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Do Jews Have A Special Responsibility To Fight Against Genocide?

From: Shmuel Rosner To: Adam LeBor Dear Adam, Thank you for your thoughtful response. The lesson of your experience seems quite obvious: if even someone like yourself, whose instincts (I suspect) are much more pro-UN than mine, has turned skeptical, … Read More

By / June 26, 2008

From: Shmuel Rosner

To: Adam LeBor

Dear Adam,

Thank you for your thoughtful response. The lesson of your experience seems quite obvious: if even someone like yourself, whose instincts (I suspect) are much more pro-UN than mine, has turned skeptical, then the organization is really as useless as I imagined. And the point you've raised regarding its treatment of Israel is but one example of why it should be scrapped, or at least marginalized. Giving it more power will be very costly to Israel, as instead of working to better the world as it should, what I expect the UN to do it is to try and use any power it might obtain to make Israel less secure.

So let us agree (I think we do) on that, and turn to the question of Darfur, and to Jewish-American involvement in trying to make this cause a keystone of using Jewish political power to improve the world.

The facts are indisputable: Jewish Americans were on the forefront of the battle to save Darfur. If you happened to attend the largest Washington demonstration for Darfur you couldn't ignore the fact that although it wasn't a "Jewish" rally, most of the participants happened to be Jewish. Jewish legislators (among them the late Tom Lantos) were vocal, Jewish activists were, well, very active, Jewish organizations were, and still are, making space for this issue on their agenda.

But what is the reason for all that?

One possible explanation should make all of us very proud: Jews, who suffered the most from genocide, feel compelled to raise their voices against it in every part of the world. They feel they have the moral authority and obligation to do so. And they're right.

But there's also a second possibility (which isn't mutually exclusive from the first): For the past few decades, American Jews were spent most of their political capital on the just cause of securing Israel — and then got tired of it. They got tired of being seen by some elite groups as particularistic and tribal. They got tired as the cause (Israel) has shifted from being David to being Goliath. And they were looking to prove that American Judaism is not a hostage of the Israel-first school of thought, that it has its own priorities.

This comes out in discussions of Darfur as well as other humanistarian causes. One expression of those sentiments the outrageous letter (former IDF civilian volunteer) Representative Rahm Emanuel (D-IL) sent to Israel's Ambassador in Washington, demanding that Israel be more receptive to Sudanese refugees who reach Israel's borders. Another expression was the denunciation (in which Jewcy played no small part) of the Anti Defamation League after its leader, Abe Foxman, came out in opposition to the Armenian Genocide bill presented to Congress by — you guessed it — a Jewish legislator. (The bill was defeated for the very reasons on which Foxman based his opposition, but you didn't hear much criticism of its sponsors and of the leadership of the House when they failed to deliver on their unrealistic pledges).

So you see where I'm going with this — and I hope the readers will spare me comments blaming me for not caring enough about genocide. I'm happy to see the Jewish community as active as it is in humanitarian causes. I do also think, however, that there's some merit to this niggling question that keeps coming back: Will universalist causes eventually replace Israel as the great political cause of American Jewry?

One might suspect that domestic considerations are also in play here. American Jews
were always at the forefront of fighting for the rights of African-Americans. They were marching alongside Reverend King in the high days of cooperation between the two communities, but sometimes along the way the bond between Jews and African Americans have soured. The Jewish community has been trying to prove, ever since, that it did not abandon African-Americans for racial reasons — hence some of the appeal to Jews of Barack Obama, offers the community the intriguing hope of repairing those historic relations.

That's why Israelis interpret the intense involvement of American Jews in shaping the policies toward Ethiopian Jews, as being motivated by domestic considerations. The same logic applies to the very active role Jews are playing in trying to help Darfurians. The Jews, arguably, were not as involved as a group during the crisis in the former Yugoslavia. (Interestingly, Ariel Sharon opposed international involvement in the crisis, fearing it would set a dangerous precedent. He anticipated an effort by the countries in control of international organizations hostile to Israel to influence the outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by the use of international force).

And again, this is not an indictment of the Jewish community for acting for the "wrong" reasons. Motivations that lead to the outcome of fighting genocide are all "good". However, I think one should be able to have an honest discussion of such motivations, because other than implicating the just war against genocide, it also raises issues related to the relations between Israel and Diaspora Jews, especially in cases in which the interests of the communities come apart.

Such contradiction was visible in the case of Turkey and the Armenian genocide, when fighting to establish historical truth ran contrary to Israel national interests (and American interests, to judge by the coverage and the outcome). The case the Ethiopian Jews was a similar story of American Jews pressuring Israel to accept more immigrants than it wanted to.

So: we started with the UN and its inability to stop genocide, and we now turn to explore Jewish involvement with stopping genocide. Is there a special Jewish responsibility here? Does it also apply to Israel? And what happens when the preservation of the State of Israel contradict the cause of stopping genocide?

I'm looking forward to your answers.

Best, Shmuel

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