Yesterday I spent the afternoon together with nearly 2,000 others who came from across the country to McDonald’s corporate headquarters in Oakbrook, IL to demand a $15 an hour living wage and the right to form a union. It was truly my honor to participate in this new global movement which has been called the “largest fast food strike in world history.”
McDonald’s is the standard bearer of an industry that makes profits of $200 billion a year while its workers across the country earn minimum wage or just above it and are forced to rely on public assistance programs to provide for their families and get healthcare for their children. Each year, fast food workers bring record profits into restaurants nationwide while they struggle to provide their families with basic necessities such as food, rent, healthcare and transportation. At present, 52 percent of these families are enrolled in one or more public assistance programs such as food stamps and Medicaid, compared with 25 percent of the workforce as a whole.
Yesterday’s protest included McDonald’s workers and other fast food employees as well as supporters and clergy. As I pulled into the park that served as our initial staging area, I saw lines of chartered buses arriving that I later learned had come from as far away as Kansas City, Detroit, Philadelphia, Wisconsin, and North Carolina. Just before the march began, we were told that McDonald’s, which had already been described as facing a “public relations minefield” in advance of its upcoming shareholders’ meeting, had told their corporate employees to vacate a portion of the premises in advance of our protest.
As the protest began, we marched and chanted down the street leading to the McDonald’s corporate campus. After entering the security gate, we were met by a huge phalanx of police, state troopers and corporate security decked out in heavy riot gear. We then sat down in an act of civil disobedience, chanting, praying and singing songs together. Eventually we were led away one by one, our hands cuffed and put onto buses that drove us to the DuPage County police station where our citations were processed. There were approximately 110 arrests in all.
While the law enforcement treated us fairly and respectfully overall, I couldn’t help but be struck by the fearfully heavy handed response of this immensely powerful international corporation to a band of peaceful demonstrators made up largely of fast food workers and clergy. Truly a testament to the undeniable power of popular protest.
While some might consider it to be tilting at windmills to demand $15/hr from such a corporate behemoth, there is every indication that this movement is gaining traction. Last March, for instance, voters here in Chicago went to the polls to determine whether or not they would support a $15/hour minimum wage for large employers in the city. As John Nichols noted in The Nation at the time:
The results were overwhelming. With 100 of the 103 precincts where the issue was on the ballot reporting, 87 percent of voters were backing the $15-an-hour wage. Just 13 percent voted against the advisory referendum. That huge level of support will strengthen the hand of activists who are encouraging the city council to consider a major wage hike.
The Chicago vote illustrates a phenomenon that is being seen in many of the nation’s largest—and most expensive—urban areas.
Indeed, polls are clearly indicating that Americans from across the political and ideological spectrum are in favor of a substantial increase in the minimum wage – and election results seem to be confirming the sentiment. There is every indication that this new global movement is being powered by genuine – and powerful – popular support.
Click here to learn more about how you can get involved in the growing Fight for 15. And click here to sign a petition to be delivered to McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s, that demands a minimum of $15/hour, noting that “it is outrageous that most of your full-time workers need to get public assistance to survive.”
Today marked a day of global action of protest against the Ugandan Parliament’s so-called “Anti Homosexuality Bill.” It was my honor to participate by delivering a rabbinic letter to the Ugandan consulate in Chicago along with 15 other members of the the Jewish community, including five rabbis.
This bill, which was passed in December 2013, is a hate-filled piece of legislation that threatens the health and lives of LGBT Ugandans and is a grave violation of human rights. First introduced in 2009, the bill seeks to strengthen existing penalties in Ugandan law against homosexuality. Among the bill’s many cruel and unconscionable provisions is life imprisonment for “repeated homosexual behavior.” It also criminalizes what it describes as “the promotion of homosexuality,” which includes funding organizations that provide basic services such as healthcare to LGBT people.
Our action today was a sponsored by American Jewish World Service, who responded to a call from its partners in Ugandan Human Rights NGO by organizing in communities throughout the US. In addition to Chicago, similar actions took place in New York, Washington DC, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Here’s the text of the letter we delivered to the Ugandan consul in Chicago:
Dear President Museveni,
I am writing to implore you, respectfully, to veto Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill that was recently passed by the Ugandan Parliament.
As a rabbi, I honor the inherent dignity of each and every person. Jewish theology, tradition and history compel me to uphold the values of kavod habriyot, respect for all of creation, and btzelem elohim, the notion that all people–including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people–are created in the Divine image. Tragically, I know from our history that the stripping away of human rights from specific minorities is often a precursor to targeted destruction.
