If you want to do a mitzvah this Black Friday, please consider joining the growing movement that is demanding that Walmart treat its employees with human dignity and pay them a livable wage.
Emboldened by news from Walmart CEO that hundreds of thousands of Walmart workers are paid less than $25,000 a year, Walmart workers and supporters announced plans today for protests on Black Friday (November 29). Workers are demanding that Walmart to commit to improving labor standards, providing workers with more full time work at $25,000 a year and to put an end to illegal retaliation.
Today’s announcement follows revelations this week that many Walmart workers don’t have enough money to cover Thanksgiving dinner for their families, as well as the historic federal government finding that Walmart has been violating workers’ rights nationwide. In the meantime Walmart is the country’s largest retailer and employer, making more than $17 billion in profits, with the wealth of the Walton family totaling over $144.7 billion – equal to that of 42% of Americans.
Check out the new online video, above, in which the OUR Walmart campaign member Martha Sellers discusses employee’s struggles to get by on Walmart’s low pay. The video includes incredulous reactions from the media to the news that employees – not the company – are coming together to donate food to those who can’t afford a Thanksgiving dinner on their Walmart wages.
Over the past month, there have been exciting grassroots Walmart actions across the country, including the largest-ever civil disobedience against the retail giant in Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Seattle, Ohio and Dallas. On Black Friday last year, 30,000 Americans called for the country’s largest employer to change at over 1,000 stores in 46 states. This year is set to be even bigger, with experts like Occidental College professor Peter Dreier already calling Black Friday 2013 a “day for the history books” and a “major turning point in American history, similar to the Flint sit-down strikes of 1937.
Click here for information about a Walmart action near you (or to register one). Click here to sign an online petition started by Walmart employee Charmain Givens-Thomas that calls on President Obama to meet with strikers to “hear firsthand why they are appealing for respect and calling on Walmart to pay them enough to feed and support their families.”
I’ll see you in the streets this Black Friday!
This evening it was my honor to participate in an act of civil disobedience in Chicago in support of immigrant justice – a cause I fervently believe is the civil rights issue of our time. One hundred and sixty strong, a large and diverse coalition of activists, faith leaders, politicians, labor leaders and undocumented immigrants sat down together in the busy intersection of Congress and Clark in the South Loop with two demands: that Speaker of the House John Boehner bring comprehensive immigration reform to a vote, and that President Obama stop the oppressive deportations of undocumented immigrants (which have now grown to 2,000,000 under his administration.)
We gathered at 3:30 pm for a press conference, after which we filed off the sidewalk into the intersection and sat down around a banner reading “Stop Deportations – Give us a Vote.” On all four corners of the intersection, hundreds of supporters unfurled banners and held signs and chanted along with us. Eventually, after three warnings, Chicago police led each of us away one by one.
Our demonstration tonight was but one of a growing numbers of civil disobedience actions currently proflierating across the country. Last month, thousands rallied for immigration reform on the National Mall in Washington DC during the government shutdown – and 200 were led away by police. A few days earlier, similar rallies were held in Los Angeles, San Diego and Boston and other cities as part of a “National Day of Immigrant Dignity and Respect.”
While politicians in post-shutdown Washington dither on this critical issue in Washington, citizens are literally taking to the streets to demand compassionate immigration reform. There is a very real movement building – trust me, as long our leaders refuse to act, you will be witnessing many more actions such as these in the coming weeks and months.
It was my honor to be among the speakers at press conference before the demonstration (above). Here is the full text of my remarks (which was shortened due to time restraints):
My name is Brant Rosen – I’m the rabbi of Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston and I’m a member of this amazing, diverse and growing coalition of activists who are working for the cause of immigrant justice. I am part of the majority of Americans and 80% of Illinoisians who support compassionate immigration reform that provides a path to citizenship.
And I am here to say it is time for our national leaders to lead. It is time for Speaker John Boehner and Republican leader Peter Roskam to give us a vote. It is time for President Barack Obama to end the daily deportatins that are now approaching 2,000,000 and has left 3,000,000 children orphaned. This is not simply a political issue – and shame on any politician who treats immigration reform as “business as usual.” Immigration reform is one of the most critical moral and human rights issues facing our country today.
As a Jew, my faith tradition teaches that societies will ultimately be judged by the way they treat their immigrants. My faith tradition teaches that when we label another human being as “illegal,” we diminish God’s presence in our world. When we incarcerate and deport those who come to this country seeking a better life, we diminish God’s presence in our world. And when we create and enforce laws that rip children away from their parents – and parents from their children – we most certainly diminish God’s presence in our world.
My faith tradition also teaches that God stands with the oppressed and demands that we do the same. And make no mistake: our immigration system constitutes a very real form of oppression against families in our nation. It is thus our sacred duty to stand here today, in front of US Immigration Customs and Enforcement headquarters, to say: this oppression must end. The destruction of our families must end. The daily deportations of 1,100 human beings must end. It is our sacred duty to bring it to an end.
John Boehner and Peter Roskam: It’s time to give us a vote on citizenship. It’s time to end the oppression of our undocumented brothers and sisters. President Obama: it’s time to keep your promise to the American people. 2,000,000 deportations is 2,000,000 too many. Stop deportations now!
If our national leaders refuse to lead, then it is time to take to the streets. And tonight, we will take to the streets. Our movement is the new civil rights movement growing in cities across the nation, rising up to demand compassionate immigration reform now. You will hear from us tonight in Chicago – and you will be hearing from us again and again until our oppressive immigration system is no more!
It has been my honor to stand together in this movement with so many people from so many different faiths and ethnicities and histories. It has been a particular honor to stand together with our undocumented sisters and brothers, whose steadfast courage and dignity are an inspiration to us all.
My own grandparents were immigrants to this nation. I know all too well that I am the beneficiary of their decision to come to this country, and of my country’s willingness to provide them with a path to citizenship. For those of us who enjoy the privileges of the courageous decisions of those who came before us, it would be a profound betrayal if we did not stand together here today.
We are here today. We will be here tomorrow. And we will stand together every day until compassionate immigration reform is finally a reality in our country. Ken Yehi Ratzon – as it is God’s will, so my it be ours.
Amen and thank you all for coming out tonight.
En Español (Gracias a Gonzalo Escobar):
Mi nombre es Brant Rosen – Soy el rabino de la Congregación Judía Reconstruccionista en Evanston y soy un miembro de esta increíble y diversa y creciente coalición de activistas que trabajan por la causa de la justicia para los inmigrantes. Yo soy parte de la mayoría de los estadounidenses y el 80 % de Illinoisians que apoyan la reforma migratoria compasiva que proporcione un camino a la ciudadanía.
Y yo estoy aquí para decir que es hora de que nuestros líderes nacionales para hagan su trabajo de legislar. Es hora de que los Representantes, John Boehner, y el líder republicano Peter Roskam nos den un voto. Es hora de que el presidente Barack Obama ponga fin a las deportaciones diarias que se están acercando a 2 millones y han dejado a 3 millones de niños y niñas huérfanos. Esto no es simplemente una cuestión política y es una vergüenza que un político trate la reforma migratoria como “como si no pasara nada”, la reforma de inmigración es uno de los temas de derechos humanos y morales más importantes que enfrenta nuestro país hoy en día.
