By Rabbi Julie NEUBERGER, Senior Rabbi at West London Synagogue.
Jewish tradition has a history of protest and campaigning.
In the book of Genesis, Abraham intercedes to persuade God not to destroy the wicked city of Sodom. He keeps haggling with God, asking for mercy on behalf of the city, should Sodom have 50 righteous citizens, down to 45, 40, 30, 20, and finally, 10.
Alas for the residents, there are none to be found. In the Book of Exodus, Moses leads what is arguably the first successful national campaign. Despite not blessed with eloquent oratory or personal charisma, supported by his brother Aaron (and the odd plague or two), he’s able to persuade Pharaoh to set free the enslaved Hebrew people.
It is the spirit of Abraham and Moses, and the voice of the prophets, which has led so many Jews over the centuries to ensure the rights of the downtrodden and the oppressed are upheld, whether Jewish or non-Jewish.
René Cassin, a French Jew, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1968 for his work on the Declaration of Human Rights. And in 1965, at the height of the American civil rights movement, two rabbis – Abraham Joshua Heschel and Maurice Davis – marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr and nearly 8,000 people.
Heschel later wrote: “When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.” Heschel’s sentiments may well have been echoed by the participants of the recent Shabbat Walk for Change. As part of the Enough Food for Everyone IF campaign, more than 100 members of our community, from across the denominations, raised their voices in protest against world hunger, asking our government to take a lead at the G8 Summit on ending this scourge on humanity.
When there is enough food to feed the entire world population – one-and-a-half times over, according to some estimates – it’s a scandal that one-in-eight people go hungry every night. Jewish charities joined forces to provide a way to engage with the Big IF event in Hyde Park on the Saturday.
After our regular morning service in West London Synagogue, I was delighted to host an interfaith service coordinated by World Jewish Relief, and to welcome more than 50 IF campaign supporters. Alongside Saif Ahmad, chief executive of MADE in Europe, a Muslim-led movement of young people who campaign against global poverty, and Sister Pat Robb, a Catholic nun who has worked with refugees as a nurse throughout Africa, we shared Jewish, Muslim and Christian perspectives on the need to combat hunger.
Forty percent of all organisations involved in the IF campaign are faith-based. World Jewish Relief’s interfaith service showed that communities from all faith backgrounds can come together to show there is more that unites us than divides us. Jewish campaigners met up under Marble Arch before entering Hyde Park for the Big IF event, with supporters from other faith organisations.
Bill Gates, Danny Boyle, Myleene Klass and Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner addressed the event. Our synagogue has a proud history of supporting those in need. During the 1930s, unlike some other Jewish communities, we provided a warm welcome to the rabbis and scholars who fled Nazi Europe and assisted many in finding jobs. We ran clubs for young refugees, provided meals and a meeting place, and often gave financial help.
In the aftermath of the Holocaust, we established a hostel for orphaned children who had sur- vived the concentration camps, using the money that was there to redecorate the synagogue’s dome, which had suffered bomb damage. In the 1980s, our community was very active in the Soviet Jewry campaign –now it campaigns on gay rights and same-sex marriage, as well as running a drop-in centre for destitute asylum seekers. So we have a tradition of social involvement, and were naturally in favour of the IF campaign.
The IF campaign has successfully put hunger back on the UK’s agenda. But there is still much to do. Organisations such as World Jewish Relief, the Jewish Social Action Forum and Tzedek, together with communities like ours, will keep up the fight campaigning against the world’s injustices. We hope you will join us.