In his book about the life of Mahatma Gandhi, Louis Fisher (1950) writes,
"Hitler," Gandhi said, "killed five million Jews. It is the greatest crime of our time. But the Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher’s knife. They should have thrown themselves into the sea from cliffs... It would have aroused the world and the people of Germany... As it is they succumbed anyway in their millions."
This is a very difficult quote to read, and it needs parsing out. I am guilty of previously not doing the work necessary to reach Gandhi’s intention and have taught this as a call for Jews to go, “as sheep to slaughter.” I think I have done my students a disservice.
Today I am reading this quote in the context of an article I read by Rabbi Sid Schwartz (JTA, 1/12/2012) titled Why should Jews care about the rights of Israeli Arabs? I can already imagine some of my readers jumping from their seats in anger and accusing me of equating between the Shoah and the treatment of Israeli Arabs. This knee-jerk reaction is one of the greatest threats to the Jewish people. Human and civil rights are core Jewish values, and the Shoah may have been one of the greatest violations of these rights, but we need to discuss all violations of these moral and ethical imperatives on the same spectrum. It does no good to stigmatize every comparison to the Shoah, just as it does harm to hyperbolize the comparisons, as was recently the case in ultra-orthodox demonstrations in Israel where demonstrators dressed their children as concentration camp prisoners.
One small tangent; my teacher Rabbi David Wolpe has suggested, quite overtly, that the Cambodian genocide was the worst of the twentieth century because the world new it was humanly possible and did nothing to prevent it.
Rabbi Schwartz suggests two basic reasons for Jewish care for Arab rights in Israel, their humanity and Israeli democracy. As Humans, Israeli Arabs, just like the Sudanese refugees or Taiwanese foreign workers in Israel are made in the image of God, according to Jewish tradition. For this reason alone, their basic rights and dignity should be upheld. But dignity is a broad term that is rarely unpacked in any semblance of a serious definition. Rabbi Schwartz speaks of the injustice of the fact that 20 percent of Israel’s population accounts for 1 percent of its gross domestic product. He also speaks of inequality in municipal and educational services and in employment opportunities. I know some of my readers will stop here and say that the Israeli Arabs don’t serve in the military, thus they don’t share in the burden of the state’s maintenance. In fact, more Arabs now serve in the IDF than ever. More importantly, ultra-orthodox and secular Jews who avoid the draft are not punished with the same lack of services found in the Arab sector.
When Rabbi Schwartz addresses the issue of democracy, he also provides several examples. He states that our independence, as written in Ben Gurion’s Proclamation, calls for equal rights of all residents.
[I]t will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.
Ironically, this declaration of independence does not call for a democratic state, and I wonder if this has anything to do with the possible oxymoron of calling Israel a Jewish democracy. Interestingly, one of the greatest assertions of democracy of all times, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which includes the famous, “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth” also does not mention democracy.
Now to Gandhi’s quote, in my very round about way. Avishai Margolit, the Israeli philosopher, in explaining the difference between morals and ethics, says that ethics guide thick relations between human’s whose lives are interconnected, even Palestinians and Israelis. This is why we have an ethics of war. But Morals guide our behavior when the stakes are significantly lower. Morals, according to Margolit, guide our behavior, specifically, because the stakes are low or non-existent. We are morally compelled because without morals, we would not help strangers.
Why does Gandhi say, “Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher’s knife. They should have thrown themselves into the sea from cliffs... It would have aroused the world and the people of Germany.” because Gandhi believes in the power of morals to arouse the ire of regular human beings to pursue justice and dignity for one another, even when the stakes are low. Gandhi’s appeal is moral in the same way as Dr. Martin Luther King’s claim, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We have morals because ignoring injustice is corrupting. Gandhi doesn’t want Jews to die. He wants their death to be meaningful. He believes that since they will be dying anyway, they might as well make it a sign for generations to come.
This understanding of Gandhi reminds me of the dispute between Ben Padat and Rabbi Akiva regarding a flask of water that can save one of two people’s lives. Rabbi Akiva believes that one should surely drink the water to save his own life because a life has no value if it ends. Ben Padat believes differently. He is concerned with what his life will mean if he chooses his own life over his friend’s. Ben Padat is concerned with the kind of person he will be if he gets to live at the expense of his friend. In a sense, Gandhi is like Ben Padat. His argument is that if you have to die anyways, you might as well make your life a sign of how terrible humans can treat one another. He doesn’t suggest that Jews fight their oppressors because he doesn’t believe in becoming like them. This is a difficult decision for any human. In my worst nightmares, I am forced to live with myself after having to be unfaithful to my ideals. It would be nice if I could live this standard in real life, but it is very difficult. Life is about compromise, but Ben Padat and Gandhi believe that death doesn’t have to be.
In Israel, treating Arab Israelis with the dignity they deserve as fellow citizens is not nearly as difficult as people make it out to be. The mistreatment is about racism and misrepresented as self defense or “me first.” Many Israeli Jews try to apply the teaching of Hillel, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me.” But this approach is dishonest. The best way for Jews in Israel to be for themselves is to be for their weakest minorities. The absence of this form of democratic vigilance is what has led to the huge decay in Israeli democracy from the misogynistic behavior of the ultra-orthodox to the anti-immigrant and refugee fervor that has swept much of the nation. In the words of the great German pastor, Martin Niemöller,
First they came for the communists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak out because I was Protestant.
Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.
If we Israelis and Jews don’t start understanding King’s decree that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” And that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, [must] not perish from the earth” we will simply lose our value as a unique nation with the mission of being a vehicle for God’s blessing. This would be worse than any existential threat that would force us to steal the flask and drink the water without concern for what we might become.