Como judío, mi tradición de fe nos enseña que las sociedades en última instancia, serán juzgadas por la forma en que tratan a sus inmigrantes. Mi tradición de fe nos enseña que cuando etiquetamos a otro ser humano como “ilegal”, disminuimos la presencia de Dios en nuestro mundo. Cuando encarcelamos y deportamos a los que vienen a este país en busca de una vida mejor, disminuimos la presencia de Dios en nuestro mundo. Y cuando creamos y hacemos cumplir las leyes que separan a los niños de sus padres – y a los padres de sus hijos – ciertamente estamos disminuyendo la presencia de Dios en nuestro mundo.
Mi tradición de fe también enseña que Dios está con los oprimidos y demanda que hagamos lo mismo. Y no nos engañemos: nuestro sistema de inmigración constituye una forma muy real de la opresión contra las familias en nuestro país. Por tanto, es nuestro deber sagrado de estar aquí hoy, frente a la sede de inmigración y aduanas de EE.UU. para decir: la opresión debe terminar. La destrucción de nuestras familias debe terminar. Las deportaciones diarias de 1.100 seres humanos deben terminar. Es nuestro sagrado deber de ponerle fin.
John Boehner y Peter Roskam : Es hora de que nos den un voto para la ciudadanía . Es hora de poner fin a la opresión de nuestros hermanos y hermanas indocumentados. Presidente Obama: es el momento de mantener su promesa al pueblo estadounidense. 2 millones de deportaciones y 2 millones es demasiado. ¡Detengan las deportaciones ahora!
Si nuestros líderes nacionales se niegan a legislar, entonces es el momento de salir a la calle. Y esta noche, vamos a salir a las calles. Nuestro movimiento es el nuevo movimiento de derechos civiles que crece en las ciudades de todo el país, para exigir una reforma migratoria compasiva ahora. Ustedes nos escucharán esta noche en Chicago -¡y ustedes nos escucharan a nosotros una y otra vez hasta que nuestro sistema de inmigración opresivo no exista más!
Ha sido un honor para mí estar juntos en este movimiento con tantas personas de tantas religiones y etnias e historias diferentes. Ha sido un gran honor particular, estar junto a nuestras hermanas y hermanos indocumentados, cuyo valor y dignidad inquebrantable son una inspiración para todos nosotros.
Mis abuelos eran inmigrantes de esta nación. Sé muy bien que soy el beneficiario de su decisión de venir a este país, y de la voluntad de mi país para proporcionarle un camino a la ciudadanía. Para aquellos de nosotros que disfrutamos de los privilegios de las decisiones valientes de los que vinieron antes que nosotros, sería una traición profunda si no nos mantenemos unidos hoy aquí.
Estamos aquí hoy. Vamos a estar aquí mañana. Y vamos a estar juntos todos los días hasta que la reforma migratoria compasiva sea finalmente una realidad en nuestro país. Como se dice en Hebreo “Ken Yehi Ratzon” – ya que es la voluntad de Dios, y será la nuestra.
Amén y gracias a todos por venir esta noche.
There are many forms of resistance to oppression. One is memory itself.
On Tuesday our delegation visited the village of Lifta, a Palestinian village on the outskirts of Jerusalem that was depopulated of its residents by Jewish militias early in 1948. Our tour was led by Eitan Bronstein, director of Zochrot, an Israeli organization that educates Israelis about the Nakba, actively advocating for the Palestinian Right of Return. It’s truly one of the bravest, most important Israeli organizations I know.
Zochrot’s tours of destroyed Palestinian villages are an critical aspect of their educational work. They are, of course, not your typical tours – in most cases they do not show you what is, but rather what is no more. Most Palestinian villages destroyed during the Nakba were razed to the ground, leaving little behind but the shell of a building or the occasional foundations of homes. Zochrot keeps the culture life of these communities alive through their tours, underscoring the profound enormity – and collective tragedy – of what was lost.
Lifta is somewhat unique among these villages in that it is the only Nakba-era village that still remains largely intact. In its day it was a fairly well-to-do community, with a population of 2,550.
In the years leading up to the 1948, the village fell under attack by Jewish militias in the area. On the December 28, 1947 six people were gunned down in the village coffeehouse, by members of two Jewish militias, the Stern Gang and the Irgun. In late January or early February, the militias attacked and seized the neighboring village of Qaluba and then invaded Lifta from the West. They occupied Lifta’s new town and the remaining residents took refuge in the old town in the valley. The village was cut-off from the west and anyone trying to leave was killed. The villagers resisted but were defeated after several hours of fighting.
By the time the entire village was occupied, most of the people had already left Lifta and fled into the West Bank, the rest were taken by truck and dumped in East Jerusalem. By February 1948, Lifta had been completely depopulated. It’s not completely clear why the Jewish forces did not raze Lifta to the ground as it had so many other villages. For a time it allowed newly-immigrated Yemenite Jews to occupy the houses, but when the homes proved uninhabitable, they were eventually abandoned
Lifta was the object of some controversy when the Jerusalem municipality announced plans to redevelop the area as a luxury area for Israelis. The plans were dropped after an outcry from former residents and progressive Israeli activists. In the meantime, the remnants of this remains, a testament to the legacy of a rich communal life that was lost during the Nakba.
I can see why Lifta is such a popular spot for Israeli tourists – the town ls nestled in a long valley, with homes and buildings built into either side. The mosque and the Muktar’s house are still in decent condition, testifying to what clearly once was a beautiful, desirable town. At the bottom of the valley is a natural spring that still attracts swimmers, particularly ultra-orthodox who attribute spiritual significance to it. As Eitan showed us the area, the swimmers glared at us as if we were interloping in their own “sacred territory.” They clearly had no comprehension of the actual profanity that had occurred here in 1948.
On Wednesday evening, we visited another Nakba site: El Ghabsiya, located in the upper Galilee (where were visiting members of delegation members Shafic and and Dima Budron’s family – more on this later). Our tour of El Ghabsiya was led by Muhammad Kaial of the Association for the Defense of the Rights of the Internally Displaced Persons in Israel, and Daoud Bader, an original survivor of the original village.
The story of El Ghabsiya, like Lifta, is an example of how the Nakba is not only a historical event of the past, but an injustice and a struggle that occurs even in our very day. In March 1948, fearful that uncertainty in Palestine’s future could endanger the people of the village, prominent members of El Ghabsiya made an agreement with Jewish militia leaders. In exchange for his cooperation, the militia promised not to invade the village. (At that time, the population of the village numbered about 700 people.)
The agreement was not to be honored. In May 1948, Jewish militias surrounded and entered the village. Families living near entrance to the village greeted the soldiers with coffee; in return father and his son were taken out into the nearby woods – Daoud told us that they have never been heard from to this day. When the soldiers entered El Ghabsiya, a community leader named Daoud Zainl climbed to the roof of the mosque and raised a white flag. The militia ignored his act of surrender, opened fire, and killed him on the spot. In all, eleven Palestinians were killed during the attack on El Ghabsiya and the subsequent expulsion of its residents, despite the fact that there was no local resistance.
The inhabitants of the village escaped to surrounding villages, becoming “internally displaced refugees.” Unlike other internally displaced Palestinians, the people of El Ghabsiya were allowed to return to their homes less than twelves months later – but two years later, on August 2, 1951, then Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion declared the village a “closed military zone” and the villagers were again forced to leave their homes.