If this bill is signed into law, it would be a grave violation of human rights and would be one of the most abhorrent manifestations of discrimination against LGBT people worldwide.
My LGBT friends and colleagues in Uganda are frightened–and I believe they have every reason to be. I do not believe they should live in fear just because of who they are or who they love. I hope you share the same view.
I urge you, Mr. President, to use the power of your position to uphold the human rights and human dignity of all Ugandan citizens. Please stand on the right side of history by vetoing this bill.
It’s time to stand with LGBT Ugandans – and all who are targeted by hate-legislation.
By now i’ve written more than a few blog posts about Israel’s Prawer-Begin Plan which, if approved by the Knesset would displace tens of thousands of Bedouin from their ancestral home in the Negev desert. Up until now, many defenders of the plan have claimed that this “relocation” was developed for the benefit of the Bedouin. In recent weeks, Israeli government spokespeople have responded to anti-Prawer protests by claiming 80 percent of the Bedouin population actually support the plan.
The patent falsehood of such claims have now been laid bare. A map of the project has just been released to the Knesset Interior Affairs Committee and the massive extent (and injustice) of the plan has now been brought into the light of day.
Ironically enough, according to Michael Omer-man of +972mag, the map was prepared by the Prime Minister’s Office for Housing Minister Uri Ariel, in an attempt to assuage his party’s fears that too much land would be given to the Bedouin. (That’s right – apparently the far right Jewish Home party opposes the Prawer Plan because they believe it is too lenient to the Bedouin.)
According to the report, the bill’s co-sponsor Benny Begin has admitted Bedouin leaders have never even seen the plan until now:
Begin on Monday refuted that he ever made such statements, writing, “I have never said to anyone that the Bedouin accept my plan.”
He couldn’t have made such a claim, he explained, because he never even presented the Bedouin community with his plan, “and therefore I could not have heard their reactions to it.”
“[Because] I was not able to know their level of support for the law, it therefore follows that I couldn’t say that I know anything about their support for the law.”
According to the new map, the state of Israel will take over 250,000 dunams (61,700 acres) currently populated by Bedouins, while the Bedouins will be resettled in an area totaling 170,000 dunams (42,000 acres). Around 40,000 people will be forced to leave their homes.
I don’t know any other way to say it: if implemented, this plan would result in a crime that is truly staggering to contemplate. It will lead to the uprooting and forcible eviction of dozens of villages. Tens of thousands of residents will be stripped of their property and their historical land rights. Thousands of families will be condemned to poverty and unemployment. The communal life and social fabric of these villages will be destroyed.
This plan is decidedly not about the best interests of the Bedouin. If it is about anything, it is about a large swath of land in the south of Israel that government leaders have been attempting to “Judaize” since the days of Ben-Gurion. The only reason the Bedouin are slated for removal, quite frankly, is because they are not Jews. By any other name, such an act would be called ethnic cleansing and I am not hesitant to say so.
If you haven’t yet, please join me and the growing number of Jews and people of conscience who are voicing their opposition to the Prawer-Begin plan in no uncertain terms.
My next several posts will come from the West Bank, where I will be traveling as part of a group of Chicago-area Jews and Palestinians to learn from and show solidarity with Palestinians who are engaged in nonviolent resistance to the Israeli occupation. Our delegation will be hosted in the village of Bil’in, where, for the past several years, residents have been protesting the construction of the Separation Wall that has separated the village from its farming land – land that Israel is using to expand its settlement of Modi’in Illit, which lies immediately to the west. (You may recall the story of Bil’in is the subject of the great documentary, “5 Broken Cameras.”)
Our group will also be traveling to sites throughout the West Bank and Israel to visit with leaders of the Palestinian nonviolent movement and Israelis who show solidarity with them. I am thrilled to be taking this trip together with dear friends who I have long known though our activism for a just peace in Israel and Palestine.
I will blog as much as I can about my experiences from the ground and upon my return. Please stay tuned!
The Israeli government is poised to evict 40,000 Bedouin citizens of Israel from their homes – from land upon which they’ve lived since even before the State of Israel was established. This Knesset bill, known as the “Prawer-Begin Outline Plan” was designed without the consultation of the Bedouin communities and denies their basic rights over their land and will surely throw them into further unemployment and despair. While the government is trying to force the bill through, but a huge public outcry now can persuade coalition parties to think twice before endorsing this injustice.
