This past Sunday I had the great pleasure and honor to participate in a open conversation with Rabbi Leonard Beerman in “Progressive Politics from the Pulpit,” a program sponsored by Jewish Voice for Peace – Los Angeles. As Rabbi Beerman has been one of my true rabbinical heroes for so many years, it was truly a thrill for me to share a podium with him as we shared our thoughts on the challenges facing congregational rabbis who engage in progressive social justice activism.
As a Los Angeles native myself, I’ve long known of Rabbi Beerman’s inspired work during the years he served as the Senior Rabbi of LA’s Leo Baeck Temple. He was the founding rabbi of Leo Baeck in 1949 and stayed there for the next 37 years until his retirement in 1986. During that time, he challenged his congregants – and the Jewish community at large – to awaken to some of the most critical socio-political issues of the late 20th century.
Rabbi Beerman was a maverick in his day – and in many ways still is. He is a self-described pacifist who came by his stance honestly, after serving in the Marines in World War II and in the Haganah in 1947 while attending the newly founded Hebrew University. He was a student of Rabbi Judah Magnes, the great Reform leader who advocated for a bi-national state for Jews and Arabs – and he remains a passionate advocate for a just peace in Israel/Palestine to this day.
Rabbi Beerman came to Leo Baeck fresh from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati during the height of the Cold War and quickly became an outspoken and visionary peace activist. In one of my very favorite stories, he described his anguish at the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, which took place on a Friday afternoon in 1953. During Shabbat services that evening, he decided to add their names to the end of the yahrtzeit list (the list of names read before the recitation of the Kaddish) much to the dismay of some of his congregants.
Rabbi Beerman was also one of the first rabbis in the country to publicly condemn the US war in Vietnam and later instituted draft counseling in his congregation. He invited such figures as Daniel Ellsberg (who spoke on Yom Kippur afternoon while he was awaiting trial) and Cesar Chavez to speak at his synagogue. Rabbi Beerman was also a visionary leader for civil rights and worker justice and during the nuclear arms race was one of the leading Jewish voices in the disarmament movement.
I’ve particularly admired Rabbi Beerman’s fearlessness when it came to the subject of Israel/Palestine – clearly the issue that has earned him the angriest criticism from the Jewish establishment. He was a consistent and faithful advocate for justice for the Palestinian people long before such a thing was even countenanced in the Jewish community. Literally going where few other rabbis would dare to tread, he met with Palestinian leaders such as Yasser Arafat and Fatah founder Abu Jihad. That he was able to do all of this while serving a large, established Los Angeles synagogue speaks volumes about his integrity – and the abiding trust he was able to maintain with the members of his congregation.
Now in his 90s, Rabbi Beerman is still deeply engaged in the issues of our day. During our conversation together, we spoke about the current state of the Israel/Palestine conflict, the languishing peace process and the rise of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. I mentioned to those present that in 2008, during the height of Operation Cast Lead, when Rabbi Brian Walt and I were calling rabbinical colleagues to sign on to a Jewish Fast for Gaza, Rabbi Beerman was one of the first to sign on without hesitation. He did the same when we were forming the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council and his presence there is truly an inspiration to our members.
I’m still feeling so happy and proud to have been able to share the stage with Rabbi Beerman. Heartfelt thanks to Estee Chandler, the head of JVP – LA for her masterful stewardship of this wonderful event. Thanks also to Eliyahu and Pennie Ungar-Sargon for filming the program – I’ll post the finished video of our talk when it is complete.
PS: After the program was over, I had the pleasure of meeting Rabbi Beerman’s wife, children and grandchildren, who were sitting in the front section. As we chatted I mentioned to them how wonderful it felt to get such a nice reception, adding that Leonard and I were worried there might be “troublemakers” in attendance. His daughter smiled and said, “The only troublemakers were up on the stage…”
We learned yesterday that Netanyahu and his senior ministers are all astir by remarks made by John Kerry at a recent security conference in Germany. Echoing similar warnings he’s made in the past, Kerry noted that the failure of talks would only increase Israel’s isolation in the international community:
Today’s status quo absolutely, to a certainty, I promise you 100 percent, cannot be maintained. It’s not sustainable. It’s illusionary … You see for Israel, there’s an increasing delegitimization campaign that has been building up. People are very sensitive to it. There are talks of boycotts and other kinds of things.
Responding quickly, Netanyahu criticized the remarks during a subsequent cabinet meeting. Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s minister of strategic affairs, told Israel Radio on Sunday that Mr. Kerry’s comments were “hurtful,” “unfair” and “intolerable” and added, “Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with a gun to its head.” Not to be outdone, Knesset member Motti Yogev, of the Bayit Hayehudi party said Kerry’s “obsessive pressure” had “anti-Semitic overtones.”
There’s much to be said about the escalation of a war of words between Israeli politicians and the US Secretary of State. For my part, however, I’m less interested in a diplomatic pissing match over a moribund peace process than the way the issue of boycott has now firmly become entrenched in official discourse. Can their be any surer sign that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement has become a force to be reckoned with?
In this regard, I couldn’t help but be struck by Netanyahu’s comments in response:
Attempts to impose a boycott on the state of Israel are immoral and unjust. Moreover, they will not achieve their goal.
Of course, Kerry made no such claim that boycotts were “moral” or “just” (as a defensive State Department spokesperson hastened to point out). He was simply noting their very existence. And Netanyahu’s apoplectic reaction over this harmless comment makes it clear that he takes their existence very, very seriously indeed.
As well he should. With the recent American Studies Association announcement that it is honoring the academic boycott of Israeli universities – and the even more recent attention over Scarlett Johansson’s ill-fated agreement to shill for SodaStream – BDS is increasingly moving into the mainstream media spotlight. And more importantly, it is increasingly gaining adherents.
Anecdotally speaking I can attest to the growth of this movement by the growing number of conversations/debates I’ve been having on the issue of BDS. Generally they retread over the same territory: “Is BDS anti-semitic?” “Is BDS a double-standard?” “Is BDS effective?” “Will BDS lead to the destruction of Israel?”
I’m not interested in addressing these questions here – I’ve explored them at length in numerous blog posts dating back to 2009. Besides, it seems to me that right now the most important thing we can say about the BDS movement is that it is here to stay – and as long as Israel’s intolerable treatment of Palestinians continues, it promises to be chalking up even greater successes in the near future.
That’s why Kerry’s comments – candid though they were – smacked to me of a very real disingenuousness. After all, what is the real “delegimization campaign” here: the BDS movement or Israel’s oppressive policies toward Palestinians? If our government is unable or unwilling to hold Israel to account, we should not be surprised by the growth of a popular movement that does.
It was my great honor to participate yesterday in the profound and important MLK commemoration: “Hope in an Age of Crisis: Reclaiming Dr. King’s Radical Vision for Economic Equality.” On a cold Sunday afternoon, an SRO crowd of 2,000 participants streamed into St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church on Chicago’s South Side to reaffirm King’s unfinished work: the dream of economic equality for all Americans.
While few of us would deny the importance of devoting a National Holiday to the life and work of Dr. King, I believe this day too often sanitizes his legacy into meaninglessness. Even worse is the way corporate America has co-opted his name for its own profit and gain. (This morning, I opened the morning paper and was greeted by ads that invoked King to sell everything from cars to Macy’s merchandise.)
It’s worse than ironic, when you consider how often King railed against corporate greed in this country – particularly toward the end of his life. Here’s but one example – a pointed MLK quote that was read aloud at yesterday’s gathering:
You can’t talk about solving the problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can’t talk about ending the slums without first saying proﬁt must be taken out of slums. You’re really tampering and getting on dangerous ground then. You are messing with captains of industry. Now this means that we are treading in difﬁcult water, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong with capitalism. There must be better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.
Our keynote speaker, Reverend Dwight Gardner, of Trinity Baptist Church in Gary Indiana, put it very, very well:
Today in this celebration we will not lift up the toothless, scrubbed and anesthetized Dr. King as created by the mainstream media and ruling elite but we will uncover the real Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and his radical vision for economic equality.
In 1963 during the March on Washington, Dr. King gave an address that included a short section about a dream, but in the same speech he also declared that America had written the Negro a bad check that had come back stamped insufficient funds. To paint him with only the hope that we could all just get along does his legacy a disservice and confuses Dr. King with Rodney King.
And so our event, organized by the People’s Lobby and IIRON, brought together a wide range of citizens to reclaim King’s radical and unfinished legacy of economic equality. And more: to commit to creating a new movement to make it so.
Speaker after speaker spotlighted local Chicago and Illinois legislation that addressed issues ranging from corporate financial accountability, a living wage, public sector jobs, the prison industrial complex and environmental protection. One by one we invited elected officials to the stage and asked them tell us if they would support these legislative initiatives. Then we ended with a pledge to continue organizing to make this dream a reality.
One of our speakers, George Goehl, Executive Director of National People’s Action, correctly pointed out that the unprecedented inequities currently facing our nation are the product of a “masterful forty year plan hatched by CEOs and right wing politicians who were clear that they had to aggregate power to expand profit.” Goehl noted that those of us who believe in a more equitable system will now have to develop our own long term plan for the “New Economy” with the following core goals:
- Everyday People Controlling the Economy
- An End to Structural Racism
- Corporations Serving the Common Good
- True Democracy – People in, Money Out
- Ecological Sustainability
The power of these kinds of public meetings resides in their modeling of a system that is generated by people power. Unlike most political events, in which elected leaders or candidates drive the agenda, this gathering was driven forward by the people themselves. The politicians who participated were not allowed to give stump speeches but were rather asked to say aloud to the community whether or not they intended to support these legislative efforts. As King himself taught us, our elected leaders are not change agents – it is rather the popular movements that lay their demands at their door.
I encourage you, this MLK Day, to resist the corporate co-opting of King’s name – and to support efforts in your community to create true economic justice to our nation. Click here to learn about organizing initiatives near you.
Step by step, the BDS movement inexorably marches on. Now the news has just come down that PGGM, the largest pension fund management company in the Netherlands, has decided to withdraw all its investments from Israel’s five largest banks (Bank Hapoalim, Bank Leumi, Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot, the First International Bank of Israel and Israel Discount Bank) because they have branches in the West Bank and/or are involved in financing construction in the settlements.
I’m struck that whenever we hear this kind of news, BDS opponents invariably claim that this is “one isolated incident” that will not have any real effect or influence. But of course, this is not one isolated incident – it is but a part of a growing pattern occurring throughout the world. This latest news is but one more indication that the BDS movement is quickly gaining momentum.
And there is every indication that Israel’s leaders understand this. In the wake of the PGGM decision, Knesset member and Bayit Hayehudi party chairwoman Ayelet Shaked called for an Israeli response to the BDS movement, adding that “it was the greatest threat faced by the country.”
I’m also struck by one paragraph from the Ha’aretz report on the PGGM move:
The Israeli banks responded that Israeli law doesn’t allow them to cease providing service to entities connected to the settlements. Nor, given the daily reality in which the banks operate, would this even be feasible, they added.
This is an enormously telling comment – particularly as a response to those who advocate for BDS within the Occupied Territories only but not in Israel proper. Perhaps the most prominent advocate of this approach is Peter Beinart, who has long spoken of a difference between “Good Israel” and “Bad Israel:”
(We) should call the West Bank “nondemocratic Israel.” The phrase suggests that there are today two Israels: a flawed but genuine democracy within the green line and an ethnically-based nondemocracy beyond it. It counters efforts by Israel’s leaders to use the legitimacy of democratic Israel to legitimize the occupation and by Israel’s adversaries to use the illegitimacy of the occupation to delegitimize democratic Israel.
Having made that rhetorical distinction, American Jews should seek every opportunity to reinforce it. We should lobby to exclude settler-produced goods from America’s free-trade deal with Israel. We should push to end Internal Revenue Service policies that allow Americans to make tax-deductible gifts to settler charities. Every time an American newspaper calls Israel a democracy, we should urge it to include the caveat: only within the green line.
But a settlement boycott is not enough. It must be paired with an equally vigorous embrace of democratic Israel. We should spend money we’re not spending on settler goods on those produced within the green line. We should oppose efforts to divest from all Israeli companies with the same intensity with which we support efforts to divest from companies in the settlements: call it Zionist B.D.S.
This is, of course, an utterly artificial distinction, as the recent comment by the Israeli banks makes clear. The “daily reality” is that the Occupation is facilitated and fed by Israel itself. They are, quite simply, inseparable from one another – as Israel’s own economic establishment openly admits.
As the BDS movement inevitably amasses more gains, we will likely hear louder and and louder calls to “take this threat seriously.” But I believe the inexorable growth of this movement suggests something more fundamental: the world is increasingly taking Israel’s oppression of Palestinians seriously.
The recent decision of the American Studies Association (ASA) to endorse the academic boycott of Israel has engendered increasingly intense press coverage and social media conversation over the past several days. I’ve already engaged in more than a few of them via Facebook - but now I’m ready now to weigh in and offer some thoughts in a more systematic fashion.
First, some background:
The ASA is according to its website, “the nation’s oldest and largest association devoted to the interdisciplinary study of American culture and history.” According to a released statement, the ASA has been discussing and debating whether or not to endorse an academic boycott since 2006. On December 4, the ASA National Council announced its support of the academic boycott. Then this past Monday, the ASA membership endorsed the boycott resolution by a two to one margin. 1252 voters participated in the election – the largest number of participants in the organization’s history.
Because there is so much misinformation regarding the precise nature of the boycott, I think it’s important to quote the ASA statement at length:
The Council voted for an academic boycott of Israeli institutions as an ethical stance, a form of material and symbolic action. It represents a principle of solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom and an aspiration to enlarge that freedom for all, including Palestinians.
We believe that the ASA’s endorsement of a boycott is warranted given U.S. military and other support for Israel; Israel’s violation of international law and UN resolutions; the documented impact of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian scholars and students; the extent to which Israeli institutions of higher education are a party to state policies that violate human rights; and the support of such a resolution by many members of the ASA.
Our resolution understands boycott as limited to a refusal on the part of the Association in its official capacities to enter into formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions, or with scholars who are expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of those institutions, or on behalf of the Israeli government, until Israel ceases to violate human rights and international law.
The resolution does not apply to individual Israeli scholars engaged in ordinary forms of academic exchange, including conference presentations, public lectures at campuses, or collaboration on research and publication. The Council also recognizes that individual members will act according to their convictions on these complex matters.
For all of the concern over the resolution’s attack on academic freedom, it is important to note, as the ASA statement does, that Israel actively curtails and denies the academic freedom of Palestinian academics and students on a regular basis. Palestinian universities have been bombed, schools have been closed, scholars and students have been deported and even killed. Palestinian scholars and students have their mobility and careers restricted by a system that limits freedoms through an oppressive bureaucracy. Many Palestinian scholars cannot travel easily, if at all, for conferences or research because they are forbidden from flying out of Israel.
Though many are excoriating the Association’s decision as a denial of Israeli academic freedom, their resolution does not endorse a blanket boycott of individual academics and institutions – as was the case with the academic boycott of South Africa, for instance. The ASA endorsement responds to the call from the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), which explicitly targets institutions, not individuals. It does not endorse limiting the academic freedom of individual Israeli scholars to participate in conferences, lectures, research projects, publications etc.
Why is the ASA refusing to collaborate with Israeli academic institutions? Because it knows that every major Israeli university is a government institution that is intimately tied to the Israeli military, furnishing it with scientific, geographic, demographic and other forms of research that directly supports Israel’s human rights abuses of Palestinians.
This 2009 report by the Alternative Information Center cites a myriad of such collaborations. For example, Haifa University and Hebrew University have special programs for military intelligence and training for the Shin Bet (the Israeli security service) and members of the military and Shin Bet have served on administrative boards of Israeli universities. The Technion – Israel Institute of Technology has strong ties to Israeli military and arms manufacturers such as Elbit Systems. And as of the date of the report, Tel Aviv University had conducted 55 research projects with the Israeli army.
Many criticize the ASA boycott endorsement by asking why, of all the odious regimes in the world, are they singling out and targeting Israel? This is probably the most commonly heard refrain against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement in general, and I’ve addressed it numerous times in previous posts.
I’ll repeat it again: this accusation is abject misdirection. The academic boycott is part of a larger call for BDS that was sent out in 2005 by over 170 Palestinian political parties, organizations, trade unions and movements – the overwhelming majority of Palestinian civil society – to support their resistance against Israeli oppression through classic, time honored methods of civil disobedience. The ASA did not initiate this boycott – it made a principled, good faith decision to respond to the Palestinian call for support. Thus the real question before us when addressing BDS is not “what about all of these other countries?” but rather “will we choose to respond to this call?” To miss this point is to utterly misunderstand the very concept of solidarity.
One of the most widely read criticisms of the ASA boycott endorsement came from Open Zion’s Peter Beinart, who wrote that the “real problem” with the boycott was the problem with BDS as a whole:
BDS proponents note that the movement takes no position on whether there should be one state or two between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. But it clearly opposes the existence of a Jewish state within any borders. The BDS movement’s call for “respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties” denies Israel’s right to set its own immigration policy. So does the movement’s call for “recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality”, which presumably denies Israel’s right to maintain the preferential immigration policy that makes it a refuge for Jews. Indeed, because the BDS movement’s statement of principles makes no reference to Jewish rights and Jewish connection to the land, it’s entirely possible to read it as giving Palestinians’ rights to national symbols and a preferential immigration policy while denying the same to Jews.
This is the fundamental problem: Not that the ASA is practicing double standards and not even that it’s boycotting academics, but that it’s denying the legitimacy of a democratic Jewish state, even alongside a Palestinian one.
This is classic Beinart: while he writes in the reasonable tones of a liberal Zionist, when you actually deconstruct his analysis, it’s really quite draconian. Beinart condemns the majority of Palestinian civil society for asking that their right of return be respected – a right that is enshrined in international law. Then he goes on to criticize Palestinians for not respecting Israel’s “right” to create preferential immigration policies that keep them from their own ancestral homes (a right that is enshrined nowhere in particular.)
As ever, Beinart seems galled that the BDS movement is not J St. No, the BDS National Committee does not respect preferential treatment for Jews. No, it is not actively lobbying for a two-state solution. While Beinart remains imprisoned in the vagaries of national rights, the BDS call is grounded in the values of universal human rights.
From the BDS National Committee Website:
The campaign for boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) is shaped by a rights-based approach and highlights the three broad sections of the Palestinian people: the refugees, those under military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Palestinians in Israel. The call urges various forms of boycott against Israel until it meets its obligations under international law by:
1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantling the Wall;
2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.
This call takes no stand on the final political parameters of the conflict, nor should it. As a rights based call, it recognizes that the first order of business is to pressure Israel to end its violations of human rights and to adhere to international law. If at the end of the day, a two-state solution is made impossible, it will not be because of the Palestinian people’s desire for their legal right of return to be respected and recognized – rather it will be due to Israel’s ongoing colonization and Judaization of the Occupied Territories.
I’ve heard many say that this one little resolution by one American academic organization is really no big deal and doesn’t really amount to much at the end of the day. But if this was truly the case, why are so many people talking about it so often and so fervently? Yes, the ASA is but one humble scholarly institution. But by endorsing this boycott, it is clearly becoming part of a movement – and one that is gaining in strength. Just last April, the Association for Asian American Studies broke the ice to be the first American academic institution to endorse the boycott. And immediately on the heels of the ASA, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association has now signed on as well.
I realize that it is painful for many to see Israel isolated in such a fashion. But in the end, as long as the US government remains unwilling to use its leverage to end its oppressive behavior, this movement will only gain in strength and influence. For those who doubt its effectiveness, we have only to look at the way the international BDS campaign against apartheid South Africa eventually reached a tipping point until the Pretoria regime had no choice but to dismantle apartheid.
As the world mourns Mandela’s death, we would do well remind ourselves of the ways popular movements can help bring institutional systems of oppression to an end.
A follow-up to my 11/21 post:
This morning I attended a Black Friday demonstration at a Walmart in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago. Following a rally and press conference, a group of Walmart workers and solidarity activists stood in line across Broadway Avenue until they were led away by the police (see pix below). This courageous act of civil disobedience was but one of many similar actions that took place at Walmarts across the nation today.
For a smart and intelligent discussion of Walmart’s treatment of its workers, I highly recommend this recent post in the International Business Times:
As one of the world’s most valuable companies and one of its biggest private employers with 2.2 million globally, the family-run business brought in revenues of $469 billion in 2013 and generated profit of $27.8 billion over the same period. Despite this, the average Wal-Mart salary for its lowest-paid workers for a 40-hour week is about $18,720, which would be the figure for a five-day week if the employee worked 52 weeks a year and didn’t pay any tax. OUR Walmart, a group of current and past employees, says the average salary is actually about $9 an hour and most workers only work 34 hours a week, resulting in an annual $15,500…
Incidentally, it would take the average worker around 750 years to earn the $23.2 million that CEO Mike Duke earned in 2012, approximately 1,034 times more than the company’s average worker.
Postscript to my last post: this morning members of our delegation were furiously texting each other with the horrible news that our dear friend Iyad Burnat, leader of the Popular Committee in Bil’in was shot during their weekly demonstration today.
According to reports on Bil’in’s Facebook page, Iyad and the other marchers were approaching the separation wall when the IDF opened fire with tear gas and coated steel bullets – two of which struck Iyad directly. Hearts sinking, we waited for a full report – much to our relief, we eventually learned that his injury was not life-threatening.
Just another reminder of the unbearably high stakes faced weekly by the Palestinian nonviolent activists in villages across the West Bank…
I’ve been home for a few days now and am sorting through a myriad of emotions and experiences from our delegation to the West Bank and Israel. I’m not sure I will do them all justice, but I know I promised some concluding thoughts, so here goes:
The essential mission of our delegation of American Jews and Palestinians was to show solidarity with the burgeoning Palestinian popular resistance movement to the Israeli occupation. We wanted to experience this movement first hand: to live in their homes, to meet with their rank and file as well as their leaders, to march together with them in their weekly demonstration.
In the end, we did all this and more. During the course of our short sojourn, we created new friendships and connections with fellow activists on the ground – and we also strengthened our relationships with one another all the more. I do believe this kind of joint Jewish/Palestinian delegation is a model that can and should be emulated. If the goal is a better future for Jews and Palestinians, I believe it makes eminent sense to travel toward it together.
One of the most important lessons we learned on our trip is that Palestinian resistance is a multifaceted phenomenon. Thanks to the images relentlessly portrayed by the mainstream media, too many in the West assume Palestinian resistance exclusively takes the form of armed resistance. But in fact we we discovered (and I hope my blog posts reflected) the Palestinian people have been resisting decades of injustice through a myriad of means: through cultural expression, through education, through familial ties, through remembrance and through nonviolent direction action, to name but a few.
This point was underlined powerfully by Palestinian academic and activist Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh, with whom we met in Bethlehem. Dr. Qumsiyeh, who is well known in the Palestinian civil society world (and the author of the recent book, “Popular Resistance in Palestine: A History of Hope and Empowerment“) pointed out to us that in fact, Palestinian popular resistance long predated the establishment of the State of Israel. (One such example he cited was the Arab Palestinian Women’s Union, founded in Jerusalem in 1921, a proto-feminist group that protested against British support of the Zionist colonization of the Palestine – but also advocated for a myriad of women’s issues such as family planning, forced marriage, etc.)
I’ve long believed that the current incarnation of the Palestinian popular resistance is eminently worthy of our attention and support – and I was so grateful for this opportunity to experience it and write about it from within. Too often we hear the oft-repeated shibboleths: “the Palestinians want to push the Jews into the sea,” “Palestinians are terrorists” and “where are the Palestinian Ghandis?” I hope that my last several posts have helped you to understand the fallacies of knee-jerk comments such as these.
Where are the Palestinian Ghandis? We met them over and over again: in Bil’in, in Nabi Saleh, in Bethlehem, in Ramallah and so many places in between. Granted, this movement currently lacks a singular unifying leader – and on this issue, Dr. Qumsiyeh made an important point. He told us he once heard a presentation by a prominent biographer of MLK, who was asked if the American civil rights movement would have existed if Dr. King had never been born. The biographer had no doubt that it would have, pointing out that leaders do not create movements – but rather, it is movements that create leaders. We can only hope that sooner than later, this will be the case regarding the Palestinian popular resistance as well.
This is not to underestimate the daunting challenges facing this movement. A number of Palestinian activists spoke to us about their hope for a “Global Intifada” – a worldwide movement that might leverage a variety of tactics of nonviolent resistance in popular support of justice for the Palestinians. While this movement is indeed taking shape, Iyad Burnat, Bassem Tamimi and others made it clear to us that they have no illusions. Yes, the weekly demonstrations continue, but they still occur in only semi-coordinated fashion in isolated villages throughout the West Bank. Popular movement leaders are struggling in so many ways to maintain momentum and morale, given that the ongoing reality of these Palestinian communities remains so oppressive and so dire.
And it is an oppression we saw for ourselves quite literally on a daily basis. It is difficult to do justice to the stifling atmosphere in these West Bank communities that are struggling so hard to live a semblance of normalcy amid the separation wall, the checkpoints, the ever-growing settlements, the night raids and the tear gas. As we saw for ourselves, their very steadfastness represents their purest form of resistance. As it is written in various points along the separation wall: “To Exist is to Resist.”
I want to thank my colleagues and on this delegation, who have become dear friends all the more. My love and respect to Shafic Budron, Dima Budron, Rich Cahan, Aaron Cahan, Estee Chandler, Lisa Kosowski, Lynn Pollack, Emman Randazzo, Isobel Randazzo, Kalman Resnick. Stay tuned for their guest posts yet to come. Although I will let their words speak for themselves, I think I can safely say we are united in our conviction that this was only the beginning of a much, much longer journey.
To be continued…
Our trip is winding down, but I’m going to try and slip in a few more posts before I head stateside…
As I mentioned in an earlier post, Palestinian resistance takes many different forms. On Thursday, we received a profound tutorial in cultural resistance courtesy of the educational and theatre training center, Alrowwad.
Alrowwad (in Arabic: “Pioneers for Life”) is located in the Aida refugee camp adjacent to Bethlehem and refers to its mission as “Beautiful Resistance.” As their vision statement eloquently articulates:
(We seek to create) an empowered Palestinian Society on educational and artistic level, free of violence, respectful of human rights and values, (with special focus on children and women) based on the spirit of social entrepreneurship and innovation in self-expression and respect of human values.
We spent the afternoon with Alrowwad’s founder and director, the inspiring and visionary Dr. Abdelfattah Abusrour (below), who gave us a tour of the center and the Aida refugee camp itself. Abdelfattah was born and raised in Aida, but went to Paris to study Biological and Medical Engineering at Nord University. While in France, he also nurtured a passion for theater and painting and he quickly became involved in the educational/cultural life of Paris. He told us that he could easily have “married a French woman” and lived a comfortable life in France, but he eventually felt compelled to return to Aida and utilize his cultural training in his home community.
Abdelfattah established Alrowwad in 1998, and it very quickly became an anchor in the Aida community. It has also become a model of cultural resistance for Palestinian society at large. Their concept of “Beautiful Resistance” uses culture as a therapeutic method to encourage and promote creativity and non-violence, and to teach peace and respect for others.
Abdelfattah and Alrowwad has now introduced a future generation of Palestinian youth to this a new method of self-expression and resistance. They believe their work increases the spirit of collaboration between children as well as their sense of belonging in the community. Their hope is that given the chance to be creative and to set their own priorities, children can provide a bridge for a democratic and independent Palestinian society — to build a better future even amidst a dire present.
In many ways, touring Alrowwad reminded me the Jenin Freedom Theatre, which I visited with my congregational delegation in 2010. Adelfattah told me that his center does indeed collaborate with the Freedom Theatre, as well as other similar Palestinian cultural projects throughout the West Bank. Adelfattah also travels abroad to promote his work – and this spring will be directing a performance of “The Diary of Anne Frank” in North Carolina! Just another reminder that there is an extensive and powerful grassroots movement of Palestinian cultural resistance that is relatively unknown to the West, but is eminently worthy of our support.
During our tour of Aida (above), Abdelfattah gave us a glimpse of the life of his community – explaining its history and illuminating life amidst the ever-present reality of military incursions, night raids, etc. At one point, our group actually witnessed this reality up close: near the gate to the camp, several IDF soldiers shot tear gas at some children who were a few meters in front of us. (We did not witness the incident that precipitated this violence.) Though we were not in the immediate vicinity of the tear gas clouds, it carried toward us downwind – and though it was only a vestige of the gas, several of us experienced its powerful, lingering sense of burning in our eyes and throats. (I can’t begin to imagine what it must feel like to sustain a direct hit.)
We continued our way down the streets of Aida, along the separation wall that butts up directly against Bethlehem. As we walked, a women called to Adelfattah from a third story window and invited us up for tea. We sat together on the roof of her home, sipping our tea and looking out over the wall toward the wide open spaces that led toward greater Jerusalem. Our hostess told us that she and Aida owes their very lives to Abdelfattah and it was an honor to have us in her home.
Please join us in supporting the work of Alrowwad through Friends of Alrowward USA. Our delegation can personally attest to the power of their “Beautiful Resistance.”
Earlier in the week, our Bil’in host Iyad Burnat told us that a neighboring village, Al-Ma’sara, was celebrating the 7th anniversary of its popular resistance against the occupation – and was inviting other village communities involved in the movement to march join them for their weekly Friday demonstration. Although our original plan was to march in the weekly demonstration in Bil’in, this turned out to be a rare opportunity to see the wider movement in action. So on Friday, our delegation traveled with Iyad to show solidarity with the people of Al-Ma’asra.
Al-Ma’asra is located in the Southern Bethlehem area, with a population of approximately 950 residents, 50 of whom are between the ages of 6 and 18. Like many villages in this location – near Israel’s coveted Gush Etzion settlement region – the construction of the separation wall is cutting off Al-Ma’asra from accessing more than half of their land and the main water supply.
About 90% of the houses in Al-Ma’asra are located in Area C – a region in which Israel is rapidly demolishing houses and moving out its Palestinian residents. (I’ve written extensively about this issue here, among other places). Like Bil’in, Nabi Saleh and so many other villages, Al-Ma’asra has turned to popular resistance – including weekly nonviolence demonstrations – to protest the theft of their land and devastation of their livelihood. And like these other villages, they have been subject to the Israeli military’s devastating use of tear gas, sound bombs, coated steel bullets etc. Since the beginning of their demonstrations, more than 30 of their inhabitants have been arrested.
After we arrived in Al-Ma’asra, we received a briefing/update from Mohammed Brijeh (above, later at the rally), after which we joined the growing ranks of villagers, Israeli solidarity activists and internationals who were quickly pouring into the village’s main street. Then at 12:00 pm we gathered together and began marching. The street was filled with approximately 300 individuals: young and old, representing a myriad of nationalities and ethnicities. But it was clearly the people of Al-Ma’asra who were leading the way: leading us in chants, singing songs and waving to their neighbors,
After 15 minutes or so, we noticed a long line of Israeli soldiers in riot gear, standing in formation across the street, blocking our way to the wall. The crowd pressed up close against the soldiers and standoff commenced. When the villagers were told they were denied passage, Mahmoud stepped forward and starting chastising the soldiers in English. Careful not to use any physical violence or overly incendiary rhetoric, he asked the soldiers why they were not allowed the right to live and assemble freely in their own village.
He explained to them they could oppress them all the wanted, but that one day, like all oppressed people, they would be free. Pointing to their extensive riot gear, their bullet-proof vests, their M-16s, their helmets, he told them that none of this expensive equipment would ever bring them peace – then pointing to his head, he said “it’s not what you wear, it’s what’s in here that you need to change.”
Perhaps the most powerful moment for me came when he said to one soldier, “What would your mother think – would she want you to bully the people of this village, to oppress them, to take their land away from them? Shame on you!” The chant spread quickly through the crowd: “Shame on you! Shame on you!”
About 20 minutes or so into the standoff, there was a roll call of participants, a myriad of countries were called out with the obligatory hometown cheers. (Among those represented: the US, Great Britain, Ireland, Germany, Scandinavia, France, Spain, and more). A succession of speakers then got up on a raised area to the right of the soldiers to give speeches. They introduced Iyad, and he offered greetings (below) from their brothers and sisters in Bil’in.
After Iyad spoke, one of our delegation participants, Estee Chandler, called out “We have a rabbi here!” Then one of the organizers shouted, “We have a rabbi here! Let’s here from the rabbi!” And before I could even think about what I might possibly say, I got up and started to address the crowd (below).
I told them that the Torah teaches us – as all spiritual traditions do – that God stands with the oppressed and demands that we do the same. Thus, I said, this demonstration was a sacred act for all of us – a mitzvah. And that it was all the more sacred because it contained such a diversity of nationalities and religions. I told them we were honored to stand together with our Palestinian brothers and sisters who were struggling for justice and dignity and that we would take this message back with us when we returned home to the US.
After the speakers, something of a waiting game began. The demonstrators sat down in the street in front of the solders, singing and chanting as the soldiers were obviously conferring on their next move. Eventually, the commander told us we have 5 minutes to disperse before they opened fire on us. Little by little, the crowd got up and walked back down the street. Some of the younger villagers went to another main street where we later could see some kind of skirmish in the distance.
In the end, all the demonstrators dispersed; I felt a myriad of emotions at that moment. I had no doubt that the decision to disperse came from the organizers, who understandably wanted to avoid violence in the streets. Still, I admit it felt galling that in the eyes of the IDF, this was a just another “successful” job of unruly crowd control . On the other hand, the message of solidarity and defiance had been delivered – as it had been every week for the previous seven years in Al-Ma’asra and would for many more years to come. And in so doing, new relationships were created, new coalitions built – and the movement was that much stronger for having come together that day.
During our standoff in the street with the IDF, it occurred to me that this was precisely the same circumstance that occurred on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in 1965. The demand for justice was the same, the solidarity was the same, the message of nonviolence was the same, as was the show of force by a brutal and overmiltarized gauntlet. Though that particular standoff ended violently, I was all too mindful that, in a sense, there is a reenactment of Bloody Sunday every week in villages throughout the West Bank.
PS: Upon our return, we learned to our dismay that the village of Bil’in was tear-gassed during their demonstration that day. We were told that several canisters actually landed near Iyad’s house and at one point most of the village was shrouded in choking white smoke.
This is life on the front lines of the Palestinian popular resistance – just a small sample of the regular crimes committed against a people who are literally choking on an unjust and illegal occupation.