It is time to finally inter a malicious libel against Jews and Judaism that is getting increasing attention in the media, namely, that Judaism will not allow for the breaking of the Sabbath to save a non-Jewish life.
Given that Judaism is the religion that introduced the idea that all humans are created equally in God’s image, and the rabbinical sages wrote 2,000 years ago that “even a gentile who studies God’s law is equal to the High Priest” and “the righteous of all nations have a share in the World to Come” (Tosefta, Sanhedrin 13), it would seem incredible that anyone would believe such nonsense.
Yet the latest to repeat this libel is the gifted writer Christopher Hitchens, who, in his book God Is Not Great, writes of Baruch Goldstein, “While serving as a physician in the Israeli army he had announced that he would not treat non-Jewish patients, such as Israeli Arabs, especially on the Sabbath. As it happens, he was obeying rabbinic law in declining to do this, as many Israeli religious courts have confirmed…”
In our second debate on religion, held last week, I asked Hitchens to identify even one Jewish court that would uphold such a thing. As his source he cited not a court but his “dear friend,” the late Israeli writer Israel Shahak.
Research on the incident reveals the following: In 1965, Shahak sent a letter to Haaretz saying he had witnessed an Orthodox Jewish man refusing to allow his telephone to be used to call an ambulance for a non-Jew because it would violate the Sabbath. In the same letter Shahak also alleged that a rabbinical court in Jerusalem confirmed that the man acted according to the dictates of Jewish law.
From the beginning the story was curious. What prohibition could there possibly be in allowing someone else to use one’s phone on the Sabbath? Then, in 1966, the story was investigated by Immanuel Jakobovits – one of the worlds’ leading medical ethicists who later would become chief rabbi of the United Kingdom and a member of the House of Lords – and found to be a hoax.
Writing in the journal Tradition under the title “A Modern Blood Libel,” Jakobovits noted: “Dr. Shahak, challenged to substantiate his personal ‘testimony’ was eventually forced to admit that the Orthodox Jew he had ‘witnessed’ refusing the use of his telephone simply did not exist. The whole incident had been fabricated in true Protocols style. Equally overlooked was the circumstance that the Rabbinate, far from having confirmed Dr. Shahak’s allegation, had in fact ruled that the Sabbath must be violated to save non-Jewish no less than Jewish lives.”
In further refutation of Shahak’s libel, Jakobovits cited a lengthy responsum by Isser Yehuda Unterman, chief rabbi of Israel, who stated unequivocally that “the Sabbath must be violated to save non-Jewish life no less than Jewish lives.”
But such libels about Jews were, sadly, par for the course for Shahak who also alleged that Jewish children are taught “whenever passing near a cemetery, to utter a blessing if the cemetery is Jewish, but to curse the mothers of the dead if it is non-Jewish” (Jewish History, Jewish Religion) and even accused Jews of worshiping Satan.
The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) calls Shahak “one of the world’s leading anti-Semites,” and as Jewish Press senior editor Jason Maoz noted in his Jan. 25 Media Monitor column (“The Wicked Son”), Shahak’s work is regularly referenced by neo-Nazis and anti-Semites.
Eli Beer, chief coordinator of the United Haztalah Emergency Ambulance Service of Israel, who oversees 1,100 medical volunteers, approximately 60 percent of whom are Orthodox, told me, “If someone would say we won’t save a non-Jewish life on the Sabbath, he is a liar. If he is Jewish, Christian, or Muslim we save everyone’s life on any day of the year, including the Sabbath and Yom Kippur, and I have done so myself. Indeed, as an orthodox Jew it is my greatest honor to save the life of a non-Jew, and I would violate any of the Jewish holy days to do so.”
It would behoove a scholar like Hitchens to remove from future editions of his book this slander of “many” Jewish courts teaching Jews that it is forbidden to save non-Jewish life on the Sabbath, along with other gratuitous attacks on Jews and Judaism that are misleading and inaccurate. Principal among them are his unfortunate statement that Jews are not “blameless” for anti-Semitism and his characterization of the festival of Chanukah as “an absolutely tragic day in human history” without which “the Jewish people might have been the carriers of philosophy instead of arid monotheism.”