Should Israel Care? Three Reflections on a Question

November 1, 2011
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Three: The Mirror of Humanity in the East 40s

Marc Gopin

We are living at a moment when the international institutions of the global community are still at a formative early stage. As an international body, the United Nations is young and primitive, and will fare no better than the primitive human community it represents. The U.N. is what the nations of the world will make of it, including Israel. The U.N. has had shining moments and disastrous moments, saving thousands of lives by its vision and gravitas, but also costing thousands of lives by occasional ineptitude or hypocrisy.

Israel should care about what happens at the U.N. because countless Jewish scholars and activists, for centuries, from the time of the prophets to the present, have spoken of humanity’s vision of the central and sacred importance of the rule of humanitarian law as the glue that can hold together a future global community. It is no accident how deeply indebted Hugo Grotius (1583–1645) and so many other philosophers and jurists were to Jewish scholarship, which helped to create the basis of what would become an elaborate system of international law — later concretized in the U.N.

I think often in this regard of Raphael Lemkin (see Karen Naimer’s essay on the cover), a man who lost almost all of his 60 family members in the Holocaust, but who well before the Holocaust became the man most responsible for articulating the concept of genocide and developing the legal basis for the the U.N.’s Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. A Jewish man, a fighter in the Polish Army against the Nazis, he began his legal career championing the cause of the Assyrian Christians who had been massacred in Iraq, as well as exposing the Armenian Genocide. He was a permanent fixture at the fledgling U.N., and the day the Genocide Convention was passed, a convention that he largely wrote, he would be found alone, weeping in a darkened U.N. assembly hall. Winston Churchill nominated him for a Nobel Prize in 1950.

Israel should care about the U.N. because extraordinary Jews like Lemkin had a major role in its creation. Israel has scholars, both Jewish and Arab, who are among the most creative and courageous legal minds in the world, champions of international human rights, and visionaries of a world governed by the rule of law and democracy. Any court of law is only as good as its judge, jury, and advocates; though the U.N. is grossly imperfect, one never abandons it. By embracing the U.N. despite its flaws, Israel continues to nurture and promote a legacy of the Jewish people that embraces the rule of law as the key to human dignity and decency. From Isaiah to Amos to Hillel, our ancient teachers wanted us to be a nation that pursued justice and only justice, a nation that would model and teach these precepts to the world.

The U.N., in a very real sense, gave birth to the State of Israel. If it now gives birth to Palestine, which is, after all, a fulfillment of the original two-state solution, it may be a bitter pill of political defeat for some, but it also may be righting a wrong of history of which everyone is guilty, not just Israel. This is not the best of circumstances under which the U.N. could give birth to a new nation, but that is all the more reason to stick with it, to make sure that the rule of law, the heart and soul of human decency, remains something to be struggled for at the U.N. as a new nation is born.

As Jews and Israelis, we should be with Lemkin and stand in solidarity with every step forward for humanity as a whole as the greatest bulwark against genocide and injustice. Lemkin understood, as Israel should, that humanity’s embrace of global institutions, of international conventions and bodies, is the key to the rule of law, and the key to our future as a race on this fragile planet.

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Rabbi Marc Gopin is director of the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy, and Conflict Resolution (CRDC) at George Mason University, and a partner in MEJDI, the Middle East Justice and Development Initiatives, a Jewish-Arab company that conducts regular tours to Israel and the Palestinian territories.

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