Sharon’s Legacy: Survival at All Costs

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From Vice President Joe Biden’s remarks at the funeral of Ariel Sharon today:

Like all historic leaders, Prime Minister Sharon was a complex man about whom, as you’ve already heard from his colleagues, who engendered strong opinions from everyone.  But like all historic leaders, all real leaders, he had a North Star that guided him — a North Star from which he never, in my observation, never deviated.  His North Star was the survival of the State of Israel and the Jewish people, wherever they resided.

In talking about his spiritual attachment to the land of Israel back in an interview in the late ‘90s, he said, and I quote, “Before and above all else, I am a Jew…”

As a Jew – and as a human being of conscience – I submit that this myopic obsession with Jewish physical survival “before and above all else” has led the Jewish people down a very dark road indeed. In so many ways, Ariel Sharon represents the embodiment of this obsession – and I for one recoil at the suggestion that he might in any way be held up as a Jewish exemplar.

As the tributes of world leaders continue to roll in, please consider the life’s work of a man Joe Biden quite mistakenly claimed is “loved by the Jewish people:”

- In the early 1950s, as a young major in the Israeli army, Sharon led the infamous Unit 101, which carried out numerous cross-border “pre-emptive” and “retaliatory” attacks into the West Bank, deliberately killing and wounding Palestinian civilians.  In the most notorious incident involving Unit 101, between October 14 and 16, 1953, soldiers under Sharon’s command massacred 69 Palestinian civilians, most of them women and children, in the West Bank town of Qibya. Sharon’s orders included “total destruction of the village and maximum harm to the villagers, again forcing them to flee.”

- On October 29, 1956, Israel attacked Egypt, part of an invasion in conjunction with Britain and France. During the resulting hostilities, soldiers under Sharon’s command committed a series of massacres of POWs, including more than 100 civilians. In one incident, Israeli soldiers shot and killed 49 Egyptian prisoners of war, including civilians, after binding their hands and forcing them into a quarry. In another, 56 Egyptian civilians were murdered while sheltering in the back of a truck. In a third incident, some 50 Egyptian civilian workers were murdered by Israeli soldiers near the town of Ras Sudar.

- Following Israel’s surprise attack against Egypt in June 1967, which resulted in Israel’s occupation of the Gaza Strip, West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Egyptian Sinai peninsula, and Syrian Golan Heights, Ariel Sharon, by now a general responsible for Israel’s southern command, was tasked with “pacifying” Gaza. In his efforts to crush resistance, Sharon ordered his soldiers to execute without trial any Palestinians suspected of involvement in the resistance, resulting in the killing of more than 1000 Palestinians.

- On June 6, 1982, Israel launched a massive invasion of Lebanon, masterminded by then-Defense Minister Sharon. Between June and September, the Israeli army killed between 18,000 and 20,000 Lebanese and Palestinian civilians, bombarding and laying siege to the western half of the capital of Beirut.

- On September 16, 1982, under Sharon’s direction, Israeli soldiers surrounded the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps and sent in about 150 of their local Christian Phalangist militia allies, even though the long and bloody history between Palestinians and Phalangists in Lebanon was well known to the Israelis. Over the next three days, between 800 and 3500 Palestinian refugees and Lebanese, mostly women, children, and the elderly, were butchered by the Phalangists, who sexually assaulted, tortured and mutilated many of their victims, in one of the worst atrocities in the modern history of the Middle East.

For more details on these facts – and other aspects of Sharon’s legacy that were likely not recounted at his funeral today, click here.


NGO Report: Palestinian Children Kept in Outdoor Cages

Ramle Prison (photo: Nir Keidar)

Ramle Prison (photo: Nir Keidar)

Earlier this week, the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI) published a report that claimed children suspected of minor crimes were subjected to a variety of human rights abuses, including threats and acts of sexual violence and “public caging”, in which minors were held for extended periods of time in outdoor cages.

According to a group of public defenders making an official visit to Ramle prison, children were caged outside and exposed to severely cold weather during Israel’s recent winter storm. In a statement to the Israel Prison Service (IPS), the lawyers reported that “they spent several hours in the freezing cold and rain, until the transport arrived to take them to court around 6:00 am.”  The statement said that the practice had been going on for months, a fact “verified during other official visits and not denied by IPS.”

I read a number of news reports on the incident, and was particularly struck by this one from the Jerusalem Post (pay particular attention to the second paragraph):

The practice of placing the children in outdoor cages was halted when Justice Minister Tzipi Livni learned of it and immediately telephoned Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, telling him to end the practice…

It was unclear who within the Prisons Service initiated the practice, why it was initiated or who decided to continue it despite the adverse weather conditions, but the service responded that since it had received criticism the situation had been improved.

Livni’s attempts at fig-leaf PR notwithstanding, the issue of child detention issue far transcends this one particularly horrifying revelation. Last March, I reported on a UNICEF report that concluded the ill-treatment of Palestinian minors held within the Israeli military detention system is “widespread, systematic and institutionalized.” The 22 page report carefully examined the Israeli military court system for holding Palestinian children and found evidence of “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment.”

A Huffington Post feature on the report noted:

In a step-by-step analysis of the procedure from arrest to trial, the report said the common experience of many children was being “aggressively awakened in the middle of the night by many armed soldiers and being forcibly brought to an interrogation centre tied and blindfolded, sleep deprived and in a state of extreme fear.”

Many were subjected to ill-treatment during the journey, with some suffering physical or verbal abuse, being painfully restrained or forced to lie on the floor of a vehicle for a transfer process of between one hour and one day.

In some cases, they suffered prolonged exposure to the elements and a lack of water, food or access to a toilet.

During my recent visit to the West Bank, our delegation spoke with Gerard Horton (formerly of Defence of Children International – Palestine and currently founder/director of Military Court Watch), who described for us this process in shocking detail. Much of what he had to tell us can be found in his article on the subject here.

