People You Should Know About: Sister Pat Murphy and Sister JoAnn Persch

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This past Friday morning, members of my congregation and I participated in an interfaith vigil at the immigrant detention facility in Broadview, IL. We’ve come to this spot many times over the years and I’ve written about the vigil many times before. It was founded several years ago Sister JoAnn Persch (right) and Sister Pat Murphy (left) of the Sisters of Mercy – two of my spiritual heroes.

During the vigil, Sister Jo joyfully announced that the Marie Joseph House of Hospitality, a home that provides shelter, meals, transportation, and community support for people awaiting their immigration proceedings, was finally open. Sister Jo and Sister Pat have been indefatigably working to create this community-based alternative to detention of undocumented immigrants, who are typically treated as “inventory” during deportation hearings. Her announcement provided one small but profound ray of hope in an otherwise dark and dismal reality for those fighting for compassionate immigration reform.

In a recent article about the Marie Joseph House, Sister Pat and Sister Jo pointed out that this new facility will be able to provide these services for significantly less than the $122 to $164 per day ICE says it pays to hold someone in jail. The home will have 18 bedrooms and extra space for short-term residents. It’s a small capacity compared to the 33,400 people ICE typically detains each night, but as Sister Pat and Jo rightly note, it’s a start:

We are not alone in our efforts. A network of similar shelters is emerging across the country. The outpouring of financial, in-kind, and volunteer support we receive from communities of all backgrounds shows us the immense generosity Americans have when people are in need.

As Alabama Republican Congressman Spencer Bachus observed during a recent House Judiciary hearing, “It seems there is an overuse of detention.” John Morton said that “alternatives to detention” programs are promising. We agree. Outside detention, people have better access to lawyers, doctors, and other support. Congress should use new immigration legislation to allow ICE to invest in alternatives rather than prisons. To get it right, they need to consult with communities and groups like ours.

I’ve known and worked alongside Sister Pat and Sister Jo for many years now, and am consistently inspired by their example of deep faith, abiding compassion and dogged persistence. For the past 45 years they have worked together in Chicago to minister to immigrants, refugees, older persons, and homeless families – and to advocate for their basic rights. In 2008, they helped to spearhead an intense lobbying drive to pass historic legislation that allows all immigrant detainees held in Illinois jails the same access to clergy as those imprisoned for other crimes. As a result, many professional and lay ministers can now serve the pastoral needs of undocumented immigrants who would otherwise be locked away and forgotten by everyone but their families.

Sister Pat and Sister Jo’s work has not gone unnoticed in the wider world. They were profiled in the play Home/Land (produced by Chicago’s Albany Park Theater Project) and more recently in the documentary film, “Band of Sisters,” (below) which explores the social justice activism of American nuns throughout the country. Though this kind of attention is much deserved, Sister Pat and Sister Jo would be the first to say that they are simply living out their faith in the most basic of ways: to minister to the needs of the most vulnerable members of society and to demand that our system do the same.

Sister Pat and Sister Jo are truly my spiritual teachers and I am so grateful to know and work alongside them. I know of few others who model compassion and justice with such decency and grace.

 


Untold Stories from Gaza: A Conversation with Ayman Qwaider and Sameeha Elwan

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I’ve written before about the wonderful Chicago initiative “Untold Stories,” which features Palestinians sharing their personal stories of their lives under occupation. While it began as a project of my congregation, it has since expanded to become an interfaith community effort. I’m so gratified by the success of this program, which draws upon the unique power of narrative rather than political rhetoric. As ever, the simple sharing of stories has an uncanny ability to cut through the convoluted complexities of political issues like little else.

Up until now, “Untold Stories” has featured Palestinian-Americans (and recently, the addition of Israelis as well.)  This past Sunday, however, for the first time participants were able to hear from Palestinian presenters speakers speaking to us directly from Palestine. I was honored to serve as the facilitator of a Skype conversation between attendees at the Evanston Public Library and a young Palestinian couple in Gaza: Ayman Qwaider, a community educator and peace activist and his wife Sameeha Elwan – a blogger/student/activist.