The people of El Ghabsiya fought for their right of return all the way to the Israeli Supreme Court and on November 1951, the court ruled that they did indeed have the legal right of return to their village. Armed with this ruling, the villages gathered and headed back to their homes – and were met by Israel military forces the blocked their way and refused to recognize the decision of the court. In succeeding years, government bulldozers destroyed all of the houses in the village – the only building left standing was the village mosque.
For the next forty five years, the Israeli Land Authority allowed the mosque to sit in disrepair and desecration, used as a stable for horses and other animals. Finally, in 1995 residents and descendents of residents of El Ghabsiya initiated a clean-up project and began weekly attempts to pray at their mosque. In response, the Israeli Land Authority sealed the windows and doors and ringed the mosque with barbed wire.
Still, the people of El Ghabsiya have not given up. Most live in villages near their ancestral village and they still make regular attempts to gather to pray at their mosque. Above you can see the sign villagers have placed in front of the mosque: “I will not remain a refugee – we will return.” (You can also see that the sign has been vandalized, sadly enough, with a Jewish star.)
After hearing this story, our group toured the mosque and gathered in the courtyard. On of our members Kalman Resnick said that as a member of the Jewish community and a man whose own family fled persecution, he felt shame at hearing this story of dispossession, that continues to this day. I then led the Jewish members of our delegation in the recitation of Kaddish for those who were killed on this site in 1948. In return, Daoud, the original resident of the village, emotionally expressed his appreciation for our presence and our solidarity – a profoundly moving moment for us all.
After our visit, our group discussed ways we might help support the people of El Ghabsiya in their quest for justice – and their simple desire to pray in their ancestral mosque. More info on this effort will be forthcoming.
We’ve just returned from our Friday demonstration. It was, quite simply, an indescribable experience - I’ll do my best to describe it in my next post…
I’d like to begin tonight by telling you the stories of three heroes of the civil rights era. I’d wager most Americans have never heard of them – but as far as I’m concerned, they deserve to be at least as well known as Emmett Till, Medger Evers and Rosa Parks.
The first is Jimmie Lee Jackson, an African-American farmer and woodcutter from in Marion, Alabama. Jackson grew up in poverty, but planned to move North for a better life after graduating from high school. After his father’s early death however, he spent his the remainder of his life on his small family farm in Marion, where he lived together with his sister, mother, and grandfather.
Jackson was an army veteran and a deeply faithful man; he became the youngest deacon in the history of Marion’s St. James Baptist Church. He also turned into a political activist at an early age after unsuccessfully attempting to register to vote for four years. Jackson spearheaded his church’s voter registration drive and eventually became a prominent civil rights leader in Merion.
On the night of February 18, 1965, Jackson participated in a demonstration in which 500 people peacefully marched from a church in Marion to the county Jail about a half a block away to protest the imprisonment of a young civil rights worker. On their way, the marchers were met and beaten by a line of Marion City police officers, sheriff’s deputies, and Alabama State Troopers. Among the injured were two United Press International photographers. A NBC News correspondent was so badly beaten that he was later hospitalized.
The marchers quickly turned and scattered back towards the church. Pursued by the state troopers, Jackson, his sister, mother, and 82-year-old grandfather ran into a café. The troopers followed them in and clubbed his grandfather to the floor. When Jackson’s sister and mother attempted to pull the police off and they began to beat them as well. Jackson went to protect them and a trooper threw him against a cigarette machine. A second trooper moved in and shot Jackson twice at point blank range in the abdomen.
Jackson staggered outside, was clubbed again and fell wounded in the street, where he lay for half an hour. Later that night, Jackson, his mother and grandfather were transported to a hospital in Selma. His mother and grandfather suffered head wounds but were treated and released – Jimmie Lee remained in the hospital where his condition grew steadily worse. Four days later, an Alabama state trooper walked into and hospital room and charged Jackson with assault and battery with intent to murder a peace officer. Eight days later, on Friday, February 26, Jimmie Lee Jackson died from his wounds.
His funeral took place on March 3. Dr. Martin Luther King was among the speakers at the service, after which a thousand people followed Jackson’s casket through the rain to a local cemetery. Four days later, several hundred marchers left Brown Chapel in Selma, formed a long column, and began walking up the steep incline of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which spans the Alabama River. Their goal was to walk 54 miles to the state capitol in Montgomery to protest Jackson’s death and petition the governor and legislature to open the state’s voting rolls to all citizens. The march ended violently on a day we would all come to know as “Bloody Sunday.” It was a galvanizing moment in the fight for voting rights in this country.
The second person I’d like to profile for you now is Reverend James Reeb. Reeb was raised in Caspar, Wyoming, served in the Army during World War II, and was later ordained by the Princeton Theological Seminary. Soon after, however, he left the Presbyterians and joined the Unitarian Universalist church. As a white man who believed in civil rights, he was particularly drawn to the UU’s strong emphasis on social justice.
Reverend Reeb was fully ordained as a Unitarian Universalist minister in 1962. After serving for a few years at All Souls Church in Washington DC, he became the director of the American Friends Service Committee Metropolitan Boston Low Income Housing Program in 1964. With his wife and four children, he moved to Boston and purchased a home in Roxbury, a predominantly African-American area of the city. His daughter Anne later recalled that her father “was adamant that you could not make a difference for African-Americans while living comfortable in a white community.”
Following Bloody Sunday, Reeb went down to Selma with 45 Unitarian ministers and 15 laypeople to participate in the voting rights demonstrations that arose in the wake of Bloody Sunday. On March 9, he joined 2,500 marchers for a second march from Selma to Montgomery. As on previous attempts they were stopped by the police – and so the marchers returned to Browns Chapel for an evening of speeches, singing and prayers.
Later that night, Reeb and two other Unitarian ministers had dinner in a local black restaurant. Although he had planned to return to Boston that night, he called his wife and told her he had decided to stay for one more day. Upon leaving the cafe, the trio was set upon by four men brandishing clubs and yelling racist slurs. They attacked and beat the three men – wounding his two colleagues and severely injuring Reeb with a blow to his skull. Needing a neurosurgeon, he was driven ninety miles by ambulance to University Hospital in Birmingham. He died two days later.
Reverend James Reeb’s death sparked mourning event throughout the country – tens of thousands held vigils in his honor, including a ceremony in Selma, where he, like Jimmie Lee Jackson, was eulogized by Dr. King. That evening, on March 15, President Johnson spoke to a joint session of Congress on behalf of the Voting Rights Act. It was his famous “We Shall Overcome” speech, in which he urged Congress to outlaw all voting practices that denied or abridged “the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.” Six months later, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.
And finally, let me tell you now about Viola Liuzzo – born in 1925 to a poor white family that moved constantly throughout the Deep South. During the early months of World War II, her family moved to Michigan, where she worked in a bomber factory. Eager to contribute to the war effort herself, Viola moved to Detroit, where she married and had two daughters. They divorced shortly after and she eventually married Anthony James Liuzzo, a union organizer for the Teamsters. Anthony adopted her daughters and they had three more children together.
Though she was a high school dropout, Liuzzo trained as a medical laboratory assistant and later took classes at Wayne State University. There she was exposed to political ideas of the time, including debates about the Vietnam War, education reform, and economic justice. This period marked the beginning of her political activism. She was arrested twice in demonstrations and both times she insisted on a trial in order to publicize her causes.
