Martin Luther King with Avraham Heschel

This op-ed, by Attorney Michael Sfard — legal counsel of “Yesh Din” and various other Israeli  peace human rights organizations — appeared in the Haaretz Hebrew edition on June 5 2013. Translation courtesy Sol Salbe.

Several years ago I met Clarence Jones, the legendary lawyer of US civil rights movement leader Martin Luther King Jr. We sat in his consulting firm’s office in midtown Manhattan company, with a huge picture of King looking down at us. We talked about the relations between blacks and Jews. “I just have to tell you a story,” he said, when I mentioned with pride the deep involvement of US Jews in the struggle for racial equality. Jones looked at the picture of the late leader and drifted back in time to an event that occurred 46 years ago.

It was 1967. The leaders of the Jewish communities of the United States had organised an event at a New York synagogue to mark the sixtieth birthday of one of 20th century Jewry leading thinkers, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. King, who struck up a close relationship with Heschel based on the latter’s unreserved support for the black struggle for equality, decided to honour the rabbi and attend the event. For his part, Heschel decided to honour his friend with his own show of respect, and enter the synagogue arm in arm with King (who was a Christian minister!). “Once inside,” Jones said, his eyes brimming with excitement, “the audience, which included hundreds of rabbis, stood up for the couple and began singing the black struggle’s anthem, ‘We shall overcome'”. I exited Jones’ office back into the bustling and rainy New York street, and felt totally morose.

The Jewish people have some gilt edged shares in the idea of the sanctity of human life. Jewish morality promoted and implemented the recognition of the existence of innate basic rights which  everyone has by virtue of being human. The spiritual leaders of this nation, that was persecuted and discriminated against while being scattered all over the world (and thus — in the language of my grandfather, the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman — was the first international or “supra-national” nation), have imposed upon their people the task of “Tikkun Olam” [healing the world]. Consequently, a concept of responsibility for the safety and welfare of all of humanity, evolved within Judaism. The moral principles which are all derived from the Jewish Categorical Imperative “Love thy neighbour as thyself,” have been at the foundations of the idea of human dignity, freedom and the longing desire for equality among all who have been created in God’s image.

Being a perpetual minority, always different, always the other; being victims of racism, hatred and discrimination for centuries, gave Jewish communities a unique collective perspective of the relationship between the ruler and the ruled, and the majority and the minority. Given the said moral and historical background, it is no wonder that Jews everywhere have been allies of the oppressed, those who have been discriminated against and the weak. Think of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, the drafting of the Universal Declaration of human Rights and the civil rights movement in the US.

A whole 46 years have elapsed since Heschel and King interlinked their arms. Bad, sad and shameful years. Years in which separatist currents within the Jewish national movement dragged us away from the universalist approach of “God’s image”. Instead they have imposed upon us the arrogant and racist attitude of the “Kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” We have become the only democracy in the world to be Occupying another people for long decades, and settle on their soil through aggressive theft of land. Who would have thought that millions of people are groaning under the yoke of the military rule of the daughters and sons of the very people who know better than any other nation of the pain of the loss of liberty, property and human dignity.

And as time passes by, the regime that we have imposed on those whom we Occupied resemble more and more the regimes against which our parents and grandparents fought. This is our contemporary national project: our military runs the life of the conquered, who require the military’s approval and a permit for any daily activity. Our soldiers are protecting the plunderers from among our people, who regularly invade the conquered’s lands and do as they will under the protection of the rifles. Our jurists devise a dual legal system: one (modern, generous and respectful) for people of our nationality living in the occupied country, and another (military, brutal and cruel) to their neighbours – our Occupied subjects. Our business people extend their long tentacles into the Occupied land, suck out its wealth, steal its minerals and empty out its soul. Day by day, hour by hour all of us as one are robbing millions of people, born like us in the image of God, of the right to influence their own futures, pursue happiness and be involved in determining their own destiny.

Forty-six years of the antithesis of that kind Judaism that gathered in that New York synagogue and sang “We Shall Overcome.” Today, as on every Fifth of June, we must ask ourselves the question: when do we return to our real selves? When is the nightmare going to end and we cease staining our collective history? When are we going to  stop enslaving people and denying their freedom? When can we again march arm-in-arm with the Martin Luther Kings of the world?

Welcome to the 47th year.