For well over an hour, Ayman and Sameeha shared details of life inside the Gaza blockade.  Ayman, 26, received his degree from the Islamic University of Gaza in 2008, after which he worked for two years as an international humanitarian aid worker. In 2010, he was granted a scholarship to travel to Spain, where he received his master’s degree in Peace, Conflict and Development Studies. He currently works for a non-governmental organization in Gaza.

Sameeha is a talented writer and blogger who, like Ayman, received her BA at the Islamic University, then received a scholarship to earn an MA in Culture and Difference at Ustinov College in Durham, UK. Her work is featured in the important new anthology, “Gaza Writes Back,” recently published by Just World Books. Sameeha has received a scholarship to pursue a Phd in English literature but it is as yet unclear if she will receive permission to travel once again pursue her studies.

It was clearly important for Ayman and Sameeha to be able to share their stories with us, particularly since the plight of Palestinians in Gaza is the chronically forgotten story in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Now six years into this blockade, Gazans still live in a virtual open-air prison with severely curtailed access to the most basic necessities of living.  As Ayman and Sameeha told us, 80% of the population is dependent on international aid, the economy has all but collapsed, the percentage of children suffering from malnourishment is rising, unemployment is at 60%, there is a shortage of drinkable water and access to electricity is limited to several hours a day.

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To drive this point home, Ayman told us at the beginning of the program that we should expect their electricity to go down in one hour. At that point, we would need to wait for a few minutes while they hooked their computer up to a reserve battery. When we reconnected, they were sitting in the darkness of their Gaza City flat, their faces illuminated only by the light from their computer. (Compare top pic with the pic above).

I’ve written extensively about the politics dimensions of the Gaza crisis so I won’t belabor the point here. I will only say that I am deeply grateful to “Untold Stories” (and its coordinators, Sallie Gratch and Mark Miller) for enabling us to hear Ayman and Sameeha’s story – and help us bear witness to this injustice with a unique kind of power.

It’s truly difficult to describe how it felt to converse with a young couple who were sitting in the darkness of their apartment from inside a blockaded strip of land while we sat in the comfort and freedom of an Evanston library. It is so very, very important to hear these untold stories and to create real relationships with those who are living them out day after day. I’d add it is even more important to view ourselves as an integral part of these stories, so that we might somehow participate in their just resolution.

Some links I encourage you to read: click here to read Ayman’s blog and here to read Sameeha’s. Click here to read an excellent article by journalist Ruth Pollard which describes the current reality under the Gaza blockade and prominently features Ayman and Sameeha’s story.

And finally, click here to donate to ANERA – a heroic NGO that has long been endeavoring to provide sustainable support to the people of Gaza.

"Untold Stories" co-coordinator Mark Miller

“Untold Stories” co-coordinator Mark Miller


Why I Support the ASA Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions

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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.


Palestinian Family Ties: The Most Sacred Solidarity

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From left to right: delegation members Shafic Budron and his daughter Dima with Shafic’s Uncle Hasan, Al-Bi’na, Israel.

Early in the planning of our delegation, two of our Palestinian-American members, Shafic Budron and his daughter Dima, invited our group to visit to the homes of their family members in the Upper Galilee of Israel.  Shafic and his immediate family are dear friends to many of members of the delegation – and of course we graciously accepted their invitation. I think I can safely say this visit was one of the most eagerly anticipated part of our itinerary.

Like many Palestinian families, Shafic’s family was devastated by the Nakba. While many of his family members became internally displaced – and eventually became Palestinian citizens of Israel, others became refugees. Shafic himself was born after the Nakba and grew up in the infamous Shatilla refugee camp south of Beirut, Lebanon.

Shafic’s personal story is a harrowing one, but he eventually made his way to the US, where he became an American citizen, a successful businessman and a prominent member of the Palestinian community in the Chicago area. Shafic and his family are among the most genuine, open-hearted people I know – indeed his friendship with so many Jewish members of our delegation was a major inspiration for this remarkable trip.