In 1964 Liuzzo, a former Catholic, joined the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Detroit – attracted, like Reverend Reeb, by its commitment to civil rights. She also became active in the Detroit chapter of the NAACP. Like so many others, Liuzzo was galvanized by events in Selma. Following Reverend Reeb’s murder she attended a memorial service for him and soon after, she decided to go down to Selma herself to volunteer for a week. As she explained to her husband, she believed there were “too many people who just stand around talking.” She asked her closest friend, an African-American woman named Sarah Evans, to explain to her children where their mother had gone and to tell them she would call home every night. When Evans warned her that she could be killed, she replied simply, “I want to be part of it.”
So on March 21, Liuzzo joined 3,000 other marchers as they marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge attempting to reach Montgomery. She stayed on to volunteer over the next few days, driving shuttle runs from the airport to the marchers’ campsite and helping at a first-aid station.
On March 25, she joined the marchers for the final four miles to Montgomery, where she joined the thousands that demonstrated at the Alabama State House. When the march was over, Liuzzo and African-American civil rights worker named Leroy Moton drove five marchers back to Selma. After they were dropped off, Viola volunteered to return Moton to Montgomery. On their way back, four Ku Klux Klan members pulled up alongside their car. Liuzzo tried to outrun them, but they caught up with her car and opened fire. Viola was shot twice in the head and died instantly.
Following her murder, President Johnson publicly demanded that the arrest of Liuzzo’s murderers be a top priority. In just 24 hours, the FBI arrested the four Klan members, one of home was an FBI informant. Johnson appeared personally on national television to announce their arrest.
The FBI would later attempt to publicly discredit Liuzzo – most likely to cover up the fact that their agent was a KKK member and may have actively participated in her murder. J. Edgar Hoover personally spread rumors that Liuzzo was a member of the Communist party and a drug addict and that she had traveled to Selma to have sexual relations with black men. Viola’s family was also targeted by hate groups – after crosses were burned in front of their home. Anthony Liuzzo had to hire armed guards to protect his family.
However, as in the case of Jimmie Lee Jackson and Revered James Reeb, Viola Liuzzo’s death had a powerful impact on the voting rights movement across the country. On March 27 hundreds of protesters marched to the Dallas County courthouse in Selma in her memory. The next day Dr. King eulogized her at San Francisco’s Grace Episcopal Cathedral. The NAACP also sponsored a memorial service for Liuzzo at a Detroit church that was attended by fifteen hundred people including Rosa Parks. A Roman Catholic Church in Detroit celebrated a high requiem mass that was broadcast on TV. Dr. King was among the 750 people in attendance.
As with Jackson and Reeb, Viola Liuzzo’s murder played a critical role in the eventual passage of the Voting Rights Act. According to historians, Johnson invoked her death repeatedly as he lobbied Congress. Five months after she died, he signed it into law.
Why am I telling you the stories of these three individuals tonight? One simple reason is that I believe they deserve to be told. We owe Jimmie Lee Jackson, Reverend James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo at least that much. And we owe it to ourselves. I took the time to tell you about them because so few really know the stories of these American heroes. And we should. We should know who they were, how they lived and the significance of their sacrifice.
I also have a specifically liturgical reason for telling you their stories tonight of all nights. The traditional Yom Kippur service includes a section known as the Martyrology (or as we call it in Hebrew, “Eleh Ezkarah,” meaning “These I Remember.”) The centerpiece of Martyrology is a long liturgical poem that recounts the death of ten rabbis – including the famous Rabbis Akiba, Ishmael and Shimon ben Gamliel – who were executed for their support of the failed revolt against Rome in the year 132.
We traditionally read these accounts on Yom Kippur because of the classical Jewish belief that blood atones. Our Torah portion tomorrow will, in fact, describe an ancient sacrificial rite of atonement, in which the High Priest sacrifices a goat on behalf of the entire Israelite people. Though the sacrificial system is no more, we ask for God’s forgiveness by invoking the deaths of those who made the ultimate sacrifice. And so on Yom Kippur, we beseech God: even if we are unworthy of God’s mercy in the coming year, we ask for forgiveness us on account of those who made the supreme sacrifice on our behalf.
Whether or not we buy into such a theology, I believe the Martyrology has an additional function as well: on Yom Kippur we pose the question honestly: what have we done in the past year to prove ourselves worthy of these profound sacrifices? What have we done to affirm that these courageous people did not die in vain? Have we honored their memories by transforming these lost lives into justice, hope and healing for our world?
When we ask these questions as 21st century American Jews, I believe they resonate for us on multiple levels. When we invoke those Jews who died for practicing their faith, we must ask: have we done what we can to ensure that this Judaism – this exquisite spiritual tradition of ours – will be passed on to future generations? And as Americans, when we remember those who died in furtherance of justice in our country, we are challenged: how have we honored their sacrifice? What to have we done in the past year to ensure that they did not die in vain?
Indeed, at the heart of this liturgy is a refusal to accept that our martyrs have died for nothing. I’ve just recounted for you the stories of three lesser-known martyrs of the American civil rights movement – but this Sunday, as a matter of fact, we will commemorate the 50th anniversary of four others who are much better-known: Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley – the four little girls who were killed by a KKK bomb in Birmingham’s 16th St. Baptist Church on September 15, 1963.
At the funeral for three of the girls, Dr. King gave a famous address that has since come to be known as the “Eulogy for the Martyred Children.” At one point in his eulogy, King said as follows:
So they did not die in vain. God still has a way of wringing good out of evil. History has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as the redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city … The spilt blood of these innocent girls may cause the white citizenry of Birmingham to transform the negative extremes of a dark past in to the positive extremes of a bright future. Indeed, this tragic event many cause the white South to come to terms with its conscience
Amongst the many religious texts I’ve read on the meaning of martyrdom, I personally find King’s words to be among the most spiritually meaningful and profound. I am particularly moved by his hope, by his realism, but most of all, by his refusal to surrender to the possibility that these four little girls died for nothing. Even in the midst of this wretched tragedy, he was determined to find a spark of spiritual meaning in their loss.
In his eulogy, King also described of blood of the martyrs as redemptive – but he did so in a way that affirmed goodness and justice in the face of an evil, unjust act. As horribly tragic as their deaths were, King could not help but affirm that their deaths would, as he put it, “serve as a redemptive force” that would eventually bring new light during those very dark days. And perhaps most important: his theology was not limited to mere words. As soon as he finished speaking, he continued to lead a movement that would ensure these sacrifices would bring social and political transformation to the American South.
In the end, I’m taking the time to tell you about Jimmie Lee Jackson, Reverend James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo because I believe their stories are utterly appropriate to this day. On Yom Kippur, as we bear witness to their lives, their work and their sacrifice, we are the recipients of a direct spiritual challenge. Now that we’ve heard their stories, it’s time to ask ourselves: have what have we done to carry on the work that they have left unfinished? Have we done all that we can to give their lives and their deaths meaning? Have we done everything in our power to ensure their deaths were not in vain?
Well my friends, we have a very real opportunity to find out, because these are not merely academic questions. Just three months ago, the US Supreme Court dealt a devastating blow to the very cause for which these three individuals sacrificed their lives. As I’m sure everyone here tonight knows, on June 25, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to invalidate a key element of the Voting Rights Act – the section that required states with the worst history of voting discrimination to seek preclearance from federal government before implementing new voting changes.
