Click here to listen to a podcast interview I did with Just World Books last February.
In this podcast, Rabbi Brant Rosen, author of ‘Wrestling in the Daylight: A Rabbi’s Path to Palestinian Solidarity,’ shared his reflections on his book and how it has impacted his understanding of “what to do” with his beliefs and convictions as well as provided his insights about the effects of Operation Cast Lead, the Gaza flotilla incident, and other Israeli actions on both the views of young American Jews and the Arab Spring. He also offers his opinion on what President Obama should do in his second term about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In honor of Yom Hashoah, please read about the sacred work of Pastor André and Magda Trocmé, the courageous pacifist Christians who saved 3,000-5,000 Jews from certain death in South Central France. May their memory be for a blessing.
The biography below is reposted from the Swarthmore College Peace Collection:
André and Magda Trocmé are perhaps best known for their work in the small French town of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon where, during World War II, they inspired the villagers to help protect and sometimes to assist in the escape of Jews and other poltiical refugees. This quiet and courageous assistance was given without resorting to violence. Historians estimate that about 3,500 Jews were harbored in the area in and around Le Chambon.
André Trocmé (1901-1971) was born in St. Quentin in the north of France to Huguenot parents. After seminary in Paris and graduate work at Union Theological Seminary in New York, he was ordained into the French Reformed Church and served for eight years among the coal miners and steel workers of Maubeuge and Sin-le-Noble, two small towns in the north of France. He preached nonviolence at a time when such views were unpopular in France. In 1934 André Trocmé accepted a call to be pastor in the remote Huguenot village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon on the Plateau Vivarais-Lignon in South Central France. These parishioners were more sympathetic to his views on nonviolence.
Magda Trocmé (1901-1996) was born in Italy to an Italian father and a Russian mother. She graduated from the University of Florence with a degree in literature and earned further degrees in French. She and André Trocmé met in the United States while she was attending the New York School of Social Work, and they were married in 1926. The couple had four children, Nelly, Jean-Pierre, Jacques, and Daniel.
In 1938, André Trocmé, and his pacifist colleague Édouard Theis, founded L’Ecole Nouvelle Cévenol in Le Chambon, a Protestant, co-educational secondary school. In addition to the usual French secondary school curriculum, tolerance, honesty, and nonviolence were taught as well. L’Ecole Nouvelle Cévenole soon gained an international focus, and after World War II the name of the school was changed to Collège Cévenol. Magda Trocmé taught Italian at this school which is still in operation today.
During the first part of World War II Le Chambon was located in the “free”( unoccupied) zone of France. By 1942 the Germans had occupied the entire country. However, the population of the Plateau Vivarais-Lignon continued to aid an increasing number of refugees. In 1943, André Trocmé, Édouard Theis, and the head of the public school, Roger Darcissac were interned in a camp by the Vichy police. These men were arrested for their part in assisting the refugees of the area. Trocmé, Theis, and Darcissac were released from prison after one month, but Trocmé and Theis went into hiding for the next ten months.
In the late 1940s André and Magda Trocmé traveled as European Secretaries for the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR). After their move to Versailles (France) in 1950, the Trocmé’s founded La Maison de la Réconciliation. The Maison de la Reconciliation became an international peace center and the headquarters of the French and Continental Secretariat of the IFOR. During travels in the United States, under IFOR auspices, André Trocmé delivered the Robert Treat Paine lectures which became the basis for his book The Politics of Repentance, published in 1953. During the strife between France and Algeria, André Trocmé helped start Eirene (International Service for Peace), located in Morocco, which provided alternative service for conscientious objectors. He was also active in the movement against atomic weapons, becoming president of the French Federation Against Atomic Armaments in 1959. In 1960, André Trocmé accepted a call to become one of the ministers of the Saint-Gervais Church in Geneva, Switzerland. Many of the sermons he preached at Saint-Gervais were broadcast. His book, Jésus-Christ et la Revolution Non Violente was published in French in 1961 and subsequently in other languages (Orbis Books edition, 2004). In 1965, André Trocmé accompanied a peace mission to Vietnam.