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Most of Wednesday was a travel day as we drove north through the Jordan Valley toward the Upper Galilee. When we arrived at our destination in the village of Al-Bi’na, we were literally swarmed by joyous family members, who quickly and graciously welcomed the members of our delegation. Shafic’s uncle Hasan (his father’s youngest and only surviving brother) introduced us to his many children and grandchildren and extended family members as we sat in a circle for a cursory “get to know each other” session. Then we sat down to a sumptuous lunch (above), where we continued to get to know each other some more. By the end of the meal, we felt as if we had become adopted members of the family.

After a visit to the former village of Al-Ghabsiyah (see my earlier post), we went to Shafic’s cousin Dr. Abed’s home in the nearby village of Al-Jedaidah for a dinner that lasted well into the wee hours of the evening. Tired but exhilarated, we were eventually put up in family members’ homes for the night.

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This was clearly an emotional visit for the entire family, not least for Shafic and Dima themselves. The Budrons have, quite understandably, experienced a myriad of emotions on this trip and during our Galilee sojourn in particular. This was, in fact, Dima’s very first trip to Israel/Palestine. While she has visited her father’s family several times in Lebanon, she has never visited her homeland until now. She tells me she has heard stories about her ancestral home from her parents and grandparents for years – and is overwhelmed to finally make the visit now as a young woman.

It has been a profound and emotional visit for our entire American Palestinian/Jewish delegation as well. As of now, the trip has officially wound down. Several members are already returning home and I am preparing to depart today. There’s so much more to say, so many more experiences to describe. I’ll do my best to share as many of them as I can after I return.

In my next and final post, I’ll offer some concluding thoughts – and I have put out an open invitation to our members to share their thoughts with you as well.  Suffice to say for now this has been a sacred journey – one that has strengthened our relationships with one another and our solidarity with those who devote their lives every day toward a just peace in Israel/Palestine.

More thoughts to come…

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Hasan and Shafic say goodbye.


“Beautiful Resistance” in Aida Refugee Camp

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.

Dr. Abdelfattah Abusrour with the key to his family's home (it is a well-known custom for Palestinian families to keep the keys to the homes they lost during the Nakba as a sign of their hope for return.

Dr. Abdelfattah Abusrour with the key to his family’s ancestral home (it is a well-known custom for Palestinian families to keep the keys to the homes they lost during the Nakba as a sign of their hope for return.)

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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.”


Remembrance as Palestinian Resistance

Zochrot's Eitan Bronstein leading a tour of Lifta

Zochrot’s Eitan Bronstein leading a tour of Lifta

There are many forms of resistance to oppression. One is memory itself.

On Tuesday our delegation visited the village of Lifta, a Palestinian village on the outskirts of Jerusalem that was depopulated of its residents by Jewish militias early in 1948. Our tour was led by Eitan Bronstein, director of Zochrot, an Israeli organization that educates Israelis about the Nakba, actively advocating for the Palestinian Right of Return. It’s truly one of the bravest, most important Israeli organizations I know.

Zochrot’s tours of destroyed Palestinian villages are an critical aspect of their educational work. They are, of course, not your typical tours – in most cases they do not show you what is, but rather what is no more. Most Palestinian villages destroyed during the Nakba were razed to the ground, leaving little behind but the shell of a building or the occasional foundations of homes.  Zochrot keeps the culture life of these communities alive through their tours, underscoring the profound enormity – and collective tragedy – of what was lost.

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Lifta

Lifta is somewhat unique among these villages in that it is the only Nakba-era village that still remains largely intact. In its day it was a fairly well-to-do community, with a population of 2,550.

In the years leading up to the 1948, the village fell under attack by Jewish militias in the area. On the December 28, 1947 six people were gunned down in the village coffeehouse, by members of two Jewish militias, the Stern Gang and the Irgun. In late January or early February, the militias attacked and seized the neighboring village of Qaluba and then invaded Lifta from the West. They occupied Lifta’s new town and the remaining residents took refuge in the old town in the valley. The village was cut-off from the west and anyone trying to leave was killed. The villagers resisted but were defeated after several hours of fighting.

