At a time when terrible suffering afflicts millions in the Middle East and continues to traumatize those who have escaped, Jews prepare for our New Year and day of judgement: Rosh Hashanah.

In the synagogue the solemn words will ring out: “Who will live and who will die? Who will die in their time and who before their time? Who by fire? Who by the sword? Who by hunger? Who by thirst? Who will find rest and who shall wander? Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued? …who shall be tormented?” This prayer talks about these decisions as being made by God alone. Yet, you and I are also making choices as citizens that might have some influence on these terrible questions.

This week’s decision by the Australian Government to resettle 12,000 refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria and Iraq in Australia, with a focus “on those most in need – the women, children and families of persecuted minorities”, followed pleas by citizens as well as politicians. Last year I heard a representative of the Assyrian community describe the killing and devastation inflicted on his community by Daesh/ISIS. I connected with their pain and deeply wished this evil would stop! Now, thankfully, at least Assyrians will likely get some relief and be shown some compassion.

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On the other hand, an Australian Muslim whom I respect and trust had a different perspective on the Government’s announcement: “Muslims will forever remember a time when Australia turned its back on them, or planned to, when they were at their most vulnerable. This is what radicalises people. Do you see why I say that this government doesn’t really care about true de-radicalisation? This is the beginning of the end. Remember this moment! It’s when we sacrificed our security, humanity and self-worth for political manoeuvring”. This is a concerning perspective that we need to hear and heed.

The decisions about who will be resettled, and who will continue to suffer and “find nowhere to rest their feet”, should be, and should be seen to be, based on need alone, rather than ethnicity or religion. The right to save this one and leave another to suffer could only be claimed by God.

Human justice must be procedural and impartial. The declared Refugee Policy of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies includes that government should “not adopt any policy that arbitrarily limits or excludes from refugee protection any category of people with a genuine and well-founded fear of persecution in their homeland”. The policy of the federal representative body of the Australian Jewish community contains a similar provision.

The argument that a non-sectarian policy is essential for social cohesion is consistent with an important call by former UK Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in response to the European refugee crisis, published last week in The Guardian.

He wrote that it “is hard is to love the stranger, one whose colour, culture or creed is different from yours. That is why the command, ‘Love the stranger because you were once strangers”, resonates so often throughout the Bible. It is summoning us now. A bold act of collective generosity will show that the world, particularly Europe, [or the West] has learned the lesson of its own dark past and is willing to take a global lead in building a more hopeful future. Wars that cannot be won by weapons can sometimes be won by the sheer power of acts of humanitarian generosity to inspire the young to choose the way of peace instead of holy war”. As my above-quoted Muslim correspondent, observed, failure to uphold our principles carries the risk of undermining the moral standing of “the west”.

We must be hard on the problems and refuse to accept the avoidable suffering of our fellow humans, regardless of ethnicity or religion. On Rosh Hashanah, I will pray that ‘God reign over the world in a way that will be known to all’. To me, this means that principles of justice and mercy should prevail rather than the interests of the rich and powerful or the short term political interests of politicians. At the same time, let us treat each other with understanding and grace. A beautiful Rosh Hashanah prayer asserts that humans are “like a fading flower, like a broken shard of earthenware, and a dream that flies away”.

This is a challenging time for those who are suffering and for the preservation of the fragile fabric of our still largely cohesive society. I pray for wise, responsible and compassionate choices by all concerned.