As a Jew and a human being of conscience, I am sickened by Israel’s practice of child detention. Please join me in contacting Tzipi Livni (zlivni@knesset.gov.il) to tell her you agree – to let her know this is not a problem that cannot be solved with one face-saving phone call.


Blowing the Whistle: A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5774

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I’m sure many of you remember the story of John Walker Lindh, a young American citizen who converted to Islam as a teenager and eventually went to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban. Lindh was captured by the US military in November 2001 and was eventually brought back to the US to stand trial.  It was the Justice Department’s first high-profile case in the post-9/11 war on terror.

While many are familiar with the story of the so-called “American Taliban,” I’m sure far fewer know the story of a woman named Jesselyn Radack, who was a legal advisor to the Justice Department at the time.  Shortly after Lindh was arrested, Radack received a call from an FBI attorney, who asked her about the ethics of interrogating Lindh without a lawyer present, specifically mentioning that Lindh’s father had retained counsel for his son. Radack told the FBI that under no circumstances could Lindh be interviewed without his lawyer present.

In spite of her clear response – and numerous follow-up emails to that effect – John Walker Lindh was subsequently interrogated without counsel. Attorney General John Ashcroft then held a press conference where he stated, bald-faced, “The subject here is entitled to choose his own lawyer and to our knowledge has not chosen a lawyer at this time.”  It was clear to Jesselyn Raddack that Ashcroft and the Justice Department had lied to the American public about its legal handling of John Walker Lindh.

Around this time, Radack discovered the emails she had written to the FBI – emails that explicitly spelled out Lindh’s rights – had disappeared from the Justice Department office files.  When she realized what was going on, she resigned her post. To her mind, something very, very wrong was going on and she refused to be party to it.

When Lindh’s initial hearing began, it became clear to Radack that none of her emails had been presented to the judge on the case – communications that were clearly germane to Lindh’s defense.  Now Radack was now faced with an even more powerful ethical decision.  She could do nothing, which would in effect continue the cover-up, or she could blow the whistle on the Justice Department.

So in June of 2002, three weeks before Lindh’s hearing was to take place, Jesselyn Radack downloaded the emails from her personal files and sent them to Newsweek magazine. Her revelation of the Justice Department’s malfeasance had a powerful impact on the government’s case.  Although he originally faced three life sentences, Lindh eventually plea-bargained to 20 years in prison without possibility of parole.

For her part, Radack’s whistleblowing came at a huge price, as she knew it would.  The Justice Department subsequently brought a criminal case against her, although she was never told for what she was being investigated or for what she might be charged.  She also lost her new job at a private law firm after her former government employers put pressure on her partners.   The Justice Department then referred her for discipline to her bar associations, effectively rendering her unemployable. As a final insult, she was placed on the national “no-fly” list.

The criminal case against Radack was later dropped without explanation and she was eventually removed from the no-fly list, but the damage to her career and her livelihood was permanent.  Her experience obviously cost her any future in government, but in the end it led her to a different calling.  Radack now devotes her life to defending whistleblowers at the Government Accountability Project.

I first learned about Jesselyn Radack’s story when I read an article she wrote about it in, of all places, Reform Judaism magazine.  In the article Radack, who is an active member of the Jewish community, wrote openly and passionately about the Jewish values that lay behind her actions. She quoted her adult Bat Mitzvah Torah portion: “Lo ti’eh aharay rabim” – “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do wrong” (Exodus 22:3) – a dictum she says has motivated her ethical decision-making ever since.

Here’s what Radack had to say in the conclusion of the article:

People also ask me if this experience has engendered a crisis of faith. On the contrary, Judaism has helped me get through this difficult period. My (rabbis have) been sympathetic and supportive. I have also drawn strength from the writings of Rabbi Harold Kushner, who taught me that God did not cause my suffering and could not prevent it.  Rabbi Kushner’s re-interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve teaches that the ability to choose between right and wrong is what makes us human. God does not interfere with that choice. But God can give us the strength of character we need to handle the consequences.

I chose my conscience over my career and take pride in having spoken truth to power.

I remember reading that article back in 2006 – and in particular I remember being deeply affected by the religious and moral convictions that motivated her actions.  On a personal level, I’d always been a strong advocate of whistleblowers and the value of government transparency.  But I don’t think I had ever truly thought about the act of whistleblowing in the context of Jewish values until I read Jesselyn Radack’s words in Reform Judaism magazine that day.

Since that time, I’ve thought a great deal about this issue.  And so this morning I’d like to take some time to discuss the subject of whistleblowing – a subject that has been in the media spotlight a great deal this past year.  I’d like to explore the issues raised by the more well-known whistleblowers such as Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning and Edward Snowden – and others who are not as well known but whose actions are just as worthy of our attention.  Most of all, I want to share with you why I believe whistleblowing is not only a critically important American value, but a deeply sacred Jewish value as well – one that challenges us particularly as we gather now for the New Year.

I’ve often been struck that while government whistleblowers are often excoriated as unpatriotic at best and traitors at worst, the practice of whistleblowing is in fact rooted in American values. Our founding fathers fervently believed, and wrote repeatedly, that democracy is strengthened when it is transparent – and that government can only be truly accountable when it ensures an informed citizenry.  As John Adams famously wrote:

And liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people who have a right from the frame of their nature to knowledge … But besides this they have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible divine right to the most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, I mean of the characters and conduct of their rulers.

True whistleblowing is not a traitorous act, though I think many governments would love their citizens to believe so.  Whistleblowers are not employed by enemy nations – by definition they act individually and out of their own conscience. And while they do break laws, they do so not for personal gain but for the greater good. They do so to assert that no one – not even the most powerful of governments – are above the law.