By the time the entire village was occupied, most of the people had already left Lifta and fled into the West Bank, the rest were taken by truck and dumped in East Jerusalem. By February 1948, Lifta had been completely depopulated.  It’s not completely clear why the Jewish forces did not raze Lifta to the ground as it had so many other villages. For a time it allowed newly-immigrated Yemenite Jews to occupy the houses, but when the homes proved uninhabitable, they were eventually abandoned

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with Eitan Bronstein

Lifta was the object of some controversy when the Jerusalem municipality announced plans to redevelop the area as a luxury area for Israelis. The plans were dropped after an outcry from former residents and progressive Israeli activists. In the meantime, the remnants of this remains, a testament to the legacy of a rich communal life that was lost during the Nakba.

I can see why Lifta is such a popular spot for Israeli tourists – the town ls nestled in a long valley, with homes and buildings built into either side. The mosque and the Muktar’s house are still in decent condition, testifying to what clearly once was a beautiful, desirable town. At the bottom of the valley is a natural spring that still attracts swimmers, particularly ultra-orthodox who attribute spiritual significance to it. As Eitan showed us the area, the swimmers glared at us as if we were interloping in their own “sacred territory.”  They clearly had no comprehension of the actual profanity that had occurred here in 1948.

On Wednesday evening, we visited another Nakba site: El Ghabsiya, located in the upper Galilee (where were visiting members of delegation members Shafic and and Dima Budron’s family – more on this later). Our tour of El Ghabsiya was led by Muhammad Kaial of the Association for the Defense of the Rights of the Internally Displaced Persons in Israel, and Daoud Bader, an original survivor of the original village.

The story of El Ghabsiya, like Lifta, is an example of how the Nakba is not only a historical event of the past, but an injustice and a struggle that occurs even in our very day. In March 1948, fearful that uncertainty in Palestine’s future could endanger the people of the village, prominent members of El Ghabsiya made an agreement with Jewish militia leaders. In exchange for his cooperation, the militia promised not to invade the village. (At that time, the population of the village numbered about 700 people.)

Inside El Ghabsiya mosque (far right: Muhammad Kaial)

Inside El Ghabsiya mosque (far right: Muhammad Kaial)

The agreement was not to be honored. In May 1948, Jewish militias surrounded and entered the village. Families living near entrance to the village greeted the soldiers with coffee; in return father and his son were taken out into the nearby woods – Daoud told us that they have never been heard from to this day. When the soldiers entered El Ghabsiya, a community leader named Daoud Zainl climbed to the roof of the mosque and raised a white flag. The militia ignored his act of surrender, opened fire, and killed him on the spot. In  all, eleven Palestinians were killed during the attack on El Ghabsiya and the subsequent expulsion of its residents, despite the fact that there was no local resistance.

The inhabitants of the village escaped to surrounding villages, becoming “internally displaced refugees.” Unlike other internally displaced Palestinians, the people of El Ghabsiya were allowed to return to their homes less than twelves months later – but two years later, on August 2, 1951, then Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion declared the village a “closed military zone” and the villagers were again forced to leave their homes.

The people of El Ghabsiya fought for their right of return all the way to the Israeli Supreme Court and on November 1951, the court ruled that they did indeed have the legal right of return to their village. Armed with this ruling, the villages gathered and headed back to their homes – and were met by Israel military forces the blocked their way and refused to recognize the decision of the court.  In succeeding years, government bulldozers destroyed all of the houses in the village – the only building left standing was the village mosque.

For the next forty five years, the Israeli Land Authority allowed the mosque to sit in disrepair and desecration, used as a stable for horses and other animals. Finally, in 1995 residents and descendents of residents of El Ghabsiya initiated a clean-up project and began weekly attempts to pray at their mosque. In response, the Israeli Land Authority sealed the windows and doors and ringed the mosque with barbed wire.

Outside El Ghabsiya mosque: “I will not remain a refugee – we will return.”

Still, the people of El Ghabsiya have not given up. Most live in villages near their ancestral village and they still make regular attempts to gather to pray at their mosque. Above you can see the sign villagers have placed in front of the mosque: “I will not remain a refugee – we will return.” (You can also see that the sign has been vandalized, sadly enough, with a Jewish star.)