After World War II André Trocmé was awarded the Rosette de la Résistance by the French government. The story of the Trocmé’s pacifist leadership inspired Philip P. Hallie, a professor at Wesleyan University, to write the book Lest Innocent Blood by Shed, published in 1979. Eleven years later Pierre Sauvage produced the documentary Weapons of the Spirit (1988), explaining how his family survived Word War II, through the efforts of the people of Le Chambon.
André Trocmé died in Geneva on June 5, 1971, just a few weeks after he had been scheduled to receive the Médaille des Justes from the government of Israel. As more and more people were recognized as “Righteous Gentiles,” the Yad Vashem honored all the residents of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon and the surrounding area. In their memory an engraved stele and rock garden were installed in the park of Yad Vashem (Israel).
After the death of her husband Magda Trocmé moved to Paris with Alice Reynier (“Jispa”), a close family friend who had lived with the Trocmé family since 1942. Alice Reynier shared their family life and their work. Magda Trocmé received an honorary degree from Haverford College in 1981 in the name of the people of Le Chambon and the surrounding area She died in Paris in 1996. André, Magda, their sons Jean-Pierre and Daniel, and Jispa, are all buried as a family in the cemetery of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon.
I’ve just finished Chicago hip-hop poet Kevin Coval’s soon-to-be-released book, “Schtick” (Haymarket Books) – a collection of poems that takes aim and fires at the sensitive edge of every nerve ending in the American Jewish psyche. It’s a new take-no-prisoners Jewish classic.
Coval has long been known here in Chicago as one of our great local treasures. He’s probably best-known as the founder of “Louder Than a Bomb: The Chicago Youth Poetry Festival,” which was recently the subject of an award-winning documentary of the same name. He’s also the author of numerous poetry collections, serves as Artistic Director of Young Chicago Authors, and offers youth writing workshops throughout Chicago and beyond.
While Coval has explored Jewish identity through his writing before, “Schtick” is his most extensive published collection of Jewish-themed poems thus far. It includes previously released poems such as “what i will tell my jewish kids” and “why i stopped going to shul” together with more recently written pieces – en masse, they serve to dissect the post-modern American Jewish experience in as devastating a fashion as you are ever likely to read.
Although I’m a longtime Kevin Coval fan, I will confess that there were more than few times in which I flinched at this unabashed, occasionally venomous assault on the hottest of Jewish hot buttons. I will also say without hesitation that these poems deserve to be read and discussed by the widest possible audience.
At heart, Coval’s work places him in long and venerable tradition of Jewish dissident writers – a legacy he very consciously celebrates. Indeed, this dissident tradition is palpable throughout virtually every poem in this collection. In “what will i tell my jewish kids,” for instance, he writes:
we are a bridge people. red sea parters. translators
between the warring. we see connections. the i in i
the i in thou. Buber taught us that or was it Haile Selassie
or Freud? and what was it Marx demanded, we live as Moses
bent and davening toward justice. a radical equity where everything is
sacred or nothing is. Einstein to unify the chaos.
Emma Goldman to arrange the pieces.
Though there will inevitably be those who find Coval’s writing to be the work of a “self-hating Jew” (he confronts this very issue in a poem entitled, you guessed it, “self-hating jew”), I’d suggest the poems in “Schtick” are quintessentially Jewish. Coval walks proudly in the “self-hating” Jewish steps of Abbie Hoffman, Philip Roth, Howard Zinn and Groucho Marx – a path trod by generations leading all the way back to the young Abraham, the Jewish upstart who one day grabbed a stick and smashed his father’s icons to shards.
As the title of his book implies, Coval’s counts the edgiest of the edgy Jewish comedians among his favorite iconoclasts. His clearest hero and spiritual ancestor is the great Lenny Bruce (“Lenny the Prophet!/Elijah, opening doors”). Coval also pays loving homage to Don Rickles, Sid Casear, Roseanne and Joan Rivers, with particular appreciation for the way they habitually skewer the goyishe power elite – and get away with it. (In “Don Rickles Roasts Ronald Reagan” Coval portrays Rickles as a sacrilegious Jewish court jester, peppering the poem with excerpts from his routine at Reagan’s Second Inaugural Ball.)
