Toward a Jewish ‘foreign policy’

Millennials all over the world are exhorting one another to be more “woke.” Popularized over recent years, this is a term which began as African-American slang, meaning “alert” to social or political injustice.

Today, the need to be more “woke” has become the call of the hour across the world for a whole host of different causes and social issues, such that last year it was added to the Oxford English Dictionary.

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This week, I joined President Reuven Rivlin on a truly ground-breaking state visit to Ethiopia. The delegation comprised the private, public and civil sectors of Israeli society; leading businessmen and women; representatives of Diaspora Jewry; and outstanding individuals active in international development. The experience has led me to conclude that now is the time for us to call upon the Jewish world to be “woke” to its responsibility on the global stage.

Tragically, the history of the Jewish people is littered with exile, expulsion, pogroms and persecution. For more than three millennia, our story has been a veritable miracle of survival from one existential threat to the next. But the establishment of the State of Israel, together with the remarkable resurgence and prosperity – which so many communities in the Diaspora have enjoyed since the end of the Holocaust – is a miracle that has lifted us to new heights of confidence and freedom. As the brilliant writer and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl once said, “Freedom is in danger of becoming arbitrary unless it is lived responsibly.”

We focus a great deal on the growing problem of antisemitism and on the grave threat the State of Israel faces daily from her enemies. And so we should.

These are among the most pressing issues of our time. Yet we must never lose sight of the reality that there has scarcely been a more empowering time to be Jewish. Today, Jews are making a greater contribution on the global stage than ever before. We have a Jewish state which, in just 70 short years against all the odds, has risen to its feet among the nations of the world and now sets the standard for innovation in agriculture, technology, medicine and many more fields.

All of this success obligates us to be more globally responsible.

The question is asked in the Jerusalem Talmud: “What is the most important verse in the entire Torah?” The great sage Rabbi Akiva famously replied, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

BEN AZZAI suggested a different verse: “This is the book of the generations of man, on the day that God created man, in the image of God He made him.” Ben Azzai was pointing out to Rabbi Akiva that whereas his verse calls upon us to be considerate to our neighbors – those to whom we are already close – from Genesis we learn that since every human being is created in the image of God, our compassion must extend to one and all.

Just as Israel and any other nation-state constructs a foreign policy, which determines how it interacts with the rest of the world, we must ask: What should the “foreign policy” of the Jewish people be? Inspired by the lesson of Ben Azzai, I believe our interaction with the world should be based on the principle that every human being reflects the Divine. If we are in a position to help others and we fail in our responsibility to them, then we fail in our responsibility to God.

The timeless wisdom of the Torah cannot change the world in and of itself. Neither can the technical know-how of our NGOs, nor the resources and ingenuity of the Jewish state.

But together there is no limit to what we can achieve. This week in Ethiopia for the first time, we are combining the forces of our Judaism, our altruism and our Zionism to make a lasting impact.

This unprecedented collaboration has the makings of a Jewish “foreign policy” for the 21st century. It is no less than the Torah demands of us and its realization is a sign that both the Jewish state and a flourishing Diaspora are maturing.

Neither Israel nor the Jewish people ever asked the world for anything but to be left to live in peace. Indeed, the greatness of our story has been that we depended on nobody but ourselves and God. And that is why we do not merely offer handouts to the developing world. We do not patronize or demean them. Instead, we offer what Maimonides declared to be the highest level of tzedaka (often insufficiently translated as “charity”): to help others become self-sufficient. We can share the agricultural and technological solutions which helped to make the State of Israel an unqualified success. We can share the expertise in education and community-building which has sustained us for thousands of years.

This is the call of the hour for the Jewish people. God has showered His blessings upon us and it is incumbent upon us to be “woke” to the responsibility which those blessings confer.

The writer is chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Great Britain and the Commonwealth.