God Hears the Cry of the Oppressed: A Theology of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions

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I delivered the remarks below yesterday during a session at the annual conference of the American Academy of Religion in Boston. This panel was originally intended to be an exploratory roundtable entitled “Arguing Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) and Religion,” featuring six presenters to discuss this issue in the spirit of respectful, collegial debate. As the organizers of the program noted, “Rather than demonizing those either for or against BDS, this exploratory session will allow a variety of voices to be heard.”

Late last week, we learned that two anti-BDS panelists and the moderator had withdrawn from the session. One panelist claimed that she did not know who the rest of the panelists would be, specifically objecting to me and Dr. Hatem Bazian of (Zaytuna College and UC Berkeley) being included in the program.

After a hastily organized meeting, the AAR Executive Committee decided to postpone the roundtable, but allowed the room to be available for “information discussion.” At the session I read my original paper; Dr. Bazian and Dr. Zareena Grewal of Yale presented as well. A paper written by Dr. Steven Zunes (University of San Francisco), who was unable to attend, was also presented at the session. 

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 In my remarks to you today, I’d like to address one of the questions originally presented to the panelists of our session:

What, from your perspective, what stands out as a particularly important element of religious ethics and theology that motivates those inspired to take up the cause of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions?

For me, this question is profoundly connected to one of the most important theological teachings of Jewish tradition: namely that God hears and hearkens to the cry of the oppressed.

This teaching is needless to say, deeply imbedded in the Torah; in Genesis 18:20-21, God says to Abraham:

The outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave! I will go down to see whether they have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached Me…

Later, at the outset of the Exodus story, God says to Moses:

Now the cry of the Israelites has reached Me; moreover I have seen how the Egyptians oppress them. (Exodus 3:9) 

It should be noted that Godly attributes in Jewish tradition are not mere academic concepts – they are nothing short of divine imperatives. God’s ways must be our ways as well. Judaism is replete with references to imitatio dei, including this oft-cited teaching from the Talmud:

Why does it say (Deut. 13: 5): “One should walk after God“? Is it possible to walk after the Divine Presence? Is God not like a consuming fire (ibid., 4:24)? Rather, it means that one should imitate God’s ways. As God clothed Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:21), so should we clothe the naked; as God visited the ailing (Gen. 18: 1), so should we visit the sick; as God comforted Isaac after Abraham’s death (Gen. 25: 11), so should we comfort mourners; as God buried Moses (Deut. 34:6), so should we care for the dignity of the dead.

 

(Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 14a).

To this list, we might well add: “As God hears the cry of the oppressed, so should we hear the cry of the oppressed.”

One of my favorite recent teachings on this concept is offered by Rabbi Aryeh Cohen, in his 2009 essay, “Hearing the Cry of the Poor.” Pointing to the well known verse in Exodus 20: “Do not oppress or mistreat the stranger, for you were strangers in Egypt,” Cohen writes:

Many have understood this verse as meaning that the lesson of oppression is compassion. That is, “You Israelites know what it means to be enslaved, oppressed, to be the stranger. Now that you are the dominant group, you must exercise compassion toward those who were like you were. You must exercise the compassion that Pharaoh did not exercise toward you.”

 

This understanding, however, does not take into account verse 22 (“If you do, and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless.”)

Cohen interprets thus:

On the one hand, God heard the cry of the Israelites, and this led to redemption. On the other hand, Pharaoh did not hear the cry and this led to the devastation of Egypt. The ethical choice is between imitatio dei and imitatio pharaoh. As is the wont of the Biblical authors, these choices bring with them repercussions. Choosing to be like God leads to redemption while choosing to be like Pharaoh leads to death.

Later, noting Nachmanides commentary on this verse, Rabbi Cohen concludes:

The lesson of the slavery and liberation in Egypt is not an exhortation to dwell on shared victimization…It is not the empathy of shared suffering that is at stake here but the certain knowledge that God hears the cries of the oppressed that others choose to ignore – and benefit thereby from their continued exploitation….

 

Nachmanides teaches us that the experience that we share with all marginal, oppressed or exploited people is the possibility of redemption. The Torah puts this starkly, to quote Eldridge Cleaver: “What we’re saying here today is that you’re either part of the solution or you’re part of the problem.” You can choose to be like God, and hear the cries of the oppressed, or you can choose to be like Pharaoh and ignore those cries. In either event, the oppressed will be redeemed. If, however, the salvation is left to God you will go the way of the Egyptians.

(from “Crisis, Call and Leadership in the Abrahamic Traditions,” edited by P. Ochs and W. Johnson, pp. 112-114.)