The Knesset vote on the “Prawer-Begin Outline” plan was postponed this week – and they may vote next Tuesday. Please click here to to press Knesset members to either vote down the “Prawer-Begin Outline” or withdraw it entirely.
For further information:
From displacement in the Negev to ‘price tag’ attacks: A week in photos – May 23-29
This week: Palestinians and settlers stage West Bank demonstrations, Bedouins and friends protest the Prawer Plan and rebuild demolished homes in Atir, Israelis resist evictions and privatization, free T-shirts remind tourists that Bethlehem is in Palestine, the Israeli army invades refugee camps and Palestinians resist new settler outposts. (Activestills, +972)
A primer on the proposed Bedouin resettlement in the Negev (Ha’aretz)
Ministerial committee approves plan to displace thousands of Bedouin-Palestinians (+972 Blog)
Israel ignores Bedouin needs with Begin plan (Association for Civil Rights in Israel paper)
The full Begin plan “Regulating the
Negev” (unofficial translation by ACRI)
From my Yom Kippur sermon yesterday:
Let me leave you with this vision: the vision of a people who have over the centuries learned to build a nation without borders, a multi-ethnic nation suffused with the beauty of a myriad of cultures, a nation inspired by a religious tradition it constructs and reconstructs in every age and in every generation. At its heart, a nation committed to the struggle for meaning in our lives and justice in our world. And in the end, a nation that has nothing to fear and every opportunity to gain from the remarkable changes underway in the 21st century.
Click below to read the entire sermon:
I’m sure many people find it perfectly reasonable that an Israeli court recently ruled Palestinian solidarity protester Rachel Corrie caused her own death in 2003 by standing in front of a moving bulldozer. After all, as Judge Oded Gershon pointed out, she knew the risks. She “chose to endanger herself” by going into a “closed military zone” to try and stop the destruction of a Palestinian home in southern Gaza. Then she refused to step aside, as “any reasonable person would have done.”
If this verdict all sounds perfectly “reasonable” to some, I believe it is only because it was presented devoid of any real context. It utterly ignores the fact that it is the Israeli military – and by extension, Israel itself – that creates the rules that govern the “reality” of this situation. The court could rule any way it pleased – even despite all evidence to the contrary – because at the end of the day it answers to no one but itself.
Why was this civilian area deemed a “closed combat zone?” Because the Israeli military deemed it as such. This, despite the fact that no combat was taking place in the area on that day and no closed military zone order was ever presented in court. This despite the compelling claims that these home demolitions have nothing to do with Israeli’s security and everything to do with collective punishment.
If you have any doubt about the length and breadth of Israel’s military impunity, I urge you to read this article by the Guardian’s Chris McGreal – to my mind the most important article about the Corrie verdict thus far:
The case laid bare the state of the collective Israeli military mind, which cast the definition of enemies so widely that children walking down the street were legitimate targets if they crossed a red line that was invisible to everyone but the soldiers looking at it on their maps. The military gave itself a blanket protection by declaring southern Gaza a war zone, even though it was heavily populated by ordinary Palestinians, and set rules of engagement so broad that just about anyone was a target.
Yes, Rachel Corrie knew the risks. As an activist with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), she went through extensive training to prepare herself to engage in this form of nonviolent protest. Eyewitnesses testified that she wore a high visibility orange vest and stood in full view of the soldier driving the bulldozer. But tragically, I doubt all the precautions in the world could ever have protected her from what McGreal refers to as “the collective Israeli military mind.”
Or, for that matter, Israeli military justice. As is now well known – and has even been admitted by US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro – the IDF’s investigation into Rachel’s death was a sham, carried out by a team of 19-year-old inexperienced boys who never interrogated a single Palestinian or non-military witness. This is a critical point: Israel has to date not carried out a full, credible investigation of its military’s actions on that day – actions that resulted in the death of an American citizen. As Rachel’s mother Cindy has correctly pointed out: “a lawsuit is not a substitute for a legal investigation, which we never had.”
I have met Rachel’s parents Cindy and Craig on several occasions now and I know them to be among the most compassionate and principled social justice activists I have ever met. Yes, they are pursuing this case because of what happened to their daughter, but anyone who knows them knows they are driven by a deeply held belief in justice. Notably, they only sought one dollar in damages from the Israeli government – an award which Judge Gershon refused to grant them in his ruling. I have no doubt that Cindy Corrie meant it from the bottom of her heart when she said after the verdict:
This is a sad day, not only to us, as a family. This is a sad day for Israel, a sad day for human right activists, a sad day for international law, a sad day for justice.
