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:
I’ve just returned from an inspiring sojourn at the Jewish Voice for Peace National Members’ Meeting in Berkeley, CA (you can read more about the event here.) While I was there, I took the opportunity to film a few of my colleagues on the JVP Rabbinical Council voicing their support for the Open Hillel campaign (a recent and very important student-run initiative about which I blogged not too long ago.)
Here ‘em testify! From top to bottom, Rabbis Brian Walt, Lynn Gottlieb, David Mivasair, Margaret Holub, David Bauer and Alissa Wise:
Last November, Harvard’s Progressive Jewish Alliance prepared to sponsor “Jewish Voices Against the Occupation.” One week before it was set to take place at Harvard Hillel, Hillel decided to pull the plug on the program. Why? Because Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee was a co-sponsor.
In defense of its position, Harvard Hillel cited the guidelines of Hillel International that state Hillel organizations “will not partner with, house, or host organizations, groups, or speakers” that support the “boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the state of Israel.” And since the Harvard PSC promotes boycott, divestment and sanctions, this was enough for Hillel to kibosh a program sponsored by a Jewish student group.
If this sounds vaguely like deja vu to you, that’s because back in March 2011, Brandeis University Hillel refused to allow student chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace to affiliate under its umbrella, citing the very same guidelines. Then senior Lev Hirschorn commented at the time:
We feel like we deserve a seat at the Jewish communal table, but there is a sense that dissent on the question of Israel is not really acceptable.
As open debate and discussion have been indelible aspects of Jewish culture from time immemorial these attempts at muzzling students’ voices are particularly egregious. Hillel International’s guidelines (which are not obligatory for local Hillels) essentially ensure that there will be no honest and open Jewish conversations about Israel on campuses across the country. They will most certainly exclude growing Jewish student groups such as JVP – and they will also prevent Hillels from inviting co-sponsorship or dialogue with Palestinians, since almost all Palestinian campus groups support BDS.
Trust me on this: this has everything to do with the Jewish establishment’s fear of letting young Jews think for themselves on the subject of Israel. Not convinced? Just read this recent piece in the Washington Jewish Week, in which Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt (chairperson of the Jewish Federations of North America Rabbinical Council) offered up this choice observation:
I think it is important to begin to help prepare our children for what they are going to encounter on college campuses in regard to pro-Palestinian groups, the anti-Israel groups on Israel and radical fringe groups like Jewish Voices for Peace.
These are not J Street. Our kids are relatively sheltered, and they go to college and are confronted with hostility and misinformation. I want them to be equipped with the knowledge and understanding of the historical justification for the existence of the state of Israel.
Well that certainly says it all. We need to protect our poor, vulnerable, non-critically thinking young people from Jewish Voice for Peace and other groups that advocate for the rights of Palestinians. Since we can’t trust college students to think for themselves, we must “equip” them with what we deem to be the acceptable historical Jewish opinions on Israel. This profoundly patronizing, pseudo mind-controlling approach to Jewish outreach explains why the Jewish establishment is fast making itself irrelevant to young people – and why it feels compelled to allocate hundreds of millions of dollars yearly to send college students on all expenses paid Birthright junkets and free trips to the National AIPAC Convention.
Please join me in advocating for a Jewish student community that respects a plurality of Jewish student voices on Israel/Palestine. Please sign this petition by Open Hillel, a coalition of students that seek to change the “standards of partnership” in Hillel International’s guidelines and encourages local campus Hillels to adopt policies that “allow for free discourse on all subjects within the Hillel community.”
From the Open Hillel website:
We believe deeply in the ideal, expressed in Hillel International’s mission statement, of a vibrant, pluralistic Jewish community on campus, in which all people, regardless of their religious observance, past Jewish experience, or personal beliefs, are welcome. In many ways, Hillel has been remarkably successful at fostering such a pluralistic and inclusive community, bringing together students from different backgrounds to learn from and support one another, as well as to openly debate and discuss their differing views. We believe that this pluralism should be extended to the subject of Israel, and that no Jewish group should be excluded from the community for its political views.
