Secretary of State Kerry is off to the Middle East, among other things to press for peace talks to stem the tragic bloodshed in Syria. There’s a refreshing thought: up until now we’ve been hearing that the US’s dilemma is essentially a choice between military intervention or inaction. In this day and age, actual diplomacy too often feels like a quaint endangered species.
I’m certainly mindful that US “peace deals” often have more to do with US interests than real and lasting peace – and I fully agree with journalist Shamus Cooke when he writes:
It’s possible that Obama wants to avoid further humiliation in his Syria meddling by a last minute face-saving “peace” deal. It’s equally likely, however, that these peace talks are a clever diplomatic ruse, with war being the real intention. It’s not uncommon for peace talks to break down and be used as a justification for an intensification of war, since “peace was attempted but failed.”
At the same time, however, diplomacy may well be our best option to stem the horrid violence which just seems to spiral and escalate without end. As Iran expert Trita Parsi, recently wrote in Open Zion:
A peaceful and sustainable resolution to the Syrian crisis is not within reach in the short-term. But a significant reduction in the violence and bloodshed can be achieved because the appetite for diplomacy is stronger now than at anytime in the past two years. The peace summit prepared by the U.S. and Russia can achieve this if they bring all the parties to the table.
Some more wise words on the importance of real diplomatic intervention in Syria. First, from Ron Young of the National Interreligious Leadership Initiative for Peace in the Middle East:
To have a realistic chance of success, such an international intervention would have to involve Russia — and Iran and China — as well as countries supporting the rebels. Twin goals of the intervention would be to halt the violence and achieve agreement on a political transition involving the rebels and elements of the current regime that would provide assurances for all of Syria’s diverse internal communities and for interests of the major outside parties. The current U.S. diplomatic initiative with Russia is worthy of public support, and should be pursued with creativity and determination.
And finally, Rich Rubenstein (Professor of Conflict Resolution at George Mason University) writes:
Clearly, any dialogue between the warring parties in Syria is better than continuing to destroy and dismember that nation. Talk, by all means! But the most promising process would involve talks presided over by a team of independent facilitators accepted by both the regime and its opponents – confidential dialogues that would help them explore the systemic causes of the war and fashion a plan for a new Syria. The Americans, Europeans, and neighboring states should agree to stay out of the way while the talks continue and to stand ready to guarantee any agreement reached by the parties.
Just in time for the Jewish festival of Shavuot, I strongly commend to you “Poverty, Chesed and Justice,” a text study just released by T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights together with Justice at Hyatt.
It is customary to engage in a late night study session on the eve of Shavuot – and since the story of Ruth is traditionally read on this festival, a study that focuses on the struggle of women workers at Hyatt feels profoundly appropriate.
As the introduction notes:
In the Book of Ruth, Ruth’s actions are lauded as acts of chesed, kindness. Ruth’s kindness is embodied through action: not just following her bereft mother-in-law Naomi back to the land of Israel, but taking on grueling work in the fields in order to keep them from falling into abject poverty. It is this determination and chesed that causes Boaz to notice Ruth and to perform his own acts of chesed in return. We hope that this Shavuot, the Hyatt Hotel Chain will display similar chesed toward the women who toil every day to change linens, scrub bathroom floors, and carry heavy bedding, all in the hopes of providing a better future for their children.
Right on. The story of Ruth is a story of solidarity, compassion and redemption. Here’s hoping the workers of Hyatt – and all workers everywhere – find an ample measure of each this Shavuot
Here’s a great quality video of my entire speaking appearance at University Friend’s Meeting in Seattle this past Monday night. I attended series of wonderful – and at times inspiring – events during my short stay in the Northwest and will be reporting on them in due course. In the meantime here’s a taste:
In my last post, I addressed Israel’s creeping annexation of Area C, a region that accounts for 60% of the West Bank and contains all the major Jewish “settlement blocs.” It’s a process that has systematically depopulated this area of its Palestinian residents through a militarily-managed bureaucracy of home demolitions, forced evictions, revocation of residency rights while increasing widespread Jewish settlement throughout the region. Since 1967, the Palestinian population in Area C has dropped from as many as 320,000 to 56,000. During the same time, the Jewish population there has grown from 1,200 to 310,000.
In my post I addressed the political implications of these policies – but it’s just as crucial to remember that every home demolished, every residency revoked and every family evicted represents a devastating reality for real lives on the ground. That’s why it’s so important to support the organizations working valiantly on their behalf.
One of my favorites is Rebuilding Alliance, a coalition of groups and individuals around the world that partners with Israeli and Palestinian NGOs to help devastated Palestinian communities in Area C rebuild in the face of often overwhelming obstacles.
