Just in time for the Jewish festival of Shavuot, I strongly commend to you “Poverty, Chesed and Justice,” a text study just released by T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights together with Justice at Hyatt.
It is customary to engage in a late night study session on the eve of Shavuot – and since the story of Ruth is traditionally read on this festival, a study that focuses on the struggle of women workers at Hyatt feels profoundly appropriate.
As the introduction notes:
In the Book of Ruth, Ruth’s actions are lauded as acts of chesed, kindness. Ruth’s kindness is embodied through action: not just following her bereft mother-in-law Naomi back to the land of Israel, but taking on grueling work in the fields in order to keep them from falling into abject poverty. It is this determination and chesed that causes Boaz to notice Ruth and to perform his own acts of chesed in return. We hope that this Shavuot, the Hyatt Hotel Chain will display similar chesed toward the women who toil every day to change linens, scrub bathroom floors, and carry heavy bedding, all in the hopes of providing a better future for their children.
Right on. The story of Ruth is a story of solidarity, compassion and redemption. Here’s hoping the workers of Hyatt – and all workers everywhere – find an ample measure of each this Shavuot
Here’s a great quality video of my entire speaking appearance at University Friend’s Meeting in Seattle this past Monday night. I attended series of wonderful – and at times inspiring – events during my short stay in the Northwest and will be reporting on them in due course. In the meantime here’s a taste:
In my last post, I addressed Israel’s creeping annexation of Area C, a region that accounts for 60% of the West Bank and contains all the major Jewish “settlement blocs.” It’s a process that has systematically depopulated this area of its Palestinian residents through a militarily-managed bureaucracy of home demolitions, forced evictions, revocation of residency rights while increasing widespread Jewish settlement throughout the region. Since 1967, the Palestinian population in Area C has dropped from as many as 320,000 to 56,000. During the same time, the Jewish population there has grown from 1,200 to 310,000.
In my post I addressed the political implications of these policies – but it’s just as crucial to remember that every home demolished, every residency revoked and every family evicted represents a devastating reality for real lives on the ground. That’s why it’s so important to support the organizations working valiantly on their behalf.
One of my favorites is Rebuilding Alliance, a coalition of groups and individuals around the world that partners with Israeli and Palestinian NGOs to help devastated Palestinian communities in Area C rebuild in the face of often overwhelming obstacles.
Rebuilding Alliance is truly a model of its kind, using a holistic approach to peace-building, combining community-directed rebuilding with grassroots and diplomatic advocacy. One of RA’s most important projects has focused on the Area C village of Al Aqaba, located in the Jordan Valley. Al Aqaba was used for decades as a military training zone, during which twelve villagers were killed and dozens wounded during live-fire training exercises. In 2003, the village won a landmark victory when the Israeli High Court ruled that the army camp at the entrance of the village had to relocate. By that time, however, 70% of the village’s original one thousand residents had already left, seeking safety and better living conditions.
In the hopes that these former residents could return to their homes, the Al Aqaba Village Council appealed to international organizations to help them plan for their future. Among the projects they sought to implement were a medical clinic and a new three-story building that housed a sewing cooperative and a kindergarten for the children of Al Aqaba whose families who had relocated to nearby villages. With the help of grant money, Rebuilding Alliance began construction of a new kindergarten in 2004 (see pic above). As soon as the building was erected however, the military issued demolition orders for it and most of the village.
Through RA’s advocacy, the American Embassy helped stop the bulldozers with two homes demolished. Now they are helping Al Aqaba to legally and diplomatically challenge the demolition orders as they push ahead with plans to rebuild the village. Through its “Rebuilding to Remain” project, it plans to build 30 affordable, colorful, eco-friendly homes and construction has already begun. Breaking ground for this project was a huge victory for Al Aqaba.
Still, like so many villages in Area C, the residents in Al Aqaba live under constant threat of demolition. The pretext for demolishing Palestinian buildings has been the lack of Israel-issued building permits, which are only attainable once a master-plan has been approved, and are virtually unattainable for Palestinians.
I had the pleasure of speaking at Rebuilding Alliance’s “Mirroring Hope” dinner in San Mateo, CA when I was in the Bay Area last week (see above) and can attest to the incredible creativity of this courageous organization. I have learned a great deal from the example and work of Founder/Executive Director Donna Baranski-Walker and RA staff person Morgan Bach and it’s truly been a honor for me to support their work.
I urge you to do the same – click here make a donation. Click here to see Rebuilding Alliance’s Palestine Crisis Map, which offers English language news reports of human rights violations and rebuilding efforts in Area C and throughout Israel/Palestine – and to receive alerts on the status of specific villages.