While Rabbi Cohen does not address BDS specifically in his essay, I find his teaching to be directly relevant to our subject. To put it simply, the BDS call is a cry from the oppressed. Will we choose to be like God, and hear the cry of the Palestinian people?

This simple, essential point is too often drowned out by the clamor and din of the hysteria around BDS: its origin point is a call from an oppressed people who are seeking support and solidarity from the international community.

Some critical history: the BDS movement dates back to 2005, when 170 Palestinian civil society organizations came together to strategize at critical political moment. The Oslo peace process had been ongoing for over ten years. During that time – a period ostensibly dedicated to a final status agreement – Israel had expanded its settlement enterprise across the West Bank at a staggering rate. The settler population in the West Bank had doubled – particularly in areas meant to be part of an eventual Palestinian state. Palestinians were being forced into isolated cantons, hemmed in by the barrier wall and checkpoints, increasingly cut off from Israel and each other.

It had become clear to many – certainly to Palestinians – that Israel had no interest in negotiating a viable two state solution. They were extending their control over Palestinian lands and they were doing it with impunity. At the same time, in Israel proper, Palestinians were increasingly deprived of their rights as citizens. Adalah – the Legal Center for Minority rights in Israel had documented over 65 laws that discriminated against Palestinians on the basis of their national belonging. And then there was the question of Palestinian refugees. Since Israel steadfastly refused to even consider negotiating the Palestinian Right of Return, over 7 million Palestinian refugees remained in exile – unable to even set foot in the land in which their ancestors lived.

During the decade following Oslo, no political entity – not the US government, the UN, the governments of the international community, nor the PA itself – were willing or able to hold Israel to account. It was under this context that the leadership of Palestinian civil society came together in 2005 to issue the BDS call. The efforts of the political powers had failed them. Together, they determined that the only way to create the opening for a just solution was to leverage popular support – that is to say, people power.

Thus, a wide coalition of Palestinian unions, political parties, refugee networks, women’s organizations, professional associations, popular resistance committees and other Palestinian civil society bodies made a crie de cour for solidarity and support. They issued a call to the world to use the time honored nonviolent strategy of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions to pressure the state of Israel to meet three essential demands:

  • To end the occupation and colonization of the West Bank and Gaza and dismantle the separation wall;
  • to recognize the fundamental rights of Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality;
  • and to respect, protect and promote the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194

Although BDS is an inherently nonviolent tactic, it is striking to note the lengths to which the government of Israel has devoted time, energy and resources in trying to defeat it over the past decade. It has spent literally hundreds of millions of dollars to this effort, enlisted a myriad of Israel advocacy organizations and has even created a new government ministry devoted exclusively to fighting BDS. And though demands of the BDS call are based in human rights and international law, it is routinely referred to as antisemiticeconomic terrorism” that “delegitimizes the state of Israel.”

Why such a strong response? I would suggest it is because Israel knows this is the one arena in which it is the most vulnerable. While it enjoys a distinct advantage on politically and militarily, it now faces the mobilization of a nonviolent popular movement that is holding it to account – and it takes this very seriously. Indeed, BDS is modeled on the similar movement that was mobilized in response to apartheid South Africa. History has proven that this kind of popular resistance can actually work.

Admittedly, the idea of a worldwide boycott of Israel pushes all kinds of Jewish hot buttons. Many, for instance, compare it to the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses during the rise of the Third Reich. While I understand the visceral nature of this response, it perversely misrepresents the essential core of the BDS call. In the case of Nazi Germany, a government used boycott as a tool to persecute minority citizens of its own nation. The Palestinian civil society call is a cry from the oppressed themselves for solidarity in the face of state violence. In this regard it is much more comparable to the Montgomery Bus Boycott during the American civil rights movement or the United Farm Workers call for boycott of grape growers in California.

BDS also pushes buttons for those who believe it unfairly singles Israel out. Those who have answered the call by supporting boycott and divestment campaigns are routinely accused of practicing a double standard. “Of all the oppressive regimes throughout the world, Israel is surely not the worst, many critics claim.” Thus it is problematic, if not downright antisemitic, to target Israel exclusively with such campaigns.

Here again, the essential nature of the BDS call is being twisted out of context. BDS does not originate in boycott campaigns or divestment resolutions. The BDS call comes from Palestinians themselves. The proper question before us it not “what about these other oppressive regimes?” but rather, “the Palestinian people have issued a call for solidarity and support in the face of very real oppression – will we respond to their call or not?”