Of course, Coval finds equal inspiration from rappers, poets, freedom fighters and truth tellers as diverse as Public Enemy’s Chuck D, Allen Ginsburg, Fred Hampton and (in a choice certain to stick in many a Jewish craw) Louis Farrakhan. His target of choice is the American majority culture of power, privilege and empire – and the Jews who make their bed in it. He rails against racists of various shapes and sizes, including anti-Semitic icons Mel Gibson and Henry Ford as well as the recently resigned Pope Benedict (“the pope is a nazi/and this is the truth.”)
In poem after poem, he delves deeply into the adventures and follies of Jewish assimilation into the white American establishment – an act that he paints as the ultimate betrayal of our minority Jewish heritage. In one notable series, he explores this complex, often absurd process through poetic profiles of show biz figures Irving “White Christmas” Berlin, Al Jolson (“the confused horrible hope of this new country”) and Jennifer Grey (a third generation Jewish performer whose nose job successfully derailed her film career.)
His poem, “how the jews became white” – a meditation on the tragic events that unfolded during the Springfield race riots of 1908 – unpacks the most extreme example of Jewish “assimilation” imaginable. Among the more infamous moments during the riots occurred when Abraham Raymer, a poor Jewish delivery man, was accused of participating in the murder and lynching of of William Donnegan, an elderly, relatively wealthy (and intermarried) African-American man in front of his wife and neighbors:
Donnegan is not isaac
Donnegan is the lamb
abraham sacrifices to the white
g-d of america
slit throat and strung up
front lawn of a house they’d burn
the yiddisher lyncher
the jury of peers
the freshly born
After reading this poem, I couldn’t help but think that while the lynching of Leo Frank has entered deeply into Jewish mythic consciousness, the name Abraham Raymer remains utterly unknown to most American Jews. And that, of course, is precisely Coval’s point.
Coval’s forte has always been poems that seamlessly mix the personal with the political – and in the chapter entitled “the family business,” he explores Jewish identity politics through his own personal family history. While I doubt his family members will kvell at some of his revelations, his remembrances of his 1980s Bar Mitzvah (by turns mortifying, hilarious and heartbreaking), family seders and Thanksgiving dinners resonates with a deep truth and the kind of love that refuses to profane his memories with shallow nostalgia.
While American Jews of a certain generation will likely nod in recognition with many of his family reminiscences, Coval’s family poems manage to be both brilliantly universal and nakedly specific at the same time. He shines a particularly unflinching light on the painful dissonance he experienced growing up in an economically struggling Jewish family living in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park. Among other things, these profoundly personal reflections go a long way to explain his own deep identification with the Jews as a “bridge people.”
The chapter entitled “all the pharaoh’s must fall” contains his most directly political pieces, most of them centering on the subject of Israel/Palestine. And for all of his deeply edgy poems, I have no doubt that it is from here that “Schtick” will almost certainly receive the most venomous reception from the Jewish establishment.
While Coval has long addressed the issue of Israel in his work, he took on these themes on in earnest in 2009, when he publicly declared himself to be “a Jewish-American man in solidarity with the Palestinian people.” In a widely read article for the Huffington Post, Coval wrote:
I am in solidarity with Israeli and American and all people who work and risk their lives and livelihood for justice. I am not restricted to working within the confines of the Jewish-American community. Justice and the resistance to imperialism is a global, human concern for all people down to struggle. For Jews, yes, but not Jews alone. For Palestinians, yes, but not Palestinians alone. It will take us all to push and demand governments and corporate interests to create fair, equitable living conditions. It will take all people to hold history accountable for the atrocities that occur.
Coval has expressed these convictions in numerous poems he has written since then, many of which are included in this latest collection. The poignant “explaining myself” is written as a plea for understanding to his father. The title poem of the chapter, a stirring call to action written in response to the Arab Spring, deserves to become a seder table staple. And in his final poem, appropriately entitled, “post-schtick,” Coval uses an attempted lynching of Palestinian youths by Israeli teenagers as a frame for understanding the sorrows of Jewish empire: “you don’t ask the mouth/from which the rope hangs/to explain the reasons/it’s being lynched.”
