Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that Judaism “takes the mind out of the narrowness of self-interest.” During the past few weeks, I’ve been reminded of the urgent need for American Jews to make this formulation real as I’ve turned my attention to a flagrant threat to human rights in Uganda.
Since October, the Ugandan parliament has been considering a so-called “Anti-Homosexuality Bill.” The bill promotes hate and violence toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals in Uganda by strengthening and adding penalties against homosexuality. Among its many cruel provisions, the bill would subject to up to three years imprisonment any person who fails to report within 24 hours a sexual act between individuals of the same gender. (In response to local and international pressure, the Ugandan government recently agreed to remove execution and life-imprisonment from the bill’s punishments for LGBT people.)
The bill also criminalizes the “promotion of homosexuality,” a provision that would result in imprisonment for anyone who “funds or sponsors homosexuality or related activities” — effectively any organization that serves LGBT people. This measure would severely threaten HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment efforts since a key population would be denied services.
In part, we have the American religious right to thank for fueling — both ideologically and financially — the anti-gay fervor that has led to the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. It’s no secret that there are strong and ever-growing ties between American and African political and religious conservatives. American right-wing zealots have lost the culture war in the United States and have taken their agenda wherever they can develop a base to condemn LGBT individuals and falsely assert that homosexuality can be cured. Many African leaders have adopted some of the American religious right’s most vicious homophobic rhetoric as their political platform and taken it farther than even many of their American allies might have imagined.
In recent months, American Jewish World Service has been listening to and working with our grantees in East Africa to strategically and effectively advance human rights in the face of growing insecurity and violence. AJWS has also joined with leading advocacy organizations in calling on the American government to swiftly condemn the bill.
The American government can — and must — use its leverage to oppose Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill. But the vigor of our government’s opposition depends on us. We need to contact our congressional representatives and pressure them to take action.
In recent weeks, both liberal and conservative Christian groups and clergy from across the political spectrum — including, most recently, the Vatican — have spoken out against the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill. Some Christian clergy who fiercely oppose efforts to expand gay rights still recognize that imprisoning or executing people for being gay — or penalizing those who support the LGBT community — is an egregious violation of human rights. These are powerful, public voices. Jewish voices must be counted among them.
Indeed, pursuing global justice depends on amplifying a collective Jewish voice to assert that every person — Jew and non-Jew, gay and straight alike — deserves to live a free and dignified life. We need not reach far back into the depths of history to find similar brutalities directed toward Jews, just for being Jewish.
It’s all too easy to ignore the injustices in the developing world. And of course, we must think critically and strategically about the consequences of American Jewish advocacy when people’s lives are at stake. But at the very least, I believe Heschel would have insisted that we confront our inclination to feel too disconnected to be outraged. At the end of the day, these human rights abuses are our problems, too.
Ruth Messinger is president of American Jewish World Service.