LONDON (Jul. 5)
Jewish participants in the huge rallies that preceded the G-8 summit hope their presence will highlight the Jewish community’s involvement in wider social issues. “This is such an important statement for the Jewish community to make as a whole, liberal and Orthodox,” said marcher Anne Clark, from London’s Wimbledon Reform Synagogue. “Jewish values reach outside to the wider community, and we don’t just look after our own — as Jews we care what goes on in the wider world.”
When some 220,000 people created a human circle around Edinburgh over the weekend to support what they considered a fairer deal for the developing world, 100 or so members of the Make Poverty History Jewish coalition formed a link in the vast chain.
It was an especially satisfying achievement since Jewish delegates — who came from 21 Jewish religious, student and social welfare organizations — had been forced to seek creative solutions just to be able to attend the event.
With both the march and rally held on Shabbat, the coalition — which took as its slogan the phrase from Deuteronomy, “Justice, justice shall you pursue” — needed to find ways to allow all its delegates to participate, whatever their level of religious observance.
Edinburgh’s small Jewish community rallied to host the visitors, providing them with kosher food and accommodations within walking distance of the event. Separate services were held at the Orthodox Edinburgh Hebrew Congregation and at a liberal shul, but the two institutions combined to hold a kiddush with food and song on Friday night and Saturday morning.
Coalition members took part in panel discussions during the day on Saturday but eschewed the use of amplification. Arrangements were made for a church along the march route to provide water for participants who could not take drinks with them.
In addition, “Make Poverty History” kippot — manufactured by families in Argentina affected by the country’s economic downturn — enabled observant marchers to make a statement without having to carry anything on Shabbat.
“It is superb that both liberal and Orthodox are here,” said Jackie Richards, coordinator of the North London Progressive Jewish Community. “I hope it’s the beginning of greater things for the whole of the Jewish community in the U.K. to focus on something so important, and I hope we can learn from that in the future.”
The Jewish coalition had been active for months to raise community awareness of the Make Poverty History issue and to mobilize Jewish involvement in a campaign they felt reflected Jewish values of charity and social justice.
In March, representatives delivered a giant postcard to 10 Downing Street calling on British Prime Minister Tony Blair to increase aid to the world’s poorest countries, cancel their debts and improve trade terms.
Those three crucial elements of the coalition’s campaign gel with the Jewish vision of tzedakah, or charity, according to Julie Blane, executive director of MaAfrica Tikkun U.K., a Jewish-founded development agency based in South Africa, and a coalition member.
“Our teachings say that giving tzedakah is an obligation, and the root of the word is tzedek, justice,” Blane said. “It’s not about handouts, it’s about helping people to help themselves. Maimonides specifically talks about different levels of tzedakah, and the highest is to give someone the resources to enable a person to stand on their own two feet.”
Saturday’s march took place in a noisy, festive atmosphere, with the sun blazing down and drummers and stilt-walkers mingling with people of all ages clad in white, the symbol of the campaign.
Shop fronts along the city’s main thoroughfares were boarded up, but the day passed almost entirely without incident, though protests by anarchists several days later led to clashes with police.
Still, it was a highly politicized occasion, with many protesters carrying placards proclaiming President Bush the world’s “No. 1 Terrorist” and a liberal sprinkling of Palestinian flags in the crowd.
Some members of the Jewish coalition had been apprehensive about the tenor of the event, based on rallies against the Iraq war that featured fierce anti-Israel sentiment. Many felt such fear may have discouraged other Jews from attending.
George Wilkes, 37, a history teacher from Cambridge, admitted he anticipated some friction because of the kippot.
“I expected people would think, Oh, Jews are on the wrong side of every conflict,” he added.
Hannah Hottschneider, 33, from Edinburgh, admitted to sharing Wilkes’ reservations, because “a lot of left-wing groups have swung to be very anti-Israel.”
“But I’m impressed by how peaceful it is,” she said of the rally.
The Jewish activists felt it was vital for a Jewish voice to be heard in a campaign that captured the imaginations of millions of people around the world.
“Jews have a special role with regard to persecution,” added Baruch Solomon, 43, a Londoner working with coalition member Tzedek, a U.K. Jewish overseas development body. “If we complain that people didn’t stand up for us in the Holocaust, then we should stand up for other people now.”
Danny Casson, chief executive of World Jewish Aid, a development agency that is a division of World Jewish Relief and was a driving force behind the coalition, described the Edinburgh event as a valuable example of successful cross-communal cooperation and Jewish involvement in wider social justice issues. He hopes to build on that.
“We want to keep the coalition together, to push education about poverty in the world, and possibly team up with other faith groups,” Casson said. “It’s now for us to work together to present a united front, and to put the positive face of Judaism forward. It’s really important there is a Jewish voice out there.”