Taking responsibility is probably one of the key challenges faced by human beings, whether for oneself, one’s own group or nation, or towards others. Taking responsibility means that the person freely decides to take responsibility for the perceived moral fault in order to rectify it.
Two family stories have guided me through life. In 1939, my 27-year-old was mother was asked by her anxious grandmother to track down the Soviet units stationed on the outskirts of her native Chelm in eastern Poland to urge them to return to the city to prevent violence against the Jews.
A Soviet officer told her: “I cannot move the unit back because I received orders to retreat. But I am a Jew and I know what the German Nazis will do to Jews. My suggestion is that you climb on the truck and travel eastward with us — this is your only chance to survive.”
My mother instantly evaluated the situation, and decided to climb onto the truck. She survived, but almost none of the Jews remaining in Chelm did, nor did the rest of her family in Warsaw.
The second story concerns my mother’s sister who was 16 years old when war broke out and was moved to the Warsaw Ghetto where she joined a Jewish resistance group. In 1942 her brother took her to a Polish family on the Aryan side of Warsaw, but the following year she received a call to return to the ghetto to take part in a futile uprising to show the world that Jews could resist their extermination. We never discovered what happened to her. She disappeared in the conflagration of the Jewish struggle for freedom.
In both cases, responsibility was taken very seriously to choose freedom: my mother opted for personal survival while her sister opted for group solidarity and almost-certain death.
Responsible Judaism is based on Jewish culture and learning. All holy books, the Jewish Bible included, contain different, often contradictory, commandments. Nevertheless, as responsible Jews we have the duty to think, evaluate, and choose what to us seems moral and just.
Rabbi Hillel summarized the Hebrew Bible thus: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow”. Our experiences of forced conversions, expulsions, and pogroms should turn the teaching of Hillel as a moral compass for our future behavior. This requires us to eradicate racist, antidemocratic, nationalistic, and totalitarian inclinations from political, social, and educational systems.
Years later my mother returned to Poland with other survivors to see the remaining graveyards. She had drawn a basic lesson from her fate: she would be a responsible Jew who opted for a moral life of justice, freedom, equality, and peace.
Back in Israel, when in her eighties, she joined a group of "Women in Black" calling for dialogue with the Palestinian enemy. It was her unequivocal and free choice to stand there remaining firmly convinced that we as Jews must struggle actively to bring peace and justice to our conflict-ridden land.
In the spirit of tikkun olam (literally, repair of the world) and in the tradition of the prophets, many Jews have struggled against immoral, repressive, and anti-democratic policies throughout the world: in the United States for freedom and human rights; in South Africa against the evil of apartheid, or in Argentina against dictatorship.
The battles for a better world are not yet over, however. We live in a world where darkness is ascending. As responsible Jews we must respond whenever morality is desecrated, justice trumped, equality denied, or human rights violated.
Israel’s 50 years of occupation is a darkness that clashes with the dreams of the founding fathers of the state, as it has kept millions of Palestinians under Israeli occupation for half a century. It leads to more bloodshed and weakens the democratic and moral fabric of Israeli society.
The movement Save Israel-Stop the Occupation (SISO) aims to unite Jews around the world to this end, in the spirit of equality, justice, and freedom and as an expression of our concern and love for Israel. The cost of silence far exceeds the cost of involvement in terms of both our Jewish identity and the nature of Israel’s future.
In Leviticus 25:10, it is commanded “And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; and you shall return every man to his possession; and you shall return every man to his family”.
As responsible Jews we understand: a nation cannot be free when it deprives another nation of its freedom. Our voice must be heard - “freedom for the Palestinians”.
Daniel Bar-Tal is professor emeritus at the School of Education of Tel Aviv University and found of Save Israel-Stop the Occupation