In addition, we believe that inter-community dialogue and free discourse, even on difficult subjects, is essential in the context of an educational institution and a democratic society. Open discussion and debate is a Jewish value, and we are proud of our culture’s long tradition of encouraging the expression of multiple, even contradictory, views and arguments. However, Hillel International’s current guidelines encourage Jewish students to avoid seriously engaging with Palestinian students or other students on campus with differing views on Israel-Palestine. This is detrimental to the goal of encouraging mutual understanding, cooperation, and peace. Thus, we believe it is essential that Hillel-affiliated groups be able to partner with other campus groups in order to share perspectives, cooperate in those areas where we agree, and respectfully debate in those areas where we disagree.
Sure doesn’t sound like the words of “sheltered,” “unequipped” young people to me…
The following letter was just released by Jewish Voice for Peace and will soon be delivered to the White House:
Dear President Obama,
We are writing this letter to you as American rabbis, cantors and rabbinical students, serving a wide range of Jewish communities. We were dismayed to learn that, immediately following the recognition by the United Nations of observer status for Palestine, the government of Israel issued permits to begin development of two large tracts of settlement housing in highly contested areas in East Jerusalem (E-1) and the West Bank (Maaleh Adumim.)
As you well know, these expansion permits are damaging not only to prospects for Palestinian self-determination but also for peace in the region. We urge you in the strongest terms to use your full authority to oppose these expansions, which are illegal under international law and which also make impossible any hope of creating a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank.
We represent a growing voice within American Jewry which seeks an end to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its stranglehold by blockade of the people of Gaza. We believe that the aggressive expansion of settlements in the Occupied territories constitutes a deliberate strategy to obstruct a peaceful resolution to the conflict between Israel and Palestine. We believe further that the United States, as the primary global source of financial and political support for the Israeli government, has an obligation to hold the Netanyahu government accountable for these actions, which thwart the possibility of peaceful resolution of the conflict.
It is no longer the case — if it ever was — that the Jewish community in the United States is unified in its support of the policies of successive Israeli governments, which have sought to create “facts on the ground” that obstruct the hopes of independence and sustainability for the Palestinian people. Absent active intervention by the United States and other nations, Israel will surely continue to implement these destructive policies.
As leaders of the American Jewish community, we join you in hope for a just peace for all the peoples of the region. Please know that you have our strong support for demanding that the government of Israel reverse for this latest action and for all that you can do to lead the way to a fair and sustainable resolution.
Rabbi Margaret Holub
Rabbi Brant Rosen
Rabbi Brian Walt
Rabbi Lynn Gottleib
Rabbi Joseph Berman
Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman
Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton
Rabbi Julie Greenberg
Rabbi Borukh Goldberg
Rabbi Eyal Levinson
Rabbi David Mivasair
Rabbi Rebecca Lillian
Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
Cantor Michael Davis
Rabbi Michael E. Feinberg
Rabbi Zev-Hayyim Feyer
Rabbi Shai Gluskin
Rabbi Rebecca Alpert
Ari Lev Fornari
Rabbi Art Donsky
Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom
Rabbi Linda Holtzman
Rabbi Leonard Beerman
Rabbi Alexis Pearce
Rabbi Sarra Lev
Guest post by Hallie Rosen
Like almost every Jew, I too have a complicated relationship with Israel.
Israel has always been an important part of my Jewish identity. Brant and I met doing Israel activism on campus at UCLA and we spent almost two years in Israel before we were married. I’ve worked in the organized Jewish community for almost twenty years, first at the Anti-Defamation League and more recently at the Illinois Holocaust Museum.
And like Brant, my views on Israel/Palestine have evolved. While I admire Brant’s courage regarding the Israel/Palestine issue, I haven’t felt completely comfortable taking the same kinds of public stands that he does. I agree with many of Brant’s viewpoints, but I admit there have been times I have felt uncomfortable with his being so public with his views – my ingrained impulse against airing Israel’s “dirty laundry.”