Indeed, there have been numerous attempts to weaken or gut the Voting Rights Act over the past 50 years. Only a month after it was enacted, in fact, it was constitutionally challenged by South Carolina. Over the years, the Voting Rights Act has been challenged in the Supreme Court four separate times – in 1966, 1973, 1980 and 1999 – and each time, the Court has voted to uphold it. Meanwhile, the US Congress has voted to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act on four separate occasions; each and every time it was signed back into law by a Republican president.
In his ruling for the majority last June, Chief Justice John Roberts argued that there is no longer a need for the federal government to actively ensure voting rights:
Nearly 50 years later, things have changed dramatically. Largely because of the Voting Rights Act, (voter) turnout and registration rates in covered jurisdictions now approach parity. Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare. And minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels. The tests and devices that blocked ballot access have been forbidden nationwide for over 40 years.
According to this reasoning, voter suppression is simply not the problem it was back in 1965. As Justice Roberts put it, “the Nation is no longer divided along those lines yet the Voting Rights Act continues to treat it as it were.”
Justice Ruth Ginsberg,in a brave and blistering dissent to the majority, stated the patently obvious: the reason things have changed since 1965 because the Voting Rights Act has been in place since 1965. As she wrote:
Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.
If there could be any doubt to Justice Ginsberg’s argument, her point has since been driven home with brutal clarity. Two hours after the ruling, officials in Texas announced that they would begin enforcing a strict photo identification requirement for voters, which had been blocked by a federal court on the grounds that it would disproportionately affect African-American and Hispanic voters. And as we speak, state officials in Mississippi, Alabama, North Carolina and Florida, among others, are now moving to change voter identification laws – laws that had previously been rejected as discriminatory by the federal government.
Make no mistake: this Supreme Court ruling has struck a devastating blow to voting rights in our country. And in so doing, it has reinforced a hard truth: it challenges us with a reminder that the struggle for justice is not a one-time moment but an ongoing process. Indeed, we are so very good at commemorating the victories of the past – but too often, it seems to me, we do it at the expense of the present. I do believe as King has famously said that the arc of freedom bends toward justice – but it doesn’t do so all by itself. Justice will only prevail if we remain vigilant. It is not enough to commemorate and teach our children about the heroes of the civil rights movement in ages gone by. On the contrary, we must teach that we ourselves must consistently do what we must to honor their achievements – and most importantly, their sacrifices.
On Yom Kippur, we ask: who has paid the ultimate sacrifice in the cause of righteousness – and what will we do in the coming year to honor their sacrifice? And on this Yom Kippur, I can think of no better spiritual gesture than to lend our support to the political efforts currently underway to restore the hard fought laws that ensure voting rights for all in our country.
At the moment, these efforts are taking many forms. Given the current reality in Washington, it is clear that our bitterly divided Congress is unable to legislatively address this issue. But there are other efforts ongoing that are eminently worthy of our attention and support. This past July, the Obama administration asked a federal court in Texas to restore the preclearance requirement there. In a speech to the Urban League, Attorney General Eric Holder said that this action is only the first of many different moves the Justice Department will make on behalf of voting rights throughout the country. A more ambitious effort: a Constitutional Amendment that would guarantee the right to vote, is currently being advocated by Wisconsin Congressman Mark Pocan and Minnesota’s Keith Ellison, among others.
In fact, there is no explicit right to vote spelled out in the US Constitution – and as a result, individual states continue to set their own electoral policies and procedures. At present, our electoral system is divided into 50 states, more than 3,000 counties and approximately 13,000 voting districts, all, in sense, separate and unequal. As Rep. Ellison has put it, “It’s time we made it clear once and for all: every citizen in the United States has a fundamental right to vote.”
Obviously passing a Constitutional amendment is a daunting prospect, but this campaign certainly has the potential to build a broad movement that would keep this issue front and center of our national consciousness. And such a movement could well create space for more immediate action at the congressional and state levels to address the devastating fallout from the Supreme Court’s ruling.
I frankly can think of no political actions more appropriate this Yom Kippur than this: actions that will bring redemption to the lives and deaths of Jimmie Lee Jackson, Reverend James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo. I hope you found meaning in their stories – and I fervently hope that we will all come to see ourselves as participants in their stories that continue to unfold even now.
I’d like to conclude with words from Reverend Reeb’s final sermon. They clearly have a heartbreaking significance when you hear them today – but I do believe they speak to us with as much urgency as the day he spoke them in All Souls Church in July 1964: At the very end of his sermon, Reverend Reeb said:
If we are going to be able to meet their need, we are going to have to really take upon ourselves a continuing and disciplined effort with no real hope that in our lifetime we are going to be able to take a vacation from the struggle for justice. Let all who live in freedom won by the sacrifice of others, be untiring in the task begun, till every man on earth is free.
This and every Yom Kippur, may we be worthy of his words.
(Click here to sign a petition that urges the Justice Department to block discriminatory voter ID laws in our country. Click here to contact your representative and demand Congress act now to pass a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to vote.)
If you want to see an inspiring example of young people speaking truth to power, take a look at the clip above. At a recent meeting of the Chicago School Board a group of students publicly demanded to know, one after the other, why the board was closing down fifty public schools in predominantly black and brown Chicago neighborhoods – and publicly asked why the students themselves had no voice in decisions that directly affect them and their communities.
The video begins with a single student speaking at the podium. At about the 2:00 mark individual students begin standing up and speaking out from the audience as security guards rush in and escort them from the room. Finally a hand is placed over the video taker’s camera and he is pushed out – you can hear his voice telling the guard, “I’m just here for students.”
The students’ action is all the more dramatic when you consider that the Chicago School Board is an unelected body that is appointed by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel – meaning they are utterly unaccountable to the community. Underscoring the depths of this fraudulent “public body”, Emanuel recently announced that he was appointing millionaire venture capitalist Deborah Quazzo to replace outgoing board member, billionaire Hyatt heiress Penny Pritzker (recently nominated by President Obama to be US Commerce Secretary).
What makes Quazzo qualified to make decisions that will impact the 400,000 students that attend Chicago Public Schools? According to reports, Quazzo is the daughter of a corporate CEO/bank chairman from Jacksonville who moved to Chicago after marrying Stephen Quazzo, Co-Founder and CEO of Pearlmark Real Estate Partners. She successfully climbed the ranks of investment banking and venture capital at J.P. Morgan and Merrill Lynch. In 2001, she co-founded ThinkEquity Partners – an “investment firm boutique” that a few years later ran into serious financial problems and eventually had to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection.
Quazzo is just the latest example of the kind of people who the mayor has personally chosen to serve on the Chicago School Board (which is headed up by President David Vitale, Chairman of Urban Partnership Bank and former President and Chief Executive Officer of the Chicago Board of Trade.)
This, in a nutshell, is why these courageous young students spoke their truth to a body that so patently answers to wealthy corporate interests rather than the communities of Chicago.
For my part, I’ll second the words of the invisible cameraman: “I’m here for the students.” Please watch this clip and share this widely.
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.
By all accounts, Bibi Netanyahu will be the winner of the upcoming elections on January 22 – after which he will proceed to form the most right-wing/ultra-nationalist coalition in Israeli history. The only question that remains is by what degree.
