Rabbinic Conference on Judaism and Human Rights

I just got back from the first ever Rabbinic Conference on Judaism and Human Rights in New York, sponsored by Rabbis for Human Rights.

It was an outstanding conference.  The learning sessions were excellent.

When I get into a discussion of working with Rabbis for Human Rights, some of my more politically conservative colleagues ask “where are the Imams for Human Rights?”

At the conference the formation (totally independently) was announced of BOTH Imams for Human Rights and Evangelicals for Human Rights.  Human rights is more and more being seen by people of faith as an issue that transcends faith traditions, that transcends politics.

The personal courage of some of our speakers was humbling.  I just want to share two examples that really moved me:

Sister Dianna Ortiz, Catholic nun, spoke about her experiences being tortured in Guatemala.  It was clearly very painful for her to discuss the subject at all.  What the Guatemalans did to her is unbelievable and unforgivable, and the fact that the US government was supporting the Guatemalans when they knew such abuses were going on is very hard to take.  She said that if she had vowed to God to speak out on what happened, she probably would have tried to find a way around the vow, a way to avoid speaking.  But she felt since she had vowed to the other victims – victims who died, whose screams haunted her as she was being tortured herself – she felt she had no way out of that vow, hence her passionate speaking out for all victims of torture.  And she pointed out it’s not a partisan issue; yes, she was called a liar among other things, despite one hundred and eleven 2nd degree burns from cigarettes on her body, by officials in the administration of George H.W. Bush.  However, the Clinton administration was not particularly more responsive in doing anything about what happened or launching an investigation.

And for those who have asked about where are the Muslims worried about human rights, we heard from Bassem Eid, of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group.  Mr. Eid, a Muslim resident of Jericho, speaks out continually about the human rights abuses happening in Palestinian territories – and what he speaks about are the abuses done by Palestinians.  He said terrorism is the ultimate human rights violation. While he doesn’t like the security barrier, he says the Palestinians bear a lot of responsibility for it because they tolerate terrorists.  He acknowledges Israel has a right to defend its citizens.

He is not an Israel loving Christian like Joseph Farah.  Bassem Eid is very aware of human rights violations perpetrated by the Israeli forces operating in the West Bank and Gaza; however he feels as a human rights activist, he needs to focus on the problems in Palestinian society, while Jewish groups can focus on the problems in Israeli society.

His work is described on their web site:  “In effect, the PHRMG has dedicated much of its work to the monitoring of human rights violations committed by the Palestinian Authority. The PHRMG has instituted a number of projects to deal with the ongoing human rights violations. The projects include monitoring unit, freedom of expression and democracy center, settlers watch hotline and legal unit, etc… Our future projects in the coming two years include peace building development, peace building and conflict resolution monitoring, reforms to the Palestinian judicial system, democracy center, public education and out reach unit, etc…

“The PHRMG believes that in spite of the ongoing Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories and the need to denounce Israeli human rights abuses, such scrutiny is essential in the current process of state building, to ensure that the future Palestinian State will be a truly democratic one. In the long run, the protection of human rights can only strengthen the Palestinian Authority.”

For a Palestinian still resident in the Palestinian territory to speak out against the Fatah, Hamas, and other Palestinian organizations is clearly an act of great personal courage—the people he speaks out against do not play with kid gloves, as demonstrated by Hamas’ killing three children of a Fatah official earlier in the week.

During the conference we heard the bad news that the Dari home in the Issawiya neighborhood of Jerusalem had been torn down again.  Ahmed Dari and his family live in the Issawiya neighborhood of Jerusalem.  In an effort to limit the non-Jewish population in and around Jerusalem, the municipal government issues very few building permits to Arabs, even when they live in Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.  When in frustration Arabs build homes anyway, the government comes and demolishes them – even though they do not do the same thing to homes illegally built by Jews.  The Dari home was torn down in 2003, despite efforts to save it (click here to read more).  The home was rebuilt with funds and help from Rabbis for Human Rights.  This week the house was torn down again.  Once again, Mr. Dari’s daughter came home from school to find that the place where her home had been in the morning was now a pile of rubble.  Imagine how your child would feel.  On the spot, $30,000 was raised to rebuild the home, should the Dari’s be willing to go through it again—though they may not be.  The outpouring of support was very encouraging.

Moshe Halbertal spoke about the danger when a political battle becomes a religious war: the relative becomes absolutized.  If a particular piece of land is fought over as a matter of religion not politics, it becomes an absolute value and compromise becomes impossible. He suggested we need to do the opposite – to relativize the absolute if we want to be able to find peace in the Middle East.

There were discussions and debates about whether the human rights agenda should be broader and include issues such as social justice or war in general; I take a somewhat narrow view myself (let’s stick with fighting torture, and other examples of governmental abuse of power) but it’s a healthy debate nonetheless.

I’m sure all 200 attendees came away from the conference revitalized in their dedication to fight for the protection of the vulnerable, regardless of faith, race, or gender.  God willing the conference will happen again next year, I can’t recommend it highly enough.  Kol hakavod to those who worked so hard to make it happen.

Reb Barry


Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

One thought on “Rabbinic Conference on Judaism and Human Rights

  • December 10, 2008 at 9:38 am

    The first conference sounds like it was an amazing experience. I am on my way home now from the second annual conference, which was pretty incredible. I did some liveblogging at Velveteen Rabbi, which you’re welcome to check out if you wish. 🙂


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