In their defense, governments will invariably claim that secrecy is essential to “national security.”  On the face of it, it’s difficult defense to for us to refute.  After all, every nation’s primary duty is to ensure the safety and security of its citizens – it would be naive and in fact dangerous to try to claim otherwise.  But it would be equally naive to assume that when our government acts in secrecy, it must somehow be doing so for reasons of legitimate national security.  History has taught us repeatedly that governments will invariably use secrecy to cover up their own illegitimate actions – actions that will often end up betraying the very well-being and security of their own citizens.

Possibly the most famous whistleblower in American history, Daniel Ellsberg, has written extensively and eloquently on this subject and about the process he went through that ultimately led to his revelation of the Pentagon Papers in 1971.  Ellsberg was a former marine who joined the Pentagon in 1964 and later worked for the RAND Corporation.  Like almost all whistleblowers, he was originally among the “true faithful” – a patriotic American who believed that the US could and should be a force for good in the world.  But as his government career progressed, he harbored profound inner doubts as he became privy to the highest decision making institutions during the buildup of Vietnam War.

Daniel Ellsberg had first hand knowledge that leaders at the highest levels of government knew from early on that the Vietnam war could never be won and yet insisted otherwise to the Congress and the American public. Moreover, they continued to escalate a war they knew was doomed, knowing full well their actions would lead to more American deaths overseas.

When Ellsberg went public with the Pentagon Papers, he went up against a powerful bureaucracy and government culture of secrecy. As a former insider, he had a first row seat at a massive act of government malfeasance, but he also was constrained by a deep-seated mentality that considered the telling of secrets to be a traitorous act.  It’s no coincidence that most whistleblowers begin as patriotic insiders. But ironically enough, it’s the same motivation that initially drives them to serve their country that eventually drives them to bring the truth of their government’s wrongdoing into the light of day.

It is, of course, an act that carries with it a huge cost.  When whistleblowers decide to go public, they know full well it is an act that will cost them their jobs and their livelihoods.  They know they will likely be publicly vilified, their personal lives dissected, their reputations slandered.  And of course, they also know they will likely endure prison time, be forced to go underground or live in exile.

Whistleblowers are indeed lightning rods – and governments count on this.  That’s why, I believe, we invariably focus more attention on the whistleblowers themselves than the actual crimes they reveal. That’s why, for instance, I believe we’re hearing so much bandied about regarding Chelsea Manning’s personal life and emotional struggles.  Our leaders and the media would much rather we focus on Manning personally. As long as we do so, we’re given a pass on the disturbing information Manning brought to light – and we don’t have to confront the truths of our nation’s crimes in Iraq, in Guantanamo and around the world.

Among Manning’s many revelations through Wikileaks is the now infamous video taken from an Apache helicopter in 2007, in which Americans soldiers shot and killed eleven individuals, including two Reuters reporters, in the streets of New Baghdad.  When a van arrived to help the injured, the soldiers fired upon it as well, seriously injuring two children. As you watch the video, you can hear the voices of American soldiers urging each other on, joking about the dead and dying. At one point a soldier laughs when Humvee runs over a dead body lying in the street.

I remember watching this video when it was released in 2010. I posted and wrote strongly about it on my blog at the time. It was deeply and profoundly horrifying to see the dark reality of our military actions in Iraq in such a graphic and brazen manner.  But I remember well being so grateful that this video had been brought out into the light of day.

As it turned out, however, Manning was not the only member of the military who recoiled from this particular action.  An American infantryman named Ethan McCord rescued the two children from the shot-up van – and after the video was released, McCord publicly thanked Manning for bringing it to light.

McCord later criticized the media for going into great and often lurid detail about Manning’s gender identity issues while utterly ignoring the devastating significance of his revelations.  In a letter to the editor of New York Magazine, McCord wrote the following:

By focusing so heavily on Manning’s private life (the article) removes politics from a story that has everything to do with politics. The important public issues wrapped up with PFC Manning’s case include: transparency in government; the Obama Administration’s unprecedented pursuit of whistle-blowers; accountability of government and military in shaping and carrying out foreign policy; war crimes revealed in the WikiLeaks documents… and more.

McCord then ended his letter with these words:

If PFC Manning did what he is accused of, he is a hero of mine, not because he’s perfect or because he’s never struggled with personal or family relationships –most of us do – but because in the midst of it all he had the courage to act on his conscience.

Chelsea Manning has paid a profound price for blowing the whistle on the actions of the American military.  After her arrest, she was put in a Marine brig in Quantico, Virginia, held in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day for nine months, forced to sleep naked without pillows and sheets and restricted from physical recreation or access to a television or newspaper. Manning’s punishment was later condemned as “excessive” by a military judge and “torture” by the UN. And of course, Manning has now been sentenced and faces an additional 35 years in prison.

As for the soldiers responsible for the attack in the video?  The US military conducted its own investigation of the incident and eventually cleared everyone involved of wrongdoing. To date, no one has ever been held accountable – for these or for any of the numerous disturbing revelations Manning has brought to light.

I don’t think I could put it any better than the ACLU when it made this statement following Manning’s sentencing:

When a soldier who shared information with the press and public is punished far more harshly than others who tortured prisoners and killed civilians, something is seriously wrong with our justice system.

On Rosh Hashanah, the day for asking the hard questions, it’s well worth asking: who has committed the greater crime? The government that breaks the law and covers its actions up under the pretense of national security, or the single individual that breaks the law in order that these crimes might be brought out into the light?

It’s well worth asking why?  Why is Chelsea Manning facing thirty five years in prison for revealing the disturbing truths about our government’s actions in Iraq while the very leaders who deceived us into that war have yet to be made to account for their actions?

And why, for that matter, has Edward Snowden, the man who blew the whistle on the NSA’s surveillance on American citizens, been forced to live in exile in Russia while our Director of National Intelligence can deny the facts Snowden brought to light under oath and still remain in his job?

