The International AIDS Conference

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This guest post comes to us from Sara Hahn of the American Jewish World Service. She attended the International AIDS Conference last month and asks “Where were they Jewish organizations?”

A question: “Why should a Jewish organization be present at an international AIDS conference?�

My question: “Why weren’t there more Jewish organizations at an international AIDS conference?�

In early August, 23,000 people from around the world convened in Mexico City for the XVII International AIDS Conference (IAC).  Among those attending were Bill Clinton, Bill Gates and Ban Ki-Moon.  There were thousands of speakers, hundreds of panels and events, and an entire Global Village constructed for people and groups from across the globe to assemble.  But to my knowledge, there was only one Jewish organization formally present, American Jewish World Service.

Full transparency here: I work for AJWS, an international development organization working to alleviate hunger, poverty and disease in the developing world.  But I’m not writing to plug AJWS; I’m writing to ask where everyone else was.  I know that there are other Jewish organizations committed to pursuing justice for all, regardless of race, religion or nationality; so why didn’t I see any of them at the largest AIDS conference in the world?

Judaism places an unequivocal value on human life.  We are bound by pikuach nefesh (saving a life) to do all we can to ensure the survival of those who are suffering; the concept of bikur cholim (visiting the sick) teaches us to transcend stigma and discrimination, and to embrace and stand up for those who are ill.  Does the fact that AIDS is most present in far-away countries mean that we can overlook its devastating global impact?  Vayikra/Leviticus 19:16 warns us, “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor. I am God.� This prohibition steers us from passivity, into the active obligation in the Babylonian Talmud (Yoma 82a): “There is nothing that can stand before [the duty of] saving life, with the exception of idolatry, incest and bloodshed.�

Given these directives, shouldn’t there have been more of a Jewish voice at the HIV/AIDS table?

I was proud to be Jewish at the conference.  I was proud to meet Arab and Muslim groups and say that I worked for a Jewish organization – and to share the solidarity of this universal battle.  I was proud when an AJWS partner from Africa told us that he felt Jews had a deep understanding of what it meant to be discriminated and oppressed.  I was proud that AJWS was the first (and so far, the only) Jewish organization to support the launch of INERELA+, an interfaith network of religious leaders and laypersons living with HIV/AIDS and combating the virus globally.  I just wish other Jewish organizations had been there too, to share in this struggle.

This is not to say that Jews aren’t involved in these issues.  There were undoubtedly many, many Jewish individuals in attendance; there was one Israeli organization there (although no Israeli staff – their table was manned by local conference volunteers).  There are many Jewish people who are making profound contributions to combating HIV/AIDS, in the US and abroad.  But I’m talking about a greater response, a communal one.  I think it’s unfortunate that given the activism against this worldwide pandemic, there was such an insignificant Jewish organizational presence.  As Jews we are a distinct minority; it is critically important that the Jewish organizational voice be heard at the global table. Wherever one human being is suffering, wherever there is injustice – the Jewish mandate is to be present, to take a stand.

Sometimes I get criticized by Jewish friends, who tell me, “You’re working at a Jewish organization davka to work with non-Jews!â€?  As if working with non-Jews, sympathizing with the Other, is an un-Jewish thing to do.  All I can say is: human rights, poverty, ensuring basic dignity and equality – these issues are so Jewish.  Tikkun olam, tzedaka, pikuach nefesh – as a Jew, these tenets are embedded in me, they are woven into my Jewish identity, and they reach across national and religious borders.

I think the world is too globalized, too interconnected, to pretend that these issues don’t touch Jews, or that we shouldn’t be involved on a communal level.  I would encourage anyone reading this to consider how global issues affect us, our community, our humanity.  Most American Jews are undeniably in a place of privilege today, and as a people we have a unique opportunity to leverage this position by standing up for those who aren’t.

Am I being too idealist?  Maybe.  But I know many, many Jews who are activists, who are fighting for issues ranging from protecting the environment, to advocating for fair trade and labor, to fighting poverty.  I hope that the larger Jewish community as a whole will nurture and support these movements, and not view them as taking away from Jewish causes or addressing issues that don’t affect Jews.

Two years from now in Vienna at the next International AIDS Conference, I hope to see more Jewish organizations present, letting the broader community know that we remain at the forefront of human rights and social change around the world.

Posted on September 16, 2008

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