I do agree with Judge Gershon when he ruled that Rachel did not step aside “as any reasonable person would have done.” As too many nonviolent protesters know all too well, when you find yourself in the midst of an unjust context, doing the just thing is rarely the most reasonable option. (I’m sure many didn’t consider it “reasonable,” for instance, when marchers in Selma walked straight into a line of armed state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965.)
Look at the clip above. It comes from a Korean news story about the Palestinian nonviolent protest movement in the West Bank. In this clip, you can see ISM founder Huwaida Arraf protecting protesters from armed soldiers with her own body. Nothing reasonable there. How many of us have one iota of her – or Rachel’s – courage to stand firm in the face of such overwhelming injustice?
At the press conference following the verdict, the Corries were asked how they felt that the judge said that Rachel should have moved out of the bulldozer’s way. Cindy Corrie’s response:
I don’t think that Rachel should have moved. I think we should all have been standing there with her.
The week before our delegation left for Rwanda, the New York Times ran two newsy features on the country. The more positive piece explored Rwanda’s improved state of the nation’s health care. By distinct contrast, a more ominous feature described the growing reports of human rights abuse by President Paul Kagame’s regime.
In Rwanda, it seems, it is the best of times and the (not quite) worst of times.
As our youth participant Ben Feis pointed out in his post last week, signs of Rwanda’s success are everywhere. The infrastructure is demonstrably more substantive than our last visit four years ago and NGO’s such as WE-ACTx report that health care is currently reaching more and more Rwandans – particularly women and children.
And yet, as Ben so eloquently wrote, there is something of a veneer quality to these successes. Despite the obvious economic growth, we met many Rwandans struggling just to survive. Though the horrors of the genocide are now part of the past, many believe that deep tribal enmities still lurk just beneath the surface. Though Rwanda is one of the safest, cleanest and and least corrupt countries in Africa, many believe that Kagame’s iron fist rule could ultimately inspire more – not less – conflict in the future.
As ever, the real heroes on this trip were the ordinary citizens and organizations working tirelessly – and often against all odds – to bring a life of hope and dignity to their communities. The young man with HIV who now teaches yoga to HIV-infected children. The wife, infected by her husband who died of AIDS, who kept his family from taking her house away from her. The expectant mothers who met in order to learn how to keep their babies contracting HIV – and eventually remained together to form a jewelry making cooperative. The ex-poachers who now earn and income through environmental conservation and cultural preservation. As my fellow participants would attest, this list of heroes could go on and on and on.
As a Jew, I think a great deal about what it means to a community to heal and rebuild after experiencing the trauma of genocide. While the Rwandan example is different in many ways, I can’ t help but believe that certain experiences are quite universal – not least of which is the desire to face up to a painful past without becoming consumed by it. In the end, despite all the challenges and potential pitfalls faced by the Rwandan nation, I believe the courageous efforts of her citizens – and those who support them – have much to teach us all.
I’ll end with the eloquent words of Lesley “Liora” Pearl, who also blogged during our trip. Her description of one home visit perfectly sums up the abiding joys and undeniable challenges we witnessed during the course of our journey:
(The) bus drops us and we are swarmed with locals, fascinated by the muzungus – the wealthy, white folk. Lilliane fetches us and we cross a rickety bridge into her neighborhood. I feel like I am in the bowels of the Old City in Jerusalem where streets are like a cobblestone maze and no one speaks English.
We arrive at her home, 3 rooms. We sit in the main room that has a couch and two chairs, a table and a chest that holds a radio and I am guessing, a television that is often mentioned. I am told that for Lilliane’s child’s birthday, 40 people crammed in to celebrate, with food for days.
Mama Lilliane arrives (Parent’s call themselves like this. Mama and Papa and insert name of one on your children.) Mama Lilliane is a vision in yellow – skirt, top and head wrap. Tall, elegant. She is quintessentially French. She greets us with three cheek kisses and many Oh La La’s. We dress R in Lilliane’s African sari and take photographs. I show Lilliane what we learned at dance class and she and I break into impromptu dance in the dark house.
There is a stove outside and a public toilet somewhere in the neighborhood. I had been directed to pee before coming and am glad that I do not have to go now. Mama Lilliane tells us that the government is buying her home and that she will receive a small sum of money to relocate. They are razing the neighborhood to build new homes. We tell her that this happens in Chicago too. She seems nonplused. She has lived through so much worse than this.
Heartfelt thanks to JRC member and organizer Elaine Waxman yet again for her visionary guidance and leadership on our trip. May we all be worthy to live up to the lessons we’ve learned these past two weeks.
