In Ethiopia, U.K. Chief Rabbi calls on Jews to take on global social concerns

ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA – Chief Rabbi of the UK Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis has urged his community and Jews more broadly to look beyond their communal horizons and take greater responsibility for global social concerns.

The chief rabbi made his comments during an historic visit by President Reuven Rivlin to Ethiopia this week, whose delegation included a contingent of Israeli and global Jewish development organizations seeking to increase aid and assistance to the country.

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Mirvis was invited by Rivlin when earlier this year the two leaders became aware of their mutual belief that Israel and the Jewish people more broadly has the capabilities, capacity and responsibility to alleviate poverty and suffering in developing nations.

“Such acts of social responsibility, beyond the confines of the Jewish community and the State of Israel, are an integral part of our religious responsibility to God and what is what our Jewish tradition calls on us to do,” Mirvis told The Jerusalem Post in Addis Ababa this week.

The rabbi said that Jews must remain committed to the welfare of their own communities and that of Israel, but at the same time find a balance which commits Israel and the global Jewish people to take greater responsibility for the plight of others.

And in a column for the Post, Mirvis insisted that although the Jewish people still face the twin concerns of resurgent antisemitism in the Diaspora and Israel’s ongoing security threats, “we must never lose sight of the reality that there has scarcely been a more empowering time to be Jewish.”

Continued the chief rabbi “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.”

Asked whether Orthodox communities in particular have done enough for such causes, Mirvis diplomatically responded that he was not trying to criticize what the Orthodox community has done but rather is “looking positively at what we can still achieve.”

“I’m noticing the ability we have and the opportunities that exist and our tradition that calls upon us to look beyond our the boundaries of our own communities and our own needs,” he said.

Mirvis also expounded on his vision for a “Jewish foreign policy” which he said should be based on the principle of helping people in need of assistance around the world to benefit from the experiences, capabilities and know-how of the Jewish people and the Jewish state.

“Indeed, the Torah on 36 different occasions tells us to love the stranger 36 times because we had the experience of being strangers in Egypt and because we have been on the receiving end of so much persecution and sadness and we are well placed to enable others to benefit from what we have to offer and we should rise to that challenge to indeed give of ourselves in such regard through such a foreign policy,” he said.

Asked about the Israeli government’s stance in not reviewing asylum requests of the approximately 35,000 asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan currently in Israel, and its now failed effort to deport many of them, Mirvis was more circumspect, saying it was not his role to address the issue.

“Living abroad I wouldn‘t consider myself in an appropriate position to tell the Israeli government and Israeli society what to do. I certainly identify with with the dilemma. I see the importance of the preservation of a Jewish identity in the Jewish state, and at the same time I very much appreciate the divinity of each human soul and the importance of recognizing others and embracing them within our society.”

And although Israeli rescue reorganizations are frequently very quick to arrive at global disaster zones, and has increasing numbers of NGOs active in the developing world, the Jewish state is actually significantly behind other developed nations in the budgets it allocates to foreign aid and development.

In 2016, Israel allocated $220 million, just 0.07 percent of its Gross National Income to international development, compared to the OECD average of 0.4%.

The chief rabbi was again diplomatic in his take on Israel’s responsibilities in this regard, but noted that the Jewish state has indeed grown in prosperity and expertise in many fields over the last three decades.

“What I’ve liked about President Rivlin’s messaging is that he is talking about Israeli society reaching maturity, that instead of being what it was for many years, dependent on hand outs from others, it can now stand on own two feet.

“That being the case, Israel’s wants to be ready to give others the benefits of what it has experienced and the knowledge and know how that it has.”

In this context, Mirvis also addressed the social and political tensions that have come to the fore in Western nations in recent years over issues such as immigration, trade and their relationship to the wider world.

The rabbi described the situation as a duel between those who seek to “raise the drawbridge and those who want to keep it down,” and of conflict “between inclusivity and exclusivity, or as I call it the particular and the universal.”

He said that “some political leaders new on the scene in the last few years” have been urging people to chose between the particular and the universal, but insisted that both concepts should be embraced.

“If you have a look at North America, two huge nations Canada and the US. Just over the border you have Justin Trudeau who is championing a very different type of outlook,” the rabbi observed.

“The whole question is whether we are particular or universal,” Mirvis asserted.

“Are we in this game of life for ourselves or are we here for everybody else. And Judaism has a very special message for all societies, [which is] please don’t chose one or the other, lets embrace both. Thats what Judaism is about. God created us as his chosen people to be different for the sake of all children on earth who are his.”