After hearing this story, our group toured the mosque and gathered in the courtyard. On of our members Kalman Resnick said that as a member of the Jewish community and a man whose own family fled persecution, he felt shame at hearing this story of dispossession, that continues to this day. I then led the Jewish members of our delegation in the recitation of Kaddish for those who were killed on this site in 1948.  In return, Daoud, the original resident of the village, emotionally expressed his appreciation for our presence and our solidarity – a profoundly moving moment for us all.

After our visit, our group discussed ways we might help support the people of El Ghabsiya in their quest for justice – and their simple desire to pray in their ancestral mosque. More info on this effort will be forthcoming.

We’ve just returned from our Friday demonstration. It was, quite simply, an indescribable experience -  I’ll do my best to describe it in my next post…


At-Risk Communities from Syria to the South Side: A Sermon for Yom Kippur 5774

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While I’m sure that Syria has been on the lips of many a rabbi this High Holiday season, I’ll be honest with you: I’ve struggled with whether or not to give that sermon this year. Not because I don’t consider it to be an issue of critical importance, quite the contrary – no one can deny that the situation in Syria is a tragic and critically important one in our world at the moment. If I’ve been hesitant, it’s only because I’m not really sure I have much to add to the myriad of political analyses we’ve heard in the media these past few weeks.

So while my words to you today are not directly related to Syria, I would like to begin with one small but powerful story out of this crisis. It comes from an article written by my friend Aziz Abu Sarah, a young Palestinian peace activist and educator. At the moment Aziz is the Co-Executive Director at the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University – and he was recently made a National Geographic Emerging Explorer where he serves as a cultural educator. Several JRC members know Aziz well as he was one of our tour guides of a JRC trip to East Jerusalem and the West Bank two years ago.

As the news out of Syria became more and more dire, particularly the news of the growing refugee crisis, Aziz and a colleague put their heads together to explore some kind of action they might possibly take. There are currently more than 2,000,000 Syrian refugees in camps throughout the Middle East – mostly in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. Women and children make up three quarters of the refugee population. There are over 1,000,000 children refugees as a result of this crisis.

In the end, Aziz and his colleague decided to establish an educational summer camp for refugee children on Syrian-Turkish border. In a blog post about his experiences in the camp, he wrote, “Whether the US bombs Assad or not is not in my control, but being active to help those in need is.”

In his post, Aziz wrote movingly about the children he had met and the stories they told him – stories that were at once horrific and at the same time the ordinary everyday stories of children everywhere. At the conclusion of his post, he wrote:

These are the stories that we need to remember when we argue about Syria. These are the people paying the heavy price. When we pass by a news item about Syria, we must remember the millions of children that could become another lost generation without our willingness to engage and help…

Opening our hearts and finding compassion must come before any discussion on military intervention.

When I read Aziz’s post, it reminded me how easily we debate these crises even while knowing so very little about the people who are actually living through them. How we tend to view these kinds of global tragedies in the abstract. It’s understandable, of course – when we read the staggering statistics coming out of these crises zones, it literally staggers our comprehension. How on earth do we grasp numbers such as these, let alone the reality of the suffering behind the statistics?

But while it’s understandable, I do find something profoundly troubling about this phenomenon. Because when we reduce people in crisis zones to abstractions, it invariably creates a kind of emotional callousness in the ways we think and form our opinions about the crises themselves. When we don’t make an effort to understand the human reality behind the headlines, it seems to me, our political ideas emerge in something of a moral and emotional vacuum.

I do believe that Aziz is absolutely right: before we start holding forth on whether or not to bomb, we must first open our hearts and find compassion for the people of Syria. We must make an effort to learn who they are, to learn about their unique experiences, to listen to them. Whatever we believe must be done, the process by which we form our opinions must begin with an effort to get to know the human beings behind the abstractions.

