By Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis
Recent news stories brought to mind an incident more than 50 years ago in New York. I was just a teenager, but the story has never left me because it was so shocking.
Kitty Genovese, 28, was returning home from her job as manager of a bar. As she walked the 100 feet to the entrance of her apartment in Kew Garden Hills, Queens, from her car, she was accosted. She screamed. Lights went on in the apartment building. Windows slid open. Kitty screamed: “Oh, my G-d, he stabbed me! Please help me! Please help me!”
From an upper window a man called down, “Let that girl alone!” The assailant looked up at him, shrugged, and the assault continued. Kitty shrieked, “I’m dying! I’m dying!”
For more than a half-hour, 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens watched a killer stab a woman to death, and not one person even called the police, let alone intervene.
This story shocked the nation because it forced us to confront these questions: Is this what we’ve become? Are we not our brother’s keeper? How could anyone stand by and let an innocent woman die? I think America changed after that, but not always was it a change for the better.
As the Torah commands us in Leviticus 19:16, which we read May 2: “Lo taamod al dam reyecha” (“Do not stand by idly while your neighbor’s blood is spilt”). Two recent incidents indicate two very different responses to this biblical command, one life-affirming and healing and the other violent and destructive.
The April 19 death of African-American Freddie Gray in police custody triggered protests in Baltimore after his funeral. How could they stand by idly while their brother’s blood was spilt? But the protests turned violent, giving way to rioting and looting. It looked like last summer’s Ferguson, Mo. All the news channels for days repeated scenes of masked looters destroying businesses like a large CVS and looting the contents. A peaceful protest, like those of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., would have been much more effective.
Did this rioting bring justice for Freddie Gray? Like the riots in Ferguson after the death of Michael Brown, these riots ensued before the truth was known about what happened. The coroner ruled that Gray’s death was a homicide, so Gray’s family deserves justice. However, this kind of protest will only bring destruction and chaos to Gray’s neighborhood, which may take a decade to recover because businesses will be reluctant to invest and locate there.
There was a shining light, though, among the protesters: Toya Graham. Did you see the video? This Baltimore single mother of six saw her son with a brick in his hand, and even though he’s much taller, she lost control and yelled at him to drop it — slapping him several times and pulling him out of the protests. CNN’s video went viral, and the praise she received for going to the Mondawmin Mall and getting her son away from the rioting was overwhelming. Toya taught her son and the nation that violence is never the proper response to achieve justice.
The Mondawmin Mall is just three miles from Baltimore’s densely populated northwest Jewish community. Out of caution, Jewish schools and institutions closed for a couple of days. No incidents against Jews or institutions were reported, although cars carrying youths wearing ski masks were observed passing through the area. By the end of the week of rioting, Jews were prominently seen volunteering to help to clean up the affected neighborhoods.
In an unbelievable development, anti-Israel activists promoting the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement tried to blame the riots on Israel. It reminds me of a routine I once saw on PBS in which comedian Mark Russell commented, “No matter what goes wrong in the world, you can blame it on Israel.”
LegalInsurrection.com wrote: “This is the same propaganda tactic used in Ferguson, where the fact that Ferguson and Israeli police used the same brand of American-made tear gas was used to try to blame Israel for Ferguson police actions.” Activist Rania Khalek tweeted that, “like most US police depts, Baltimore police received training in Israel,” alleging that police brutality in Baltimore can be blamed on Israel because some Baltimore police officers had attended an anti-terrorism seminar in Israel.
Lo taamod al dam reyecha. Yes, don’t stand by idly while your neighbor’s blood is spilt, but if you seek justice, do it in a just way.
In stark contrast to the Baltimore response to this commandment, let’s turn to the other side of the world: Nepal. A devastating earthquake of 7.8 on the Richter scale struck Nepal. The death toll surpasses 7,000. The scenes of devastation and carnage are heart-wrenching.
Lo taamod al dam reyecha. Dozens of countries sent rescue teams, but none of them has the professional, devoted, brave and experienced doctors of Israel. The Israelis were among the first on the scene.
“We knew you’d come,” a Nepalese army officer said to the team upon its arrival, according to Ynet.com. “You are the best army in the world. I lived in Israel for two years, and I admire your country. Shalom, falafel and tehina.” And then he became serious and added, “Help us, please.”
The Israel Defense Forces overcame the obstacles of mountainous terrain, a damaged airport, a lack of heavy equipment in Nepal to deploy a field hospital where 120 medical professionals could serve hundreds of Nepalese a day, Ynet reported. “The flag of Israel will rise above the tents serving the hospital. And we should all raise our heads and watch it proudly.”
Arnold Gerson, the CEO of American Friends of Magen David Adom, Israel’s Red Cross, wrote: “Magen David Adom’s response in Nepal was not only effective, tactically, it was also guided by a sense of purpose. Its mandate and responsibility is to be a light unto the nations, so being ‘the best’ also means sharing its expertise with the world and leading by example — in this case treating scores of Nepalese civilians, working with local doctors, and teaming up with international agencies to save lives.”
Gerson added that the expertise MDA displayed in Nepal came from years of experience responding to bus bombings and suicide attacks in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa.
The Torah commands us: Lo taamod al dam reyecha. So Israel is there to help anyone in need, anywhere in the world. Israel not only sprints to the scene of a disaster, but also prepares beforehand for the marathon of doing whatever it takes for as long as it takes to save lives.
As Jews, our focus is on tikkun olam, repairing the world. Our Talmud (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:9) teaches: “Whosoever saves a life, it is as if he saved an entire world.” This is what we do best, and this is what we teach. Incidentally, the head of the Israeli field hospital in Nepal, Col. Tarif Bader, is a Druze doctor, not Jewish.
My friends, our souls should burst with pride. Am Yisrael chai, the people of Israel shall live. We will never stand by idly while our neighbor’s blood is spilt, and we will do so with chesed, compassion and love. Amen.
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Shamayim.