Commentary: If I Am Only for Myself.
The Muslim black man from Sudan approached me, some 18 months ago, when our synagogue launched its proposal for Jewish World Watch (www.jewishworldwatch.org). The appeal, addressed to the synagogue community, was to organize a sustaining protest against the extermination of the people of Darfur and to raise funds for their survival. We want to build two medical clinics in Genina and Delizh and drill water holes for thousands dying of thirst, among other initiatives. Since 2003, more than 400,000 black African Muslims have been killed by the Janjaweed, an arm of the Khartoum government; 2.5 million others have lost their homes and are in refugee camps in Darfur and the neighboring Chad.
At the end of the program, the man asked me, “How many Jews are there in Darfur?” I told him that to my knowledge there were none. His response penetrated my soul: “There are no Jews in Darfur and yet your people expend so much energy and treasure to help a people not of your faith?” He threw his arms around me.
Why, indeed, are jews extending a helping hand to Darfur? the answer to that strikes at the root and branch of Judaism. The entire world knows of the hundreds of thousands of men, women and children in Darfur who were raped, murdered, their possessions looted, their lands and cattle stolen. We have all seen the images of infectious flies dancing on the eyeballs of children too weak to wave them away. Why then us? Have Jews not enough problems on our own plate? Are we so big a people that we can add to our burden the agonies of Darfur?
The answer determines the way we understand the purposive character of Judaism for ourselves and our children. Why Jews? Because ours is not a tribal faith and because we address our prayers to “Melekh Ha’olam”—the King of the entire universe. Our prophets prophesied not to Jews alone but also to the people of Sodom and Gomorrah and Ninveh.
And because we see with ancient eyes. Sixty years ago, we witnessed the sinister consequences of international callousness toward the fate of our people. We asked, “Where were the ministers, the priests, the pope, the Church?” Out of the ashes of the crematoria, we vowed a solemn oath: “Never again.” Did we mean that never again would we allow the world to feign deafness, muteness and paralysis—but only when Jews were threatened? Or did that resolve mean that we Jews would never stand idly by the genocidal intentions against any race, religion or ethnicity?
The philosopher Bertrand Russell observed, “The mark of a civilized person is to be able to read a column of numbers and to cry.” We know the numbers. But who cries?
It was at High Holiday services that I proposed the formation of the Jewish World Watch, to raise money to alleviate the plight of the innocent men, women and children in Darfur. Congregants came forth with enthusiasm and seriousness to volunteer, contribute generously, educate the community and organize rallies and protests. Forty-three synagogues in Los Angeles—Reform, Orthodox, Conservative and Reconstructionist— formed a coalition of conscience. They understood the teleology of Judaism. They knew themselves to be members of an old-new people and they understood their collective mandate in a savage society. Unanticipated was the response of our teenagers: They washed cars, sold green wristbands that declared “Do Not Stand Idly By” and appealed to their peers, Jews and Christians alike.
Why Jews? So that, faithful to tradition, our children and grandchildren will never need to ask, “Where was the synagogue? Where were the rabbis? Where were the Jewish institutions during the first genocide of the 21st century?”
Their response resonated to the remarkable Talmudic passage (Avoda Zara 18b): After the Romans conquered Jerusalem, they established arenas in which gladiators were thrown to do battle with ferocious beasts and against one another. The rabbis issued an edict prohibiting Jews from attending such monstrous events. But Rabbi Nathan and others disagreed: They said Jews not only can but should attend the amphitheaters. For when the Roman procurator signals to the bloodthirsty mob to decide whether the struggle should continue, the mob will cry out, “Thumbs-down”—let one of the gladiators kill the other. Then, every Jew in the stadium must rise to his feet, lift up their hands and scream their outrage, “Thumbs-up!” Perhaps the heart of the procurator will melt.
Why Jews? Because it is burned into our memories and deepest dreams. For the sake of our children, for the sake of Judaism, for the sake of civilization, cry out, “Thumbs-up!”
Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis is spiritual leader of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California.