While I have read his blog and his book, and we have had many conversations about his activism and the general political situation in Israel/Palestine, I have never personally taken such a public stand on the issue until November 19, when I marched with Brant at a Chicago rally protesting Israel’s military actions in Gaza.
It was not a major decision on my part. I was very upset by the news out of Gaza, so when Brant invited me to join him in the march/rally, I readily agreed. Since I work near the rally site and it took place at the end of the day, it was a simple matter to walk over and join the group as people gathered at the Federal Plaza.
My first impression was surprise at how many young families were in attendance. I expected to see primarily college age students, but I was struck by the sight of many parents with school aged children and a fair amount of strollers. Since Brant was wearing a kippah, people knew that he was Jewish and several people came up to him to thank him for attending the rally and showing his support. They didn’t necessarily know who he was, but it clearly meant a lot for see a Jew walk with them. For me, it underscored that this was an issue of conscience for all peoples – not just Palestinians.
I expected to see protest posters and I braced myself for anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiments. From my ADL days, I knew that these kinds of protests can easily become an opportunity for fringe elements to chant anti-Semitic slogans.
But that didn’t happen. All of the messages were strong, but on target. As the group of about 700 people walked peaceably through the Loop during rush hour, there was chanting but also simple non-political conversations among the marches – about shopping, uncomfortable shoes, upcoming holidays, etc. I only saw one incident of an onlooker, who provoked some of the crowd – the police quickly subdued him and we continued on our way. As a relative newcomer, I didn’t fully feel ready to join the chanting. Perhaps I’ve not fully come to grips with what it means to be a Jew in solidarity with Palestinians.
We gathered once again after the walk to listen to speakers. Everyone was on message, asking for sanctions from the US, end of violence and settlement building, requesting a just peace, etc. When Brant spoke, he received a strong enthusiastic reception from the crowd – particularly when he was introduced as a rabbi.
As the crowd dwindled, we walked to the train station and back home. Later that night, I watched the news coverage of the rally and was surprised, at how violent the images were. The piece included edited snippets of protestors chanting and because there were kafiyyahs and head coverings, it seemed that the news media was only interested in showing us the familiar images of “angry Arabs.”
The news report failed to convey the racial and religious diversity of the crowd – and there were none of the mothers and young children with whom I had just spent a few hours marching. Once again I became profoundly aware of the power of stereotypes – and to a greater extent, of racism and how the images that we see on a regular basis prejudice our views and shape our opinions.
I also became aware of how important it is to step outside of one’s own comfort zone and find common cause with those whom you’ve previously assumed to be your enemy. In the end, marching for justice was for me an affirmation of our common humanity.
When it was announced that the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC) had signed contracts with Hyatt Hotels for upcoming conventions – including their signature Consultation on Conscience and L’Taken Social Justice Seminars – many who stood in solidarity with Hyatt workers believed it was moment of truth for the Jewish community. Would the RAC, one of the most prominent and venerable social justice organizations in the American Jewish community, go ahead with their plans to hold high profile conventions in boycotted hotels? Or would they grasp the critical importance of this moment and opt to hold their events elsewhere?
When they learned of the contracts, concerned Jewish clergy as well as the Hyatt workers’ union, UNITE HERE, formally asked the RAC and the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) to honor the recently announced global boycott of Hyatt. Last month, the URJ and RAC met with union leaders and Hyatt employees. They learned that Hyatt summarily fired nearly 100 housekeepers from three Boston-area hotels in August 2009, replacing longtime housekeepers with temps at far lower rates of pay. They learned that Hyatt has been undermining the stability of jobs by increasingly subcontracting their workers. They learned Hyatt has been undermining the safety of jobs by increasing housekeeping workloads to dangerous levels. And they learned that Hyatt has been actively thwarting efforts by non-union hotel workers to exercise their fundamental right as workers to collectively bargain.