Every time a new new Israeli-Palestinian peace plan is unveiled, diplomats and analysts will invariably urge the various players to summon the political courage to seize this latest “window of opportunity.” And sure enough – as I was reading an article on the latest revamping of the Arab Peace Plan, one Israeli leftist pundit was quoted tweeting:”"Historic opportunity for Israel. Will our government have the guts to seize it?”
As for me, I’m asking a different question: “Since Israel has all but annexed 60% of the West Bank through home demolitions, forced evictions, revocation of residency rights and unchecked construction of Jewish settlements, how could anyone think this government is even remotely interested in a viable two-state solution?”
How much longer does this have to continue until we are ready to admit the patently obvious intentions of Israel’s governments? Given the facts on the ground, the discussion of a viable, contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank is beyond absurd. Israel has been inexorably settling Area C and East Jerusalem while simultaneously depopulating those regions of Palestinian residents for decades. By this point, this process has become nigh well complete. Now Israel’s newest government coalition includes a major party whose official platform calls to annex Area C. One prominent Israeli settler leader calls the current government “a wet dream.” Are we really, truly going to continue to talk about a two-state peace process with a straight face?
According to a 2011 EU research report, in 1967, between 200,000 and 320,000 Palestinians lived in what is today called Area C. But since that time, home demolitions and Israel’s prevention of new building has caused that number drop to 56,000. In a similar period, the Jewish population in Area C has grown from 1,200 to 310,000.
Israeli journalist Amira Hass has convincingly argued that the creation of “Palestinian ghettos” in Areas A and B “were always the plan” even well before the 1993 Oslo peace process that created these zones. According to Hass, when new coalition party member Naftali Bennett calls for annexing Area C, he is only “following the logic of every single Israeli government: maximize the territory, minimize the Arabs:”
According to Bennett, about 60 percent of the West Bank – a.k.a. Area C – is annexable. What’s important about Area C is not whether 50,000 Palestinians live there, as democratic, benevolent Bennett claims, while suggesting to naturalize them and grant them Israeli citizenship, or whether the number is around 150,000 (as my colleague Chaim Levinson reminded us earlier this week).
Don’t worry. Even if there are 300,000 Palestinians living in Area C and all of them agree to become citizens, the Israeli bureaucracy will find ways to embitter their lives (the way it does the lives of the Bedouin in the Negev), revoke their citizenship (the way it does the residency status of Palestinians in East Jerusalem) and leave them without the little share of their land they still have (the way it did to the Palestinian citizens of Israel within the 1948 borders).
This is why Bennett can allow himself to be munificent. The true story behind area C is that there aren’t 400,000 Palestinians living there today; the villages have not expanded in accordance with their natural population growth; the number of residents has not grown; the herders can no longer graze their flocks freely; many of the inhabitants lack access to water, electricity, school and medical clinics; Israel has not been taken to the International Criminal Court in the Hague for destroying the cisterns; there are no paved roads in and between villages…
As I have said a million times and will say another million times: Area C is a tremendous success of Israeli policy and its implementers, the army and the Civil Administration. It is part of a farsighted, well-executed, perfectly thought-out policy that has succeeded precisely in that there aren’t 400,000 Palestinians living in the area. Bennett is probably decent/honest enough to acknowledge the debt he owes to the previous generations of Israeli politicians and military officials who warmed the country up for his annexation plan, ensuring its acceptance would be as effortless as a knife cutting butter in the sun.
The long and short of it? If the international community is really interested in a just peace, it should stop trying to breathe life into a corpse of a peace process and hold Israel accountable for its ethnic cleansing/annexation of Area C. And at the same time, it would behoove us all to start exploring creative new solutions that would extend full civil and human rights to all who live on the land.
In this regard, I highly recommend this recent piece by journalist/blogger Mitchell Plitnick. Mitchell has long represented an important progressive voice on Israel/Palestine: consistently smart, well-informed and always underscored by an abiding political realism. Like so many of us, he has long clung to the paradigm of a two-state solution – but over the past year he has been openly exploring the compelling reasons why he believes that the door to this solution has now become irrevocably closed. In this recent article, he dares to explore out loud what a new one-state solution might possibly look like:
…In the end, Israelis will realize that the status quo can’t hold and they will have to find a way to give Palestinians their freedom and their rights. That can be done without losing the most basic elements of a Jewish homeland. But it will require abandoning the ethnocratic concept of the Jewish state that has characterized Israel since before it was Israel.