Now I realize that most of us don’t have the wherewithal to pack up and move to Turkey to work with Syrian refugees – but this doesn’t let us off the hook. Because quite frankly, we don’t have to literally go to the Middle East to discover populations at risk. While Syria has been at the center of the headlines of late, in truth there are all too many of communities in crisis in our midst. We don’t have to go all that far to find them.

Indeed, this is another way that our abstractions affect our perception of the world. Crises are things that happen “over there.” To be honest, sometimes it seems to me that we relate to the at-risk populations in our own backyard as if they are as far away as the Middle East. But of course, they’re not. They are right here, right outside our very door. They may not be of the same magnitude of those in places like Syria, but they are all too real nonetheless.

Here’s but one example, from right here in Chicago. Many of you, I know, are familiar with the initiative known as “Safe Passage” a program formed in 2009 as a response to gang and street violence in at risk Chicago neighborhoods. The program places community workers wearing bright fluorescent vests near public schools as a presence that will help create “safe passage” for High Schoolers who were walking to and from school.

The program was expanded significantly this past May, after the Chicago School Board closed almost 50 public elementary and middle schools in predominantly African-American and Hispanic communities on the South and West sides. Among the many devastating impacts of this decision was that it forced many children to walk longer routes to their new schools, through additional dangerous neighborhoods and across multiple gang boundaries. Whereas these children had previously walked an average of a few blocks to their neighborhood schools, many of them now have to walk half a mile or more through areas that are, quite literally, battle zones.

To deal with this reality, the school board expanded Safe Passage, hiring an additional 600 workers at $10 an hour to serve 12,000 schoolchildren in at-risk communities on their way to their new schools. While it is still early in the new school year, the preliminary reports are not promising. There have already been reports of violence along Safe Passage routes – not including the myriad of areas where children are not served by the program. We are now hearing reports that overwhelmed workers are quitting or just not showing up for work. One alderman has suggested the use of drones to protect children along Safe Passage routes.

No, we don’t need to look far away to find stories of children in battle zones. They are, in a very real way, right outside our door.

How do we respond to news such as this? Though it pains me to say so, I would suggest most of us who live the relatively safe and secure neighborhoods of greater Chicago respond to this news the same way we respond to the tragic news coming out of Syria, or Somalia or the Congo. Most of us, I think, thank goodness it’s not our reality. We quantify it in the abstract. We respond as if it’s happening “over there.”

Except it’s not. It’s happening right here in our very own community and in communities just like it across our country. These populations may not be terrorized by tyrannical dictators or civil war, but their lives and their families’ lives are at risk in a very real way. As a parent, I cannot fathom how it must feel to raise my children in neighborhoods wracked with violence, to send them off to walk miles to school through gangland battle zones. I cannot begin to fathom it. And maybe that is part of the problem.

This Yom Kippur, the season when our community honestly takes account of itself and how we might collectively atone, I think it is eminently appropriate to ask ourselves: what has been our response to communities in crisis? And are we truly able to see them? Have we truly opened our eyes and our hearts to their realities – particularly those who live right here in our own nation, our own city?

I can’t help but wonder what our communities would look like if our public policy was guided by such an approach. Let’s return to the example of Safe Passage that I gave earlier. There is no doubt that Chicago Public Schools, like all major urban school districts, faces daunting challenges. But unfortunately in my opinion, the Chicago School Board, like so many other urban school boards, now seeks to address these challenges from a corporate, efficiency-focused mindset rather than a community-based one.

I believe this approach to public education is problematic on many levels – but perhaps the most troubling is the way it has utterly blinded us to the critical role neighborhood schools play as the bedrock of our communities – particularly our at-risk communities. In areas that have already been profoundly destabilized by massive cuts to public services, neighborhood schools have served as the only real glue that holds these communities together. By closing these schools, CPS was in many cases literally cutting the final piece of government investment in these communities – and the last remaining institution in which residents can invest in one another.

It is impossible to understate the devastation these kinds of decisions inflict on low-income communities that have long been seriously at-risk. For decades, in fact, urban renewal policies have been decimating neighborhoods, uprooting residents who are largely poor and people of color. Neighborhood assets, like churches, stores, and parks that have been important community centers for generations, have become abandoned or have disappeared. And so residents have been forced out – they have become refugees, in as sense, of a different sort.

