Latest update: October 26th, 2012
During the 2006 war in Lebanon, I attended a rally in New York. We were standing in front of the embassy of a particular Middle Eastern nation, peacefully assembled, listening to speakers address the issue of the day. A few people had Israeli flags, maybe a homemade sign here or there. We were passionate about Israel, but we certainly did not constitute what one would call a rowdy crowd.
During the event, two women wearing the hijab (Muslim headscarf) left the embassy. I have no idea who they were or what their business was, but they looked like employees going to lunch. Without fear or hesitation, these two obviously Muslim women calmly walked through the mostly Jewish, pro-Israel crowd. A colleague of mine noted this and wondered aloud how calmly we might pass through an analogous pro-Palestinian event. I now have an answer for him: not very well.
The recent flotilla flap can be called many things: a crisis, a tragedy, a debacle, a mess. It’s not a good thing by anybody’s standards. Nobody is happy with the way things turned out, but that doesn’t mean actions weren’t necessary. But, as always, the world is holding Israel to a higher than average standard.
Not only did Israel act legally, no country on earth would have responded any differently in that situation. Yet Israel is criticized because, honestly, it dares to exist.
Wendell Phillips was a19th-century abolitionist and activist. He’s probably best known for saying that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. He also said that a person on the side of God constitutes a majority. The meaning is clear: it doesn’t matter what the world says, if a person is on the side of right, he’s right.
In his day, Phillips was something of a rabble-rouser. He was indicted in 1854 for his involvement in an attempted slave escape. Nowadays, of course, most people would agree that slavery is reprehensible and that Phillips’s actions were heroic. Even though he was in the minority, Phillips stuck to his convictions because truth and morality outrank popular opinion.
As Jews, this is our belief as well. The Torah tells us not to follow a majority to do the wrong thing (Exodus 23:2). Sadly, we’re all too used to being in the minority on the world stage. If you look in Jewish history through the ages and around the globe, you will see that it has always been this way.
This reality is inherent in the very origin of the Jews. The word “Hebrew” comes from the Patriarch Abraham, who was called “Ha’Ivri,” meaning “the one on the other side.” As the sole adherent of monotheism, it was very literally Abraham against the world. People did come around to his way of thinking, however, as the world now boasts billions of monotheists.
Abraham stuck to his convictions. He didn’t bow to the majority and now half the world is monotheistic. Another win for being right as opposed to following the crowd. But 4,000 years after Abraham, Jews still find themselves virtually alone against the world in other ways. The Gaza flotilla incident is just the most recent example.
Following the flotilla incident, there was a Los Angeles-based pro-Palestinian rally. There was one counter-protestor: a young man, a high school student, who happens to be a member of NCSY, the international youth movement of the Orthodox Union. This young man, named Daniel, was calmly walking back and forth waving an Israeli flag. He didn’t say a word, but the crowd turned on him to such an extent that he had to be surrounded by police and escorted to a safe distance. (Remember, this was supposed to be a “peace” rally.)
Nobody made Daniel go to counter-protest. The easiest thing to do would have been to stay home and ignore the rally condemning Israel for acting legally and responsibly. But that wouldn’t have been true to himself. Daniel had to stand up for what he knew to be right. And so, like his biblical namesake and forebear, he found himself in a “Lion’s Den,” surrounded by antagonists on all sides.
Daniel embodies the principle of standing up for what’s right. It would be all too easy for Israel and the Jewish people to be quiet, to acquiesce, to simply roll over and die. We could just give up, call it a day and join the majority. Israel doesn’t and Daniel wouldn’t.
About the Author: Rabbi Steven Burg is managing director of the Orthodox Union.
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