The state can still be a Jewish home, with a constitution that guarantees that any Jew fleeing anti-Semitism anywhere in the world can find a haven in Israel. It can be a state where Hebrew is still a national language and one that has a culture that draws heavily from Jewish roots, European, Middle Eastern and Iberian. It just can’t do these things exclusively. They will also have to apply equally to Palestinians.
It’s not such a leap. Palestinians would also be able to come to this reformed state to flee persecution. Arabic would also be a national language, as it officially is now. The culture of the state would reflect the Palestinian heritage as well as the Jewish one. Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial, would still be there, but there might also be memorials to the Palestinian villages that were destroyed. Palestinian refugees who wish to would have an opportunity to return gradually, through some bureaucratic process that both peoples would agree upon. Yes, that means the Jews will not be a majority, but a constitution would protect not only Jewish and Arab rights equally, but would ensure that the character of the state reflected both cultures.
That is important, and it is also the place where the vision of a secular, democratic state falls short. The biggest problem with that vision is that it ignores the strong sense of nationalism that exists among both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs. As someone who has no use or liking for nationalism, I wish that were not the case, but wishing does not make it so. The future state cannot be a melting pot, a mere civic society, in the manner the United States strives to be. It must be a national home. Whatever the political formation may be, it must be reflective of the nations that have been created by Zionism among Jews and Palestinian nationalism among the Arabs of Palestine.
Obviously, this is a future that is not on the horizon. And it is clear that many people, probably most, would not be able to conceive that such a future is even possible. But the alternative for Israeli Jews will be the eventual total loss of any homeland in Eretz Yisrael. A state with democratic structures like Israel which deprives millions of people of human and civil rights is an inherent contradiction. A state with one set of laws for some people and another set for another group of people all under one sovereign is an apartheid state, and it is a thing the world no longer tolerates. Only Israel’s unique place as the state of the Jews, in the wake of the Holocaust has allowed that state of affairs to last this long.
Mitchell is certainly correct when he says that this future is not on the horizon as of yet. Soon enough, however, the world will see the patently apartheid nature of a state the privileges its Jewish citizens while warehousing Palestinians inside a “security” regime of walls and checkpoints. As this oppression become more undeniable, we’ll surely be hearing and reading similar visions to Mitchell’s. At present these ideas exist largely in the domain of academia, journalism and the activist community; might we dare to imagine that events on the ground will eventually cause them to be considered by the political elites?
As far as I’m concerned, that time cannot come soon enough.
I’ve just returned from an inspiring sojourn at the Jewish Voice for Peace National Members’ Meeting in Berkeley, CA (you can read more about the event here.) While I was there, I took the opportunity to film a few of my colleagues on the JVP Rabbinical Council voicing their support for the Open Hillel campaign (a recent and very important student-run initiative about which I blogged not too long ago.)
Here ‘em testify! From top to bottom, Rabbis Brian Walt, Lynn Gottlieb, David Mivasair, Margaret Holub, David Bauer and Alissa Wise:
In honor of Yom Hashoah, please read about the sacred work of Pastor André and Magda Trocmé, the courageous pacifist Christians who saved 3,000-5,000 Jews from certain death in South Central France. May their memory be for a blessing.
The biography below is reposted from the Swarthmore College Peace Collection:
André and Magda Trocmé are perhaps best known for their work in the small French town of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon where, during World War II, they inspired the villagers to help protect and sometimes to assist in the escape of Jews and other poltiical refugees. This quiet and courageous assistance was given without resorting to violence. Historians estimate that about 3,500 Jews were harbored in the area in and around Le Chambon.
André Trocmé (1901-1971) was born in St. Quentin in the north of France to Huguenot parents. After seminary in Paris and graduate work at Union Theological Seminary in New York, he was ordained into the French Reformed Church and served for eight years among the coal miners and steel workers of Maubeuge and Sin-le-Noble, two small towns in the north of France. He preached nonviolence at a time when such views were unpopular in France. In 1934 André Trocmé accepted a call to be pastor in the remote Huguenot village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon on the Plateau Vivarais-Lignon in South Central France. These parishioners were more sympathetic to his views on nonviolence.
Magda Trocmé (1901-1996) was born in Italy to an Italian father and a Russian mother. She graduated from the University of Florence with a degree in literature and earned further degrees in French. She and André Trocmé met in the United States while she was attending the New York School of Social Work, and they were married in 1926. The couple had four children, Nelly, Jean-Pierre, Jacques, and Daniel.
In 1938, André Trocmé, and his pacifist colleague Édouard Theis, founded L’Ecole Nouvelle Cévenol in Le Chambon, a Protestant, co-educational secondary school. In addition to the usual French secondary school curriculum, tolerance, honesty, and nonviolence were taught as well. L’Ecole Nouvelle Cévenole soon gained an international focus, and after World War II the name of the school was changed to Collège Cévenol. Magda Trocmé taught Italian at this school which is still in operation today.