Among new political figures on the scene, Naftali Bennett, the leader of the HaBayit HaYehudi (“Jewish Home”) party seems to be garnering the most attention. Even as Bibi’s Likud-Beiteinu party drops in the polls, HaBayit HaYehudi (a restructured version of the old National Religious Party) is growing in popularity – and will almost certainly become an important player in a new coalition.
If you’ve never heard of Bennett, you will soon. He’s the son of American immigrants, a successful hi-tech businessman, Bibi’s former chief of staff (they’ve since had a high profile falling out) and the former head of the West Bank settlers’ Yesha Council. Bennett raised some major dust last month when he told a television interviewer that he would personally refuse orders to evacuate settlements or outposts in the West Bank while on reserve army duty. He also is on record as advocating the annexation of Area C of the West Bank. Under his plan, Palestinians already living there would be given the choice to accept Israeli citizenship or leave.
While he was roundly criticized from many political quarters for his remarks about army service, his party has become the most popular Israeli party with young Israelis under the age of 30. Clearly, Bennett and his views represent Israel’s future – one that seems to be skewing further and further away from democracy and ever closer to apartheid policies.
Take a look at HaBayit Hayehudi’s English language campaign video ad at the top of this post. As Don Futterman recently observed in Open Zion, it’s a canny attempt to gloss over the more odious aspects of Bennett’s ideology with a legit and cheerful veneer designed specifically to appeal to American immigrants to Israel:
This ad, which is part of a campaign to create different and more positive associations with the name HaBayit HaYehudi (the Jewish Home), is an invitation, not a polemic. It mentions buzzwords—Jewish values and Zionist ideals—and one issue from the party’s platform—Jewish education—but does not harp on any of them. You wouldn’t guess that HaBayit HaYehudi has any connection to the national religious right in Israel, and you might even miss the single reference to West Bank settlements (“I live in Samaria”). You certainly wouldn’t suspect that Bennett has promised he would go to jail rather than evacuate a settlement.
Watching the video, I was also struck that it made repeated references to the importance of Israel’s Jewish character without explicitly explaining why this should in any way be considered a political issue:
If you want to bring Jewish values and Zionist ideals to Israel, then the Bayit Yedudi is your home…If you believe that every Israeli child deserves a quality Jewish education, the Bayit Yehudi is your home.
While on the surface, remarks such as this sound perfectly innocuous, they mask a profoundly troubling agenda. What about the Palestinians citizens of Israel who do not adhere to “Jewish values” or “Zionist ideals?” It’s certainly sounds noble to say that Israeli child deserves a quality Jewish education, but what about the considerable percentage of Israeli children who don’t happen to be Jewish? The answer, of course, is not too difficult to understand. These Israeli citizens simply don’t fit in the xenophobic ideology advocated by Naftali Bennett and HaBayit HaYedudi.
In a recent post for +972 mag, Noam Sheizaf makes a perfectly reasonable argument – but given Israel’s current reality it would likely strike many as radical in the extreme. Pointing out that in 64 years of Israel’s existence, no government has ever included one of the Arab parties in a coalition, Sheizaf concludes:
Cooperation between Palestinian and Jews is by far the greatest, most important challenge in this country. Every element of Israeli life – from the education system to zoning plans – is constructed to promote ethnic separation, with politics being just the tip of the iceberg…Therefore, the ability to create joint structures and partnerships is the single most important element that would determine the chances of survival and the quality of life for the entire society.
The necessary conclusion for me is that it is simply forbidden to vote for parties which are not shared by Palestinians and Jews, or for ones that preserve the policy of separation between Palestinians and Jews. There are no perfect parties, but this should be the basic condition, just as an American shouldn’t vote for a party that doesn’t accept black people.
Alas, voices like Sheizaf’s are but a whisper in the Israeli wilderness. According to the latest polls, Arab-Jewish parties will garner only a small sliver of votes in the upcoming election. When it comes to the Israeli electorate, the ideology of Jewish supremacy is clearly the order of the day.
For comparison purposes, take a look, below, at this campaign video ad for the Da’am Workers Party – one of the few Arab-Jewish parties of which Sheizaf spoke. I’d say their values provide a powerful contrast to ethnic exclusivism of HaBayit Hayehudi:
(This) movement is our hope, everyone’s hope that here will arise, in the State of Israel, for the first time in history a political, social, economic alternative, sane, human, fair, that knows how to be part of the region where it’s located. For 64 years we’ve lived in a ghetto. The time has come to get out of the ghetto! Israel has to stop isolating itself…We say no! We’ll bring down the wall of Occupation, the wall of racism, and the wall of violence. We want to be free in our land indeed, and our land is the entire world, and this world needs one unique answer, it needs a revolution!
Received from my friend and colleague Rabbi Brian Walt:
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
An immediate end to Israel’s assault on Gaza, “Operation Pillar of Defense,”matters. An immediate end to the violence—the onslaught of missiles, rockets, drones, killing, and targeted assassination—matters. An end to Israel’s ongoing blockade of Gaza matters. An end to Israeli’s 45-year occupation of Palestine matters. A resolution of the issue of Palestinian refugees expelled from their homes in 1948, many of whom live in Gaza matters. Equality, security, and human rights for everyone matters.
We write as individuals who recently traveled to the West Bank with the Dorothy Cotton Institute’s 2012 Civil and Human Rights Delegation, organized by Interfaith Peace-Builders. We cannot and will not be silent. We join our voices with people around the world who are calling for an immediate cease-fire. Specifically, we implore President Barack Obama to demand that Israel withdraw its forces from Gaza’s borders; make U.S. aid to Israel conditional upon Israel’s adherence with relevant U.S. and international law; work with Israeli and Palestinian leaders to bring an end to Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories and to secure a just peace that ensures everyone’s human rights.
In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.” As Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin declared in 1993, “Enough of blood and tears.” Enough!
We deplore the firing of rockets on civilian areas in Israel. We also deplore and are outraged by the asymmetry, the disproportionality, of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, evidenced by the growing number of Palestinian civilian deaths and casualties. This is not a conflict between equal powers, but between a prosperous occupying nation on one hand, armed and sanctioned by 3 billion dollars in annual U.S. military aid, and on the other, a population of 1.7 million besieged people, trapped within a strip of land only 6 miles by 26 miles, (147 square miles) in what amounts to an open-air prison.
United States military support to Israel is huge. From 2000 to 2009, the US appropriated to Israel $24 billion in military aid, delivering more than 670 million weapons and related military equipment with this money. During these same years, through its illegal military occupation of the Palestinian West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, Israel killed at least 2,969 Palestinians who took no part in hostilities.
During our trip to the West Bank, we witnessed for ourselves the injustice and violence of the Israeli occupation and the suffering inflicted on the Palestinians, in violation of international law and UN resolutions.
In the Palestinian village of Nabi Saleh, for just one example, we observed a weekly nonviolent protest. The neighboring Israeli settlement of Halamish was illegally built on Nabi Saleh’s land. This settlement has also seized control of the Nabi Saleh’s water spring, allowing villagers to access their own spring water for only 7-10 hours a week. Demonstrators of all ages participated in the protest, including several who, in recognition of the civil rights veterans in our delegation, carried posters with quotations from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We watched in horror as heavily armed members of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) responded to this peaceful assembly with violence, strafing the demonstrators with a barrage of tear gas canisters, rubber bullets, gas grenades, and even a round of live ammunition.
