Brant Rosen looks every bit like a plain vanilla suburban Chicago rabbi. He doubles as a firebrand critic of Israel — and his congregation has stood by him through thick and thin.
I’ve posted below an email exchange between myself and a congregant regarding my participation in the upcoming Friends of Sabeel – North American conference in Chicago. My congregant has given me permission to post it as one small but hopeful example of how the Jewish community might debate such a painful religious/political issue with respect and honesty.
As I hope you know, I am a pretty skeptical guy in general, and I do not assume that others’ reporting of their adversaries’ statements is accurate. But this statement comes right from Sabeel’s own website. Has Naim Ateek since disavowed it? If not, please explain how you can allow yourself, very publicly, to be seen as supporting his work?
L’shalom (literally), XXX
Obviously this is a long and complex issue – and I’m happy talk with you directly about it if you like. But for now I’ll just say I fully understand how and why some find his rhetoric hateful. I do not. Through my own study of his work and my personal dialogue with Naim, I have come to understand that as a Christian he refracts his personal experience among other things, through the crucifixion narrative. And as a Palestinian, it has very real relevance to his peoples’ experience in Israel/Palestine. I do not believe he invokes this narrative in order to make an accusation of deicide/blood libel against the Jews. He is using it in a genuinely faithful way, as part of a theology of liberation, to understand/frame a very real oppression against his people.
Again, I know he treads on very tender theological and political issues when he does this – but I do believe the proper way to respond is to engage him in dialogue on these tension points. It grieves me deeply that members of the Jewish establishment only seem to want to respond by publicly tarring him as an anti-Semite and to pressure/threaten all Christians or Jews who associate with him.
I have learned a great deal from Naim – from his many books and essays and from my own personal relationship with him. I consider him to be a decent and honorable man who challenges us in important if often painful ways. As far as “disavowing” this particular statement, I don’t believe he needs to, quite frankly. I think it is important that people read his work thoroughly and give it its due before jumping to conclusions from cherry-picked statements.
While it is not a disavowal per se, you might find this piece helpful, in which he responds to many of the accusations that have been historically leveled at him – and addresses an excerpt from statement you cited.
Again, I’m happy to talk with you further about Naim, Sabeel, and my work with them if you like.
In Shalom as well,
I just read the Huffington Post piece you sent (thanks) and thought it was well written. (Did Jewish Voice for Peace help write it? — you don’t need to answer that question.)
One problem I have (and perhaps you are not minimizing it) is that, precisely on the assumption that Naim Ateek has something important to teach me, and other open-minded Jews like me, he will never succeed unless he changes his rhetorical approach.
I understand what you say. I imagine Naim feels his first priority is to respond faithfully to his experience of his people’s oppression – and not necessarily to frame his remarks to be acceptable to liberal Jews. Having said that, I do think that as a result of his increasing dialogue with Jews (ie JVP), he is becoming more sensitive in his rhetoric.
Anyhow – thank you for engaging with me so thoughtfully on this. It means a great deal to me.
It is truly my honor to be included in the program of the upcoming conference, “A Wide Tent for Justice: Next Steps for Peace in Palestine/Israel,” sponsored by Friends of Sabeel – North America and the Chicago Faith Coalition on Middle East Policy. And I’m particularly honored to be participating on a panel and leading a workshop together with Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek, founder of the Sabeel Insititute and one of the most important purveyors of Palestinian Christian liberation theology.
I can safely say my own spiritual understanding of the Israel/Palestine conflict has been profoundly influenced and challenged by the work of Rev. Dr. Ateek. I do believe religious Jews have a great deal to learn from liberation theology in general and Palestinian liberation theology in particular. I’ve long admired Ateek for his willingness to shine a light on the theological problems that come with the land-centric nature of Zionist ideology. I believe his criticism of Zionism as a “retrogression” to a Biblically-based nationalist Jewish expression is a critical one for us to consider – painful though it may be for many in my community.
Responding to the challenge of Rev. Dr. Ateek and his colleagues, I’ve been working over the past year on developing a potential framework toward a theology of Jewish liberation that reclaims the universal vision of the Prophets and provides a progressive spiritual alternative to the fusing of religion and state power. I’ve been encouraged by the response to my initial efforts thus far – from Jews and Christians alike – and am increasingly coming to believe that there is a critical place for such ideas in the post-modern Jewish theological world.
