The Uprooted and Unwanted: A Sermon for Tzedek Chicago’s First Yom Kippur Service

Like you, I’ve been profoundly horrified by the refugee crisis that has resulted from Syria’s ongoing civil war. The reports and images and statistics continue to roll out every day and the sheer level of human displacement is simply staggering to contemplate. Since 2011, over half of that country’s entire population has been uprooted. At present, there are more than 4 million Syrian refugees are registered with the UN. Another 7 million have been internally displaced. Experts tell us we are currently witnessing the worst refugee crisis of our generation.

The tragic reality of forced migration has been brought home to us dramatically this past summer – but of course, this crisis did not just begin this year and Syria is not the only country in the region affected by this refugee crisis. Scores are also fleeing civil war and violence from countries such as Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and Yemen. In all of 2014, approximately 219,000 people from these countries tried to cross the Mediterranean to seek asylum in Europe. According the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, in just the first eight months of 2015, over 300,000 refugees tried to cross the sea – and more than 2,500 died.

And of course this issue is not just limited to the Middle East. It extends to places such as Latin and Central America and Sub-Saharan Africa as well – and it would be not at all be an exaggeration to suggest that the crisis of forced human migration is reaching epidemic proportions. Just this past June, the UN High Commissioner on Refugees issued a report that concluded that “wars, conflict and persecution have forced more people than at any other time since records began to flee their homes and seek refuge and safety elsewhere.”

It is all too easy to numb ourselves to reports such as these – or to simply throw up our hands and chalk it up to the way of the world. But if Yom Kippur is to mean anything, I would suggest it demands that we stand down our overwhelm. To investigate honestly why this kind of human dislocation exists in our world and openly face the ways we are complicit in causing it. And perhaps most importantly to ask: if we are indeed complicit in this crisis, what is our responsibility toward ending it?

There is ample evidence that we as Americans, are deeply complicit in the refugee crises in the Middle East. After all, the US has fueled the conflicts in all five of the nations from which most refugees are fleeing – and it is directly responsible for the violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.

In Iraq, our decade-long war and occupation resulted in the deaths of at least a million people and greatly weakened the government. This in turn created a power vacuum that brought al-Qaeda into the country and led to the rise of ISIS. Over 3.3 million people in Iraq have now been displaced because of ISIS.

In Afghanistan, the US occupation continues and we are war escalating the war there, in spite of President Obama’s insistence that it would end by 2014. According to the UN, there are 2.6 million refugees coming out of Afghanistan.

In Libya, the US-led NATO bombing destroyed Qaddafi’s government. At the time, then Secretary of State Clinton joked to a news reporter, “We came, we saw, he died.” Shortly after Libya was wracked with chaos that led to the rise of ISIS affiliates in northern Africa. Many thousands of Libyans are now fleeing the country, often on rickety smuggler boats and rafts. The UN estimates there are over 360,000 displaced Libyans.

In Yemen, a coalition of Middle Eastern nations, led by Saudi Arabia and backed by the US, has been bombarding Yemen for half a year now, causing the deaths of over 4,500 people. We continue to support this coalition, despite the fact that human rights organizations are accusing it of war crimes that include the intentional targeting of civilians and aid buildings. As a result, the UN says, there are now over 330,000 displaced Yemenis.

And the US is not free of responsibility for the crisis in Syria either. For years now, we have been meddling in that civil war, providing weapons to rebels fighting Assad’s government. But since the rise of ISIS the US has backed away from toppling his regime – and there are now reports that the US and Assad have even reached “an uncomfortable tacit alliance.”

Despite our role in the Syrian civil war, our government is taking in relatively few refugees from that country. Just last Monday, Secretary of State Kerry announced that the US would increase the number of refugees to 100,000 by 2017, saying “This step is in the keeping with America’s best tradition as land of second chances and a beacon of hope.” In reality, however, this number is still a drop in the bucket relative to the dire need – and only an eighth of the number that Germany has pledged to take in this year.

Kerry’s comment, of course, expresses a central aspect of the American mythos – but in truth it is one that flies in the face of history. While we like to think of ourselves “as a land of second chances and a beacon of hope,” these words mask a darker reality: it is a hope that only exists for some – and it has largely been created at the expense of others. Like many empires before us, our nation was established – upon the systemic dislocation of people who are not included in our “dream.”