The RAC and the URJ also heard from high ranking officials at Hyatt. Not surprisingly, Hyatt challenged the union’s claims of unjust treatment of workers. While they admitted there may have been problems at some of their hotels in the past, they insisted that they had now been addressed.
After deliberating, the organizations publicized their final decision. In a released statement, the URJ/RAC opened with an affirmation of the Reform movement’s long-time support for unions and the labor movement, dating back to the days of “the historic Jewish garment trade unions.” (It was right about here that I started to get that familiar sinking feeling…) After laying out an extended description of their deliberation process, they announced their decision: they had “decided not to seek to move the events in question from Hyatt hotels.”
In a subsequent article in the Jewish Daily Forward, (“When Principles and Interests Collide,” November 3, 2012) columnist (and senior adviser to the RAC) Leonard Fein offered what was essentially a condensed version of the original statement. While he recognized “the challenges faced by many hotel workers” and believed the Reform movement was “at the forefront of efforts to provide greater rights and protections for hotel workers,” Fein wrote that the request by UNITE HERE was still “hardly a no-brainer.”
The RAC/URJ statement gave three essential reasons for their decision:
1. They had done due diligence. Prior to entering into the contracts, the URJ/RAC checked each specific hotel on INMEX (Information Meeting Exchange), a system established by UNITE HERE to help non-profits avoid entering into contracts with hotels involved in labor disputes. Because the contracts were signed long before the Hyatt global boycott was announced, none of the Hyatt hotels in question were listed as having any labor disputes at the time.
2. The situation was “complex.” Because boycotts affect “many stakeholders who have no involvement in the disputes,” the URJ/RAC only honors boycotts “in certain exceptional circumstances.” In determining whether to honor a boycott, their process requires “detailed investigation, meetings with as many stakeholders as possible, hearing and considering arguments on all sides, and going through the often arduous process of trying to validate the claims made by the various parties.” In the end, their support for boycotts is “the exception and not the rule.”
3. It would cost the Reform movement a great deal of money. The URJ/RAC has a fiduciary responsibility to the congregations and donors who have entrusted their funds to them. The cancellation of the contracts would cost $450,000 in penalties – funds that are critically needed given the enormous fiscal constraints on Reform congregations and the movement at large. The loss of the money would also impede the RAC’s ongoing efforts to promote social justice, including decent working conditions in hotels. And even if they did break the contracts it would ultimately profit Hyatt hotels, as none of the $450,000 would go to the labor union or the workers.
The statement concluded:
We respect those who disagree with us. For those who do disagree, let us point out that no one has to stay at a Hyatt to participate in our conferences. We hope they will join us in education programs on the situation of workers to be held at the conferences, showing our support for hotel workers, including those at Hyatt.
For those of us who have long been fighting in the trenches with Hyatt workers for fair treatment and dignity it is particularly galling that the URJ/RAC claim to support “hotel workers, including those at Hyatt” even as they refuse to honor the workers’ boycott. For embattled workers, a boycott is the most important and effective tool for shifting the balance of power. It is plainly disingenuous for the URJ/RAC to refuse the Hyatt workers’ boycott call while claiming to support their cause.
Such a stance also misses the essential point of solidarity. In the labor movement, as with all movements of liberation, solidarity means truly listening to the voices of those who are oppressed. It means allowing them – and not us – to be the architects of their liberation. It is patronizing in the extreme for the URJ/RAC to purport to support Hyatt hotel workers by saying, in essence, “we support your cause, but we’re going to support it our way – not your way.”
Let’s take a closer look at the rationales the URJ/RAC offered for refusing to rescind the Hyatt contracts:
1. The URJ/RAC claimed that it checked with the INMEX list and saw “there were no disputes with the Hyatt hotels in question.” In fact, INMEX does not include the union hotel guide and boycott list on its website because these lists are not useful for situations such as this – i.e., when organizations plan events far in the future. The UNITE HERE boycott list explicitly warns Group Customers that they should not solely rely on the list of currently boycotted hotels when planning events many months or years in advance. In such cases, groups should “insist on protective contractual language” that would address the eventuality of a future labor dispute or boycott. For whatever reason, the URJ/RAC failed to do this. In any event, their claim that they checked the boycott list does not suffice as an valid excuse.
