When Silence is Betrayal
Statement by Rabbi Brian Walt to the New Orleans City Council:
Growing up as a Jewish child in South Africa, my aunt Ethel was the only adult in my family who took a public stand against Apartheid. I loved her dearly and was so proud when I saw photos of her standing outside a Johannesburg government building protesting against the cruelty of the racism and pass laws imposed on Black South Africans. In the white community where many regarded those who challenged the injustice of Apartheid as traitors, she taught me how powerful it can be when courageous people challenge injustice by breaking the silence of complicity.
Today, I am reminded of her brave stance as I read about how some Jewish organizations and leaders are working to reverse a New Orleans City Council resolution, recently passed to show a commitment to universal human rights. The resolution commits the city to avoid contracting with companies that violate human, civil, and labor rights.
Jewish organizations and leaders criticizing this resolution know any effort to screen investments for rights abuses will include, among others, companies complicit in Israel’s violations of Palestinian human rights. These leaders—who prioritize support for Israel over human lives—are unwilling to support human rights for all. But I believe there can be no exceptions to human rights; all people are entitled to freedom, justice and equality. These institutions do not reflect the principles of an increasing number of Jews, including rabbis and Jewish leaders who believe that support for human rights is a core Jewish value that must be applied universally.
I am a member of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council, a growing group of rabbis who believe that support for the rights of Palestinians is central to our Judaism. Many of us have witnessed realities in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories that most Jews never see, no matter how many times they visit Israel. It’s easy to ignore oppression when you are determined to do so. Israel’s destruction of Palestinian homes, segregated ID system, systemic discrimination, and unabated settler violence remind me of what I witnessed as a young person growing up in South Africa. Once one has seen these realities, one cannot be silent.
Many white South Africans were uncomfortable when people around the world stood up against the injustice of Apartheid. They felt like they were being unfairly targeted. They argued that the criticism was unfair, based on hatred and misunderstanding. South Africans supporting apartheid were too invested to see that they singled themselves out for criticism by committing human rights abuses in the first place.
While my aunt Ethel was clear about justice in South Africa, she, like many Jews, was deeply attached to Israel and did not understand the suffering of the Palestinians. We entered into a challenging and important conversation and I told her that she would never understand the issue until she saw it for herself. She then traveled to Israel and went on a tour of the West Bank where she saw injustices so similar to the systemic discrimination of Apartheid.
Today, the arguments I hear from opponents of the New Orleans City Council resolution are very familiar to those I heard from South Africans supporting apartheid. It is indeed similarly uncomfortable today for Jews who support Israel as people around the world take action to support freedom for Palestinians. The solution to this discomfort is not to smear and attack human rights defenders and supporters of the grassroots boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement for Palestinian rights, but to join with those who are working for universal human rights for all, including Palestinians.
At the heart of the Torah is a sacred commitment to the dignity of all human beings. Jewish religious tradition and our historical experience as a people call on us now to support equality and freedom, without exception. As a rabbi, I support New Orleanians in their effort to make the world a more just place for us all. It’s time we all stand up and do the right thing.
Rabbi Brian Walt is a congregational rabbi and a human rights activist. He is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Mishkan Shalom, an activist synagogue in Philadelphia that he founded in 1988. He was the founding executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. In 2012, he led a delegation of leaders of the Civil Rights movement on a visit to Israel and the West Bank. He has been involved in several progressive American Jewish organizations and is currently a member of the rabbinical council of Jewish Voice for Peace.