Rebuilding Alliance is truly a model of its kind, using a holistic approach to peace-building, combining community-directed rebuilding with grassroots and diplomatic advocacy. One of RA’s most important projects has focused on the Area C village of Al Aqaba, located in the Jordan Valley. Al Aqaba was used for decades as a military training zone, during which twelve villagers were killed and dozens wounded during live-fire training exercises. In 2003, the village won a landmark victory when the Israeli High Court ruled that the army camp at the entrance of the village had to relocate. By that time, however, 70% of the village’s original one thousand residents had already left, seeking safety and better living conditions.
In the hopes that these former residents could return to their homes, the Al Aqaba Village Council appealed to international organizations to help them plan for their future. Among the projects they sought to implement were a medical clinic and a new three-story building that housed a sewing cooperative and a kindergarten for the children of Al Aqaba whose families who had relocated to nearby villages. With the help of grant money, Rebuilding Alliance began construction of a new kindergarten in 2004 (see pic above). As soon as the building was erected however, the military issued demolition orders for it and most of the village.
Through RA’s advocacy, the American Embassy helped stop the bulldozers with two homes demolished. Now they are helping Al Aqaba to legally and diplomatically challenge the demolition orders as they push ahead with plans to rebuild the village. Through its “Rebuilding to Remain” project, it plans to build 30 affordable, colorful, eco-friendly homes and construction has already begun. Breaking ground for this project was a huge victory for Al Aqaba.
Still, like so many villages in Area C, the residents in Al Aqaba live under constant threat of demolition. The pretext for demolishing Palestinian buildings has been the lack of Israel-issued building permits, which are only attainable once a master-plan has been approved, and are virtually unattainable for Palestinians.
I had the pleasure of speaking at Rebuilding Alliance’s “Mirroring Hope” dinner in San Mateo, CA when I was in the Bay Area last week (see above) and can attest to the incredible creativity of this courageous organization. I have learned a great deal from the example and work of Founder/Executive Director Donna Baranski-Walker and RA staff person Morgan Bach and it’s truly been a honor for me to support their work.
I urge you to do the same – click here make a donation. Click here to see Rebuilding Alliance’s Palestine Crisis Map, which offers English language news reports of human rights violations and rebuilding efforts in Area C and throughout Israel/Palestine – and to receive alerts on the status of specific villages.
Every time a new new Israeli-Palestinian peace plan is unveiled, diplomats and analysts will invariably urge the various players to summon the political courage to seize this latest “window of opportunity.” And sure enough – as I was reading an article on the latest revamping of the Arab Peace Plan, one Israeli leftist pundit was quoted tweeting:”"Historic opportunity for Israel. Will our government have the guts to seize it?”
As for me, I’m asking a different question: “Since Israel has all but annexed 60% of the West Bank through home demolitions, forced evictions, revocation of residency rights and unchecked construction of Jewish settlements, how could anyone think this government is even remotely interested in a viable two-state solution?”
How much longer does this have to continue until we are ready to admit the patently obvious intentions of Israel’s governments? Given the facts on the ground, the discussion of a viable, contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank is beyond absurd. Israel has been inexorably settling Area C and East Jerusalem while simultaneously depopulating those regions of Palestinian residents for decades. By this point, this process has become nigh well complete. Now Israel’s newest government coalition includes a major party whose official platform calls to annex Area C. One prominent Israeli settler leader calls the current government “a wet dream.” Are we really, truly going to continue to talk about a two-state peace process with a straight face?
According to a 2011 EU research report, in 1967, between 200,000 and 320,000 Palestinians lived in what is today called Area C. But since that time, home demolitions and Israel’s prevention of new building has caused that number drop to 56,000. In a similar period, the Jewish population in Area C has grown from 1,200 to 310,000.
Israeli journalist Amira Hass has convincingly argued that the creation of “Palestinian ghettos” in Areas A and B “were always the plan” even well before the 1993 Oslo peace process that created these zones. According to Hass, when new coalition party member Naftali Bennett calls for annexing Area C, he is only “following the logic of every single Israeli government: maximize the territory, minimize the Arabs:”
According to Bennett, about 60 percent of the West Bank – a.k.a. Area C – is annexable. What’s important about Area C is not whether 50,000 Palestinians live there, as democratic, benevolent Bennett claims, while suggesting to naturalize them and grant them Israeli citizenship, or whether the number is around 150,000 (as my colleague Chaim Levinson reminded us earlier this week).
Don’t worry. Even if there are 300,000 Palestinians living in Area C and all of them agree to become citizens, the Israeli bureaucracy will find ways to embitter their lives (the way it does the lives of the Bedouin in the Negev), revoke their citizenship (the way it does the residency status of Palestinians in East Jerusalem) and leave them without the little share of their land they still have (the way it did to the Palestinian citizens of Israel within the 1948 borders).