If we are to own up to our culpability in today’s crises of forced human migration, we must ultimately reckon with reality behind the very founding of our country. The dark truth is that our country’s birth is inextricably linked to the dislocation and ethnic cleansing of indigenous peoples this land. It was, moreover, built upon the backs of slaves who were forcibly removed from their homes and brought to this country in chains. It is, indeed, a history we have yet to collectively own up to as a nation. We have not atoned for this legacy of human dislocation. On the contrary, we continue to rationalize it away behind the myths of American exceptionalism: a dream of hope and opportunity for all.

And there’s no getting around it: those who are not included in this “dream” – the dislocated ones, if you will – are invariably people of color. Whether we’re talking about Native Americans and African Americans, the Latino migrants we imprison and deport, or the Syrian, Iraqi, Afghani or Yemini refugees of the Middle East. If we are going to reckon with this legacy, we cannot and must not avoid the context of racism that has fueled and perpetuated it.

As a Jew, of course, I think a great deal about our legacy of dislocation. To be sure, for most of our history we have been a migrating people. Our most sacred mythic history describes our ancestors’ travels across the borders of the Ancient Near East and the Israelites’ wanderings in the wilderness. And in a very real sense, our sense of purpose has been honored by our migrations throughout the diaspora – yes, too often forcibly, but always with a sense of spiritual purpose. For centuries, to be a Jew meant to be part of a global peoplehood that located divinity anywhere our travels would take us.

Our sacred tradition demands that we show solidarity with those who wander in search of a home. The most oft-repeated commandment in the Torah, in fact, is the injunction against oppressing the stranger because we ourselves were once strangers in the land of Egypt. And given our history, it’s natural that we should find empathy and common cause with the displaced and uprooted.

However, I do fear that in this day and age of unprecedented Jewish success – and dare I say, Jewish privilege – we are fast losing sight of this sacred imperative. One of my most important teachers in this regard is the writer James Baldwin, who was an unsparingly observer of the race politics in America. In one particularly searing essay, which he wrote in 1967, Baldwin addressed the issue of Jewish “whiteness” and privilege in America. It still resonates painfully to read it today:

It is galling to be told by a Jew whom you know to be exploiting you that he cannot possibly be doing what you know he is doing because he is a Jew. It is bitter to watch the Jewish storekeeper locking up his store for the night, and going home. Going, with your money in his pocket, to a clean neighborhood, miles from you, which you will not be allowed to enter. Nor can it help the relationship between most Negroes and most Jews when part of this money is donated to civil rights. In the light of what is now known as the white backlash, this money can be looked on as conscience money merely, as money given to keep the Negro happy in his place, and out of white neighborhoods.

One does not wish, in short, to be told by an American Jew that his suffering is as great as the American Negro’s suffering. It isn’t, and one knows that it isn’t from the very tone in which he assures you that it is…

For it is not here, and not now, that the Jew is being slaughtered, and he is never despised, here, as the Negro is, because he is an American. The Jewish travail occurred across the sea and America rescued him from the house of bondage. But America is the house of bondage for the Negro, and no country can rescue him. What happens to the Negro here happens to him because he is an American.

In other essays, Baldwin referred to white immigrant success in America as “the price of the ticket” – in other words, the price for Jewish acceptance into white America was the betrayal of the most sacred aspects of our spiritual and historical legacy. We, who were once oppressed wanderers ourselves, have now found a home in America. But in so doing we have been directly or indirectly complicit in the systematic oppression and dislocation of others.

On Rosh Hashanah I talked about another kind of Jewish deal called Constantinian Judaism – or the fusing of Judaism and state power. And to be sure, if we are to talk about our culpability this Yom Kippur in the crime of forced migration, we cannot avoid reckoning with the devastating impact the establishment of the state of Israel has had on that land’s indigenous people – the Palestinian people.

According to Zionist mythos, the Jewish “return” to land was essentially a “liberation movement.” After years of migration through the diaspora, the Jewish people can finally at long last come home – to be, as the national anthem would have it, “a free people in their own land.”

The use of the term “liberation” movement, of course is a misnomer. It would be more accurate to term Zionism as a settler colonial project with the goal of creating an ethnically Jewish state in a land that already populated by another people. By definition the non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine posed an obstacle to the creation of a Jewish state. In order to fulfill its mandate as a political Jewish nation, Israel has had to necessarily view Palestinians as a problem to somehow be dealt with.

Put simply, the impact of Jewish nation-statism on the Palestinian people has been devastating. The establishment of Israel – a nation designed to end our Jewish wanderings – was achieved through the forced dislocation of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes, which were either destroyed completely or occupied by Jewish inhabitants.

In turn, it created what is now the largest single refugee group in the world and our longest running refugee crisis. Millions of Palestinians now live in their own diaspora, forbidden to return to their homes or even set foot in their homeland. Two and a half million live under military occupation in the West Bank where their freedom of movement is drastically curtailed within an extensive regime of checkpoints and heavily militarized border fences. And nearly two million live in Gaza, most of them refugees, literally trapped in an open-air prison where their freedom of movement is denied completely.

This, then, is our complicity – as Americans, as Jews. And so I would suggest, this Yom Kippur, it is our sacred responsibility to openly confess our culpability in this process of uprooting human beings from their homes so that we might find safety, security and privilege in ours. But when then? Is our confession merely an exercise in feeling bad about ourselves, in self-flagellation? As Jay said to us in his sermon last night, “Our sense of immense guilt over our sins, collective and individual, could paralyze us. How do we move forward with teshuvah when the task is so great?”

According to Jewish law, the first step in teshuvah is simply recognizing that a wrong has been committed and confessing openly to it. This in and of itself is no small thing. I daresay with all of the media attention to the Syrian refugee crisis, there is precious little, if any, discussion of the ways our nation might be complicit in creating it. And here at home, we are far from a true reckoning over the ways our white supremacist legacy has dislocated Native Americans and people of color in our own country. And needless to say, the Jewish community continually rationalizes away the truth of Israel’s ongoing injustice toward the Palestinian people.

So yes, before we can truly atone, we must first identify the true nature of our wrongdoings and own them – as a community – openly and together. The next step is to make amends – to engage in a process of reparations to effect real transformation and change. But again, the very prospect of this kind of communal transformation feels too overwhelming , too messianic to even contemplate. How do we even begin to collectively repair wrongs of such a magnitude?

I believe the answer, as ever, is very basic. We begin by joining together, by building coalitions, by creating movements. We know that this kind of organizing has the power to effect very real socio-political change in our world. We have seen it happen in countries such as South Africa and Ireland and we’ve seen it here at home – where Chicago became the first city in the country to offer monetary reparations to citizens who were tortured by the police. In this, as in the aforementioned examples, the only way reparations and restorative justice was achieved was by creating grassroots coalitions that leveraged people power to shift political power.

And that is why we’ve prominently identified “solidarity” as one of our congregation’s six core values:

Through our activism and organizing efforts, we pursue partnerships with local and national organizations and coalitions that combat institutional racism and pursue justice and equity for all. We promote a Judaism rooted in anti-racist values and understand that anti-Semitism is not separate from the systems that perpetuate prejudice and discrimination. As members of a Jewish community, we stand together with all peoples throughout the world who are targeted as “other.”

How do we effect collective atonement? By realizing that we are not in this alone. By finding common cause with others and marching forward. It is not simple or easy work. It can be discouraging and depleting. It does not always bear fruit right away and it often feels as if we experience more defeats than successes along the way. But like so many, I believe we have no choice but to continue the struggle. And I am eager and excited to begin to create new relationships, to participate as a Jewish voice in growing coalitions, with the myriad of those who share our values. I can’t help but believe these connections will ultimately reveal our true strength.

I’d like to end now with a prayer – I offer it on behalf of refugees and migrants, on behalf of who have been forced to wander in search of a home:

Ruach Kol Chai – Spirit of All that Lives:

Help us. Help us to uphold the values that are so central to who we are: human beings created in the image of God. Help us to find compassion in our hearts and justice in our deeds for all who seek freedom and a better life. May we find the strength to protect and plead the cause of the dislocated and uprooted, the migrant and the refugee.

Guide us. Guide us toward one law. One justice. One human standard of behavior toward all. Move us away from the equivocation that honors the divine image in some but not in others. Let us forever affirm that the justice we purport to hold dear is nothing but a sham if it does not uphold basic human dignity for all who dwell in our midst.

Forgive us. Forgive us for the inhumane manner that in which we too often treat the other. We know, or should, that when it comes to crimes against humanity, some of us may be guilty, but all of us are responsible. Grant us atonement for the misdeeds of exclusion we invariably commit against the most vulnerable members of society: the uprooted and unwanted, the unhoused, the uninsured, the undocumented.

Strengthen us. Strengthen us to find the wherewithal to shine your light into the dark places of our world. Give us ability to uncover those who are hidden from view, locked away, forgotten. Let us never forget that nothing is hidden and no one lost from before you. Embolden us in the knowledge that no one human soul is disposable or replaceable; that we can never, try as we might, uproot another from before your sight.

Remind us. Remind us of our duty to create a just society right here, right now, in our day. Give us the vision of purpose to guard against the complacency of the comfortable – and the resolve in knowing that we cannot put off the cause of justice and freedom for another day. Remind us that the time is now. Now is the moment to create your kingdom here on earth.

Ken Yehi Ratzon. May it be your will. And may it be ours.

And let us say,


Cantor Vicky Glikin on “the Jewish Question” in the Ukraine



I strongly encourage you to read this report, below, by Cantor Vicky Glikin, of Congregation Solel in Highland Park, IL.

Cantor Glikin recently returned from a trip to her native Ukraine, where the political/military upheaval has been been of special concern to the international Jewish community, particularly amidst reports of anti-Semitism against the Ukrainian Jewish population. While it is imperative that we take such reports with the utmost seriousness, it is also critical to separate fear from fact – and not to jump to conclusions about the truth behind these reports. In this regard, eye-witnesses testimonies from knowledgeable insiders such as Cantor Glikin are profoundly important.

Having just finished observing Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), I am truly inspired by her words, which ultimately counsel hope over fear and engagement over isolation:

Read the rest of this entry »

Chicago Jewish Delegation Stands Up for LGBT Rights in Uganda


Members of the AJWS Chicago delegation delivering letter to the Ugandan Consulate

Today marked a day of global action of protest against the Ugandan Parliament’s so-called “Anti Homosexuality Bill.” It was my honor to participate by delivering a rabbinic letter to the Ugandan consulate in Chicago along with 15 other members of the the Jewish community, including five rabbis.

This bill, which was passed in December 2013, is a hate-filled piece of legislation that threatens the health and lives of LGBT Ugandans and is a grave violation of human rights. First introduced in 2009, the bill seeks to strengthen existing penalties in Ugandan law against homosexuality. Among the bill’s many cruel and unconscionable provisions is life imprisonment for “repeated homosexual behavior.” It also criminalizes what it describes as “the promotion of homosexuality,” which includes funding organizations that provide basic services such as healthcare to LGBT people.

Our action today was a sponsored by American Jewish World Service, who responded to a call from its partners in Ugandan Human Rights NGO by organizing in communities throughout the US. In addition to Chicago, similar actions took place in New York, Washington DC, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Here’s the text of the letter we delivered to the Ugandan consul in Chicago:

Dear President Museveni,

I am writing to implore you, respectfully, to veto Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill that was recently passed by the Ugandan Parliament.

As a rabbi, I honor the inherent dignity of each and every person. Jewish theology, tradition and history compel me to uphold the values of kavod habriyot, respect for all of creation, and btzelem elohim, the notion that all people–including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people–are created in the Divine image. Tragically, I know from our history that the stripping away of human rights from specific minorities is often a precursor to targeted destruction.

If this bill is signed into law, it would be a grave violation of human rights and would be one of the most abhorrent manifestations of discrimination against LGBT people worldwide.

My LGBT friends and colleagues in Uganda are frightened–and I believe they have every reason to be. I do not believe they should live in fear just because of who they are or who they love. I hope you share the same view.

I urge you, Mr. President, to use the power of your position to uphold the human rights and human dignity of all Ugandan citizens. Please stand on the right side of history by vetoing this bill.

I encourage you to click here to sign a similar letter currently being distributed by AJWS. (If you are a rabbi and you have not yet signed the rabbinic letter, click here.)

It’s time to stand with LGBT Ugandans – and all who are targeted by hate-legislation.


Members of my congregation, JRC, in front of the Ugandan consulate: (left to right: AJWS-Chicago Executive Director Taal Hasak- Lowy, Michael Sehr, Tina Escobar, me, Gonzalo Escobar)

Why I Support the ASA Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions


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.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lesson #1:  A moral vision of justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Charter began:

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

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

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

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

Lesson #2: Compassion and Forgiveness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lesson # 3. Hope and Change

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

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

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

A Blessing for Micah Mandela:

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

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

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

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

As Nelson Mandela said in his inauguration address:

Let there be justice for all.

Let there be peace for all.

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

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

Let freedom reign. God bless Africa.

And let us add: May God bless us all.

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

Rabbi Margaret Holub Explores Life During and After Apartheid

Jsmalltown jews4My dear friend and colleague Rabbi Margaret Holub (who recently joined me as co-chair of the JVP Rabbinical Council) has just traveled to South Africa to spend the next six weeks in Cape Town. It’s her second sojourn there and in addition to reconnecting with old friends, she’ll be spending her time interviewing clergy in the Dutch Reformed Church about their life during and after the fall of apartheid.

The DRC is the Afrikaans-speaking church which was famous – or notorious – for more or less inventing apartheid and upholding it all the way through to its end in the 1990s.  The Church has come a long way since then – their leaders recanted the doctrine of apartheid, appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to publicly ask forgiveness and have made moves to integrate their churches.

As a self-described rabbi “edging into the world of organizing about ending Israel’s occupation of Palestine,” Margaret is particularly interested in learning more about the experience of white South African clergy:

What was it like, I wonder, for the rest of them as the world’s banks and universities and entertainers boycotted South Africa, as other churches condemned and isolated the DRC?  What was it like as it became clear that white rule and the separation of the races were going to end?  Did they feel cornered?  Did these ministers have misgivings about their church’s teachings?  Did they  feel like they had to defend them even so?  Were their certain messages that penetrated their defenses?  What would they say to rabbis today, twenty years after apartheid ended, about being on the wrong side of history?  Maybe, with all this hindsight, they’d even have some advice…  I really don’t know, but I look forward to asking.

The quote above came from Margaret’s blog, “Summer in Winter,” in which she promises to faithfully chronicle her experiences on this amazing trip. I plan to follow her adventures faithfully and recommend that you do too!

Zero Dark Thirty: My Shalom Rav Review


Finally saw Zero Dark Thirty yesterday. Here’s my review:

From an artistic point of view, I can say without hesitation that I was riveted by ZDT from beginning to end. Kathryn Bigelow is clearly one of our most talented American directors, particularly in her ability to construct a film with a palpable sense of documentary realism. In so many ways she, along with screenwriter Mark Boal, and her entire filmmaking team had me in the palm of their collective hand.

Which is why I also found ZDT to be a morally reprehensible piece of cinematic propaganda.

My experience of this film, among other things, was a profound reminder that movies have immense power to manipulate emotions and shape attitudes. I will readily admit that I found myself thoroughly caught up in the intensity of the CIA’s quest (embodied by character of the passionately driven agent “Maya”) to find and kill Usama Bin Laden. What can I say? For two and half hours, the film worked its magic on me. But when it was over, all I felt was dirty and ashamed. Sickened, actually, that I allowed myself to be seduced by what amounted to an insidious, if deeply sophisticated, revenge fantasy.

I use the word insidious very consciously here – particularly since the film purports to be a facts-driven portrayal of the CIA hunt for Bin Laden. In the very first frame, in fact, a title that tells us we are about to watch a film “based on firsthand accounts of actual events”. The next title we see are the words “September 11, 2001”. Then for at least a minute we listen to audio tapes of terrified 9/11 victims calling for help. One woman in the World Trade Center tells a 911 dispatcher that she is “burning up,” then says, crying, “I’m going to die aren’t I?” The dispatcher tells her to “stay calm” but there is no further answer. The last thing we hear is the dispatcher’s voice saying, “Oh my God…”

This is how the movie is framed from the outset: we are told we are watching a movie based on actual events, constructed from information gained from those who were there. We hear the very real voices of American citizens as they are being burned alive.  Then we watch the “real-life” account of how the man responsible for their deaths was hunted down and killed by the CIA.

Listening to those terrified voices unsettled me to my core – but it was only after the movie was over that I realized how obscene their usage actually was.  Why did the filmmakers choose to play these recordings? After all, aren’t the tragic events of 9/11 well-known to everyone in the world? If the filmmakers were really interested in making a dispassionate, non-fiction account of the hunt for Bin Laden, wouldn’t it have made more sense to start with the beginning of the hunt itself?