In “on becoming a man,” Coval recalls that before his Bar Mitzvah service began, his rabbi made him promise that he would not return to be confirmed. By standing so firmly on the third rail of Israel/Palestine, Coval is virtually ensuring that he will remain outside the proclaimed borders of the American Jewish establishment. No matter. In the meantime he continues to carve out an authentically Jewish place in the borderlands – a place where Jews have always made their most productive homes.
But make no mistake, Kevin Coval is not simply interested in tossing spitballs from the back of Hebrew school class. On the contrary, he’s knocking loudly at the door. His Jewish vision is carefully and mindfully cultivated, his grasp of Jewish cultural memory undeniable, his respect for his spiritual Jewish ancestors deep and palpably real. And he is among the leaders of an eloquent generation that seeks to find a genuinely Jewish voice to sound a universal message of liberation:
wake in this new day
we will all die soon
let us live while we have the chance while we have this day
to build and plot and devise
to create and make the world
this time for us
this time for all
this time the pharaohs must fall
Here is a guest post written by my friend and colleague, Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, founder of Shomer Shalom Institute for Jewish Nonviolence. Read it around your seder table:
Talmud Yerushalmi (Pesachim 10a) associates the four verses that describe the liberation of the families of Israel from subjugation with the four cups of wine at the Passover table. As it is written, “Say, therefore to the Families of Yisrael, ‘I am Adonai and I will take you out from under the burdens of Mitzryim, and I will save you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments and I will take you to Me as a people…and you shall know the Spirit that draws you forth from under the burdens of subjugation.”
The four words imply a process a process of transformation. This process has four parts: Mitzryim is the Hebrew word that refers to the condition of structural subjugation. Pesakh moves from limping under the burden of the oppression to leaping like a liberated lamb through the parting seas that lead to freedom. The process happens in stages.
V’hotzayti~I will take you out: Complete subjugation is resisted by resisting the occupation of the mind that oppression imposes. In this stage we must ask questions that release us from the narratives that justify subjugation. That is why the seder begins with a collective invitation to the poor and oppressed to speak their stories and share a meal. The four children are a way of exploring one’s own relationship to subjugation.
V’he’tzal’ti~I will save you: Mitzryim is not mentioned by name, implying a lessening of the power of subjugation. At this stage, the community engages in acts of resistance and noncooperation-direct action in order to embody the liberation and begin the long journey of stepping out of subjugation. The midwives boycotting Pharaoh’s order to harm children, and instead, made the healing of children their first priority. Some traditions say they were non-Jewish midwives, and other traditions equate them with Miriam and Yochevet. What is clear for all of us? Liberation depends on multicultural, intergenerational and multifaith solidarity. Freedom is a country without borders.
V’ga’al’ti~I will redeem you: Redemption requires collective mass action and the building of pillars of support in sections of society that have not yet taken action. Systematic and structural violence can be overcome when the society as a whole no longer accepts the normative status quo. Oppression is moved out of the margins into the center as a social issue. During this stage oppression can increase because people are moving closer to the goal of overcoming subjugation. Pharaoh sends his armies to attack those seeking liberation. At this moment we need to call upon the entire nation’s faith that the seas will part.
Lakach’ti~I will take you in beloved relationship: Liberation requires a communal effort to building alternative institutions, and to create alternatives to the violent narratives of oppression. Liberation is the creation of a new reality outside the subjugation framework where the dignity of every single human being is valued. Dignity is a country without borders, it is the promised land.
As the process of liberation proceeds, we come to V‘yadatem~and you shall know. This knowledge is the knowledge of the heart that comes from faith in nonviolence and compassion. When liberation is internalized it is a powerful turning point in the healing process. It is awakening to the realization that we are all equal and precious in the eyes of the Creator.
Here’s a new Passover seder supplement that I’ve just written for Jewish Voice for Peace. Click here if you’d like a pdf to print out and read at you seder table next week.