2. While it is true that there are many “stakeholders” in a boycott, it is it is difficult to deny that vulnerable non-union workers who work for a barely livable wage, who are given increased and often dangerous workloads and who work with the constant risk of replacement by temps have the most at stake in this situation. The “stakeholder playing field” cannot reasonably be considered level when you consider that workers are going up against an aggressively expanding multi-million dollar corporation. (Hyatt recently reported that its third quarter net profit earnings jumped 64% to $23 million compared to this time last year.)
On the subject of stakeholders, it bears noting that JB Pritzker, a principal owner of Hyatt Hotels Corporation, has long been a significant donor to the URJ and the RAC. Moreover, as late as 2010 he was listed as a member of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, serving at the Chair’s discretion. While there is no proof that Pritzker had any undue influence on the movement’s decision, this point is certainly germane to any discussion of significant “stakeholders.”
3. The URJ/RAC cites its fiduciary responsibility to its Reform movement constituents when considering the potential $450,000 in penalty fees for breaking its contracts with Hyatt. This overtly corporate rhetoric belies Reform Judaism’s status as a religious movement that considers social justice to be a central element of its mission. While it is certainly true that the Reform movement has a fiduciary responsibility to its members, it could also argued that the URJ/RAC has a stronger spiritual/ethical responsibility to its constituents to serve as a role model for its deeply cherished religious values of worker justice.
As the clergy report on the Hyatt, “Open the Gates of Justice,” states:
As religious leaders with a commitment to the moral bottom line, we consider it unacceptable when in good times employers keep their profits for themselves and in bad times they pass on their losses to their workers. We insist that the best business practice is the one that benefits workers, many of whom have served their hotels for over two decades. The best business practice benefits the guests, who want their rooms cleaned by trained and dedicated staff and who have sufficient time to do a thorough job cleaning each room. The best business practice benefits the community, which thrives on good jobs at good wages but which loses economic strength when the workforce is paid below a living wage.
In truth, many organizations that have honored the boycott have renegotiated their contracts with Hyatt to reduce or waive penalty fees. But even if they go forward with the contracts as they are, it is spurious to argue that the $450,000 in penalties would only benefit Hyatt and not the workers. After all, by contracting with the hotels, the URJ/RAC will ultimately pay Hyatt a significantly higher sum. On the other hand, Hyatt workers would almost certainly exchange a $450,000 penalty put into the pockets of Hyatt for the invaluable and uplifting moral support they would gain from the public solidarity of the Reform movement.
I personally know many courageous Reform rabbis who have long stood in solidarity with Hyatt workers – and who are deeply offended that the Religious Action Center will be hosting social justice conventions at boycotted hotels. The URJ/RAC statement certainly does not stand for them and, I wager, for many lay members of the Reform movement who still cherish their denomination’s historic commitment to social justice.
My Reform colleagues understand that a real commitment to workers cannot end with the honoring of past struggles. It is simply not enough to invoke the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and offer bland statements about the historic role Jews played in building the American labor movement.
True solidarity means understanding that the struggle ever continues – and that there are flesh and blood “stakeholders” in our own day who call on us to support the sacred cause of worker justice.
Click here to re/affirm a pledge to support the Hyatt boycott.
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.
Please read my friend Rabbi Brian Walt’s new piece in Ha’aretz. He has recently returned from a remarkable interfaith delegation to the West Bank; I will be posting more of his writings about his experiences in the near future.
In his recent Haaretz op-ed, “Heading toward an irreparable rift between U.S. Jews and Protestants,” my colleague, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, sharply criticized the recent letter to Congress by leaders of Protestant churches that called for U.S. military aid to Israel to be contingent on Israeli compliance with American law. Nowhere in his article, however, did Yoffie mention the central concern of the Christian leaders’ letter: the overwhelming evidence of systematic human rights violations by the Israeli military against Palestinians.