Alas, much to my sadness and dismay, many in the Jewish establishment world continues to vilify Rev. Dr. Ateek and the Sabeel Institute. While I certainly understand that many are challenged – often profoundly – by Palestinian liberation theology, it grieves me that the “official” Jewish communal response to this movement has been to publicly excoriate its leaders as anti-Semitic rather than to engage them in real and honest dialogue.
I do believe this kind of posturing has everything to do with politics and very little to do with actual interfaith dialogue. True dialogue occurs when respective communities agree to explore the hard places – the tension points – no matter how painful. In my own dialogue with Palestinian Christians (and those in the Protestant church who stand in solidarity with them), my own sensibilities have been challenged and broadened – but I’ve also found that my participation allows me to have a similar kind of impact on my Christian partners. And while we might not agree on every issue, we ultimately emerge from our encounter strengthened by our common commitment to universal prophetic values of justice.
Back in 2010, when I visited the Sabeel Institute in Jerusalem with members of my congregation, I wrote the following:
Whether or members of the Jewish community agree with him or not, I believe it would greatly behoove us to enter in dialogue with Ateek and others in the Palestinian Christian community – and I told him as much during our meeting. At the very least, it is my sincere hope that there might be Jewish leaders actively participating rather than protesting during the next American Friends of Sabeel conference.
I sincerely hope that will be the case at the upcoming conference here in Chicago (hosted by St. James Cathedral from Oct. 3 – 5). In the past, Friends of Sabeel – North America conferences have occasioned fierce political pushback from the Jewish communal establishment. Sad to say, last year, Jewish leaders in Albuquerque pressured a local Episcopal church into canceling its sponsorship of the the Sabeel – NA conference there. While I have every confidence that this will not occur in Chicago, I fully expect that some members of the Jewish communal establishment here will publicly tar organizers and co-sponsors of the event with the tired accusations of “anti-Semitism.”
Still, I am hoping against hope that members of my community will see fit to attend the conference in the spirit of openness and with a willingness to be challenged. I do believe this is nothing less than the most critical Jewish-Christian dialogue of our time.
Readers of this blog know I’ve long stood in solidarity with Hyatt hotel workers during their four year struggle for justice. (If you’d like a little history, you can read about it here, here, here and here, for instance.)
I’m thrilled to now learn that the Hyatt workers’ union, UNITE HERE has reached a national agreement with Hyatt. According to a union press release which came out yesterday, both UNITE HERE and Hyatt have hailed the agreement as “a positive step:”
The agreement will go into effect upon the settlement and ratification of union contracts by Hyatt associates in San Francisco, Honolulu, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Pending associate approval, the contracts will provide retroactive wage increases and maintain quality health care and pension benefits. The proposed new contracts would cover associates into 2018.A key provision of the agreement establishes a fair process, which includes a mechanism for employees at a number of Hyatt hotels to vote on whether they wish to be represented by UNITE HERE. As part of the accord, upon ratification of the union contracts, UNITE HERE will end its global boycott of Hyatt.
D. Taylor, the president of UNITE HERE, said, “We look forward to a new collaborative relationship with Hyatt. This agreement shows that when workers across the hotel industry stand together, they can move forward, even in a tough economy. Both organizations deserve credit for working out this constructive step forward.”
“We are delighted that our associates in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Waikiki will have contracts and the pay raises that go with them,” said Doug Patrick, Senior Vice President, Human Resources for Hyatt.
The Chicago Tribune has reported that according to the agreement, about 5,000 workers would see pay and benefits packages rise an average of 4 percent a year. Regarding the issues of job safety and outsourcing (two key issues for the union), Chicago Public Radio reports “the new contracts will include no new safety language but will bring some outsourced work back to Hyatt.”
I’m delighted for the workers of Hyatt and it has been my honor to stand with them during the course of this long and difficult struggle. One important takeaway for me is the importance and effectiveness of boycotts as an essential tool of the labor movement. In particular, I hope organizations will increasingly insist upon protective language in their hotel contracts so that they can honor boycotts without penalty.
This campaign has also opened my eyes to the hard truth that labor justice is nowhere near the priority in the Jewish community that it once was. Indeed, the Hyatt boycott represented an important test to my community – and it is clear to me that there is much work left to be done. I wrote as much in the Jewish Forward last year when it was revealed that the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism had signed contracts with boycotted Hyatt Hotels for their conventions:
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.
Congratulations to UNITE HERE and to all those who stood in solidarity with the workers of Hyatt. And now the struggle continues…
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.