As Jews, how do we respond when we hear the tragic news regularly coming out of Israel/Palestine? How do we respond to reports of checkpoints and walls, of home demolitions and evictions, of blockades and military incursions?
It might well be said that there are four very different children deep inside each of us, each reacting in his or her own characteristic way.
The Fearful Child is marked by the trauma of the Shoah and believes that to be a Jew means to be forever vulnerable. While he may be willing to accept that we live in an age of relative Jewish privilege and power, in his heart he feels that all of these freedoms could easily be taken away in the blink of an eye. To the Fearful Child, Israel represents Jewish empowerment – the only place in the world that can ensure the collective safety of the Jewish people.
The Bitter Child channels her Jewish fears into demonization of the other. This child chooses to view anti-Semitism as the most eternal and pernicious of all forms of hatred and considers all those “outside the tribe” to be real or potential enemies. She believes that Palestinians fundamentally despise Jews and will never tolerate their presence in the land – and that brute force is the only language they will ever understand.
The Silent Child is overwhelmed with the myriad of claims, histories, narratives and analyses that emerge from Israel/Palestine. While he dreams of a day in which both peoples will live in peace, he is unable to sift through all that he hears and determine how he might help bring that day about. At his most despairing moments, he doesn’t believe a just peace between these two peoples will ever be possible. And so he directs his Jewish conscience toward other causes and concerns – paralyzed by the “complexities” of this particular conflict.
The Courageous Child is willing to admit the painful truth that this historically persecuted people has now become a persecutor. This child understands and empathizes with the emotions of the other children all too well – in truth, she still experiences them from time to time. In the end, however, the Courageous Child refuses to live a life defined by immobilized by fear, bitterness or complacency. She understands it is her sacred duty to stand in solidarity with all who are oppressed, particularly when she herself is implicated in that oppression.
At one time or another we have heard within ourselves the voices of any or all of these children.
How will we respond to them?
In honor of Passover, I’d like to share an excerpt from article I’ve recently finished that attempts to articulate a Jewish Theology of Liberation. The longer piece will hopefully be published soon – in the meantime, I offer this snippet to you as “food for thought” for your seder table. All the best for a liberating Pesach!
The Exodus is, of course, the sacred liberation story par excellence, in which God hearkens to the cry of the persecuted, rebukes the oppressor Pharaoh and frees the enslaved. While this narrative is clearly presented within a particularist context (God hearkens to the cry of God’s oppressed people), it has historically resonated with universal power. As the social and political scientist Michael Walzer has observed, a myriad of liberation movements have been indelibly marked with Exodus consciousness throughout the course of Western civilization.
On the most basic level, then, a Jewish theology of liberation must necessarily view the Exodus as both a particular narrative of a certain people as well as a universal narrative that encompasses all humanity. The oppression of the Jewish people must be understood as inseparable from the oppression of all peoples – likewise the liberation of the Jewish people must be inextricably linked to the liberation of all peoples. While the historical events may differ in the details, they are all bound by a common sacred truth: the voice of the God of Liberation calls out in every language and in every generation to demand the liberation of the oppressed.
However, if we read the Exodus story honestly and unflinchingly, we must be ready to admit the presence of another, darker voice present in this narrative. The Exodus does not only describe the liberation of an oppressed people from bondage – it also contains the story of a journey toward and entrance into a “Promised Land” inhabited by other peoples – indigenous inhabitants whom the Israelites are commanded to dislodge and exterminate without pity.
As difficult as it may be to read morally repugnant passages such as these in one’s “sacred” text, it is even more unsettling when we consider that these imperatives are deeply embedded within our cherished liberation narrative. In a sense, the “Exodus” is only the first half of a much longer story – a saga that begins with the Israelites exit from Egypt (Exodus) and ends with their entrance in Canaan (Eisodus). As the narrative would have it, we cannot have the Exodus without God’s promise of the land – and this promise cannot be fulfilled without the Israelites obedience to a commandment that demands nothing less than ethnic cleansing and even extermination.
Last November, Harvard’s Progressive Jewish Alliance prepared to sponsor “Jewish Voices Against the Occupation.” One week before it was set to take place at Harvard Hillel, Hillel decided to pull the plug on the program. Why? Because Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee was a co-sponsor.