During the first part of World War II Le Chambon was located in the “free”( unoccupied) zone of France. By 1942 the Germans had occupied the entire country. However, the population of the Plateau Vivarais-Lignon continued to aid an increasing number of refugees. In 1943, André Trocmé, Édouard Theis, and the head of the public school, Roger Darcissac were interned in a camp by the Vichy police. These men were arrested for their part in assisting the refugees of the area. Trocmé, Theis, and Darcissac were released from prison after one month, but Trocmé and Theis went into hiding for the next ten months.
In the late 1940s André and Magda Trocmé traveled as European Secretaries for the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR). After their move to Versailles (France) in 1950, the Trocmé’s founded La Maison de la Réconciliation. The Maison de la Reconciliation became an international peace center and the headquarters of the French and Continental Secretariat of the IFOR. During travels in the United States, under IFOR auspices, André Trocmé delivered the Robert Treat Paine lectures which became the basis for his book The Politics of Repentance, published in 1953. During the strife between France and Algeria, André Trocmé helped start Eirene (International Service for Peace), located in Morocco, which provided alternative service for conscientious objectors. He was also active in the movement against atomic weapons, becoming president of the French Federation Against Atomic Armaments in 1959. In 1960, André Trocmé accepted a call to become one of the ministers of the Saint-Gervais Church in Geneva, Switzerland. Many of the sermons he preached at Saint-Gervais were broadcast. His book, Jésus-Christ et la Revolution Non Violente was published in French in 1961 and subsequently in other languages (Orbis Books edition, 2004). In 1965, André Trocmé accompanied a peace mission to Vietnam.
After World War II André Trocmé was awarded the Rosette de la Résistance by the French government. The story of the Trocmé’s pacifist leadership inspired Philip P. Hallie, a professor at Wesleyan University, to write the book Lest Innocent Blood by Shed, published in 1979. Eleven years later Pierre Sauvage produced the documentary Weapons of the Spirit (1988), explaining how his family survived Word War II, through the efforts of the people of Le Chambon.
André Trocmé died in Geneva on June 5, 1971, just a few weeks after he had been scheduled to receive the Médaille des Justes from the government of Israel. As more and more people were recognized as “Righteous Gentiles,” the Yad Vashem honored all the residents of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon and the surrounding area. In their memory an engraved stele and rock garden were installed in the park of Yad Vashem (Israel).
After the death of her husband Magda Trocmé moved to Paris with Alice Reynier (“Jispa”), a close family friend who had lived with the Trocmé family since 1942. Alice Reynier shared their family life and their work. Magda Trocmé received an honorary degree from Haverford College in 1981 in the name of the people of Le Chambon and the surrounding area She died in Paris in 1996. André, Magda, their sons Jean-Pierre and Daniel, and Jispa, are all buried as a family in the cemetery of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon.
I’ve just finished Chicago hip-hop poet Kevin Coval’s soon-to-be-released book, “Schtick” (Haymarket Books) – a collection of poems that takes aim and fires at the sensitive edge of every nerve ending in the American Jewish psyche. It’s a new take-no-prisoners Jewish classic.
Coval has long been known here in Chicago as one of our great local treasures. He’s probably best-known as the founder of “Louder Than a Bomb: The Chicago Youth Poetry Festival,” which was recently the subject of an award-winning documentary of the same name. He’s also the author of numerous poetry collections, serves as Artistic Director of Young Chicago Authors, and offers youth writing workshops throughout Chicago and beyond.
While Coval has explored Jewish identity through his writing before, “Schtick” is his most extensive published collection of Jewish-themed poems thus far. It includes previously released poems such as “what i will tell my jewish kids” and “why i stopped going to shul” together with more recently written pieces – en masse, they serve to dissect the post-modern American Jewish experience in as devastating a fashion as you are ever likely to read.
Although I’m a longtime Kevin Coval fan, I will confess that there were more than few times in which I flinched at this unabashed, occasionally venomous assault on the hottest of Jewish hot buttons. I will also say without hesitation that these poems deserve to be read and discussed by the widest possible audience.
At heart, Coval’s work places him in long and venerable tradition of Jewish dissident writers – a legacy he very consciously celebrates. Indeed, this dissident tradition is palpable throughout virtually every poem in this collection. In “what will i tell my jewish kids,” for instance, he writes:
we are a bridge people. red sea parters. translators
between the warring. we see connections. the i in i
the i in thou. Buber taught us that or was it Haile Selassie
or Freud? and what was it Marx demanded, we live as Moses
bent and davening toward justice. a radical equity where everything is
sacred or nothing is. Einstein to unify the chaos.
