Human Rights, Pinochet and the Jewish Community

Fifty years ago the United Nations approved a Declaration of Human Rights. It pledged to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small’. The Declaration was motivated by the Holocaust and the destruction of millions of innocents of many nationalities by the madness of the Nazis.

The arrest and detention of General Augusto Pinochet in London this autumn was thus greeted by many in Britain and beyond with a feeling that there was indeed justice in the world. For many, Pinochet is a mass murderer, a fascist beast from the past who raised his head in the 1970s to confront a new generation, a generation educated by the smoking chimneys of Auschwitz and Treblinka. The Spanish judge, Baltasar Garzon, in his formal request to extradite Pinochet, spoke about genocide, torture and terrorism—and the 3,176 desaparecidos who have no grave. The decision of the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, to issue an authorisation for extradition to Spain underlined the fact that the European democracies would no longer let sleeping dictators lie. International law finally possesses teeth and is prepared to bite. The heirs of Hitler are no longer safe. In Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and now Chile, fear has changed sides.

The many harrowing accounts in the British press by Chilean exiles who have retrieved buried memories bear witness to a terrible savagery. One spoke of a roll call in the national stadium immediately after the coup of names of prisoners who were marshalled into two columns—one to work, the other to the firing squad. For Jews, the very mention of ‘selection’ sends a chill down the spine.

And yet, apologists such as Lady Thatcher, William Hague, the practitioners of the arms trade and the editor of The Times indignantly attempted to explain away the General’s crimes. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury’s hope that the good general would be treated ‘compassionately’ jarred and seemed out of place. It was left to Lord Hoffman—symbolically a Jewish white South African—to cast the deciding vote on behalf of the Law Lords and to demonstrate that the shallow graves of the murdered cannot be trampled on with impunity.

One might have thought that the Jewish people—history’s witness to persecution—would have had an opinion on such an issue. Even in 1998, sixty years after Kristallnacht, the phrase ‘never again’ has a special resonance. Nazi war criminals have been brought to book long after their crimes. Serb exterminators have been plucked from Bosnia and flown to the Hague. Here was an a profoundly moral issue on which British Jewry could, and should, have made a stand. Instead, a deafening silence. No Jewish organization considered it appropriate to offer an opinion. Even the Jewish press found no need to mention the Pinochet affair at the outset (although this was later remedied)—there were no editorials, and letters on the subject were not published. Even the clap-happy practitioners of vaudeville Judaism were for once lost for words. An enthusiasm for the dissection of ‘kosher sex’ was accompanied by a kosher silence on Pinochet’s crimes against humanity.

This was in sharp contrast with the plea of the well known author Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center in the United States. He revealed that twenty years ago Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffit, his friends and co-workers at the Institute for Policy Studies, were murdered on the streets of Washington by a car bomb planted by the Chilean secret police. In a letter to Tony Blair, Rabbi Waskow compared Pinochet to a war criminal and asked if Hitler would have been exempt from trial on the grounds that he was a head of state.

It is as if ignorance of the significance of the arrest of Pinochet has fused with an indifference to Jewish values. Yet Jews have always involved themselves in disproportionate numbers where human rights are concerned. Why? We are told that all human beings were created, blselem, in the image of God. The Babylonian Talmud tells us: ‘What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour.’ And a midrash informs us that God created only one man, Adam, so that no one can say ‘My father was greater than your father.’

And yet, too many seem to believe that the lessons of the prophets should best be left to the Shabbat morning haftorah and the rabbi’s sermon rather than provide an active guide as to how we should act in difficult circumstances. How many practise what they preach and what is preached? How many, in the words of Amos, ‘Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gates of the land’? Or understand Jeremiah that ‘If one practises justice and righteousness, if one champions the cause of the poor, then it is well with one, is indeed is to know Me, says God.’

The irony is that, where human rights are concerned, assimilated Jews who are far from their Jewish roots often readily respond to the cry of the prophets, while those who are Jewishly literate and Torah-true see no connection between learning the teachings and applying them.

Even if the prophets preached only to their fellow Israelites and saw justice only in terms of their covenant with their God, their ringing words have carried from age to age the notion that justice is for the weak as well as for the strong; that its fulfilment is as much the spirit as the letter of the law; that one cannot serve God at the same time as mistreating one’s fellow men; that to love God is to love justice; and that the love of justice places within the conscience of each human being an inescapable obligation to denounce evil where he sees it, to defy a ruler who commanded him to break the covenant, and to live in the law and the love of God no matter what the cost. (Harry Orlinsky, Ancient Israel 1954)

Instead of proud defiance, the central story in the British Jewish press in the week of Pinochet’s arrest was the Chief Rabbi’s acceptance of a royal invitation on a Friday night. Little insight was required to decipher this move as an error of judgment and a bad example to the younger generation: it was explained away by suggesting that it did not substitute for the Jewish warmth of a family Shabbat but complemented it. Yet the problem was not merely attempting to be all things to all people or causing offence to the Royal Family or even breaking the spirit of Shabbat. The real issue was not tackled because it was not perceived. It was the juxtaposition of a silence on Pinochet with a vulgar loudness on the wisdom of attending Prince Charles’s birthday bash. It was the choice between siding with the dissident and downtrodden or cocktails with a munificent establishment.

No doubt, it can be argued that Pinochet’s crimes are not a Jewish issue. Nevertheless, Pinochet cancelled his trip to Israel last year at the invitation of members of the industrial-military complex when a representative of the ultra-secular Meretz demanded that he be prevented from leaving the country and brought before the courts to hear the charges of numerous Chilean Jews. Perhaps then, a statement by British Jews condemning Pinochet would affect the status of Chilean Jews and place them in unnecessary danger? The same, of course, was said about South Africa. Yet when organizations such as the American Jewish Congress consistently condemned the apartheid regime, the sky did not fall in on South African Jewry.

What then is the value of a campaign to ensure Jewish continuity through Jewish commitment when there is silence on issues of human rights? What kind of example is it to those young people in whom we wish to catalyse a sense of belonging when Jewish leadership fails to lead—and to lead on such a fundamental issue? On the eve of the millennium, a principled stand in demanding justice for General Pinochet’s victims was called for. Yet, in order to remain both invisible and respectable, Anglo-Jewry missed this opportunity to appeal to the young and the alienated.

The 1990s heralded a new chapter in communal life, with the post-war generation taking over many major positions. Yet we seem to have regressed. The lack of comprehension about the Pinochet affair is perhaps symbolic of our time, when theatricality and managerialism are deemed to be more important than ideology and principles. If modernisation is to move beyond being more than a soundbite, Anglo-Jewry must shed its sense of being no more than a minority here on majority sufferance, albeit in contemporary guise. It must speak out on universal issues such as human rights from a Jewish perspective. To do so would undoubtedly win respect among Jewish youth, both those committed and those distant from its roots, as well as in wider British society. Burying one’s head in the sand wins neither members nor friends: it invites only contempt and derision.

Judaism Today Winter 1998-9


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