I believe Jewish tradition demands that we ask these kinds of questions. After all, asking hard questions to powerful leaders is a time-honored Jewish value that dates all the way back to the days of the Prophets.  The Prophets were, in fact, the whistleblowers of their day. Just like our present day examples, they too spoke truth to power; they too sought to publicly reveal political corruption and hypocrisy of the governments of their time; and they too were hounded and persecuted by the powers that be for their truth-telling.

I’ve said and written often that I believe the prophetic stream in Judaism to be the most important – and in many ways the most sacred – of our tradition. As a Jew, I’ve always been enormously proud of the classic rabbinical response to government power. I believe that the Jewish people have been able to survive even under such large and mighty powers because we’ve clung to a singular sacred vision that says there is a Power even greater. Greater than Pharaoh, greater than Babylon, even greater than the mighty Roman empire and the myriad of powerful empires that have come and gone since.

As Jews, we know all too well that powerful nations and empires have historically exploited fear in order to increase their control at home and abroad. To be sure, it’s when times are fearful that we need these kinds of truth tellers the most.  In today’s post 9/11 world, I think it’s fair to say that levels of our government’s control – and the secrecy it employs to cover it up – go deeper than anything we witnessed even at the height of the Cold War.

Indeed, over the past decade, we’ve created a national security bureaucracy that many believe has evolved into a juggernaut with a life of its own. As one important Washington Post investigative article concluded:

The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.

During his first presidential campaign, Obama promised to rein in Washington’s culture of secrecy that has grown so significantly during our nation’s so-called War on Terror.  While we can argue about whether or not he’s been successful in this regard, it cannot be denied that Obama has become he most aggressive president in American history when it comes to whistleblowers.

Until this administration, only three government whistleblowers (including Daniel Ellsberg) had ever been charged by the Justice Department under the Espionage Act of 1917.  Under Obama, the Justice Department has brought charges against eight individuals – more than all previous American presidents combined.  His administration’s actions drive home the reality that this issue is not really about left or right.  It is about government – and in particular, large powerful governments such as ours, that will invariably abuse their power and act to cover up their abuses.

To quote another great American truth teller, the venerable investigative journalist Izzy Stone,  “All governments lie.”   Stone didn’t mean this to be a criticism of government itself – on the contrary, he wrote endlessly about the critical role governments must play in creating ordered and just societies.  He simply meant that there will always be a gap between what a government does and what it says it is doing. And that as citizens, we simply cannot sit back and assume governments will voluntarily rein in their abuse of power or hold themselves to account.

That, quite frankly, is our job. And that is why whistleblowers are so critical and why I believe they are worthy of our gratitude and support. They represent, in a sense, the final defense of an informed citizenry. They are the ones who are willing, at great personal sacrifice, to hold the most powerful people and institutions in the world accountable.

I know that all citizens want to trust their governments. We all want to believe our governments have our best interests at heart and will act to keep us safe – particularly in fearful times such as these.  But as fearful as we are, we would do we to ask whether increased militarism abroad and the narrowing of our civil liberties here at home will truly bring us security in the end.

As for me, I tend to agree with Daniel Ellsberg, who recently wrote: “One of the lessons of the Pentagon Papers and Snowden’s leaks is simple: secrecy corrupts just as power corrupts.”  Today, as in years past, we owe a profound debt to those who courageous enough to tear down the shrouds of secrecy, often at enormous personal cost, so that we may all find our way to a future of true security – not a false sense of security in which the powerful hide behind higher and higher walls but a real security based upon leaders and citizens are truly accountable to one another.

After all, isn’t that really what our sacred day today is all about? When we sound the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah, we are, in a sense, “blowing the whistle.”  The Shofar represents, among other things, an act of revelation. When the shofar is sounded, we bring all the secrets of the past year out of the shadows. We announce our readiness to shine light into the dark places of our souls and all the actions for which we are accountable.  We do this because we know, deep down that secrecy corrupts the soul – and that true security, true liberation, can only come from living lives of transparency and openness.

I do believe what is true for our national soul is true for our individual souls as well.  Up until now, I’ve been specifically addressing the topic of government whistleblowers, but of course, whistleblowing takes many forms – it comes in may shapes and sizes. You might say that each of us is presented the opportunity to be a whistleblower in ways large and small each and every day. Every day, each of us is challenged by the Torah demonstrated to us so eloquently by Jesselyn Radack: “Do not follow the multitude to do wrong.”

Indeed, in the coming year, each of us will inevitably be faced with the challenge to speak out or remain silent. To remain in the darkness, in a place or secrecy and shame, or to shine a light into the dark places that we might all find our way forward together.  This New Year, I hope we can all find the means to be truth tellers in our own right, to find the courage to speak where there is only silence.  And to wrestle honestly with the questions: what is the world in which we truly seek to live?  Where, in the end, will we find true security? And what will we be willing to do about it?

Baruch ma’avir afeilah u’meivi orah – Blessed is the one who removes the darkness and brings light.

Amen.


Stand in Sacred Solidarity with Imprisoned Hunger Strikers

This year, the Islamic fast of Ramadan (which began Monday night and will last until August 7) will serendipitously coincide with the Jewish fast of Tisha B’Av (Monday night July 15 to Tuesday, July 16). Given this harmonic interfaith convergence, I’ve been thinking more about the function of fasting as a time honored tactic of sacred protest – and in particular as a powerful act of civil disobedience. And so in honor of both of these sacred fasting festivals, I’d like to spotlight several ongoing fasts/hunger strikes that I believe are profoundly worthy of our attention and solidarity:

At Guantanamo Bay, many prisoners have been engaged in a longtime hunger strike to protest their conditions and their indefinite confinement. Lawyers for prisoners say the most recent strike began in February; according to the military, 106 of the 166 detainees met criteria to be declared hunger strikers (a definition that includes missing nine consecutive meals):

Prison medical officials have determined that 45 of the prisoners have lost enough weight that they can be fed liquid nutrients, by force if necessary, with a nasogastric tube to prevent them from starving themselves to death. The U.S. military intends to feed all prisoners, including those on hunger strike, before dawn and after sunset during the Muslim holy period of Ramadan to accommodate the men’s religious practices. Military officials have said the feeding process is not painful and only done to prevent any of the men from dying, not as punishment.

A recently released video (above) certainly belies the military’s claims.  In an act of what can only be called deeply courageous solidarity, rapper/actor/activist Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def) subjected himself to the force-feeding to demonstrate the grievous nature of this procedure. I will warn you that it’s not at all easy to watch. I’ll let you judge for yourself as to whether this act constitutes torture or cruel/unusual punishment, but as far as I’m concerned, this video is worth a thousand words.  On this point, it’s worth nothing that a US federal judge ruled yesterday the practice appears to violate international law – and that President Obama can resolve the issue.

Click here to sign a petition that condemns the use of force-feeding, and demand that President Obama help end the hunger strike by addressing the legitimate grievances of detainees.

Here at home, 30,000 prisoners in California prisons began a hunger strike yesterday in what has been described as possibly “the largest prison protest in state history.”  The protest, organized by a group of inmates held in segregation at Pelican Bay State Prison demands an end to state policies that allow inmates to be held in isolation indefinitely, in some cases for decades.  While the UN has determined solitary confinement for longer that 15 days constitutes torture, many prisoners in California state prisons have languished in solitary for 10 to 40 years.

In California, there are nearly 12,000 prisoners who spend 23 of 24 hours living in a concrete cell smaller than a large bathroom. The cells have no windows, no access to fresh air or sunlight. People in solitary confinement exercise an hour a day in a cage the size of a dog run. They are not allowed to make any phone calls to their loved ones or talk to other prisoners.  They are denied all educational programs, and their reading materials are censored.

Yesterday, the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition released a lengthy statement that details the history of this issue and explains why the decision was made to begin a hunger strike:

Family members, advocates, and lawyers will announce their support for the peaceful hunger strike and job actions beginning today throughout the California prisons starting on Monday July 8.   Prisoners have been clear since January that they are willing to starve themselves unless the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) agrees to negotiate honestly about their demands.

Click here to support the California prison hunger strikers and to sign a personal “Pledge of Resistance.”

I’ve also written extensively in the past about Palestinian prison hunger strikers who have long been engaged in nonviolent resistance to Israel’s illegal practice of administrative detention. While these protests consistently and egregiously fly under the radar of the mainstream media, they demand our attention – particularly as a response to the chronic question “where are the Palestinian Ghandis?”

Click here to learn more about the most current Palestinian hunger strikers. This link also includes the names/addresses of Israeli government, military and legal authorities to whom you can write to protest the prisoners’ treatment and demand their release.

May our respective fasts bring us closer to empathy and solidarity. As we say in my spiritual tradition: Baruch matir asurim – Blessed is the One who liberates the imprisoned.


Mobilizing for Women at the Wall – Where is the Outrage for Simple Human Rights?

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There is something sadly skewed with my community’s moral priorities.

I’m sure many of you have been following the growing uproar – in Israel and America – over the curtailment of women’s prayer rights at the Western Wall.  In protest, an Israeli group called the “Women of the Wall” has been holding monthly services there for the past twenty years, advocating for their “social and legal recognition of (their) right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall.” This right, of course, is denied by the Israeli foundation that essentially runs the site – widely considered holy by Jews the world over –  as the world’s most famous ultra-orthodox synagogue.

The cause of the Women at the Wall was recently re-galvanized when its chairwoman Anat Hoffman was arrested for wearing a prayer shawl and leading a service there. Since then protests have been spreading across the US – led by an organization called “Wake Up for Religious Tolerance” that has organized monthly solidarity services throughout the Jewish community.

At one such service yesterday, organizer Hallel Silverman commented:

This was hundreds of people with different beliefs coming together to fight for one thing they all have in common—Jewish equality.

Oh, would that the Jewish community might galvanize this level of moral outrage for the cause of simple human equality in the state of Israel.

Case in point: during the course of these recent protests, another news item passed far lower across the organized Jewish community’s ethical radar: UNICEF’s recently released report that concluded that the ill-treatment of Palestinian minors held within the Israeli military detention system is “widespread, systematic and institutionalized.” The 22 page report carefully examined the Israeli military court system for holding Palestinian children found evidence of practices it said were “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment.”

From a recent HuffPo feature on the report:

In a step-by-step analysis of the procedure from arrest to trial, the report said the common experience of many children was being “aggressively awakened in the middle of the night by many armed soldiers and being forcibly brought to an interrogation center tied and blindfolded, sleep deprived and in a state of extreme fear.”

Many were subjected to ill-treatment during the journey, with some suffering physical or verbal abuse, being painfully restrained or forced to lie on the floor of a vehicle for a transfer process of between one hour and one day.

In some cases, they suffered prolonged exposure to the elements and a lack of water, food or access to a toilet.

UNICEF said it found no evidence of any detainees being “accompanied by a lawyer or family member during the interrogation” and they were “rarely informed of their rights.”

“The interrogation mixes intimidation, threats and physical violence, with the clear purpose of forcing the child to confess,” it said, noting they were restrained during interrogation, sometimes for extended periods of time causing pain to their hands, back and legs.

“Children have been threatened with death, physical violence, solitary confinement and sexual assault, against themselves or a family member,” it said.

Most children confess at the end of the interrogation, signing forms in Hebrew which they hardly understand.

It also found children had been held in solitary confinement for between two days and a month before being taken to court, or even after sentencing.

During court hearings, children were in leg chains and shackles, and in most cases, “the principal evidence against the child is the child’s own confession, in most cases extracted under duress during the interrogation,” it found.

“Ultimately, almost all children plead guilty in order to reduce the length of their pretrial detention. Pleading guilty is the quickest way to be released. In short, the system does not allow children to defend themselves,” UNICEF concluded.

childfather1
I can’t help but ask: where is the moral outrage in my community over this report?  While I certainly believe in the cause of religious freedom, I find it stunning that so many liberal-minded members of the Jewish community are more concerned with “Jewish rights” in a Jewish state than the basic human rights of non-Jewish children who live in it.  Such are the sorrows of Jewish political nationalism: even the more “tolerant “among us seem only to be able to express that tolerance on behalf of those who are in our “tribe.”

A Ha’aretz article covering yesterday’s solidarity service in NYC reported:

People traveled to the event from as far away as Philadelphia. Similar gatherings took place around the U.S., including a demonstration outside Israel’s embassy in Washington, D.C. on Monday, and solidarity prayer services in Cleveland, Chicago and at Brandeis University and the University of Pennsylvania, said service organizer Rabbi Iris Richman. A “sing in” is slated outside Israel’s consulate in San Francisco for Sunday.

In fairness, I’m sure many of the individuals involved in these actions have also advocated for human rights in Israel/Palestine. But the sad truth is that our community would never see fit to mobilize this scale of collective protest in support of Palestinian children. It is well within our comfort zone to protest at Israeli consulates on behalf of Jewish rights. For reasons I understand all too well, universal human rights are still well outside that comfort zone.


Calling Israel’s Discrimination What it Is

The H-2 section of Hevron, where Palestinians must walk on separate sidewalks from Jews.

Cross-posted with the Jewish Daily Forward “Forward Thinking” Blog:

Forward columnist Philologos recently took the Israeli daily Ha’aretz to task for using the term “apartheid” in its reporting on a poll that showed most Israelis support discrimination against Arab citizens. “Apartheid” and mere discrimination are two very different things, Philologos claimed. He suggested that Ha’aretz should be censured for using such a damning epithet.

Philologos went on to define what he sees the critical difference between “apartheid” and “discrimination.” The former refers to “the systematic segregation of one people, race or group from another,” while the latter means “the systematic favoring of one people, race or group over another, such as exists in numerous countries around the world today.” And while Israel may practice regrettable discrimination against its Arab citizens, he claimed it was a “lie” to suggest that it is in any way an apartheid state.

While Philologos may be a fine linguist, his knowledge of international human rights law is sorely lacking.

Contrary to Philologos’ characterization, the term “apartheid” does not refer simply to segregation, although the term comes from a word in the South African Afrikaans language that means separate-ness or segregation. In legal terms, apartheid applies to a wide range of acts in which a dominant racial regime commits institutionalized oppression against another ethnic group.

According to the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, for instance, the “crime of apartheid” was included in a list of “crimes against humanity,” and defined as:

(Inhuman) acts…committed in the content of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.

Earlier, in 1973, the UN’s General Assembly adopted the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid. Among the “inhuman acts” listed were:

(Any) legislative measures and other measures calculated to prevent a racial group or groups from participation in the political, social, economic and cultural life of a country.

There is certainly a compelling claim to be made that the term “apartheid” may appropriately be applied to Israel’s treatment of its Palestinian citizens. In a recent report, Adalah, an Israeli legal NGO, described no fewer than 30 laws, either enacted or proposed, that create different sets of legal rights for Jewish and non-Jewish (i.e. Palestinian) citizens of Israel.

While many Jews prefer to view Israel as an essentially healthy, if flawed, democracy, those willing to face the painful truth have long known that the so-called “democratic Jewish state” would more accurately be described as a democracy for Jews but not for non-Jews. Consider the following facts:

- Israel has no constitution that guarantees individual liberties for all. Palestinian citizens’ homes and land are regularly seized or demolished to give housing to Jews. B’tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, recently reported that the citizenship of increasing numbers of East Jerusalem residents are being revoked to make way for more land appropriation.

- There are separate schools for Palestinians and Jews. In Israeli universities, no courses are offered in Arabic, even Arabic literature. Use of Arabic in road signs is banned except in towns that the government deems Arab.

- While Jewish citizens of Israel can confer citizenship on new spouses who are not already Israeli citizens, Palestinian citizens cannot. According to the law, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who marries a Palestinian resident of the West Bank or Gaza may not reside inside Israel. The ruling literally affects the lives of thousands of couples and their precious right to marry if they so choose. In upholding this law, one Israeli Supreme Court judge conceded that Palestinian rights take a back seat to maintaining a Jewish majority in Israel. “Human rights are not a prescription for national suicide,” he wrote.

- Palestinian citizens of Israel have distinguishing characteristics on their ID cards, presumably so they can be easily identified for additional scrutiny by law enforcement agencies. Palestinians are regularly harassed, searched and asked to produce identification, based entirely on their race. While Jewish citizens are legally entitled to a speedy trial, fair legal representation and clear charges, these laws do not apply to Palestinian citizens.

There are many more examples of ways that Israel systematically privileges Jewish citizens over non-Jewish citizens. Organizations such as Adalah, B’tselem and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel have extensively documented these methods.

It is important to note that these are not simply a collection of random discriminatory laws, as Philologos would have it. Taken together, they constitute a systematic, institutional “legal” system that maintains Jews’ privileged status in the Jewish state and, most critically, seeks to ensure a Jewish demographic majority within Israel’s borders at all costs.

One telling case in point: back in 2005, Shimon Peres told U.S. officials (in a statement recently revealed by Wikileaks) that Israel had “lost” land in the Negev “to the Bedouin” and would need to take steps to “relieve” the “demographic threat”.

Flash forward to January 2012: the Israeli government approves the Prawer Plan for mass expulsion of the Arab Bedouin community in the Negev desert. When fully implemented, this plan will result in the forced displacement of up to seventy thousand Arab Bedouin citizens of Israel and the destruction of thirty-five “unrecognized” villages.