This is why Bennett can allow himself to be munificent. The true story behind area C is that there aren’t 400,000 Palestinians living there today; the villages have not expanded in accordance with their natural population growth; the number of residents has not grown; the herders can no longer graze their flocks freely; many of the inhabitants lack access to water, electricity, school and medical clinics; Israel has not been taken to the International Criminal Court in the Hague for destroying the cisterns; there are no paved roads in and between villages…
As I have said a million times and will say another million times: Area C is a tremendous success of Israeli policy and its implementers, the army and the Civil Administration. It is part of a farsighted, well-executed, perfectly thought-out policy that has succeeded precisely in that there aren’t 400,000 Palestinians living in the area. Bennett is probably decent/honest enough to acknowledge the debt he owes to the previous generations of Israeli politicians and military officials who warmed the country up for his annexation plan, ensuring its acceptance would be as effortless as a knife cutting butter in the sun.
The long and short of it? If the international community is really interested in a just peace, it should stop trying to breathe life into a corpse of a peace process and hold Israel accountable for its ethnic cleansing/annexation of Area C. And at the same time, it would behoove us all to start exploring creative new solutions that would extend full civil and human rights to all who live on the land.
In this regard, I highly recommend this recent piece by journalist/blogger Mitchell Plitnick. Mitchell has long represented an important progressive voice on Israel/Palestine: consistently smart, well-informed and always underscored by an abiding political realism. Like so many of us, he has long clung to the paradigm of a two-state solution – but over the past year he has been openly exploring the compelling reasons why he believes that the door to this solution has now become irrevocably closed. In this recent article, he dares to explore out loud what a new one-state solution might possibly look like:
…In the end, Israelis will realize that the status quo can’t hold and they will have to find a way to give Palestinians their freedom and their rights. That can be done without losing the most basic elements of a Jewish homeland. But it will require abandoning the ethnocratic concept of the Jewish state that has characterized Israel since before it was Israel.
The state can still be a Jewish home, with a constitution that guarantees that any Jew fleeing anti-Semitism anywhere in the world can find a haven in Israel. It can be a state where Hebrew is still a national language and one that has a culture that draws heavily from Jewish roots, European, Middle Eastern and Iberian. It just can’t do these things exclusively. They will also have to apply equally to Palestinians.
It’s not such a leap. Palestinians would also be able to come to this reformed state to flee persecution. Arabic would also be a national language, as it officially is now. The culture of the state would reflect the Palestinian heritage as well as the Jewish one. Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial, would still be there, but there might also be memorials to the Palestinian villages that were destroyed. Palestinian refugees who wish to would have an opportunity to return gradually, through some bureaucratic process that both peoples would agree upon. Yes, that means the Jews will not be a majority, but a constitution would protect not only Jewish and Arab rights equally, but would ensure that the character of the state reflected both cultures.
That is important, and it is also the place where the vision of a secular, democratic state falls short. The biggest problem with that vision is that it ignores the strong sense of nationalism that exists among both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs. As someone who has no use or liking for nationalism, I wish that were not the case, but wishing does not make it so. The future state cannot be a melting pot, a mere civic society, in the manner the United States strives to be. It must be a national home. Whatever the political formation may be, it must be reflective of the nations that have been created by Zionism among Jews and Palestinian nationalism among the Arabs of Palestine.
Obviously, this is a future that is not on the horizon. And it is clear that many people, probably most, would not be able to conceive that such a future is even possible. But the alternative for Israeli Jews will be the eventual total loss of any homeland in Eretz Yisrael. A state with democratic structures like Israel which deprives millions of people of human and civil rights is an inherent contradiction. A state with one set of laws for some people and another set for another group of people all under one sovereign is an apartheid state, and it is a thing the world no longer tolerates. Only Israel’s unique place as the state of the Jews, in the wake of the Holocaust has allowed that state of affairs to last this long.
Mitchell is certainly correct when he says that this future is not on the horizon as of yet. Soon enough, however, the world will see the patently apartheid nature of a state the privileges its Jewish citizens while warehousing Palestinians inside a “security” regime of walls and checkpoints. As this oppression become more undeniable, we’ll surely be hearing and reading similar visions to Mitchell’s. At present these ideas exist largely in the domain of academia, journalism and the activist community; might we dare to imagine that events on the ground will eventually cause them to be considered by the political elites?
As far as I’m concerned, that time cannot come soon enough.
I’ve just returned from an inspiring sojourn at the Jewish Voice for Peace National Members’ Meeting in Berkeley, CA (you can read more about the event here.) While I was there, I took the opportunity to film a few of my colleagues on the JVP Rabbinical Council voicing their support for the Open Hillel campaign (a recent and very important student-run initiative about which I blogged not too long ago.)