Indeed, Bigelow has been quoted as saying she used “a journalistic approach” to making this film and that “it doesn’t have an agenda, and it doesn’t judge.” This, of course, is hogwash.  If Bigelow and Boal were interested in presenting a “values-free” docudrama, they certainly wouldn’t have manipulated viewers with the voices of civilians being burned alive. After hearing the terrified voices of actual victims, how could we not cheer the CIA on as it uses any means necessary to find and kill Bin Laden?

Much has been written about the infamous scene in which one tortured Al-Qaeda operative gives up the name of Bin Laden’s courier after having been beaten, waterboarded, sexually humiliated and stuffed into a tiny wooden box. The inclusion of this scene – along with numerous references to information gained from tortured detainees – has been rightly condemned by many who point out it has already been conclusively determined that the information that ultimately led to Bin Laden’s execution was not gained through the use of torture. By including these scenes, ZDT conveys the incorrect – and dangerous – impression that torture “works.”  It’s a critical point to which I have nothing to add except to refer you to Glenn Greenwald’s excellent pieces on the subject.

Beyond this issue, ZDT is dangerous for an even more essential reason. As Peter Haas pointed out in a recent piece for the Atlantic, it represents a new genre of “entertainment” he calls “embedded filmmaking”:

The fundamental problem is that our government has again gotten away with offering privileged access to carefully selected individuals and getting a flattering story in return. Embeds, officially begun during the invasion of Iraq, are deeply troubling because not every journalist or filmmaker can get these coveted invitations (Seymour Hersh and Matt Taibbi are probably not on the CIA press office’s speed dial), and once you get one, you face the quandary of keeping a critical distance from sympathetic people whom you get to know and who are probably quite convincing. That’s the reason the embed or special invitation exists; the government does its best to keep journalists, even friendly ones, away from disgruntled officials who have unflattering stories to tell…

(The) new and odd rub in the case of Zero Dark Thirty is that the product of this privileged access is not just-the-facts journalism but a feature film that merges fact and fiction. An already problematic practice—giving special access to vetted journalists—is now deployed for the larger goal of creating cinematic myths that are favorable to the sponsoring entity (in the case of Zero Dark Thirty, the CIA). If the access that Boal and Bigelow received was in addition to access that nonfiction writers and documentarians received, I would be a bit less troubled, because at least the quotes in history’s first draft would be reliable, and that means a lot. But as it stands, we’re getting the myth of history before getting the actual history.

In other words, no matter how unsavory the protagonists behavior might be, no matter how “gritty” and “journalistic” the style, this is the CIA’s movie through and through.

In a more recent article, Greenwald pointed out the essential simplicity of ZDT’s world view:

All agents of the US government – especially in its intelligence and military agencies – are heroic, noble, self-sacrificing crusaders devoted to stopping The Terrorists; their only sin is all-consuming, sometimes excessive devotion to this task. Almost every Muslim and Arab in the film is a villainous, one-dimensional cartoon figure: dark, seedy, violent, shadowy, menacing, and part of a Terrorist network…

Other than the last scene in which the bin Laden house is raided, all of the hard-core, bloody violence is carried out by Muslims, with Americans as the victims. The CIA heroine dines at the Islamabad Marriott when it is suddenly blown up; she is shot at outside of a US embassy in Pakistan; she sits on the floor, devastated, after hearing that seven CIA agents, including one of her friends, a “mother of three”, has been killed by an Al Qaeda double-agent suicide-bomber at a CIA base in Afghanistan … Nobody is ever heard talking about the civilian-destroying violence brought to the world by the US.

The CIA and the US government are the Good Guys, the innocent targets of terrorist violence, the courageous warriors seeking justice for the 9/11 victims. Muslims and Arabs are the dastardly villains, attacking and killing without motive (other than the one provided by Bloomberg) and without scruples. Almost all Hollywood action films end with the good guys vanquishing the big, bad villain – so that the audience can leave feeling good about the world and themselves – and this is exactly the script to which this film adheres.

And in the end, that is what makes the technical and narrative brilliance of this film all the more pernicious. It creates the illusion of authenticity and truth when what we’re really watching is the CIA’s truth. One in which Bin Laden was never, once upon a time, an ally of the United States government. One in which “heroes” commit war crimes in secret locations in the furtherance of extra-judicial assassination. One that utterly ignores the realities of what the CIA’s civilian-destroying violence has wrought.

More than anything else, this is why I felt so very dirty after allowing myself to be entertained – and at times even moved – by Zero Dark Thirty.


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