving, he’s moving!” I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them, “You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”
I pray for the day when we shall all come to recognize that the man who bought fruit and vegetables is more important than Roman arches; that human lives are more important than marble and stone, shrines and temples; that Adam – a human being is more important than Adama – earth. Bayom hahu yehiyeh Adonai ehad ushemo ehad. On that day, the Lord shall be one and His name one.