Here ‘em testify! From top to bottom, Rabbis Brian Walt, Lynn Gottlieb, David Mivasair, Margaret Holub, David Bauer and Alissa Wise:
Last night, I had the very good pleasure and honor to welcome Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis to my congregation. In recent years, Karen’s leadership has put her at the center of one of the most important labor struggles in the country – this past September the CTU teachers’ strike was a national news story, due in no small way to Lewis’ visionary and stalwart leadership. Now she’s leading the charge to resist plans by Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Public School board to close 54 Chicago schools – a decision which would affect 30,000 children, mostly in low-income, African-American neighborhoods on the city’s South and West sides.
When Karen first accepted our invitation to present at JRC, she told us she was particularly interested in talking about the Chicago schools crisis from a religious values point of view. Many aren’t aware that Karen converted to Judaism twenty years ago – at a time in which she was on a personal spiritual search and was drawn to the Jewish tradition of questioning and debate. As it turns out, she will be celebrating her Bat Mitzvah in June – so I encouraged her to use JRC appearance as a laboratory to explore some of the themes in her Torah portion.
Her portion, Shelach Lecha (Numbers 13:1-15:41) relates, among other things, the story of the twelve scouts send by by Moses to report on the Promised Land. Ten of them return with words of discouragement, reporting that they saw giants in the land. “We felt like grasshoppers to ourselves,” they said, “and so we must have looked to them!”
In her presentation, she pointed out that forces of domination in society can often have this effect on us. In the case of Chicago schools, it is easy to feel cowed by the powerful political-corporate interests that are decimating public education in our city – and in fact, in cities around the nation. The key, Lewis said, is not to be daunted or to give in to a slave mentality that “idealizes Egypt.” The answer, as ever, is to organize and fight back.
Among the many important points Karen made in her presentation was her insight into the deeper issues around the school closings. While she did not disagree that there are problems in Chicago Public Schools (she likened it to a “mildly dysfunctional family”) she vociferously denied Mayor Emanuel’s claim that the system is “broken.” What’s truly broken, Lewis rightly pointed out, is our commitment to the most vulnerable communities in our city.
This was, for me, her most important point of the evening. “Rahm Emanuel says that closing these schools was ‘a difficult decision’” she said. “Make no mistake: closing schools in black and brown communities on the South Side is not a difficult decision. That was an easy decision. You know what a difficult decision would be? If Rahm Emanuel went to his good friends at the Chicago Board of Trade and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and told them to pay their fair share. That would be a difficult decision!”
Amen. In a recent Chicago Sun-Times article, Chicago community organizer Amisha Patel pointed out, in fact, that claims by City Hall and CPS that schools must be closed to save money are simply not true. In fact, they are choosing to close schools while sending millions of dollars to Wall Street:
Every year, CPS pays approximately $36 million in toxically high interest rates, linked to so-called swap contracts, to banks like Bank of America and Goldman Sachs. These arrangements, in which CPS pays a fixed interest rate to the banks — typically between 3.5 and 5.25 percent — to protect itself against fluctuating interest rates in the bond market, were supposed to save CPS money.
But the arrangements backfired — and became morally reprehensible — when the banks crashed the economy and the Federal Reserve slashed interest rates to bail them out. Now the banks are profiting greatly from the federal bailout, but Chicago’s schools get nothing — no such relief for them from crippling high interest rates — even as the banks continue to extract millions of dollars from CPS.
Big banks were saved by public money, but many Chicago communities are besieged by record high unemployment and foreclosure rates. After jeopardizing our jobs and our homes, now these banks are coming for our children’s schools. We need a mayor who will stand up to Wall Street and fight for our communities.
But rather than demanding that these banks renegotiate the swap deals, as other cities successfully have done, Emanuel is choosing to close 54 schools. CPS claims the closures will save an average of $60 million a year for 10 years — numbers that many studies have shown are based on unrealistic assumptions, such as the district being able to sell 50 percent of shuttered schools. At the same time, CPS fails to account for the cost to the children who must cross new gang lines to get to school, the disruption of their stability and the creation of even more vacant buildings.
Renegotiating these swaps could save CPS tens of millions of dollars every year — money that could keep schools open. But that would mean putting the interests of poor, black children ahead of the banks, a difficult move for a mayor whose top campaign contributors come from the financial services industry.
Karen Lewis taught powerful Torah last night – and I’m happy to say that there is a Jewish organizing initiative growing in our city that is heeding her call to fight back against the corporate decimation of our public school system. Jewish Solidarity and Action for Schools (JSAS) has drafted a letter to Mayor Emanuel that states “these discriminatory school closings fly in the face of our Jewish and human values.” The letter will be delivered to the Mayor’s office by JSAS activists today.
Here’s Karen with the leadership of JSAS after her talk: