Land and Liberation: An Interview with Reverend Naim Ateek

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This past weekend, I had the great pleasure to engage in an extended interview with Reverend Naim Ateek, founder of Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, during a brief visit he made to Chicago. I’ve known Rev. Ateek for several years and am honored to call him a friend and colleague – and I’ve written before about his important work in the development of Palestinian liberation theology.  Since he’s been the object of unrelenting attack by the Jewish institutional establishment, I was particularly grateful for the opportunity to model a different kind of Jewish-Christian engagement on his life and his work.

An edited version of our conversation follows here:

Read the rest of this entry »


Why I Celebrated the Persian New Year on Purim this Year

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Addressing the NIAC Chicago Nowruz Celebration, March 16, 2014 (photo: Roxane Assaf)

Like many American rabbis around the country, I spent the most of the day yesterday leading my congregation’s noisy, joyously raucous Purim celebration, complete with a carnival and a family Megillah reading. As per usual, we read a somewhat watered-down version of the Book of Esther – one that characteristically kept the sexual hijinx and violence to a minimum.  Even with our PG version, however, there was no getting around the decidedly darker aspects of the Purim story – particularly the infamous ninth chapter in which we read that the Jews of Persia slew 75,000 Persians then celebrated the day after with a festival of “feasting and merry making.”

As always, this part of the story stuck seriously in my throat. While we adults can intellectualize the more disturbing parts of the Purim narrative (“it’s irony,” “it’s a revenge fantasy,” “it’s cathartic,” “it’s not meant to be taken seriously, after all…”) I’m just not sure we do any favors to our children when we read these kinds of stories to them, even in censored form. I’m fast coming to believe it’s time to tell a fundamentally different version of the Purim story to our children – one that celebrates the venerable Persian-Jewish experience rather than cynically telling a Persian version of “when push comes to shove, all the world really just wants the Jews dead.”

I’m also mindful that there are all too many adults who are willing to take the Purim story literally. I’ve written before about the disgusting Purim violence annually inflicted against the non-Jewish population in Israel. And on a geopolitical level, leaders of the state of Israel (and many in the American Jewish establishment) have openly and unabashedly used the Purim story to frame our relationship to Iran – presenting present day Ayatollahs and Mullahs as nothing less than Haman incarnate and promoting all out war as the only way to settle the current nuclear impasse.

For all this, however, I’m happy to report that Purim ended for me on something of a redemptive note this year.

As it turns out, the Persian New Year known as Nowruz is fast approaching and last night, I was thrilled to attend a Nowruz party sponsored by the Chicago chapter of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC).  So after I got home from my congregation’s Purim carnival, I took off my clown costume, put on a suit, and drove to a suburban restaurant where I celebrated the coming of spring with Chicago’s Persian community and supported the important work of NIAC, which among other things supports a “policy of persistent strategic engagement with Iran that includes human rights as a core issue.”

When I addressed the gathering (above), I thanked them for reaching out to me and explained that ever since I returned from a visit to Iran in 2008, I’ve always hoped to score a Nowruz party invitation from my Persian friends. I also explained why celebrating Nowruz with NIAC was for me the perfect, redemptive coda to Purim. And I added that contrary to the impression created by some Israeli politicians and Jewish institutional leaders, there were many in my community who believed that the current crisis should be settled through diplomacy and engagement and not an inexorable march to war.

Now I’m thinking there might well be something to this Nowruz/Purim celebration. Can’t think of a better way to, in words of the Book of Esther, “turn grief and mourning into festive joy….”


My Conversation with Rabbi Leonard Beerman

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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.

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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…”


Guest Post by Rabbi Brian Walt: Welcoming My Grandson, Micah Mandela

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In memory of Nelson Mandela, I offer you this breathtaking Yom Kippur sermon that was delivered three months ago by my dear friend Rabbi Brian Walt. Brian grew up in South Africa and his activism in the anti-apartheid struggle was a defining aspect of his own spiritual/political evolution. I can think of no better tribute to Mandela’s legacy than to share the words of this visionary rabbi, whose grandson now bears Mandela’s name.

In June, when Chana and Lincoln, my daughter and son-in-law, announced at the naming/covenant ceremony that the name of their second child would be Micah Mandela Ritter, I was deeply moved. I never imagined that I would be blessed with a grandchild named Mandela. I feel so blessed to be the zeyde (grandfather) of a child who carries the name of a moral hero of our time, a man who has been central to my own life and has inspired me in so many ways.

I grew up in Cape Town, one of the most beautiful cities in the world. My family’s home was in Sea Point, a suburb that lies between the mountain and the ocean. Our home, number 14 Queens Road, was just a few houses from the ocean. If you looked up the road you could see the mountain; in the other direction, the ocean. The natural beauty that surrounded us was nothing less than spectacular: miles of oceanfront in both directions, lush vegetation, gorgeous flowers and the mountain in the background. In Habonim, my Zionist youth group, we sang, “We come from Cape Town, land of sea and mountain!” Yes, we lived in a spectacularly, beautiful place, “a land of sea and mountain” and much more.

Our family loved to go for walks on the beachfront. We would pass swimming pools, restaurants, playgrounds — all restricted to whites.  The only people of color allowed to live in our neighborhood were domestic servants who lived in separate servants quarters.  Blacks who worked in Sea Point lived in townships far from the city, came in during the day to work and had to carry a pass book confirming that they had a job in our area.

On clear days, we could see an island in the distance: Robben Island, the prison where Nelson Mandela and many of his African National Congress comrades were imprisoned for decades. The gulf between our comfortable and glorious suburb and the prison island we could see with our own eyes was enormous. It seemed unbridgeable. That tragic gap reflected the gulf between the reality of most white South Africans and that of majority of the people who lived in South Africa.

At that time it was illegal to quote Mandela or to print a photograph of him. Merely mentioning his name could make one the subject of suspicion. White South Africa and the Western world, including the United States, considered him persona non grata. He was a “communist” and a “terrorist.” The United States never took Mandela off the terrorist list until 2008 and kept the ANC on the list but made it possible for the status to be waived at times.

It was clear that if there were to be peace in our country it would involve freeing Mandela from prison, legalizing the ANC, and entering into negotiations. When I was growing up this seemed beyond any possibility. We all feared that our country was on the road to a massive and bloody civil war.

Growing up in South Africa, a country with so much racial hatred and devastating poverty and suffering alongside extraordinary privilege and wealth, was very painful for me as a child.   But I also feel profoundly blessed to have grown up in a country with moral heroes like Nelson Mandela and so many others, people who devoted their lives to the pursuit of justice and dignity for all. I am also very fortunate to have grown up in a country that went through a miraculous transformation brought about by thousands of human beings all around the world who put their lives on the line for justice.

I believe that my grandson and all of us have much to learn from Nelson Mandela. And so tonight I want to share three of the many lessons I learned from this extraordinary man: first, about justice and moral vision; second, about compassion and forgiveness; and third, about hope, community and social change.

These lessons are directly relevant to us this day as we reflect on our lives, our own moral vision and issues of forgiveness and change.  Many of us are the beneficiaries of economic and racial privilege and live in a country with a history not so different from South Africa’s.

Lesson #1:  A moral vision of justice

The Torah commands us: “Justice, justice shall you pursue!” The prophets of our tradition call us to justice. “Let justice well up like water,” says Amos. “You know what God has commanded you,” says Micah, “to act justly, love kindness and walk humbly.” The prophetic tradition which is the core of Reform Judaism and much of liberal Judaism puts justice at the center of our religious vision.

Nelson Mandela, although he is not religious, is in the line of the prophetic tradition. His life was devoted to justice and guided by a clear moral vision of a democratic country, a non — racist South Africa, where all people would enjoy equality, dignity and justice. In 1963, when I was 11 years old, Mandela was convicted along with 10 of his comrades, five of whom were Jewish, in the Rivonia Trial, which ended with Mandela sentenced to life imprisonment.

In a moving statement at the trial he articulated this moral vision. First, he described the injustices Africans suffered and what they deserve.

Africans want to be paid a living wage. Africans want to perform work which they are capable of doing, and not work which the government declares them to be capable of. Africans want to be allowed to live where they obtain work, and not be endorsed out of an area because they were not born there. Africans want to be allowed to own land in places where they work, and not to be obliged to live in rented houses which they can never call their own. Africans want to be part of the general population, and not confined to living in their own ghettos.

African men want to have their wives and children to live with them where they work, and not be forced into an unnatural existence in men’s hostels. African women want to be with their menfolk and not be left permanently widowed in the reserves. And then he articulated the most important demand:

Above all, we want equal political rights, because without them our disabilities will be permanent.

This then is what the ANC is fighting. Their struggle is a truly national one. It is a struggle of the African people, inspired by their own suffering and their own experience. It is a struggle for the right to live. During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal that I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

Mandela’s vision of a “democratic and free society in which all persons live in harmony and with equal opportunities” was not only Mandela’s personal vision; it was the vision of a broad movement that was articulated in the Freedom Charter.  In 1955 the African National Congress sent 50,000 volunteers out into the countryside to ask people what freedoms they wanted. Based on this, they drafted the Freedom Charter, which was then adopted by the multiracial South African Congress Alliance.

The Charter began:

We the People of South Africa declare for our country and the world to know that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of all the people.” The document includes demands for basic human rights (many of which are still not part of the moral vision of the United States): a forty – hour week, equal pay for equal work, a national minimum wage, free compulsory universal and equal education for all children, universal health care.

The document is so inspiring. Most of it, except for the clauses that deal with nationalizing industry or redistributing land, was incorporated into South Africa’s extraordinary constitution in 1996.  Mandela’s vision was not based in any religious tradition, but it is consonant with the central core values of all religion as we understand it: that each and every human being is a child of God entitled to dignity, equality and justice.

Mandela pursued this moral vision relentlessly and at enormous personal cost. When he was offered a deal that would free him but would not guarantee voting rights, he chose to remain in prison and did not emerge until that most basic demand was met.

Mandela’s dedicated commitment to justice was integrated with a profound compassion for all people, even his enemies. This is evident in his unrelenting commitment to a non-racial democracy but also in his greatness of spirit and the forgiveness with which he approached his white oppressors. This is best exemplified in two stories about his relationships to those his enemies and those who supported him.

Lesson #2: Compassion and Forgiveness

In his inauguration address as president of the new South Africa, Mandela urged South Africans to forgive one another and to move beyond the hatred of the past. He declared:

The time for the healing of the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come.

He called on South Africans to work toward a country in which “all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, sure of the inalienable right to human dignity – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”

On that inauguration day, one of the guests of honor who received a personal invitation from the new president was a man by the name of James Gregory, one of Mandela’s jailers on Robben Island. Gregory worked there for nine years, from 1967 till 1976. When he was transferred to Cape Town, he continued to censor the letters of inmates on the island. Later he was transferred to Pollsmoor prison, and when Mandela and four other A.N.C.leaders were transferred there, Gregory was assigned to Mandela.

Gregory talks about his extraordinary relationship with Mr. Mandela during this period of time:

When he was alone I used to go and sit with him in his cell for hours at a time. We spoke about everything – his family, my family. But never politics and never trying to convince me of his views.

He always called me Mr Gregory and I addressed him as Nelson. When visitors came I would address him as Mr Mandela. After he was released he phoned me here at home and I said, “Hello, Mr Mandela,” and he said, “Where does this mister suddenly come from? You call me Nelson as you always did.”  He now calls me James.

When Mandela was released from Pollsmoor Prison in 1993 James Gregory received a white card to ‘W/O Gregory’. In neat, rounded handwriting, it said: “The wonderful hours we spent together during the last two decades end today. But you will always be in my thoughts.”

In explaining the reason for the invitation to Gregory and two other former prison wardens , Mandela said, “I invited them to come because I wanted them to share in the joys that have emanated around this day. Because in a way they have also contributed.”

What extraordinary forgiveness! To forgive those who have served as your jailers. What a powerful story for this day of forgiveness when each of us is called to ask for and grant forgiveness.

Can we forgive those who have hurt us? Will we?

Alan Brigish, a friend of mine who lives on Martha’s Vineyard and who also grew up in South Africa, tells another extraordinary story about Mandela. His father, Harry Brigish, gave Mandela a job as a law clerk in 1947 .

In 1999, Mandela’s final year as president, Alan took his dad to the doctor who told him that the President had asked him about his father and wanted to see him. Alan immediately called Mandela’s and left a message that he was Harry Brigish’s son and that he had been told the president wanted to see him. He wanted to let him know that Harry would love to see him.

A day later, six cars arrived at the apartment block and Mandela came over for a cup of tea. Alan’s mom asked the president what he was going to do now that his term of office was over. “I am going to be doing much the same as what I am doing now. I am going to find the people who helped me and meet with them to thank them personally and I am going to find the people who hurt me and meet with them and forgive them face to face.” What compassion! What humility! What menshlichkeit!

Do we have the same capacity to thank those who have loved and helped us and to forgive those who have hurt us. Will we do so?

Lesson # 3. Hope and Change

Growing up in South Africa, it was hard to imagine any future other than a massive civil and racial war in which thousands of people would be killed. And yet the determined resistance of millions of South Africans and people around the world made possible what seemed impossible. The apartheid government, facing mounting pressure from the resistance inside the country and from those around the world engaged in Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment, decided to free Nelson Mandela and the other leaders of the resistance and to negotiate with them. The relatively peaceful transfer of power in South Africa was nothing short of miraculous and it is a source of great hope for all who seek social change. Social change takes a long time and demands huge devotion, courage and many sacrifices, but it is possible. Mandela and the movement he led always held to their moral vision and their belief that change could and would happen.

What we can learn is that change is possible when people join together in movements to make change. There is an extraordinary seven-part documentary made by Connie Fields, “Have You Heard From Johannesburg”, that describes how actions in the country and around the world engaged in Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against South Africa  made that happen.

In July, my sister Yda, a fabric artist who lives in Johannesburg, gave me a shirt she had designed with a quote from Mandela. It reads: “A winner is a dreamer who never gives up.”

A Blessing for Micah Mandela:

And so, my dear Micah Mandela: the man after whom you are named is a winner, a dreamer who never gave up. I hope carrying his name brings you blessings in your life: the blessing of living your life according to a moral vision of justice, your heart filled with compassion for all people, always offering forgiveness. A life of hope, that you always know deep in your heart that people joining together can make a difference in the world. I hope you find your particular way of joining with others to make our world a more just and decent place, and the blessing of honoring the prophetic voices of your Jewish legacy, your own prophetic voice and the prophetic voices in your world.

Always remember the Jewish prophetic legacy that you have received as a gift. Remember what the prophet Micah taught us all. It is not complicated. You know what God desires of you: Act justly, love kindness and walk humbly.

This is my blessing to you and to all your buddies, the next generation who will inherit this world.

And so my dear friends, this is my blessing to you as well. May we always follow a vision of justice, justice that is integrated with compassion and forgiveness, and may we join together in this place with others in the world who are devoted to creating a more just and democratic and peace-loving United States and a just and peaceful world.   May we forgive those who have hurt us and thank those who have helped us.  May we have compassion for those we perceive to be “enemies.”

As Nelson Mandela said in his inauguration address:

Let there be justice for all.

Let there be peace for all.

Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all.

Let each know that for each the body, the mind and the soul have been freed to fulfill themselves.

Let freedom reign. God bless Africa.

And let us add: May God bless us all.

May we all be sealed for a sweet, joyous and healthy New Year.


Daoud Nassar and His Message of Hope

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you how I feel about my friend Daoud Nassar, founder of Tent of Nations (and if you haven’t, you can read those posts here, here and here). It’s been my honor to serve on the Advisory Board of Friends of Tent of Nations – North America – and when they told me Daoud was coming to the US for speaking engagements, I jumped at the chance to add Chicago to his itinerary.

Among his stops here was a meeting with local interfaith clergy (below) and a presentation last night at Glenview Community Church for a program co-sponsored by Hands of Peace, a Chicago-area coexistence initiative on whose Advisory Board I also serve (bottom two pix).  At every stop, it was my pleasure see so many new friends and supporters inspired by Daoud’s message of steadfastness and hope.

Last Sunday, Daoud gave the sermon at the prestigious Riverside Church in New York City. I’ve just watched the video (above) and I was deeply moved by his words. I’ve listened to Daoud present many times, but I’ve never heard him speak in the unique context of his Christian faith.  As a Jew, I found his sermon to be deeply resonant, spiritually profound – grounded both in the truth of his own personal testimony as well as universal values of hope and human dignity. I encourage you to watch it in its entirety.

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What Would Real Diplomacy in Syria Look Like?

photo: CNN

photo: CNN

Secretary of State Kerry is off to the Middle East, among other things to press for peace talks to stem the tragic bloodshed in Syria. There’s a refreshing thought: up until now we’ve been hearing that the US’s dilemma is essentially a choice between military intervention or inaction. In this day and age, actual diplomacy too often feels like a quaint endangered species.

I’m certainly mindful that US “peace deals” often have more to do with US interests than real and lasting peace – and I fully agree with journalist Shamus Cooke when he writes:

It’s possible that Obama wants to avoid further humiliation in his Syria meddling by a last minute face-saving “peace” deal. It’s equally likely, however, that these peace talks are a clever diplomatic ruse, with war being the real intention. It’s not uncommon for peace talks to break down and be used as a justification for an intensification of war, since “peace was attempted but failed.”

At the same time, however, diplomacy may well be our best option to stem the horrid violence which just seems to spiral and escalate without end. As Iran expert Trita Parsi, recently wrote in Open Zion:

A peaceful and sustainable resolution to the Syrian crisis is not within reach in the short-term. But a significant reduction in the violence and bloodshed can be achieved because the appetite for diplomacy is stronger now than at anytime in the past two years. The peace summit prepared by the U.S. and Russia can achieve this if they bring all the parties to the table.

Some more wise words on the importance of real diplomatic intervention in Syria. First, from Ron Young of the National Interreligious Leadership Initiative for Peace in the Middle East:

To have a realistic chance of success, such an international intervention would have to involve Russia — and Iran and China — as well as countries supporting the rebels. Twin goals of the intervention would be to halt the violence and achieve agreement on a political transition involving the rebels and elements of the current regime that would provide assurances for all of Syria’s diverse internal communities and for interests of the major outside parties. The current U.S. diplomatic initiative with Russia is worthy of public support, and should be pursued with creativity and determination.

And finally, Rich Rubenstein (Professor of Conflict Resolution at George Mason University) writes:

Clearly, any dialogue between the warring parties in Syria is better than continuing to destroy and dismember that nation. Talk, by all means! But the most promising process would involve talks presided over by a team of independent facilitators accepted by both the regime and its opponents – confidential dialogues that would help them explore the systemic causes of the war and fashion a plan for a new Syria. The Americans, Europeans, and neighboring states should agree to stay out of the way while the talks continue and to stand ready to guarantee any agreement reached by the parties.


“Wrestling in the Daylight” in Seattle

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:


Rebuilding Alliance Rebuilds Hope for Palestinians in Area C

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New Kindergarten facility in Al Aqaba, built through the support of Rebuilding Alliance

In my last post, I addressed Israel’s creeping annexation of Area C, a region that accounts for 60% of the West Bank and contains all the major Jewish “settlement blocs.” It’s a process that has systematically depopulated this area of its Palestinian residents through a militarily-managed bureaucracy of home demolitions, forced evictions, revocation of residency rights while increasing widespread Jewish settlement throughout the region. Since 1967, the Palestinian population in Area C has dropped from as many as 320,000 to 56,000. During the same time, the Jewish population there has grown from 1,200 to 310,000.

In my post I addressed the political implications of these policies – but it’s just as crucial to remember that every home demolished, every residency revoked and every family evicted represents a devastating reality for real lives on the ground.  That’s why it’s so important to support the organizations working valiantly on their behalf.

One of my favorites is Rebuilding Alliance, a coalition of groups and individuals around the world that partners with Israeli and Palestinian NGOs to help devastated Palestinian communities in Area C rebuild in the face of often overwhelming obstacles.

Rebuilding Alliance is truly a model of its kind, using a holistic approach to peace-building, combining community-directed rebuilding with grassroots and diplomatic advocacy.  One of RA’s most important projects has focused on the Area C village of Al Aqaba, located in the Jordan Valley.  Al Aqaba was used for decades as a military training zone, during which twelve villagers were killed and dozens wounded during live-fire training exercises. In 2003, the village won a landmark victory when the Israeli High Court ruled that the army camp at the entrance of the village had to relocate. By that time, however, 70% of the village’s original one thousand residents had already left, seeking safety and better living conditions.

In the hopes that these former residents could return to their homes, the Al Aqaba Village Council appealed to international organizations to help them plan for their future. Among the projects they sought to implement were a medical clinic and a new three-story building that housed a sewing cooperative and a kindergarten for the children of Al Aqaba whose families who had relocated to nearby villages. With the help of grant money, Rebuilding Alliance began construction of a new kindergarten in 2004 (see pic above). As soon as the building was erected however, the military issued demolition orders for it and most of the village.

Through RA’s advocacy, the American Embassy helped stop the bulldozers with two homes demolished. Now they are helping Al Aqaba to legally and diplomatically challenge the demolition orders as they push ahead with plans to rebuild the village. Through its “Rebuilding to Remain” project, it plans to build 30 affordable, colorful, eco-friendly homes and construction has already begun. Breaking ground for this project was a huge victory for Al Aqaba.

Still, like so many villages in Area C, the residents in Al Aqaba live under constant threat of demolition. The pretext for demolishing Palestinian buildings has been the lack of Israel-issued building permits, which are only attainable once a master-plan has been approved, and are virtually unattainable for Palestinians.

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I had the pleasure of speaking at Rebuilding Alliance’s “Mirroring Hope” dinner in San Mateo, CA when I was in the Bay Area last week (see above) and can attest to the incredible creativity of this courageous organization. I have learned a great deal from the example and work of Founder/Executive Director Donna Baranski-Walker and RA staff person Morgan Bach and it’s truly been a honor for me to support their work.

I urge you to do the same – click here make a donation. Click here to see Rebuilding Alliance’s Palestine Crisis Map, which offers English language news reports of human rights violations and rebuilding efforts in Area C and throughout Israel/Palestine – and to receive alerts on the status of specific villages.


Support “A People Without a Land” – New Documentary on Israel/Palestine

In 2007, Orthodox Jewish filmmaker Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon made “Cut,” a provocative and important film about circumcision. Now he’s poised to do the same with Israel/Palestine:

“A People Without a Land,” is a feature-length documentary that challenges the conventional wisdom about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (It) grew out of our frustration with the narrowness and lack of depth that characterizes so many discussions about the conflict. We wanted to make a film that would both broaden the conversation and articulate a vision for a real and lasting solution. Unlike many films about Israel/Palestine, we do not limit our field of vision to Israel’s 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. A People Without a Land examines the questions that lie at the heart of the conflict: Why has the peace process failed? What does it mean that Israel is a Jewish State? What should happen to the millions of Palestinian refugees? How about the Palestinian citizens of Israel, or the West Bank settlers? We believe that by directly addressing these questions, we can jump-start a conversation that will ultimately lead to a just solution.

This project promises to be pretty special: among those interviewed are Ali Abunimah, co-founder of the Electronic Intifada, Eitan Bronstein, founder of Zochrot, Middle East scholar Ghada Karmi and Neta Golan, co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement. It will also feature the music of klezmer great Daniel Kahn and the Painted Bird as well as a score by Alan Sufrin of Stereo Sinai.

Ungar-Sargon is currently raising money for “A People Without a Land” through a Kickstarter campaign. It’s entered into its final week – click here to contribute.


Stanford Professor, Poet and Ex-Sixties Radical Hilton Obenzinger on What it Means to Be a Jew

obenzingerHighly recommended: this recent interview with Stanford professor Hilton Obenzinger, who among other things is a prolific writer and poet and was one of the student leaders of the 1968 Columbia University protests which led to the six day takeover of the President’s office.  Obenzinger definitely speaks my heart on all kinds of issues. (h/t: Susan Klonsky)

A few choice excerpts:

What makes you proud to be a Jew?

Jewish culture is rich and varied with a transnational sense of peoplehood. In Europe, my ancestors were everything from ultra-orthodox to Polish nationalists, to escape-to-America émigrés, to Zionist and Communist. The Nazis murdered almost all of them. In the face of that horror and other horrors of history, Jewish survival is astonishing.

I’m especially proud of the American Jewish experience that pushed me, and others, to join the civil rights and social justice movements. I’ve heard it said that support for equality and justice flows from Jewish ethics and from the history of Jewish persecution. I’d like to believe it.

What are you most ashamed about Jews as an ethnic group?

From my point of view, Zionism turned out to be a moral disaster for the Jews. American Jews have been suckered into supporting Israel in unthinking ways. This has been changing, but not enough American Jews are yelling and screaming to stop Israel’s expansion.

Forty years ago, did you believe there would be a resolution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians?

Yes. And I still do.

Do you see a resolution to the conflict in your own lifetime?

Assuming I live another decade or two, probably not. But you never know. Who would have thought the Soviet Union would collapse? Or a black man would be president? I may not live to see it but it’s likely to happen.

Do you think that there can be a one-state solution to the conflicts between Palestinians and Israelis?

Of course, there can be — which doesn’t mean it will happen, at least in the near future. The conflict is not at root religious and it hasn’t been going on for thousands of years, as many claim. It started about 130 years ago when Zionism, a Western political movement, called for the settlement of Palestine and the exclusion of the native people. It’s a conflict started by people, not by God; humans created it; humans can fix it.

What do you see happening now?

Israeli Jews are a nationality with their own language and culture, as are the Palestinians, so it would take a lot of good faith to fit all of them together, including the refugees. Good faith is not an abundant commodity nowadays. Meanwhile, the Israeli government has been doing all it can to prevent a two-state solution by expanding settlements and uprooting Palestinian communities.

One state may be inevitable, since the foundations for a viable Palestinian state have been greatly undermined. Israel might move further in its current colonialist direction, creating reservations for the natives and a large open-air prison in Gaza. I don’t care if there are one or four states, actually, just so long as equality and democratic rights are at the core of all of them.

What have you learned from studying the Holocaust?

When we protested the war in Vietnam many of us didn’t want to be “good Germans” — people passively accepting evil and genocide. My family’s murder always weighs on my mind, so for me it’s imperative to speak out about injustice.

I produced my aunt’s oral testimony called Running through Fire about her escape from the Warsaw Ghetto. I learned from her that everything is muddy — with some Germans acting morally and courageously and some Jews acting in a craven fashion. I also leaned that in a situation of utter horror, no matter how smart and skilled and, in her case, how beautiful you were, pure luck is a determining factor. I’ve also learned to keep my passport up-to-date.

What does it mean to you to be a Jew?

After my son’s birth I felt compelled to pass on to him a positive Jewish experience without the corruptions of anti-Arab racism, and the “Jewish Disneyland” kitsch that American Jews love. I wanted my son to laugh, to enjoy the bar mitzvah experience, to feel comfortable being Jewish and Filipino — which is his mother’s ethnic identity.

What do you think Jews and Arabs have in common?

I told my aunt who survived the Nazis that if she could meet Palestinians in refugee camps she would like them, and that they were a lot like her. Palestinians, like Jews, value education and culture, and they insist on persisting. They, too, have historical memories that they won’t allow to be erased and that they act upon. Both Israeli Jews and Palestinians have also managed to drive each other insane. It’s painful watching two peoples destroy each other.


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