The neighborhood school is often the one institution still surviving in low-income neighborhoods and it has historically served as points of pride and community for families. If you had any doubt that these schools are important to their neighborhoods, you had only to listen to the thousands of parents who attended community meetings on school closings over the past few months. Despite their pleas, however, our new “education reformers” have chosen to close schools rather improve them, using the argument that we are in a time of public sector austerity and that we need to orient them to market forces.

This is what happens when leaders view schools using a corporate model rather than a community-based one. When CPS closed 50 neighborhood schools and slashed the budgets of those that remained, Chicago’s non-elected board addressed this issue with a top-down mindset that was ultimately divorced from the real-life reality on the ground. And so now we have it: thousands of students are now leaving their already devastated neighborhoods every day are forced to walk through battle zones in order to get to their schools.

Of course this phenomenon is not only restricted to our schools. In too many ways, our public policy is guided by the corporate goals of efficiency and profit over community and the greater good. While it is certainly true that many of our public institutions are bloated and inefficient and in need of reform, when we destroy them wholesale in this manner, we fail to reckon with the very real human cost of these actions. Even worse, when we privatize our public works, whether it is public housing, our health care system, or our prisons, we do more than simply turn lives into abstractions. We increasingly view human lives – and in some cases, human misery – as commodities to be profited from.

Whether we call this privatization or neo-liberalism whatever we choose to call it, I do believe it represents a very real form of institutional oppression. It may not be as obvious or as brutal as the oppression meted out by the Bashar Al-Assads of the world, but I submit it is a form of oppression nonetheless. Both stem from a view of our neighbors as somehow “other.” Both benefit from a more privileged people’s willingness to turn a blind eye. And most important, both forms of oppression affect the real lives of real people.

So what is there to be done? On an individual level, I think, one answer is very simple: we need to connect. We need to venture out of the hermetically sealed worlds we too often construct for ourselves and learn more about the people with whom we live – particularly those whose day-to-day reality is fundamentally different from our own.

Earlier this month, I read an article by a German journalist who was in Chicago to write about urban gun violence through a grant from the Pulitzer Center. It was fascinating to read the impressions of this European visitor from a Berlin, a city larger than Chicago but with a fraction of the homicides.

Here is how the journalist, Rieke Havertz, ended the article:

It is human nature to ignore Chicago’s gun violence as long as the shooting stays in the “bad” neighborhoods. Don’t take the “L” down south — that was the advice I always heard when I spoke about visiting less-fortunate neighborhoods.

I ignored the advice and nothing happened to me except that I got to know the city. I discovered that it’s not just money that needs to be thrown at these neighborhoods. They need economic opportunity, education, health care. They need a Chicago that is not a segregated city.

They need people who care. Take a different path, reach over the walls.

I know many JRC members who work and volunteer with in at-risk communities in Chicago and right here in Evanston – and I have learned a great deal from them over the years. I think it would behoove us all to not just to learn about these communities, but to create real connections, nurture real relationships. To meet and listen to those who live there. To relate to them as real people, not as charity cases to be helped or problems to be solved. To learn about their reality, their struggles, their needs, from them, not news reports or politicians or pundits.

We need to learn and act on an advocacy level as well. Here in Chicago, there is a remarkable grass-roots coalition that is shaping up and organizing on behalf of the at-risk communities in our city. In fact, polls show that 60% of Chicago’s citizens oppose the school closings and they are starting to make their voices and their presence heard in a major way. After the CPS’s announcement, many of us took to the streets for three straight days of marches in protest – and although the school closings and budget cuts are now a reality, they have galvanized a movement that is attracting a remarkable coalition – including growing numbers of young people.

But this movement has not grown up overnight – and it is not simply focused on the issue of public schools. It has in fact been building steadily over the years; it is the product of many community-based organizations mobilizing and organizing on behalf of the most vulnerable members of the greater Chicago community.

