"There is no excuse for terror!" shouted activist Rabbi Avi Weiss, leading a protest by Jewish students against the policies of the Palestinian Solidarity Movement (PSM). This Palestinian organization, which sponsored a conference at Duke University last October, justifies its support for terrorism against Israel by calling terrorist acts examples of "legitimate armed struggle." Fearing that publicity would give the PSM a larger platform to spread their views, some Jewish community leaders discouraged protests at the conference. Rabbi Weiss, of Riverdale, New York, disagreed. "There is a desperate need for a voice right at the point of tension," he said. Moreover, he continued, "staring evil right in the face and raising a voice of Jewish conscience" generates a tremendous spiritual power.
Rabbi Weiss knows all about Jewish conscience, and you can find him in places most people would rather avoid, speaking about issues most people would rather ignore. As president of Amcha, the Coalition for Jewish Concerns, he is determined to raise his voice against injustice, and he has demonstrated hundreds of times all over the world. When he agreed to speak with us, we certainly didn't protest.
BABA: Hi, Rabbi Weiss. Why do you think hatzalah (rescue) is an important Jewish value?
RABBI W: The first words that God says are "Yehi or, let there be light." I think that just as God pushed away the darkness, we--who are created in God's image--also have the responsibility to bring light to the world's darkness. That's what hatzalah is all about.
BABA: You've supported many causes. How do you choose which ones to pursue?
RABBI W: People must choose which cause touches their soul. For me, the causes that are closest to my family (and I consider Am Yisrael, the Jewish People, as my family) are the ones that tug at my heart. That doesn't mean that I don't care about humanity in general--in fact, I just spoke at a rally against the genocide in Sudan--but for me, it starts with a strong sense of Jewish national consciousness.
BABA: How do you define activism?
RABBI W: For me, activism is any act that one performs on someone else's behalf. I call it spiritual activism. I think inspiration for activism comes from the soul, and that deep down, human beings want to do good and kind deeds, like reaching out to the infirm and the elderly, and giving tzedakah to those less fortunate than ourselves. This definition, however, doesn't exclude raising a voice on behalf of the oppressed.
BABA: What is your most vivid recollection of your career?
RABBI W: One of the most powerful memories of hatzalah was being part of an interdenominational group of rabbis who demonstrated for the freedom of Soviet Jews to emigrate. That was when Jews in rabbinic leadership were able to proclaim that what unites us is much greater than what divides us. In that extraordinary act of togetherness, we raised a voice.
BABA: Were you ever arrested during your protests?
RABBI W: Yes, but I want to emphasize that civil disobedience should only be used as a last resort, and it should be done very cautiously. I think that people should not get involved with that until they're old enough and can really understand the issues. And I oppose any form of violence as a means of social action. Even if I were struck, I would never strike back. That's in Martin Luther King's style.
BABA: It sounds like you were very influenced by Dr. King.
RABBI W: I was. In activism, I consider him to be a rebbe. He's one of my greatest inspirations.
BABA: Thanks, Rabbi Weiss. Have a "rally" great Purim!