By Dr. Richard Benkin
When I was asked to speak at Hindu Jewish Dialogue: Ancient Cultures, Common Concerns, I knew exactly what I wanted to say.
I have worked closely with Hindu communities throughout the United States and South Asia for years. Hindus always have treated me as one of their own, and I always consider myself a part of that community. The event was held on Sunday, August 23 at the Manav Seva Mandir in suburban Chicago; and all 300 Hindu and Jewish Americans who were there expected that it will be the first of many such events.
The keynote speaker was Dr. Subramanian Swamy, who played a crucial role in opening formal Israel-India relations in the early 1990s—and who is one of the most incisive minds I know.
His description of how that happened provided a clear refutation to those who suggest that the India-Israel relationship is based solely on military sales and security cooperation. In fact, he contended, the period when India and Israel had no relationship was the anomaly; that the people of India have a deep admiration for Israel and the Jews; and that the twin demons of Soviet influence and a strong Indian left forced that situation on the people of India. Perhaps that is why it is no coincidence that Israel opened its embassy in India shortly after the USSR fell.
The program moderator was Peggy Shapiro, Midwest Director of StandWithUs, a non-profit organization dedicated to informing the public about Israel and to combating extremism and anti-Semitism. Other speakers included Dr. Bharat Barai, a widely honored oncologist and President of the Indian American Community Foundation; Robert Schwartz, Senior Policy Advisor at the Consulate General of Israel; and Prasad Yalamanchi, Chairman of the Global Hindu Heritage Foundation, which along with StandWithUs sponsored the event.
All of the speakers spoke about their personal and professional experiences that brought them to this event. And then there was me—a Jew known for devoting his life to the cause of Hindus in Bangladesh. I explained how being Jewish was the essential element that led me to fight for Hindus.
In 2007, I returned home from a human rights trip to Bangladesh to meet a man whose life I saved. He was a journalist who wrote articles positive about Israel (in fact, urging the Bangladeshi government to recognize the Jewish state) and negative about radical Islam (its growing strength in Bangladesh and how it spreads its poison through the madrassas, or Muslim schools. For that, the Bangladeshi government threw him in prison, tortured him, threatened him with death, and charged him with blasphemy. The government was determined to silence him, eradicate his ideas, and appease their Islamist masters. Because I made it do something else—specifically, release him and let him continue publishing as he wished—there was a fax waiting for me when I returned home.
It was from a man named Bikash who said he was a Hindu living near Kolkata. “My parents brought me to India from Bangladesh when I was eleven years old,” he wrote. “My people are dying. Please save us.” Simply as a human being, how do you turn your back on that? Moreover, when I was in Bangladesh I heard rumblings about minority persecution. I even met with several; although they couldn’t speak freely unless we found some out of the way place where we would be safe from government agents, Islamists, and people looking to pick up money as paid informants.
First there is history. The world now knows what the Nazis did to my people during World War II, but condemning Hitler does not require much insight; and it’s easier to recognize new Hitlers today, such as the genocide-threatening mullahs in Iran and the genocidal actors known as ISIS. All of the Nazis together would not have been able to implement their Holocaust, however, were it not for the passive complicity of “good” Europeans and others. All of my training and upbringing told me that those who sat by while their neighbors were dragged away to death camps and killing fields were equally responsible as those who did the actual killing.
Over 99 percent of Danish Jews, for instance, survived the Holocaust because their non-Jewish neighbors actively opposed their deportation. Opposition by non-Jews in the Belgian cities of Brussels and Liege allowed many Jews to find hiding and escape the Nazi deportations. Our Talmud says, “Who can protest an injustice but does not is an accomplice to the act.” I learned even as a child that I could never sit by and let others be persecuted.
Additionally, we have a word in Hebrew that is a moral guide; a template that sets our feet on the right course. The word is Hineinei, which literally means “here I am.” Its real meaning, however, is “here I am for you.” It’s our answer to a call that appears at critical moments throughout our Torah.
It’s the answer that Abraham, the father of Judaism, gave when God told him not to kill his son in a religious sacrifice, thus forever marking off our faith as one with a special reverence for life. It’s the answer given by Moses, our greatest prophet, when God called to him from the burning bush to save His people who were enslaved in Egypt, even though it meant going up against what was then the most formidable military power in his world.
When we say Hineinei we do so unconditionally. Abraham and Moses said it before they know would be asked. Because the value is not in the action itself, although that’s pretty important. The essential value lies in being there, ready to stand with another, ready to do what is right. So, when I saw that fax, as a Jew, there was only one possible response: Hineinei. And my moral obligation was to do so even before I knew what would be involved with that commitment.
Hineinei’s power is transformative. As Swami Vivekananda told us, perfection doesn’t come from belief alone but from selfless action. Saying Hineinei brings us to that. It’s transformative in the way it frees us to be the best we can be for everyone around us and for something far greater than ourselves; and we all have the power within us to say Hineinei. As an essential Jewish value, it led me to fight for the persecuted Hindus of Bangladesh.