Jewish leaders have the responsibility to speak out loudly and clearly for their own and their community. Growing up in Rabbi Avi Weiss’s synagogue, the concept of rabbis being arrested for civil disobedience is one which I was familiar with from a very young age. Reb Avi (ranked in 2011 as the 12th most prominent rabbi in the United States by Newsweek) founded Amcha-The Coalition for Jewish Concerns, and is regularly arrested for raising a voice of moral conscience for important Jewish causes. Owning a leading PR Agency, I understand the importance of media gimmicks — clearly street theater of this sort attracts noble attention.
On Friday, a slew of Jewish leaders were among those arrested during a a high-profile protest rally outside the Embassy of Sudan. Together with actor George Clooney, those arrested included Rabbi Steve Gutow, the president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs; Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center; and Fred Kramer, who directs Jewish World Watch. This was a well-planned, well-orchestrated publicity stunt. Their efforts raised the bar on attempts to end the genocide and mass starvation of the Sudanese people perpetrated by the government of president Omar al-Bashir.
Gutow said “the inhumane cruelty of Omar al-Bashir’s war crimes is too much for us to abide in silence. With one hand he assaults his own people while with the other he holds back those who would seek to help. I am compelled by God, by my commitment to justice, and by my humanity to speak out.” Rightfully, the Jewish community has been active in promoting the campaign to highlight the atrocities in Sudan, and these rabbis deserve our support.
While clearly this is a vital, important issue, I wonder why Gutow, Saperstein and the others have never been arrested following a bombing in Israel in front of the PLO embassy. I wonder why these folks haven’t blocked the entrance to the Iranian embassy in protest of Ahmadinejad’s danger to Israel. Having joined Rabbi Weiss at hundreds, if not thousands, of protests through the years, I have yet to encounter these folks on the front lines for Jewish causes. Rabbi Weiss was recently arrested in front of the UN, and said:
Today we are sitting in the street to tell this den of evil that they will be responsible for the violence that will, G-d forbid, take place in Israel as a result of this move to legitimize a state who clearly does not want peace. If the New York City police really “got it,” they wouldn’t be arresting us who represent the Jewish voice of consciousness and those who speak truth to power, but they’d be arresting Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who is guilty of murdering countless numbers of his own people and who threatens genocide against the Jewish state.
His statement sounds very similar to Gutow’s – yet is for Jewish causes. While Darfur clearly is a vital issue, so too is Iran. As Jews, we have a responsibility to be both universalists and particularists. Our spiritual activism can never be at the expense of our commitment to our people.
Hillel, the great Jewish scholar, is often quoted as saying “If I am only for myself, what am I worth?” Yet the more important “If I am not for myself who will be for me?” needs to be remembered the same way. Let’s hope Jewish leaders fight for Jews the same way they fight for important causes like Darfur.