April 14, 2024
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April 14, 2024
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“Are you learning Talmud?” my New Jersey Transit neighbor asked, his inquisitive Israeli accent offering faint hope of a quiet commute home.

“Daf Yomi,” I replied. “A page a day.”

“So, you work in New York? Where do you work?”

“The UN.”

“Ugh, you, a frum Jew, how can you work at such an evil place?”

Until my retirement last month, I worked at the United Nations in human resources management as an information management officer, project manager, business analyst and technical writer. In that capacity, I had traveled on official business to a dozen countries over my over 17.5-year career, learning early in my tenure that my own preconceived notions about the UN needed careful reconsideration.

Viewed from a Torah perspective, the recent parshas on Abraham and his legacy help to understand the shift in my own thinking about the UN and Israel.

As the midrash suggests (Bereishis Rabbah, 12:9), Abraham’s story begins not with God’s call that he should leave his homeland, nor with his introduction as the son of Terach and uncle of Lot, but with the strange birth of humankind. When Avram is renamed Abraham, God adds the letter hey to his name; and as Bereishis Rabbah teaches, that hey has been saved since Creation for this very moment. “These are the generations of heaven and earth when they were created, b’hibaram, on the day that the Lord God made earth and heaven” (Gen 2:4). The midrash calls our attention to the small hey in b’hibaram, a word with the same letters as Abraham’s name, teaching us that God was saving it for the day when Avram would assume his mission and become Abraham—and that the world was created in his merit.

How is Abraham the end and purpose of creation? Prior to Abraham, we have seen three tasks assigned to humankind, each building on its predecessor. God charges the generic male and female creature of Genesis 1 with filling up the world and exercising dominion over it. God refines the mission of humankind when the still generic ha’adam, the man, is introduced into the Garden of Eden, that we should serve and guard the world. Outlawing violence, the seven Noahide laws of the post-deluge covenant are a cure for the vicious world of Noah’s generation. With Abraham, the heart of the ‘do no harm’ covenant with Noah expands to embrace justice, righteousness, social action and charity (cf, Gen 18:19 and Dev 16:20).

Abraham’s mission is the work of the UN: much as Abraham recognizes himself as “his brother’s keeper” and intervenes in the war of the four kings against five, not only rescuing his nephew Lot but selflessly restoring peace to the region, UN peacekeepers helped end a genocide in Darfur and United Nations tribunals have held the butchers in Serbia, Cambodia and Rwanda accountable for their crimes against humanity, honoring the world’s commitment to “never again.” Coupled with UN diplomacy, peace operations have brought new governments and hope to Liberia, Timor-Leste, Nepal, Columbia and many other countries, often birthing new nations, including Israel, from the ashes of internecine warfare. UN troops from around the world stand guard over hostile borders in Cyprus, Pakistan, Israel and divided nations in Africa, supported by colleagues from 170 nations.

Honoring the legacy of Abraham and the central human task that we act as caretakers for a needy world, the UN feeds almost 100 million annually, provides medical care to some 90 million children and supports 3,000 shelters for battered and abused women, many victims of war crimes.

The UN was born of the crematoria of World War II: Recognizing the central place of the Jewish people in world history, the UN annually hosts a week-long symposium on the Shoah, with films, panel discussions and exhibits, as mandated by General Assembly Resolution 60/7, raising awareness of antisemitism and the Holocaust, drawing lessons from our past to safeguard the world’s present and future from hate.

The UN’s commitment to the Jewish people goes beyond conferences: 1,000 UN civilian personnel and 11,000 peacekeepers from more than a dozen nations stand guard day and night over Israel in Southern Lebanon and the Golan Heights, a buffer zone between Israel and its adversaries. Every day, hundreds of UN personnel in Jerusalem and throughout the West Bank resolve conflicts and maintain open communication with Palestinians. Thirty thousand personnel in UNRWA provide education, healthcare and social services to Palestinian refugees and their descendants, alleviating despair and easing tensions, often caught in crossfire between Palestinian militants and the IDF.

Over the 75 years of UN support for Israel, over 400 personnel have given their lives, about 3,000 have been injured and the nations of the world have expended more money per capita on a secure Israel than on any other nation—a debt in blood and treasure to the nations that our community, sadly, often fails to recognize, much less appreciate.

“So, my friend, do you want the ‘evil’ UN, as you wrongly call us, to leave?”

“No, no, I don’t want them to leave! I just want them …”

“Then what are we arguing about? A few speeches in the General Assembly? The one-sided resolutions that Israel ignores anyway? What really matters is what happens on the ground, and the reality there is that the UN’s member states support over 10,000 peacekeepers who are risking their lives for the Jewish state. And let’s not forget the rest of the world and our mission as Abraham’s children.”

I arrived at the UN in 2005 on a three-month contract as skeptical as my Israeli neighbor on the train. But my colleagues across the United Nations, and the member states themselves, proved to me time and again their commitment to a cause greater than themselves—that we serve and safeguard the world; that we practice justice, righteousness, social action and charity. It is the cause, and even destiny, of Abraham and the Jewish people; the cause and higher purpose of humanity.

Craig Hanoch has lived in Highland Park with his wife, Hanina, for 30 years, and is the father of four daughters. He served the United Nations from May 2005 until his retirement at the end of October 2022.

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