The IDF assault in response to these weekly nonviolent demonstrations can be deadly. Rushdi Tamimi, a young adult Nabi Saleh villager, died this past week while he was protesting Israel’s attack on Gaza. The IDF fired rubber bullets into Rushdi’s back and bullets into his gut, and slammed his head with a rifle butt.
Israel’s assault on Gaza is exponentially more violent than what we witnessed in the West Bank, but the context–the oppression of the Palestinian people—is the same. Most of the inhabitants of Gaza are refugees or descendants of refugees expelled from their homes in Israel in 1948. This dispossession of the Palestinians that they call the Nakba (The Catastrophe) continues on the West Bank where Israel has built extensive Jewish settlements on confiscated Palestinian land. We saw with our own eyes how this settlement expansion and the systemic discrimination has further dispossessed the Palestinian people and is creating a “silent transfer” of Palestinians who are either forced or decide to leave because of the oppression. This injustice—Israel’s decades-long oppression of the Palestinian people—has to be addressed by honest and good-faith negotiations and a genuine agreement to share the land. The alternative is a future of endless eruptions of aggression, senseless bloodshed, and more trauma for Palestinians and Israelis. This surely matters to all people of good will.
To President Obama, we say, use the immense power and authority United States citizens have once again entrusted to you, to exercise your courage and moral leadership to preserve lives and protect the dignity and self-determination, to which the Palestinian people and all people are entitled. Israel relies upon the economic, military, and strategic cooperation and support of the United States. You have the power to not only appeal to Israel to show restraint, but to require it.
Feeling ourselves deeply a part of “We the People,” sharing so much of your own tradition of organizing for justice and peace, we believe it is just, moral and in keeping with the best spirit of Dr. King to urge you to:
§ Call for an end to violence by all parties and an immediate cease-fire for the sake of all people in the region.
§ Use your power to demand that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the IDF cease the bombardment of Gaza and withdraw their armed forces immediately.
§ Join with the international community in using all diplomatic, economic, and strategic means to end Israel’s illegal, brutal siege of Gaza.
§ Insist that the United States condition aid to Israel on compliance with U.S. law (specifically the U.S. Arms Export Control Act) and with international law.
§ Work with the leaders of Israel and Palestine to secure an end to Israel’s occupation and to negotiate a just peace.
As citizens of the United States, we are responsible for what our government does in our name, and so we will not be silent. Justice, peace and truth matter. The future of the children of Israel and Palestine matter. We cannot be silent and neither can you.
Members of the The Dorothy Cotton Institute 2012 Civil and Human Rights Delegation:
(List in formation)
Cross-posted with the Jewish Daily Forward “Forward Thinking” Blog:
Forward columnist Philologos recently took the Israeli daily Ha’aretz to task for using the term “apartheid” in its reporting on a poll that showed most Israelis support discrimination against Arab citizens. “Apartheid” and mere discrimination are two very different things, Philologos claimed. He suggested that Ha’aretz should be censured for using such a damning epithet.
Philologos went on to define what he sees the critical difference between “apartheid” and “discrimination.” The former refers to “the systematic segregation of one people, race or group from another,” while the latter means “the systematic favoring of one people, race or group over another, such as exists in numerous countries around the world today.” And while Israel may practice regrettable discrimination against its Arab citizens, he claimed it was a “lie” to suggest that it is in any way an apartheid state.
While Philologos may be a fine linguist, his knowledge of international human rights law is sorely lacking.
Contrary to Philologos’ characterization, the term “apartheid” does not refer simply to segregation, although the term comes from a word in the South African Afrikaans language that means separate-ness or segregation. In legal terms, apartheid applies to a wide range of acts in which a dominant racial regime commits institutionalized oppression against another ethnic group.
According to the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, for instance, the “crime of apartheid” was included in a list of “crimes against humanity,” and defined as:
(Inhuman) acts…committed in the content of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.
Earlier, in 1973, the UN’s General Assembly adopted the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid. Among the “inhuman acts” listed were:
(Any) legislative measures and other measures calculated to prevent a racial group or groups from participation in the political, social, economic and cultural life of a country.
There is certainly a compelling claim to be made that the term “apartheid” may appropriately be applied to Israel’s treatment of its Palestinian citizens. In a recent report, Adalah, an Israeli legal NGO, described no fewer than 30 laws, either enacted or proposed, that create different sets of legal rights for Jewish and non-Jewish (i.e. Palestinian) citizens of Israel.
While many Jews prefer to view Israel as an essentially healthy, if flawed, democracy, those willing to face the painful truth have long known that the so-called “democratic Jewish state” would more accurately be described as a democracy for Jews but not for non-Jews. Consider the following facts:
- Israel has no constitution that guarantees individual liberties for all. Palestinian citizens’ homes and land are regularly seized or demolished to give housing to Jews. B’tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, recently reported that the citizenship of increasing numbers of East Jerusalem residents are being revoked to make way for more land appropriation.
- There are separate schools for Palestinians and Jews. In Israeli universities, no courses are offered in Arabic, even Arabic literature. Use of Arabic in road signs is banned except in towns that the government deems Arab.
- While Jewish citizens of Israel can confer citizenship on new spouses who are not already Israeli citizens, Palestinian citizens cannot. According to the law, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who marries a Palestinian resident of the West Bank or Gaza may not reside inside Israel. The ruling literally affects the lives of thousands of couples and their precious right to marry if they so choose. In upholding this law, one Israeli Supreme Court judge conceded that Palestinian rights take a back seat to maintaining a Jewish majority in Israel. “Human rights are not a prescription for national suicide,” he wrote.
- Palestinian citizens of Israel have distinguishing characteristics on their ID cards, presumably so they can be easily identified for additional scrutiny by law enforcement agencies. Palestinians are regularly harassed, searched and asked to produce identification, based entirely on their race. While Jewish citizens are legally entitled to a speedy trial, fair legal representation and clear charges, these laws do not apply to Palestinian citizens.
There are many more examples of ways that Israel systematically privileges Jewish citizens over non-Jewish citizens. Organizations such as Adalah, B’tselem and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel have extensively documented these methods.
It is important to note that these are not simply a collection of random discriminatory laws, as Philologos would have it. Taken together, they constitute a systematic, institutional “legal” system that maintains Jews’ privileged status in the Jewish state and, most critically, seeks to ensure a Jewish demographic majority within Israel’s borders at all costs.
One telling case in point: back in 2005, Shimon Peres told U.S. officials (in a statement recently revealed by Wikileaks) that Israel had “lost” land in the Negev “to the Bedouin” and would need to take steps to “relieve” the “demographic threat”.
Flash forward to January 2012: the Israeli government approves the Prawer Plan for mass expulsion of the Arab Bedouin community in the Negev desert. When fully implemented, this plan will result in the forced displacement of up to seventy thousand Arab Bedouin citizens of Israel and the destruction of thirty-five “unrecognized” villages.
At the end of the day, it really is academic whether we choose to label this kind of policy — and many others like it — to be “discrimination,” “institutional racism” or “apartheid.”
The real question before us not what to call it. For Jews who purport to cherish human rights, the right question is: what are we willing to do about it?
Cross-posted with Rabbi Brian’s Blog
We are building up a new world, we are building up a new world,
We are building up a new world, builders must be strong.
Courage brothers don’t be weary, courage sisters don’t be weary,
Courage people don’t be weary, though the road be long.
