I recently had the privilege of hearing an old friend give an inspiring speech about “Lessons Learned” from decades as a human rights lawyer, professor and social activist. Prof Irwin Cotler – Member of Parliament in Canada, and former Canadian Minister of Justice, a Canadian who lives in Montreal and Jerusalem – is one of the most outstanding and eloquent Jewish spokespersons for human rights in the world, which is why he has received 10 honorary doctorates and why he was given the International Humanitarian award by the World Union for Progressive Judaism at its recent international conference in Jerusalem.

Professor Cotler listed several major lessons that strike him as particularly relevant for the current situation. Many of these important insights were roundly applauded and appreciated by this very responsive audience of Reform/Liberal/Progressive Jews from around the world who spent five days of learning and experiencing various aspects of the conference theme of Tikkun Olam (Repairing the World), which is one of the main emphases of Reform Judaism internationally and in Israel in recent years.

Some of his most poignant lessons were:

  • We must remember the 6 million Jews – and millions of non-Jews – who were murdered in the Shoah.
  • There is a great danger of state-sanctioned ideologies of hate. It all begins when we demonize the other.
  • There is a great danger of indifference in the face of atrocities. (For example, the Rwandan Genocide was preventable since we, the Western World, knew about it).
  • The struggle against racism of any kind is a profound justice imperative”
  • The struggle for justice is also a struggle against injustice. Tikkun Olam is not just a matter of prayers or words, but it consists of translating ideas into action by combating injustice. (This is a lesson that he said that he learned from his mother.)

I was very moved and inspired by Prof. Cotler’s significant and substantive lessons. At the same time, as I listened to him carefully and with deep admiration and respect, I was wondering why he did not apply any of his lessons to Israel, since he was, after all, speaking in Jerusalem.

One of the people in the audience was obviously thinking the same thing when he asked during the Q & A session about the hate-mongers in Israel.

Prof. Cotler’s response was immediate and incisive: “We need to deal with this, hatred and incitement of any kind has no place within Israel.”

He also made it clear that he is against state-sponsored hatred, which he attributed only to Hamas and not to Israel. “In Israel, the state is not sponsoring hate, but there are individuals who practice hate who must be brought to justice,” he said.

If only things were so black and white, but they are not! Unfortunately the state of Israel supports rabbis and educational institutions who preach and teach hatred. This has been documented by many sources, including a recent monograph published by the Israel Religious Action Center of the Israel Progressive Movement, which lists the details of 49 Orthodox rabbis who are paid by the state who have incited their followers to hate Arabs by their outrageous discriminatory statements. And it is widely known that some yeshivahs in the Wild West of the West Bank have been inciting their students to commit hate crimes for the last few years, and none of the perpetrators have yet to be brought to justice. Not to mention that a young so-called “religious” Jew assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 because he had learned from his rabbis that Rabin had handed over some parts of the Land of Israel for peace!

Yes, hatred and hate crimes have no place in Israel, not among Palestinians (in Israel or in the region) and not among Jews. It is the responsibility of the leaders of Israel –politicians, rabbis and educators – to purge hatred from our midst, from the Jewish majority which controls the state and from the Palestinian minority, which struggles to live as equals in the Jewish state. Tikkun Olam must not merely be a pious platitude, but a process of action. There is no time like the present to begin to do this with utmost seriousness and urgency.