Over the past two weeks, I had the privilege of leading an interfaith delegation including several leaders of the civil rights movement, younger civil and human rights leaders, Christian clergy, academics, and several Jews, on a two-week trip to the West Bank.
We were all shocked by the widespread human rights violations that we saw with our own eyes and that we heard about from both Palestinians and Israelis. Several black members of our group, including those who participated actively in the civil rights movement, remarked that what they saw on the West Bank was “frighteningly familiar” to their own experience, a systemic pattern of discrimination that privileged one group (in this case, Jews) and denigrated another (Palestinians).
My recent op-ed for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency:
CHICAGO (JTA) — There has long been an unwritten covenant between the Jewish establishment and Christian leaders when it comes to interfaith dialogue: “We can talk about any religious issues we like, but criticism of Israel’s human rights violations is off limits.”
Over the past few weeks, we’ve painfully witnessed what can happen when Christians break this covenant by speaking their religious conscience.
Two spot on responses to the recent NY Times article, “Church Appeal on Israel Angers Jewish Groups:”
The first comes from the Daily Beast’s Andrew Sullivan:
It seems to me that aid of all kinds should have basic human rights strings attached to it. I would have suspended all aid to Israel when it refused to stop its settlement policy on the West Bank, but that’s a little like being in favor of an immediate space station on Mars, given the Greater Israel lobby’s grip on Congress.
So let me just reiterate something that has no chance of ever happening, but I might as well put on the record: we should treat Israel as any other recipient of US aid. If a country is occupying and settling land conquered through war, if it’s treating a minority population with inhumanity, the US should stand up for Western values. It should not single Israel out; but we have to stop treating Israel as the exception to every other US foreign policy rule.
Rev. Jim C. Wall (Contributing Editor of the “Christian Century”) in an unflinchingly honest blog post:
To begin with, the 15 church leaders are heavyweights, top officials for their denominations. They include the leaders of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Methodist Church, the National Council of Churches, the United Church of Christ, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the American Friends Service Committee (a Quaker agency) and the Mennonite Central Committee. Two Catholic leaders also signed, not including the Catholic Council of Bishops.
These are not just leaders of a few religious groups, which a Protestant version of the Jewish Council of Public Affairs could corral into an interfaith dialogue meeting. These are the major-domos of American Protestantism, which raises the question of what exactly gives the JCPA and its scattered letter signers, these “outraged Jewish groups” as the Times calls them, the right to claim religious standing in this conversation. Many of these Jewish groups are secular and function as part of the Israel Lobby, a collection of lobbying organizations that have Israel, not Judaism as their primary client…
The JCPA and its letter signers have no dogs in this hunt. They can be as outraged as they want. This is still a free country. But the 15 church leaders have made the right religious, not political, move. They are speaking the language of “moral responsibility” in a letter directed to the U.S. Congress on the matter of U.S. funds used by Israel to violate the human rights of the Palestinian people.
Interfaith dialogue has always been nothing more than a device used by American Jewish groups to intimidate the American churches into keeping the ecumenical deal. By this intimidation, these groups have followed the example set by the government of Israel which has long used the so-called “peace process” to sustain its occupation and expand its borders, always to the detriment of the Palestinian people.
It is the right time for the leaders of the American churches to make their moral demand to the Congress. With their letter, they have done so, courageously, considering the political climate of our time. Interfaith dialogue can wait.
As things stand now, the Jewish groups have called for a “summit” for the top leaders of Christian churches to “discuss” the situation with them – and they are reportedly considering it. I hope the Christian leaders will stand firm. It is not the role of these Jewish organizations to dictate how Christian religious leaders can live out their conscience or their values. These Jewish leaders have chosen to walk away from the table – they are in no position to demand the terms by which “dialogue” may resume.
We can only hope this sad turn of events will lead to a more honest interfaith conversation about Israel-Palestine – one based on honesty, respect and justice rather than emotional blackmail.