This is one of the many songs I sang as I led a remarkable delegation of US Civil Rights movement leaders, young human rights leaders, prominent Black academics and educators and several Jewish activists that traveled through the West Bank two weeks ago.
Our delegation was a project of the Dorothy Cotton Institute, an organization dedicated to human rights education and to building a global human rights community. Dorothy Cotton served as the Director of Education of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and was the only woman on the executive staff. She led the Citizenship Education Program that empowered the disenfranchised to exercise their rights as citizens.
The goals of this historic delegation were:
- to create and build an ongoing relationship between leaders of the US civil rights movement and the leaders of the growing Palestinian nonviolent resistance movement on the West Bank and their Israeli allies;
- to increase the visibility of this movement in the US and internationally;
- to learn from one another about nonviolence, effective solidarity and social transformation;
- and to educate Americans about the role the United States plays in supporting the status quo on the West Bank.
Our delegation spent two weeks on the West Bank. We visited three Palestinian villages – Budrus, Bilin, Nabi Saleh – that have engaged for many years in a popular nonviolent struggle to reclaim land expropriated by the Israeli military. We met several young Palestinians who are building the Coalition for Dignity, a grassroots, youth – led nonviolent movement.
And we met Israeli allies who stand in solidarity with the Palestinian nonviolent movement and who work in their own society to end militarism and human rights violations against Palestinians. We learned from many Israeli and Palestinian nonviolent activists about their work, their vision and their dreams.
In short, our delegation saw and learned about realities that the overwhelming number of visitors to Israel never see or hear.
Singing was an essential part of the spiritual and political life of our trip. Dorothy has a beautiful spirit, a powerful voice, and loves to sing. Throughout the delegation, she always reminded us that singing was a critical tool for energizing the civil rights movement. She told me,
We had songs for different occasions. We sang at mass meetings, and we sang at funerals … We sang, “I am going to do what the Spirit says do” and our singing inspired us to do just that.
And so our new civil rights delegation sang as we traveled through the West Bank. Singing was just one powerful way in which our delegation made a connection between the Black-led struggle for civil rights in the US and the Palestinian struggle for justice, peace and security for all.
This, for instance, is the song we sang at the grave of a young man in Budrus who was killed in a nonviolent demonstration to protest the confiscation of his village’s land:
Come By here my Lord, come by here.
For our brother, my Lord, come by here.
For his courage my Lord, come by here.
Standing around the grave, delegates spontaneously composed the lyrics. It felt like we were praying, acknowledging the courage and the profound cost that the struggle for freedom demands.
We sang before we joined the weekly nonviolent demonstration in Nabi Saleh, another village on the West Bank fighting to reclaim their land. The residents of the village had made special signs composed of quotations from Dr. Martin Luther King in honor of our visit. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” read one of the signs.
And we sang:
Ain’t going to let nobody turn me around, turn me around, turn me around.
Keep on walking, keep on talking, marching down to freedom land.
We sang to express our appreciation and to provide support after hearing activists tell us their stories – Palestinians and Israelis who told us of their amazing work and the toll it has taken on their lives, and sometimes even their spirits and souls. One such occasion was after Israeli activist Gabi Laski told us of her work to defend children from villages like Nabi Saleh who are arrested at night.
We’re going to keep on marching forward, keep on marching forward, keep on marching forward, never turning back, never turning back.
We sang after standing next to the thirty foot high Separation Wall in Jerusalem dividing a Palestinian neighborhood in two. And we sang on the bus as we went through a checkpoint on our way to the airport at the end of our trip, encouraged by our Palestinian guide to keep singing even when the soldier boarded our bus. (Our bus was pulled aside for a security check because it was a Palestinian bus while Israeli buses and motorists were waved through the checkpoint).
We returned to the United States both inspired and disturbed by our experience. We were inspired by the determination, vision and commitment of so many Palestinians and their Israeli allies, working tirelessly day after day, year after year, often at great personal and communal cost, for justice, freedom and equality for all. Now that we are home, we look forward to sharing the stories and vision of these courageous civil rights activists with our friends and communities.
But our trip was not simply inspiring. It was profoundly disturbing to witness the harsh realities of life on the West Bank that are so invisible to the discourse in America. Every day we saw and heard about a systematic denial of human rights in countless ways: land confiscation, extensive restrictions on movement, humiliation at check points, home demolition, the arrest of children, the revocation of residency permits and many other violations.
The delegates were profoundly shocked. Several American civil rights veterans commented that the discrimination, humiliation and injustice they witnessed was “frighteningly familiar.”
While we were on the West Bank the two presidential candidates tried to outdo one another in their public declarations of support for Israel in the final presidential debate. They mentioned Israel 31 times with only one passing reference to Palestinians. The contrast between American policy and what we witnessed is stark. Now that we have returned, we are determined to share this disturbing reality with our communities; to challenge the ways in which our country funds, provides diplomatic cover, and enables these injustices.
I have visited the West Bank before but never for more than a day or two, and almost always with progressive Israeli groups. On this visit, however, we spent virtually all out time in the West Bank – on the other side of the Separation Wall. For me personally, it was a transformative experience. It was a privilege to travel with such a special group of people and to see the profound impact of our delegation on the activists that we met.
Before we left on our journey, I was struck by a comment made by Dr. Vincent Harding, a close associate of Dr. Martin Luther King, a person with a long history of involvement in the struggle for freedom and a very close life-long connection to Jewish teachers, fellow travelers and co-workers. Dr. Harding talked about “encouragement” as one of his primary goals for the trip. I was struck by the word and the simple power of his intention. He wanted to meet activists on the West Bank and to “encourage” them.
And that is exactly what happened. The people we met commented how encouraged they felt by meeting people who had spent their entire lives fighting for freedom in the US. Dr. Harding and others would repeatedly ask all our presenters to tell us about themselves, their families and what motivated them to do what they were doing.
He and others always shared how much he appreciated their work and how important it was for all of us and for our collective future. After hearing an inspiring talk by Fadi Quran, one of the young leaders of the Palestinian nonviolent movement, Dr. Harding said, “Fadi, I want to tell you how proud I am and how grateful I am for you, and want to encourage you to keep on going.”
It felt like we were building a new world. On the very first day of our trip, Dorothy Cotton sang and danced with three women activists, Israeli and Palestinian, who had spoken to us. It was a joy to see the profound gift she was giving them and that they were giving her in return. Those who had spent their lives building a new world in America were creating a relationship with those who were building a new world in Israel/Palestine.
Towards the end of the trip we realized that we were just beginning to build a new world in another way by creating a new possibility for the relationship between Jews and Blacks in our own country. Historically, Israeli policy has been a source of tension between the African American and Jewish communities. While many African Americans on the delegation have deep and positive connections to Jews, it is often difficult for Blacks and Jews to have honest conversations about Israel.
There were eight Jews on this delegation. On this trip we joined together as a group of Blacks, Jews, Christians and people with varied faith commitments, united in our commitment to nonviolence and our dedication to justice, freedom and equality in Israel/Palestine, in our own country, and around the world. We are renewing an alliance between Blacks and Jews, an alliance rooted in our shared values.
We are building up a new world, we are building up a new world.
We are building up a new world, builders must be strong.
Courage brothers don’t be weary, courage sisters don’t be weary,
Courage people don’t be weary, though the road be long.