Emma Goldman to arrange the pieces.
Though there will inevitably be those who find Coval’s writing to be the work of a “self-hating Jew” (he confronts this very issue in a poem entitled, you guessed it, “self-hating jew”), I’d suggest the poems in “Schtick” are quintessentially Jewish. Coval walks proudly in the “self-hating” Jewish steps of Abbie Hoffman, Philip Roth, Howard Zinn and Groucho Marx – a path trod by generations leading all the way back to the young Abraham, the Jewish upstart who one day grabbed a stick and smashed his father’s icons to shards.
As the title of his book implies, Coval’s counts the edgiest of the edgy Jewish comedians among his favorite iconoclasts. His clearest hero and spiritual ancestor is the great Lenny Bruce (“Lenny the Prophet!/Elijah, opening doors”). Coval also pays loving homage to Don Rickles, Sid Casear, Roseanne and Joan Rivers, with particular appreciation for the way they habitually skewer the goyishe power elite – and get away with it. (In “Don Rickles Roasts Ronald Reagan” Coval portrays Rickles as a sacrilegious Jewish court jester, peppering the poem with excerpts from his routine at Reagan’s Second Inaugural Ball.)
Of course, Coval finds equal inspiration from rappers, poets, freedom fighters and truth tellers as diverse as Public Enemy’s Chuck D, Allen Ginsburg, Fred Hampton and (in a choice certain to stick in many a Jewish craw) Louis Farrakhan. His target of choice is the American majority culture of power, privilege and empire – and the Jews who make their bed in it. He rails against racists of various shapes and sizes, including anti-Semitic icons Mel Gibson and Henry Ford as well as the recently resigned Pope Benedict (“the pope is a nazi/and this is the truth.”)
In poem after poem, he delves deeply into the adventures and follies of Jewish assimilation into the white American establishment – an act that he paints as the ultimate betrayal of our minority Jewish heritage. In one notable series, he explores this complex, often absurd process through poetic profiles of show biz figures Irving “White Christmas” Berlin, Al Jolson (“the confused horrible hope of this new country”) and Jennifer Grey (a third generation Jewish performer whose nose job successfully derailed her film career.)
His poem, “how the jews became white” – a meditation on the tragic events that unfolded during the Springfield race riots of 1908 – unpacks the most extreme example of Jewish “assimilation” imaginable. Among the more infamous moments during the riots occurred when Abraham Raymer, a poor Jewish delivery man, was accused of participating in the murder and lynching of of William Donnegan, an elderly, relatively wealthy (and intermarried) African-American man in front of his wife and neighbors:
Donnegan is not isaac
Donnegan is the lamb
abraham sacrifices to the white
g-d of america
slit throat and strung up
front lawn of a house they’d burn
the yiddisher lyncher
the jury of peers
the freshly born
After reading this poem, I couldn’t help but think that while the lynching of Leo Frank has entered deeply into Jewish mythic consciousness, the name Abraham Raymer remains utterly unknown to most American Jews. And that, of course, is precisely Coval’s point.
Coval’s forte has always been poems that seamlessly mix the personal with the political – and in the chapter entitled “the family business,” he explores Jewish identity politics through his own personal family history. While I doubt his family members will kvell at some of his revelations, his remembrances of his 1980s Bar Mitzvah (by turns mortifying, hilarious and heartbreaking), family seders and Thanksgiving dinners resonates with a deep truth and the kind of love that refuses to profane his memories with shallow nostalgia.
While American Jews of a certain generation will likely nod in recognition with many of his family reminiscences, Coval’s family poems manage to be both brilliantly universal and nakedly specific at the same time. He shines a particularly unflinching light on the painful dissonance he experienced growing up in an economically struggling Jewish family living in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park. Among other things, these profoundly personal reflections go a long way to explain his own deep identification with the Jews as a “bridge people.”
The chapter entitled “all the pharaoh’s must fall” contains his most directly political pieces, most of them centering on the subject of Israel/Palestine. And for all of his deeply edgy poems, I have no doubt that it is from here that “Schtick” will almost certainly receive the most venomous reception from the Jewish establishment.
