At the British Friends of Rabbis for Human Rights’ AGM on 9 December 2019, Rabbi Michael Marmur delivered the below speech, reproduced here with his permission.
At this time of year we read the Torah passage relating Jacob’s dream and try to interpret what it means. There are three clues as to what it is about:-
- A psychological reason for the wrestling. It takes place at the Ford Yabbok, which is a word play on the consonants in Jacob’s name. It is a struggle with himself as he tries to work out how we are meant to live in this world.
- A struggle with God in the guise of an angel. Jacob is trying to work out a theology and a religious response. There is an element of modernity in the struggle of the human with the divine.
- Another possibility is that he is wrestling with the spirit of his brother, Esau, of whom he is afraid. It is a drama of not only encountering ourselves and God but what happens in the struggle with the other – our brother.
Jacob has to work out how he is going to be as a person, work out his religious life and how to relate to the other. Today the state of Israel, Jacob as Israel, is an attempt to live through this experiment. It is being played out all the time.
It is a false dichotomy that the life of a good, traditional Jew is far away from concerns of Human Rights. It is a misunderstanding that Jewish commitment and commitment to human rights are things apart. Take the example of what a jew’s obligations are when he sees his neighbour’s beasts have strayed. The jew may not turn away and has a duty to respond. It is not an either/or proposition. Israel is in the grip of a fascinating, exhausting conversation with itself. Is it to be a place of vulture capitalism or a place of social democracy?
I had a singularly undistinguished army career. Even the army dogs had a higher rank than me. I was a jailer in a military prison during one of the intifadas. It was a grim scene. People given power over others misuse it. At 3 am in the morning , two soldiers, one who wore a kippa and one who did not, decided to make a rule that a prisoner wanting to use the bathroom should bow when passing a poster of Ehud Barak, then a general of the army. I went to the man with the kippa and said, “Does this not resonate with you as a Jew?”
RHR stands for what it means to see and work with the other. We are trying to make the other more visible by working with and for the poor, the asylum seekers, the Palestinians and the Bedouin. We are making sense of the reality which we share.
A mahane is an encampment. Before meeting Esau Jacob splits his worldly goods into mahanot (the plural). This was a survival tactic driven by fear into rival camps. In the Hebrew Jacob calls the place Mahanaim. He was struggling with God. He does not perceive his reality as separate mahanot but as mahanaim. Our (RHR’s) work is about mahanaim. That is Israel’s relations with jews and others living in Israel.