In my summer visit to Washington, D.C., I began to reflect on the parallels between American and Jewish history.
Both civilizations have seen their ideas evolve over time. American freedom has taken shape in stages. In 1789 came the revolutionary idea of a bill of rights, including religious freedom. After the Civil War, slavery was abolished. In the 1880s, America became the land of immigrants, a haven for the teeming masses of a multitude of nations fleeing poverty and persecution. Each of these stages represented a giant step forward in the history of human liberty.
Still, America was concentrating its energies on freedom inside its own borders. Only in 1941 did the United States emerge as a world leader with a sense of responsibility for the cause of freedom in other lands.
Jewish history has undergone a similar evolution. In the formative days of the Bible, we gave the world a radical new idea: belief in a universal God who cares most of all that humans treat each other kindly. We dreamed of a day that the whole world would adopt ethical monotheism. But, in our pagan environment, our primary energies were devoted to protecting ourselves from outside influence, not in being global leaders.
Beginning in the first centuries of this era, Christianity and Islam spread the core teachings of Judaism and transformed the pagan world. Still, this influence was indirect. We were a vulnerable minority in these cultures. We felt fortunate when we were left alone. The idea of providing leadership in such a world was out of the question.
Times have changed. Unlike our Biblical ancestors, we now borrow proudly from the best ideas of the world around us. Even more importantly, for the first time ever, other nations are genuinely interested in what we have to say. It’s not that we live in a hate-free environment. But, more than any other time in our history, we have the potential to intentionally impact the world around us.
This change has not occurred overnight. Only a few years ago, at a conference on racism in Durban, South Africa, Israel was reviled as the worst human-rights violator on the globe. There is still no shortage of people who hold this view. But a recent opportunity has opened before us with the changes in the world since 9/11. Increasingly, the world has changed its perspective on human rights.
In America, the view is widespread that the Israeli-Arab conflict has its roots in the lack of democracy and human rights in the Middle East. The media’s attention to human-rights abuse around the world has increased exponentially over the past two years. Pick up the newspaper or turn on the television any day and you will find a story about human trafficking, slave labor or the persecution of women in ethically underdeveloped countries.
There is hardly a consensus on how to address these problems. But there is a growing consensus that they are our business and that passive acquiescence is not a morally viable option. The growing concern about the whitewashing of China’s dismal human-rights record, just in time for the Beijing Olympics, is only the most recent example.
This is a moment of opportunity for the Jewish people, a moment when there is a substantial part of the globe whose values are aligned with our own.
We must work to accelerate the world’s interest in the issue of global human rights for at least three reasons. First, we are commanded by God to be a blessing to the nations of the earth. It is our national purpose to fight for human dignity.
Second, the shift of world attention to the cause of liberty has led people to correctly identify the absence of freedom in authoritarian societies as the root cause of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Thirdly, the Torah teaches “v’ahavtem et ha-ger/you shall love the stranger.” Because of our unique history, we have always had a special empathy for the outsider.
At Herzl-Ner Tamid and other local congregations, we have an opportunity to show leadership for the cause of human rights by helping the women of Darfur. Women in refugee camps are routinely raped and killed when they go out to collect firewood for their families.
An organization called Solar Cookers International has come up with an ingenious solution: equipping the women with solar cookers so they can prepare meals safely at home. Fortunately, these simple ovens are very inexpensive to build. Many synagogues and churches throughout the country have sponsored campaigns to purchase solar cookers so that the women of Darfur can be spared degradation. We invite all the members of the Seattle Jewish Community to join us in this effort.
In the high holidays which we just celebrated, we read, “hayom harat olam/on this day the universe was conceived.” The beginning of the New Year is a time for global thinking, and, even more importantly, for global action. Let’s make a difference through our actions this year.