Now, for some parting images…
On Sunday, we headed northwest, winding our way through a long, gorgeous mountain pass, to Volcanoes National Park, where we spent an incredible afternoon at the Iby’Iwacu Cultural Village. Iby’Iwacu was founded by Rwanda Eco-Tours, the visionary tour agency that has shepherded us along our trip (as well as our last one in 2008). During the course of our tour, we’ve been so appreciative of RET’s skillful readiness to help us organize such a complex and unorthodox tour of Rwanda’s NGO world. The real bread and butter of their organization, however, is their eco-tourism mission.
From their website:
Rwanda Eco-Tours was founded and is run by native Rwandans who are passionate about their country, their people, their natural resources and providing you with the highest quality yet educational tourism experience that responsibly contribute to the conservation of Rwanda’s beautiful natural resources – her parks, lands and indigenous animals, most notably the endangered mountain gorillas – as well as the development and socio-economic well being of local people.
The Iby’Iwacu Cultural Village, one of RET’s signature projects, was founded to allow ex-poachers the opportunity to embrace conservation and cultural preservation, while still being able to make a living and strengthen the economic sustainability of their local community. It is quite remarkable to consider that this effort has allowed these local Rwandans, whose existence previously depended upon poaching and bush meat, to become transformed into environmental and cultural conservationists.
Immediately upon exiting the bus at the village, we were greeted by a wave of local children selling original crayon-drawn pictures of gorillas, elephants and other local species (above). The compound itself was built to resemble a traditional Rwandan native village. We then met our guide, John, who started our tour in front of the King’s hut. In a semi-solemn ceremony, Rich was elected king, I was made King’s Advisor, and Katia Waxman, Queen. After the three of us were dressed in Rwandan royal finery, were were all walked through an interactive simulation of Rwandan social/political/cultural protocol.
When we emerged from the royal hut, we were joyfully greeted by singing, drumming, dancing Rwandan “tribesmen.” After joining in the celebration (above), we were treated to a demonstration in a medicine man’s clinic and honed our native archery skills (below).
Then the real celebration began. (See bottom pic and the fabulous clip up top).
For anyone contemplating a trip to Rwanda, I can’t say enough about Rwanda Eco-Tours – an important agency that truly embodies the best of the eco-tour movement. And I highly, highly recommend a stop at Iby’Iwacu Village, a place that definitely hits the sweet spot between local community development, environmental conservation, cultural preservation and joyful abandon.
On Friday afternoon, we visited another CHABHA-sponsored neighborhood association, AJESOV (an acronym for “Association des Jeunes Volontaires Pour Les Soutien Aux Orphelins du VIH/SIDA” or “Association of Volunteer Youth Helping Orphans Affected by HIV/AIDS”). After breaking up into groups and going on more home visits, we return back to the AJESOV office in Nymata for lovely English language and musical presentations by youth program participants. Afterwards we made a presentation of soccer jerseys that were collected and brought over by delegation participants for the AJESOV children (above and below).
Saturday was dedicated to the AMAHORO association (located in the Kucyiru district of Kigali, more home visits, and later, a truly astonishing visit to a local primary school that serves as the location for AMAHORO’s English/Drama program. We were treated to yet another presentation by participants, though truthfully, nothing could have prepared us for the nature of this particular performance.
After greeting us, the young people of AMAHORO put on a drama presentation that utilized specific situations as the centerpiece for their original skits. In one, a teacher dealt with an unruly student by punishing everyone but the actual culprit. In another, a new student (named “Shut Up”) brings his misbehaving dog (named “Trouble”) to class. (As you might guess, Abbott and Costello hijinks ensue). In still another (below) a restaurant patron discovers too late that he doesn’t have the money to pay for his meal, so he tries to get off for free by putting a cockroach on his plate. (He doesn’t succeed).
I’m not exaggerating when I say the skits were utterly hilarious – almost worthy of Second City. It was so clearly obvious that the dialogue was written through the improvisatory efforts of the students themselves, which made their performances all the more inspired. Their humor – and spot on comic timing – quite simply left everyone doubled over with laughter.
Considering they have only been learning English since March, their performance was truly something to behold. This remarkable achievement was due in no small measure to their enormously talented teacher, Caroline, who later explained to us that she strongly believes in helping her students learn English by appealing to their own innate creative talents. The children’s love for this program – and their teacher – was palpable. It was yet another example of the inspiring efforts currently being invested in a new generation of Rwandans.
Below, the class poses with Caroline (front row, middle).