Civil Rights for Israeli Arabs - A Jewish Position - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Civil Rights for Israeli Arabs - A Jewish Position

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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Rabbi Brian Lurie, Co-Chair, Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues, asked Rabbi David Ellenson, Ph.D., President, HUC-JIR, to reflect on the question, "How can American Jews better understand the need for commitment to the welfare of Israel’s Arab citizens?"

Rabbi Ellenson explained:

In considering what the attitude of American Jews ought to be regarding the issue of civil rights for Arabs in Israel, we Jews -- Israelis as well as American -- should be guided by the well known Hasidic allegory that asks why the hasidah (the stork) is characterized as a non-kosher animal. After all, the stork is labeled the hasidah (the merciful one) because the kindness and compassion this animal displays for its own kind is unparalleled in the animal world. However, precisely because the hasidah reserves these traits for its own kind, the Hasidim teach that the hasidah must always be defined as treif. Any animal that extends compassion, kindness, and mercy only for its own can never be kosher.

As American Jews who are heirs to Jewish tradition and history, we ourselves have known the pain of persecution and discrimination. This has led us to champion civil rights for all, and to feel empathy with the downtrodden. How can we not be empathic to the plight of others? How could we possibly tolerate discrimination against Arabs in a Jewish state when the Israeli Declaration of Independence itself asserts a commitment to champion the rights of all its citizens – Jews and Arabs alike?

Our tradition instructs us to recognize that all persons are created in the Divine Image and that we must therefore treat all people with respect and equality. As the Rambam, quoting Proverns, asserts regarding the teachings of our Torah, “Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.” Consequently, he writes in Hilchot Melachim (Laws of Kings) 10:12, “One ought to treat the resident stranger (non-Jew) with derekh eretz (civility and humanity) and hesed (mercy and kindness) just as one does a Jew.” 

As American Jews, we must ask Medinat Yisrael to affirm these foundational Jewish and Israeli teachings and extend its attitudes to Arabs who dwell within its borders. As the late Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Tel Aviv, Rabbi Hayyim David Halevi (1924-1998), phrased it in his work of responsa, ‘Aseh l’kha rav, “The Jewish people possesses an obligation to conduct itself towards those who are residents in its midst with integrity and fairness. In so doing, we will sanctify the Name of Heaven and the name of Israel in the world.” Civil rights for Arabs in Israel is a non-negotiable part of our tradition, one we should recognize as an obligation imposed by our Massoret – both as Americans and as Jews who love the State of Israel.


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Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates leaders to serve North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, museums, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding.