Jewish Values led me to Support Hindu Human Rights
Address by Dr. Richard L. Benkin
Hindu, Jewish Alliance: Ancient Cultures, Common Concerns
Manav Seva Mandir
August 23, 2015
Shalom, Namaste, and thank you for allowing me to be part of this very special event; an event that brings together two communities that have defined civilization since its beginning; two communities that today share both the same challenges and the same values; two communities that are deeply wedged in my heart.
People often ask me how I, a Jew, came to devote my life to fighting for Hindus in Bangladesh, and here’s what I tell them. I was in Bangladesh in 2007 to meet a journalist whose life I saved. The government had charged him with blasphemy because he wrote articles favorable to Israel—in fact, he urged the government to recognize Israel; and he criticized radical Islam, exposing its growing power in Bangladesh and how it spreads its poison through the madrassas, or Muslin schools. By the way, this man, Shoaib, was Muslim. Worse from their point of view, people there were listening to us, and began talking about Israel and the Jews in a positive way. Well, the radicals and their toadies in the Bangladeshi government could not stand for that and so threw him in prison where he was tortured and threatened with death. They were dead set on appeasing the Islamists, silencing this man, and eradicating his ideas; however, with the help of then Congressman Mark Kirk, I forced it to do something else: release him and let him continue to publish.
Which is why 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. My people are dying,” he said. “Please save us.”
Just as a human being, how do you turn your back on that? Beyond that, and I don’t want to make this about my personal theology, it seems to me that if God puts something like this in front of us, He means for us to take it up.
So I did. I heard rumblings about the way minorities were being persecuted when I was in Bangladesh. I even met with several; although I also recall how they couldn’t speak freely unless we found an out of the way place to meet—where we would be safe from government agents, Islamists, and people looking to pick up some money as paid informants. Bikash’s fax led me to delve into the matter deeply and realize that I had to do something.
But there’s more I want to share with you: None of it would have happened without my Judaism or its essential values.
We have a word in Hebrew--that’s really more than just a word. It’s a moral guide; a template, if you will, that sets our feet on the right course. The word is Hineinei.
It literally means “here I am,” but its real meaning is “here I am for you.” It’s our answer to a call, and you can find it at critical moments throughout the Torah, our holy book. It’s the answer that Abraham, the father of Judaism, gave when God called to him moments before he would have killed his son in a religious sacrifice; and he directed him not to do it, thus forever marking off our faith as one with a special reverence for life unknown. 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.
And notice, when we say Hineinei we do so unconditionally. We say it even before knowing what is being 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.
Hineinei also keeps you from thinking any of it is about you; keeps you from polluting the action with the outer self, the temporal self and its base motives that limit us from committing to true selfless effort; something that brings us close to some basic tenets of Hinduism, your beautiful faith.
In saying Hineinei, I’m only doing what Abraham, Moses, and countless others did. Am I any better than them? Have I done anything unique? Did not my actions come from something far greater than me? Saying hineinei is not me; it’s my dharma.
And here’s the really special thing about Hineinei: its power is transformative. As Swami Vivekananda—one of my personal heroes—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 Hineini.
Think about your own Hineinei moments. You might have stayed with someone who needed comfort, even though you had other things to “do.” Maybe you took the time to help a child. Or perhaps you were part of building relations between two special communities, as you are today. Think about the potential Hineinei moments yet to come; and how whether or not you seize them is a choice that God has equipped all of us to make.
I want to offer you a Hineinei opportunity: a chance to be a voice for the voiceless, a defender of the defenseless. Twelve million persecuted Hindus in Bangladesh are calling to us. Will you say Hineinei? I’ve spent a lot of time with them, and they believe they are abandoned.
They have been reduced from almost a third of the population to around one in 15. They have faced and still face atrocities that include murder, rape, child abduction, forced conversion, religious desecration, legalized looting and more. Much of the evidence, by the way, is in my book A Quiet Case of Ethnic Cleansing: the Murder of Bangladesh’s Hindus, which you can get in the back of the room. I urge you all to get a copy, see what you won’t see in the media; and support these innocents persecuted because of their faith—something I know hits a nerve with us Jews.
What makes the situation worse is that successive Bangladeshi governments, regardless of party or ideology, have refused to prosecute these crimes. They’ve even taken part in them or in their cover-ups. Radical Islam has grown in power there, and no Bangladeshi government has the will to fight it. It certainly will not do the duty it has to its Hindus citizens because it’s the right thing to do. That’s the bad news.
The good news, first of all, is that this is Bangladesh, not Iran or North Korea, and if we can’t stand up to Bangladesh, we’ve no chance with them. Bangladesh officials will act if we threaten their financial interests—which isn’t hard to do. The Bangladeshi economy is inordinately dependent on one thing: garment exports. And guess who their biggest customer is? That’s right, us. I’m passing out cards and ask that you write your name and email address on them. I will send you a link so you can easily email several large US companies like Target and Walmart; not to threaten a boycott but to let them know that their purchases support atrocities and the persecution of people simply because of their religion, something they’d rather not have their name associated with. A bunch of people signed up here at yesterday’s Hindu unity event and earlier this week at Congressman Bob Dold’s event, “Religious Freedom under Attack.” If these companies start receiving hundreds or thousands of these emails, they will reduce or at least begin to question their purchases of Bangladeshi goods; and that’s all we need to force action that will save 12 million innocent Hindus.
We also are fortunate today to have several individuals who are leaders of or members of larger organizations. The Bangladeshi Hindus need you to give all of those people the chance to say Hineinei; to, in the Jewish understanding, save the whole world. If you give me your groups’ contact information so, as an organization with all of its members, you can tell Walmart, Target, and others that they are paying for the ethnic cleansing of innocent people; the power of our message will be multiplied.
I can tell you how it will go, because I’ve seen it happen. First, they’ll deny things. The Bangladeshi ambassador once told me that there was no problem and that the millions of Hindus just went to India to find “suitable matches” for their children. Then they’ll act insulted. Next they’ll accuse the US of something; or the other thing I get is ‘oh yeah, what about the Palestinians.’ A door they really don’t want to open. Finally they’ll play the “poor me” card, like the Bangladeshi Home Minister, who was defiant and tried to be bullying (notice I said “tried”), until I threatened their garment exports. All of a sudden, he became a poor victim; asking me not to “hurt” the millions of Bangladeshis in the garment business.
If we don’t fall for any of their duplicity, we will prevail. If we demand action and not just words we’ll prevail.
Will you say Hineinei?
Dhanyavaad and Todah Rabah.