At the end of the day, it really is academic whether we choose to label this kind of policy — and many others like it — to be “discrimination,” “institutional racism” or “apartheid.”

The real question before us not what to call it. For Jews who purport to cherish human rights, the right question is: what are we willing to do about it?


American Heroes: Code Pink’s Anti-Drone Delegation to Pakistan

Medea Benjamin is a true American hero.

The Code Pink founder and nonviolence activist is currently leading a delegation of 31 American peace activists through Pakistan to protest the tragic damage wrought by US drone attacks.  Traveling with popular Pakistani politican, Imran Khan, the delegation recently attempted to hold a rally in the tribal regions that have been hardest hit by the US drone campaign.  On October 9, the delegation will publicly fast from sunrise to sunset at a vigil in front of the Islamabad Press Club, where they will display pictures of the more than 160 Pakistani children who have been killed by American drones. (Jews who have only recently completed a fast of atonement should appreciate the spiritual power of such an act…)

From a recent WashPo feature:

The majority-female delegation — in their early 20s to late 70s — traveled with no security guards despite announced militant threats against them and Khan, head of the Pakistan Justice Movement political party. They fell in line behind Khan’s procession as legions joyously waved party flags atop trucks.

By late Saturday, when the Codepink delegates finally reached a large farm belonging to a regional party official, they were mobbed by an admiring Pakistani media and given a hero’s welcome by hundreds of the candidate’s fans.

Anti-American sentiment runs extremely high in Pakistan, but the delegation focused on a simple message: “We are against drones” was emblazed in Urdu in green fluorescent script, outlined with glitter, on the oversize white bibs they wore.

“You hit people with these drones and you create instant enemies,” said JoAnne Lingle, a silver-haired Mennonite from Indianapolis. “It’s supposed to be increasing our national security and it’s doing the opposite.”

The US drone wars are our national shame. If there had previously been any doubt, I’d say they’ve been put to rest by the NYU School of Law and Stanford University Law School, who released a deeply damning report entitled “Living Under Drones: Death, Injury and Trauma to Civilians From US Drone Practices in Pakistan” late last month.

From the report’s Executive Summary:

In the United States, the dominant narrative about the use of drones in Pakistan is of a surgically precise and effective tool that makes the US safer by enabling “targeted killing” of terrorists, with minimal downsides or collateral impacts.

This narrative is false.

Following nine months of intensive research—including two investigations in Pakistan, more than 130 interviews with victims, witnesses, and experts, and review of thousands of pages of documentation and media reporting—this report presents evidence of the damaging and counterproductive effects of current US drone strike policies. Based on extensive interviews with Pakistanis living in the regions directly affected, as well as humanitarian and medical workers, this report provides new and firsthand testimony about the negative impacts US policies are having on the civilians living under drones…

(While) civilian casualties are rarely acknowledged by the US government, there is significant evidence that US drone strikes have injured and killed civilians. In public statements, the US states that there have been “no” or “single digit” civilian casualties.”2 It is difficult to obtain data on strike casualties because of US efforts to shield the drone program from democratic accountability, compounded by the obstacles to independent investigation of strikes in North Waziristan. The best currently available public aggregate data on drone strikes are provided by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), an independent journalist organization. TBIJ reports that from June 2004 through mid- September 2012, available data indicate that drone strikes killed 2,562-3,325 people in Pakistan, of whom 474-881 were civilians, including 176 children.

Shortly after this report was issued, Obama had the temerity to stand before the UN and decry the “killing of innocents” in the US mission in Benghazi.  This, while his administration continues to kill innocents in a secrecy-shrouded military program that blatantly undermines the US Constitution and international law – and is most surely inflaming further Mideast rage toward the US.  In the face of such hypocrisy, all I can say is thank God for truth-tellers like Medea Benjamin.

You can follow the progress of the Code Pink delegation here.  For further reading, I highly recommend reading Benjamin’s excellent new book, “Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control” and this recent piece by journalist Glenn Greenwald, who has been indefatigably writing shining a bright light on Obama’s drone wars since their inception.


Syrians Pay the Price in a Sick Proxy War

An injured civilian is evacuated after shelling by government forces in Aleppo. (Zohra Bensemra/Reuters)

Now that UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has resigned and is no longer leading the effort to find a diplomatic solution to the horrors unfolding in Syria, the prospect for a peaceful conclusion to this conflict look bleaker than ever – if it’s even possible to suggest such a thing:

(Kofi Annan) cited the Syrian government’s “intransigence” and the opposition’s “escalating military campaign” as major impediments to his peace efforts, along with a lack of unity in the international community on how to deal with the crisis.

I’m thinking “lack of unity in the international community” was just Annan’s polite way of saying this tragic mess in Syria has devolved into a sickening proxy war in which no one’s hands are clean and the only losers are the Syrian people themselves.

If you dare, I recommend you read this blisteringly bitter analysis by journalist Robert Fisk, who excoriates the cynical interests – from the US, to Russia and China, to Qatar and Saudi Arabia, to Hezbollah, to the media, to “our dear liberal selves – who are allowing Syria to be used as a bloody chess board, even as they speak out against the daily atrocities that are occurring there:

Has there ever been a Middle Eastern war of such hypocrisy? A war of such cowardice and such mean morality, of such false rhetoric and such public humiliation? I’m not talking about the physical victims of the Syrian tragedy. I’m referring to the utter lies and mendacity of our masters and our own public opinion – eastern as well as western – in response to the slaughter, a vicious pantomime more worthy of Swiftian satire than Tolstoy or Shakespeare.

What could possibly be the outcome of a cowardly proxy war in a sectarian Middle Eastern country? Samia Nakhoul, in a lengthy piece for Reuters, offered this dismal – if most likely – answer:

With no Western appetite for military intervention and no prospect of an internationally mediated political resolution, many see the civil war spreading and tearing the country apart.