While Coval has long addressed the issue of Israel in his work, he took on these themes on in earnest in 2009, when he publicly declared himself to be “a Jewish-American man in solidarity with the Palestinian people.” In a widely read article for the Huffington Post, Coval wrote:
I am in solidarity with Israeli and American and all people who work and risk their lives and livelihood for justice. I am not restricted to working within the confines of the Jewish-American community. Justice and the resistance to imperialism is a global, human concern for all people down to struggle. For Jews, yes, but not Jews alone. For Palestinians, yes, but not Palestinians alone. It will take us all to push and demand governments and corporate interests to create fair, equitable living conditions. It will take all people to hold history accountable for the atrocities that occur.
Coval has expressed these convictions in numerous poems he has written since then, many of which are included in this latest collection. The poignant “explaining myself” is written as a plea for understanding to his father. The title poem of the chapter, a stirring call to action written in response to the Arab Spring, deserves to become a seder table staple. And in his final poem, appropriately entitled, “post-schtick,” Coval uses an attempted lynching of Palestinian youths by Israeli teenagers as a frame for understanding the sorrows of Jewish empire: “you don’t ask the mouth/from which the rope hangs/to explain the reasons/it’s being lynched.”
In “on becoming a man,” Coval recalls that before his Bar Mitzvah service began, his rabbi made him promise that he would not return to be confirmed. By standing so firmly on the third rail of Israel/Palestine, Coval is virtually ensuring that he will remain outside the proclaimed borders of the American Jewish establishment. No matter. In the meantime he continues to carve out an authentically Jewish place in the borderlands – a place where Jews have always made their most productive homes.
But make no mistake, Kevin Coval is not simply interested in tossing spitballs from the back of Hebrew school class. On the contrary, he’s knocking loudly at the door. His Jewish vision is carefully and mindfully cultivated, his grasp of Jewish cultural memory undeniable, his respect for his spiritual Jewish ancestors deep and palpably real. And he is among the leaders of an eloquent generation that seeks to find a genuinely Jewish voice to sound a universal message of liberation:
wake in this new day
we will all die soon
let us live while we have the chance while we have this day
to build and plot and devise
to create and make the world
this time for us
this time for all
this time the pharaohs must fall
In honor of Passover, I’d like to share an excerpt from article I’ve recently finished that attempts to articulate a Jewish Theology of Liberation. The longer piece will hopefully be published soon – in the meantime, I offer this snippet to you as “food for thought” for your seder table. All the best for a liberating Pesach!
The Exodus is, of course, the sacred liberation story par excellence, in which God hearkens to the cry of the persecuted, rebukes the oppressor Pharaoh and frees the enslaved. While this narrative is clearly presented within a particularist context (God hearkens to the cry of God’s oppressed people), it has historically resonated with universal power. As the social and political scientist Michael Walzer has observed, a myriad of liberation movements have been indelibly marked with Exodus consciousness throughout the course of Western civilization.
On the most basic level, then, a Jewish theology of liberation must necessarily view the Exodus as both a particular narrative of a certain people as well as a universal narrative that encompasses all humanity. The oppression of the Jewish people must be understood as inseparable from the oppression of all peoples – likewise the liberation of the Jewish people must be inextricably linked to the liberation of all peoples. While the historical events may differ in the details, they are all bound by a common sacred truth: the voice of the God of Liberation calls out in every language and in every generation to demand the liberation of the oppressed.
However, if we read the Exodus story honestly and unflinchingly, we must be ready to admit the presence of another, darker voice present in this narrative. The Exodus does not only describe the liberation of an oppressed people from bondage – it also contains the story of a journey toward and entrance into a “Promised Land” inhabited by other peoples – indigenous inhabitants whom the Israelites are commanded to dislodge and exterminate without pity.
As difficult as it may be to read morally repugnant passages such as these in one’s “sacred” text, it is even more unsettling when we consider that these imperatives are deeply embedded within our cherished liberation narrative. In a sense, the “Exodus” is only the first half of a much longer story – a saga that begins with the Israelites exit from Egypt (Exodus) and ends with their entrance in Canaan (Eisodus). As the narrative would have it, we cannot have the Exodus without God’s promise of the land – and this promise cannot be fulfilled without the Israelites obedience to a commandment that demands nothing less than ethnic cleansing and even extermination.
There is something sadly skewed with my community’s moral priorities.
I’m sure many of you have been following the growing uproar – in Israel and America – over the curtailment of women’s prayer rights at the Western Wall. In protest, an Israeli group called the “Women of the Wall” has been holding monthly services there for the past twenty years, advocating for their “social and legal recognition of (their) right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall.” This right, of course, is denied by the Israeli foundation that essentially runs the site – widely considered holy by Jews the world over - as the world’s most famous ultra-orthodox synagogue.