I’m proud to say here at JRC we are becoming increasingly active in this movement. I encourage you to find out more about our efforts and seriously consider lending us your support. Specifically speaking, I encourage to consider getting involved in our Labor Justice Task Force, our Immigrant Justice Task Force and to speak with JRC members who are currently exploring ways we can become active with Northside P.O.W.E.R., an institution-based people’s power organization with members on the Chicago’s North side and in North Shore Communities.

I have also personally been active with the wonderful organization Arise Chicago, an interfaith community organization that does important, critical local work on behalf of worker justice. (And of course, I would be derelict if I did not mention that we have many other active and vital Tikkun Olam Task Forces at JRC – I hope you will speak to JRC’s VP for Tikkun Olam and  learn how you can get involved in our ongoing social justice efforts.)

I also want to encourage us all to educate ourselves and find ways to act on a national level as well. Indeed, it is not an understatement to say that the at-risk populations in our country are currently vulnerable in ways we haven’t seen in decades. According to new data from the US Department of Agriculture, more than one in five American children face hunger, this at a time in which our Congress is considering cutting the SNAP program (aka food stamps) for more than 800,000 Americans who currently receive them but still do not get enough to eat or maintain only a barely adequate diet.

The crisis facing our food stamp program is a particularly critical issue at this very moment – and I would be extremely derelict if I devoted a sermon to our at-risk populations without mentioning this. According to a new report released just a few days ago by the Agriculture Department, food insecurity in our nation remains at a stubbornly high 14.5 percent. According to these statistics, one in five American children are currently facing hunger.

Thanks to the stimulus package, we’ve been able to address this issue through the SNAP program, which last year served 47 million Americans to meet their basic nutrition requirements. However next week, House Republicans, in an effort led by Representative Eric Cantor, will vote to cut $40 billion out of the food stamp program – an act that would literally force hundreds of thousands of Americans into food insecurity.

In regard to this bill, Rep. Jim McGovern made this very astute comment:

There are 50 million people in the United States of America who are hungry, 17 million are kids. It is something we all should be ashamed of, and the United States House of Representatives is about to make that worse. This is a big deal and my hope is that we’ll treat it as such and not just let it go by without a lot of discussion and debate because we’re all focused on Syria.

Now these cuts are unlikely to become law since the Senate would never pass them and President Obama would certainly never sign them. But the very fact that such a bill could even be voted on in the House is a clear sign that those advocating for the poor and the hungry in our country must remain incredibly vigilant. We simply cannot let our foreign policy discussions, however important, to eclipse these critical issues facing at-risk citizens here at home.

Every Yom Kippur, we recite our prayers in the first person plural. When we seek atonement, hope and healing for the New Year, we don’t do so for our own individual selves – we ask for these things on behalf of our entire community. I would claim that in this day and age it is getting harder and harder for us to connect with this aspect of our Yom Kippur prayers. Increasingly, it feels to me that we liturgical lip service to the concept of community. Too often it seems like we’re all living our parallel lives, without the sense that at the end of the day we’re all somehow in this together.

But in fact, we are. I do believe this sense of living separately from one another is itself the illusion. At the end of the day, our fates are intertwined. We’re very much mistaken if we believe that we’re somehow immune from risk. As we all know too well, the middle class is being squeezed and endangered in ways we haven’t witnessed in decades. Over the years and even now, there have been JRC members living on the verge of hunger and homelessness. These problems are not somewhere “over there” and in truth, they never really were. Perhaps it’s only our individualistic 21st century perspective that has changed.

So this Yom Kippur, I’m suggesting a recalibration of our spiritual perspective. To view the risk to the well-being of some members of our community as a risk to our own well-being. In a very real way, to own the danger and let go of our illusions of invulnerability. Otherwise, what do all of these prayers really mean? What do our lives really amount to if we cannot somehow see them as integrally connected to the lives of others, whether they live in Syria or the Southwest side of Chicago or in Evanston?

May this be the new year we let go of our illusions. May this be the year we decide to share the risks as well as the rewards.

May it be a rewarding year for us all.

(Click here to sign a petition that tells the House and Senate to put low-income families ahead of corporate welfare and to oppose all cuts to food stamps.)


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