“Disintegration of Syria is a possibility and the problem is it won’t work. It would create a power vacuum in which others get dragged in just like Iraq. It is a very frightening scenario,” (Cambridge University analyst George) Joffe said.

Lebanese columnist Rajeh Khoury predicted: “Syria could plunge into a long protracted civil war that could last years. The civil war in Lebanon, with its much smaller population of five million, lasted 15 years due to foreign interference so Syria would be much more complicated.

“The Syrian crisis is so inflammatory that its flames will affect the region in one way or another.”

A prayer for the people of Syria – and a pox on all our houses…


Talking to Iran in Moscow – Pray for Success

Talks began today in Moscow between Iran and the “P5 +1″ (the five permanent member nations of the UN Security Council plus Germany). I’m hoping against hope for a breakthrough, but it’s certainly not looking good.

For a sane and balanced take on Iran, I’ve long turned to Trita Parsi, founder and president of the National Iranian American Council, and one of our foremost experts on US-Iranian relations. In a recent NY Times op-ed, Parsi identified precisely why Obama has precious little room to maneuver going into the Moscow talks. In a word: Congress.

Congress is actively seeking to make a deal on the nuclear issue impossible by imposing unfeasible red lines, setting unachievable objectives — and depriving the executive branch of the freedom to bargain.

Just before last month’s talks in Baghdad, Congress passed a resolution that endorsed the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s red line on the nuclear issue (Iran can’t have a uranium-enrichment capability), as opposed to the red line adopted by the Pentagon and the president (Iran can’t have a nuclear weapon).  The problem is, Mr. Netanyahu’s red line isn’t feasible and doesn’t leave any room for negotiations…

If Iran agrees in Moscow to accept the American demand that it halt uranium enrichment at the 20 percent level — too low a level to quickly create a nuclear weapon — this would effectively obstruct any Iranian shortcut to a bomb. Congress must then give Mr. Obama the political space to be able to take yes for an answer.

Congress must make up its mind. Does it want to prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb or does it want to maintain its sanctions? Going forward, it can’t have both.

As if to put a period on Parsi’s analysis, last Friday 44 senators (23 of whom were Democrats) sent a letter to President Obama demanding that he insist upon three “absolute minimum steps” for continuation of talks: shutting down the Fordow nuclear enrichment facility, freezing all uranium enrichment above 5%, and shipping all uranium enriched above 5% out of the country.

The letter concludes:

If the sessions in Moscow produce no substantive agreement, we urge you to reevaluate the utility of further talks at this time and instead focus on significantly increasing the pressure on the Iranian government through sanctions and making clear that a credible military option exists. As you have rightly noted, ‘the window for diplomacy is closing. Iran’s leaders must realize that you mean precisely that.

If you needed any evidence of Parsi’s claim that Congress is “actively seeking to make a deal on the nuclear issue impossible by imposing unfeasible red lines, setting unachievable objectives — and depriving the executive branch of the freedom to bargain,” this letter provides it.  The writers and signers of this letter clearly know full well that these demands will be a non-starter for Iran.

Even more disturbing is the role of the Israel lobby in these cynical maneuvers. Mideast analyst MJ Rosenberg revealed, in a piece posted four days before the letter was released, that the letter was drafted by AIPAC staffers, pointing out that it was essentially

an AIPAC device for scoring senators in an election year. Those who sign will be rewarded or left alone. Those who don’t will hear from AIPAC and its friends. Not a pretty possibility.

OK, I’ll say it: the role of the Israel lobby in the Iran issue has been nothing short of shameful.  And at times openly, brazenly disingenuous.  Among the more odious examples: the Emergency Committee for Israel, (what you might call the more “zealous” wing of the lobby) recently released a 30 second scare-ad that proclaimed, among other things, that “Iran has enough fuel for five nuclear bombs” – a spurious claim which belies that fact that Iran currently has no weapons grade material at all.

Yes, this election year gives Obama precious little room to maneuver – and the lobby is clearly doing everything it can to exploit this.  But since Obama has repeatedly bent over backwards to prove his allegiance to Israel and AIPAC, I don’t see how bowing to these latest salvos will do much to significantly improve his electoral prospects. And since he’s going to be excoriated by his political rivals no matter what he does, why not stick to his own administration’s stated policy, behave like a statesman and push for a diplomatic success? After all, who should be determining Obama administration negotiating strategy – the Obama administration or Congress/AIPAC?

When you consider that the alternative is another ill-advised march to another disastrous Mideast war, the stakes could not possibly be higher.

Pray for a breakthrough in Moscow this week.

PS:  I’m honored to be discussing this issue further in a dialogue with Trita Parsi entitled “Can War with Iran be Averted?” on Thursday, June 28, 7:00 pm at Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, IL. Click here for more details.


After Cast Lead, Israeli Companies Now Profit from Rebuilding Gaza

More than three years after Israel inflicted widespread damage on the infrastructure of Gaza during Operation Cast Lead, two Israeli companies have now won bids issued by the UNICEF for reconstruction projects there.  In other words, after destroying much of the Gaza Strip, Israel is now reaping significant economic benefits from its reconstruction.

This is called “disaster capitalism” – something Israel has turned into something of an art form. To understand the phenomenon more thoroughly, read Chapter 21 of Naomi Klein’s essential book “The Shock Doctrine,” which explains in vivid detail why Israel now believes it is more in its economic interest to wage war than to make peace:

Clearly, Israeli industry no longer has reason to fear war. In contrast to 1993, when conflict was seen as a barrier to growth, the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange  went up in August 2006, the month of the devastating war with Lebanon. In the final quarter of the year, which had also included the bloody escalation in the West Bank and Gaza … Israel’s overall economy grew by a staggering 8 percent – more than triple the growth rate of the U.S. economy in the same period. The Palestinian economy, meanwhile, contracted by between 10 and 15 percent in 2006, with poverty rates reaching close to 70 percent.


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