The cause of the Women at the Wall was recently re-galvanized when its chairwoman Anat Hoffman was arrested for wearing a prayer shawl and leading a service there. Since then protests have been spreading across the US – led by an organization called “Wake Up for Religious Tolerance” that has organized monthly solidarity services throughout the Jewish community.
At one such service yesterday, organizer Hallel Silverman commented:
This was hundreds of people with different beliefs coming together to fight for one thing they all have in common—Jewish equality.
Oh, would that the Jewish community might galvanize this level of moral outrage for the cause of simple human equality in the state of Israel.
Case in point: during the course of these recent protests, another news item passed far lower across the organized Jewish community’s ethical radar: UNICEF’s recently released report that concluded that the ill-treatment of Palestinian minors held within the Israeli military detention system is “widespread, systematic and institutionalized.” The 22 page report carefully examined the Israeli military court system for holding Palestinian children found evidence of practices it said were “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment.”
From a recent HuffPo feature on the report:
In a step-by-step analysis of the procedure from arrest to trial, the report said the common experience of many children was being “aggressively awakened in the middle of the night by many armed soldiers and being forcibly brought to an interrogation center tied and blindfolded, sleep deprived and in a state of extreme fear.”
Many were subjected to ill-treatment during the journey, with some suffering physical or verbal abuse, being painfully restrained or forced to lie on the floor of a vehicle for a transfer process of between one hour and one day.
In some cases, they suffered prolonged exposure to the elements and a lack of water, food or access to a toilet.
UNICEF said it found no evidence of any detainees being “accompanied by a lawyer or family member during the interrogation” and they were “rarely informed of their rights.”
“The interrogation mixes intimidation, threats and physical violence, with the clear purpose of forcing the child to confess,” it said, noting they were restrained during interrogation, sometimes for extended periods of time causing pain to their hands, back and legs.
“Children have been threatened with death, physical violence, solitary confinement and sexual assault, against themselves or a family member,” it said.
Most children confess at the end of the interrogation, signing forms in Hebrew which they hardly understand.
It also found children had been held in solitary confinement for between two days and a month before being taken to court, or even after sentencing.
During court hearings, children were in leg chains and shackles, and in most cases, “the principal evidence against the child is the child’s own confession, in most cases extracted under duress during the interrogation,” it found.
“Ultimately, almost all children plead guilty in order to reduce the length of their pretrial detention. Pleading guilty is the quickest way to be released. In short, the system does not allow children to defend themselves,” UNICEF concluded.
I can’t help but ask: where is the moral outrage in my community over this report? While I certainly believe in the cause of religious freedom, I find it stunning that so many liberal-minded members of the Jewish community are more concerned with “Jewish rights” in a Jewish state than the basic human rights of non-Jewish children who live in it. Such are the sorrows of Jewish political nationalism: even the more “tolerant “among us seem only to be able to express that tolerance on behalf of those who are in our “tribe.”
A Ha’aretz article covering yesterday’s solidarity service in NYC reported:
People traveled to the event from as far away as Philadelphia. Similar gatherings took place around the U.S., including a demonstration outside Israel’s embassy in Washington, D.C. on Monday, and solidarity prayer services in Cleveland, Chicago and at Brandeis University and the University of Pennsylvania, said service organizer Rabbi Iris Richman. A “sing in” is slated outside Israel’s consulate in San Francisco for Sunday.
In fairness, I’m sure many of the individuals involved in these actions have also advocated for human rights in Israel/Palestine. But the sad truth is that our community would never see fit to mobilize this scale of collective protest in support of Palestinian children. It is well within our comfort zone to protest at Israeli consulates on behalf of Jewish rights. For reasons I understand all too well, universal human rights are still well outside that comfort zone.
Like many Israel/Palestine activists, I was thrilled to see two thoughtful films on the subject nominated for Best Documentary Oscars – and if I was pulling for any movie at all last Sunday night, it was Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi’s “5 Broken Cameras.” If you haven’t seen it yet, please do. It is, I believe, one of the most important films on Palestine and Palestinians you will ever see. It’s also brilliantly constructed and deeply, almost unbearably moving. It’s available for free on Netflix, so you won’t need to wait for it to come to a theater near you.
I knew, of course, that it was a long shot, but oh, what an incredible, incredible opportunity it would have been if Emad Burnat could have gotten up before 3 billion people and read the speech he had prepared:
I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about the differences between “Cameras” and the other nominated Israel/Palestine documentary, “The Gatekeepers.” I’m particularly struck that the latter film, which features interviews with six ex-Shin Bet chiefs, is in many ways as characteristically Israeli as “Cameras” is Palestinian. For me, the most fundamental difference between the two films resides in their literal perspectives: In “Gatekeepers,” we largely view Palestinians from above – mostly through footage taken by the Israeli Air Forces as they surgically strike their targets from the skies. We never see anyone actually get killed – they just seem to disappear in a sudden puff of smoke.