In defense of its position, Harvard Hillel cited the guidelines of Hillel International that state Hillel organizations “will not partner with, house, or host organizations, groups, or speakers” that support the “boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the state of Israel.” And since the Harvard PSC promotes boycott, divestment and sanctions, this was enough for Hillel to kibosh a program sponsored by a Jewish student group.
If this sounds vaguely like deja vu to you, that’s because back in March 2011, Brandeis University Hillel refused to allow student chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace to affiliate under its umbrella, citing the very same guidelines. Then senior Lev Hirschorn commented at the time:
We feel like we deserve a seat at the Jewish communal table, but there is a sense that dissent on the question of Israel is not really acceptable.
As open debate and discussion have been indelible aspects of Jewish culture from time immemorial these attempts at muzzling students’ voices are particularly egregious. Hillel International’s guidelines (which are not obligatory for local Hillels) essentially ensure that there will be no honest and open Jewish conversations about Israel on campuses across the country. They will most certainly exclude growing Jewish student groups such as JVP – and they will also prevent Hillels from inviting co-sponsorship or dialogue with Palestinians, since almost all Palestinian campus groups support BDS.
Trust me on this: this has everything to do with the Jewish establishment’s fear of letting young Jews think for themselves on the subject of Israel. Not convinced? Just read this recent piece in the Washington Jewish Week, in which Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt (chairperson of the Jewish Federations of North America Rabbinical Council) offered up this choice observation:
I think it is important to begin to help prepare our children for what they are going to encounter on college campuses in regard to pro-Palestinian groups, the anti-Israel groups on Israel and radical fringe groups like Jewish Voices for Peace.
These are not J Street. Our kids are relatively sheltered, and they go to college and are confronted with hostility and misinformation. I want them to be equipped with the knowledge and understanding of the historical justification for the existence of the state of Israel.
Well that certainly says it all. We need to protect our poor, vulnerable, non-critically thinking young people from Jewish Voice for Peace and other groups that advocate for the rights of Palestinians. Since we can’t trust college students to think for themselves, we must “equip” them with what we deem to be the acceptable historical Jewish opinions on Israel. This profoundly patronizing, pseudo mind-controlling approach to Jewish outreach explains why the Jewish establishment is fast making itself irrelevant to young people – and why it feels compelled to allocate hundreds of millions of dollars yearly to send college students on all expenses paid Birthright junkets and free trips to the National AIPAC Convention.
Please join me in advocating for a Jewish student community that respects a plurality of Jewish student voices on Israel/Palestine. Please sign this petition by Open Hillel, a coalition of students that seek to change the “standards of partnership” in Hillel International’s guidelines and encourages local campus Hillels to adopt policies that “allow for free discourse on all subjects within the Hillel community.”
From the Open Hillel website:
We believe deeply in the ideal, expressed in Hillel International’s mission statement, of a vibrant, pluralistic Jewish community on campus, in which all people, regardless of their religious observance, past Jewish experience, or personal beliefs, are welcome. In many ways, Hillel has been remarkably successful at fostering such a pluralistic and inclusive community, bringing together students from different backgrounds to learn from and support one another, as well as to openly debate and discuss their differing views. We believe that this pluralism should be extended to the subject of Israel, and that no Jewish group should be excluded from the community for its political views.
In addition, we believe that inter-community dialogue and free discourse, even on difficult subjects, is essential in the context of an educational institution and a democratic society. Open discussion and debate is a Jewish value, and we are proud of our culture’s long tradition of encouraging the expression of multiple, even contradictory, views and arguments. However, Hillel International’s current guidelines encourage Jewish students to avoid seriously engaging with Palestinian students or other students on campus with differing views on Israel-Palestine. This is detrimental to the goal of encouraging mutual understanding, cooperation, and peace. Thus, we believe it is essential that Hillel-affiliated groups be able to partner with other campus groups in order to share perspectives, cooperate in those areas where we agree, and respectfully debate in those areas where we disagree.
Sure doesn’t sound like the words of “sheltered,” “unequipped” young people to me…