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Torah Teaches Justice, Not Persecution

By Daniel E. Mufson

When Shimon Peres visited the Institute of Politics two years ago, I asked him about Israeli military and trade ties to South Africa. His response was something to the effect of, "Well, Japan has relations with South Africa, so why shouldn't Israel?"

Some orthodox Jews have lately expanded Peres' reasoning to the suppression of the intifada, but with a bilblical twist. "Well," they explain, "Joshua smote all the indigenous peoples who gave him a hard time, so why shouldn't we?"

Justifying harsh treatment of Palestinians through Jewish theology has a few problems, the least of which is that it lacks finesse as a public relations maneuver. Telling people that Judaism sanctions oppression is not the way to defeat anti-Semitism, nor is it the way to bolster Congressional support for aid to Israel. Interpreting Judaism as a theology that says Jews can harass non-Jews whenever they want is also foolhardy, as non-Jews outnumber Jews by a ratio of roughly 300:1.

The real problem with such a brutal interpretation of Judaism is that it ignores the religion's own historical devotion to justice and righteousness. Torah study by day and territorial conquest by night is a scenario that no self-respecting Jew would want to see acted out.

"To perfect the world under the rule of God" are words from the Aleinu prayer, recited three times daily by observant Jews. As Dennis Prager points out in The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism, "It is in this sense of a moral commitment to perfect themselves and the world that the Jews considered themselves 'chosen'." The Bible, not to mention contemporary Jews, refers to Jews as constituting a "holy nation."

The Jewish nation is not holy in the sense that it has divine sanction to oppress whomever gets in the way Old Testament calls the Jews holy in the sense that they have a responsibility to a more rigorous moral code. Ethical treatment is not limited to "members of the tribe."

It is in the book of Exodus not Joshua or Samuel, That the Jews make their covenant with God and receive the divine laws, and it is in Exodus that God tells the Jews, "You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (22:21) Isaiah urges us to "learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression" (1:17), and the 82nd Psalm echoes the religious responsibility to "Give justice to the weak...maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute."

Judaism is not "every person for his or herself." And Judaism is not "every ethnic group for itself." And Judaism is not shooting live ammunition at children throwing stones, or blowing up houses of PLO sympathizers or holding people in detention for years without charges.

The quote from Exodus is the most telling about Judaism. As a people that has been oppressed so much for so long, Jews should--and most, I think, do--have a natural sympathy for other people who suffer persecution. Wherever Jews have lived, they have existed as "strangers in the land." Inherent in the religion, inherent in the history of Judaism, is a unity--a solidarity--with those who are oppressed.

As is the case with most religions, Judaism's greatest offering is a moral stucture, not the promise of material reward in the from of territorial or financial gain. Any Jew who thinks otherwise is ignoring the history of Judaism--a history of continuous moral discussion and questioning. And any Jew who defends Israeli injustices on any ground, particularly theological, is compromising the very integrity of Judaism.

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