By contrast, “Cameras” was filmed on the ground in a Palestinian village. We see Palestinian non-violent protesters getting beaten and shot. In one particularly heartbreaking instance we witness the shooting death of Bassem (“Phil”) Abu-Rahma. Indeed, the moral center of this movie resides in the way it places us firmly in the lives and reality of these Palestinians – we experience their humanity, their tragedies, their courage up close and personally.
For all of its depth and nuance, “The Gatekeepers,” is ultimately a film that presents us with the moral angst of a people who are, quite simply, on the side of the oppressor. Many critics have have been struck by the level of ethical soul-searching evidenced by ex-Shin Bet chiefs who were, after all, the heads of Israel’s powerful security establishment – and I fully agree. It is a tribute to the genius of “Gatekeepers” that it gives us a genuine glimpse into the humanity of men who typically occupy a position of invisibility in Israel’s massive national security apparatus.
For me, however, this insight cuts both ways. While we can and should understand that there are real, living flesh and blood human beings with real, human concerns behind the Shin Bet, I believe their humanity is many ways subsumed by an inherently oppressive infrastructural reality. And this reality is much, much larger than these individuals, no matter how deeply they might engage in soul-searching over their actions.
This institutional soul-searching is, in fact, a time honored Israeli cultural enterprise – they even have a name for it: “Yorim U’vochim” (“Shoot and Cry”) - a term that was coined in the wake of the Six Day War to describe this uniquely Israeli expression of angst. Indeed, Israelis have produced countless films, books, poetry and essays that struggle deeply over their treatment of Palestinians. But in the end, no amount of individual soul searching, no matter how heartfelt, can itself erase the collective guilt of what Israel has perpetrated – and continues to perpetrate – against Palestinians.
Take a look at the clip below: an interview with “Gatekeepers” director Dror Moreh on “Democracy Now.” Pay particular attention to Moreh’s comments at the 3:30 mark, where he expresses his discomfort with those who portray Israelis as the oppressors and the Palestinians as the poor innocent victims. In a (possibly) unguarded but telling moment, he says, “After, all, there is a reason why the Shin Bet is doing what it is doing.” Moreh continues: this is not a black and white situation – we must see it in “shades of grey.”
I fully agree that this is a complicated situation. But I would add that there is nothing complicated about the institutional oppression that the Shin Bet inflicts on Palestinians. While the fears and pain and moral anguish of Israelis is indeed very real, I believe we must be willing to admit that these feelings are largely helpless in the face of a larger infrastructural reality that Israelis have created – and within which, in a very real way, they have become subsumed.
Critics who condemn those who stand in solidarity with Palestinians often fail to appreciate this point: it is not Israelis to whom we stand in opposition, but rather the oppressive institutions that they have constructed and which we believe threaten the well being and future of Israelis and Palestinians alike. In watching “The Gatekeepers,” I was deeply touched by the humanity of men such as Ami Ayalon, Avraham Shalom and Carmi Gillon. But I never forgot for a second that the organization they led was and remains a profoundly oppressive, even criminal institution – and no amount of soul-searching, no matter how anguished or heartfelt can wash away this essential reality.
A final note: less than one week before the Academy Awards ceremony, the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet arrested a 30 year Palestinian named Arafat Jaradat, claiming that he threw stones at cars from a nearby settlement. Jaradat was taken first to the Jalameh Interrogation Center in the northern West Bank before being transferred to Megiddo Prison. Four days later, he was dead, tortured to death by the Shin Bet.
Jaradat was a student at Al Quds Open University, married with two children (Yara, 4 years old and Mohammad, 3 years old) and was expecting a third child with his wife Dalal. His lawyer, Kamil Sabbagh, who defended him in a court hearing two days before he died, reported that Jaradat was terrified and complained of intense back pain when he saw him.
The Shin Bet claimed Jaradat died from cardiac arrest, despite the fact that an initial autopsy indicated he was in fine cardiac health. A subsequent autopsy determined that Jaradat had been beaten with repeated blows to his chest and body and had sustained a total of six broken bones in his spine, arms and legs; his lips lacerated; his face badly bruised.
I agree with Dror Moreh: there is a reason the Shin Bet is doing what it is doing. We just disagree what that reason actually is. Their ultimate goal is not simply the security of Israelis, but the security of Israelis maintained through the subjugation of Palestinians.
And for all the Israeli soul-searching on this point, this oppression will only make Israel less secure in the long run.