“If I am not for myself who will be for me? If I am only for myself what am I? And if not now, when?”
Hillel’s challenges in Pirkei Avot are among the most well-known, and most often quoted, phrases in the Mishnah. And for good reason. In three questions, Pirkei Avot presents a Jewish philosophy of social justice that compels us to take responsibility not only for ourselves, but also for others, and to do so now.
It is this philosophy that grounds the Council of Christians and Jews “If Not Now When” initiative which encourages Jews to engage in prayer and spiritual reflection for Christians who are being persecuted in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq and Syria at the hands of ISIS.
The initiative is part of a wider framework to build relationships between Christians and Jews by approaching some of the central concerns facing each community together. Previously the “Still An Issue” campaign, which encouraged Churches to contact their local Jewish communities expressing support during times of increased tensions, received engagement from Christian communities in the UK. Originally prompted by the attacks in Europe and a growing sentiment of fear among Jewish communities in Britain, the campaign is ongoing and continues to develop new and existing relationships.
But much as we are aware that antisemitism is still of great concern, and not a problem that appears to be going away, it is not currently a threat with the same urgency as that faced by Christian communities in the Middle East. A threat that is becoming more widely acknowledged in the Western World, Christians in the Middle East (as well as other minority groups) face extreme violence and death simply because of their faith.
We are in a unique, unprecedented position to show concern for and empathy with those Christian communities that are under attack, and the British Christians who are supporting them. We are not looking for political engagement and we are not in a position to propose solutions to this crisis. This initiative is looking to build and develop relationships between Jewish and Christian communities, to come together in support of one another when we are in pain and to establish lasting, meaningful friendships.
To this end, the CCJ has created a general resource to be used throughout August with information about Christians in the Middle East and ideas for personal and communal responses rooted in Jewish tradition and practice, which is further supplemented by rabbinic reflections. As a subject which is relevant to us all, it has brought together communities from across the Jewish spectrum, with endorsements, reflections and participation from Orthodox, Reform, Liberal and Masorti rabbis.
Prayer and reflection are incredibly simple actions, open to all communities and individuals, but powerful beyond words. By praying for another, we generate the compassion and empathy that is central to all human relationships and ensure that this suffering is not ignored or unheard. Together, we raise our voices to the Divine to ask collectively for an end to this crisis and to establish peace.
Now we need to show solidarity with Christians who are being attacked, tortured and killed in Iraq and Syria. Now we need to empathise with Christians in our own country whose faith is being challenged in a way with which we are all too familiar ourselves. Now we need to add our voices to the prayers of support, comfort and peace to those already being recited by our Christian neighbours around the world.
Because if not now, when.