There is currently no call comparable to the one that has been issued by Palestinian civil society. If oppressed people anywhere in the world saw fit to issue such a call, it would naturally be worthy of our consideration and support. But the lack of one does not invalidate the worthiness of the call that has been placed before us by the Palestinian people.

Back in 2009, when I was just starting to grapple myself with my own response to this call, I wrote a blog post in which I shared my own nascent thoughts on the subject. Here is how I concluded:

Beyond the fears of BDS articulated by so many in the Jewish communal establishment, I think there’s an even deeper fear for many of us in the Jewish community: the prospect of facing the honest truth of Israel’s oppression of Palestinians.

 

For so many painful reasons, it is just so hard for us to see Israel as an oppressor – to admit that despite all of the vulnerability we feel as Jews, the power dynamic is dramatically, overwhelmingly weighted in Israel’s favor.  Though a movement like BDS might feel on a visceral level like just one more example of the world piling on the Jews and Israel, we need to be open to the possibility that it might more accurately be described as the product of a weaker, dispossessed, disempowered people doing what it must to resist oppression.

In the end, I believe this is the real crux of the issue. Many liberals analyze the issue of Israel/Palestine with what I would call a “Conflict Analysis” – that is to say, the tragic collision of two peoples, each of whom have compelling claims to the same piece of land. In this instance, the appropriate response naturally, would be to negotiate a political compromise between the two parties.

Others however, myself included, analyze the issue with an “Oppression Analysis.” In this case, this tragedy was caused by an essential injustice. It occurred as the result of an ethnic national movement that colonized, settled and forcibly seized a land from people who were living there. Indeed, this injustice is not part of history but is ongoing even now. As we speak, Israel is colonizing, settling and forcibly seizing land from Palestinians who call that land home.

I realize there may be some in this room who cannot bear to hear me say these words, but I – and increasing numbers of people around the world – believe them to be true, no matter how painful it feels to hear them. Israel is oppressing Palestinians. And when a people are oppressed, they will inevitably resist their oppression – yes sometimes violently.

In this case, however, a nonviolent call for popular resistance has been placed before us. Thus, for those of us that believe God hears the cry of the oppressed and demands that we do the same, the BDS call represents a direct challenge to our faith. Will we be like God, and hearken to their cries, or will we be like Pharaoh and ignore them?

As a Jew, as an American, as a person of conscience, I would suggest this call presents us with nothing less than the most consequential spiritual challenge of our time.

Seaside Memory in Gaza

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Memorials take many forms – some are grand and iconic like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in DC while others exude power through their very simplicity.

Here’s an example of the latter category:

During my trip Gaza last month, I noticed a series of colorful concrete benches placed along the beachfront as we traveled north along the coast from Rafah to Gaza City. As we drove by, I noticed that some benches were empty; on another, a sole person sat gazing out to sea and another was filled with what seemed like an entire family. My AFSC colleague Ali Albari noted the Arabic words on the backs of each bench, pointing out that each one bore the name of a Palestinian city or town that was forcibly depopulated by Zionist militias in 1948/49.

The majority of the almost 2,000,000 residents of Gaza are in fact, refugees – Palestinians who had originally lived in the central and northern regions of the country. After their dispossession they were herded into refugee camps in Gaza, fully expecting to return to their homes after the armistice. Now, almost seventy years later, they are still waiting.

It’s not difficult to grasp their sacred significance of these simple seaside benches to the refugees of Gaza. Clearly, they have not forgotten.

Unlike most memorials, which commemorate that which was lost and never to be found, I’d wager that those who come to these beaches don’t believe their homes to be lost to them at all. On the contrary, I these benches testify to their faith that they will one day return.

(Thanks to Ali Albari for translating.)

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Safad (Safed)

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Jenin

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Hifa’ (Haifa)

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Bir Saba’ (Be’er Sheva)

 

Doubling Down in Hebron: A Torah Teaching

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The Torah portion for next Shabbat, Chayei Sarah (Genesis 21:1-25:18) begins with a complex description of Abraham’s purchase of the cave of Machpelah as a burial place for his wife Sarah – a site that eventually becomes the familial burial plot for the Patriarchs and Matriarchs.

The name “Machpelah” literally means “the doubled one” for reasons that are not entirely clear. According the Midrashic legend, Adam and Eve were the first to be buried there. In a Talmudic debate (Eruvin 53a), Rav suggests the cave had two levels, while Rabbi Shmuel says it contained tombs in pairs. Abahu comments that anyone buried in the cave had a double portion in the world to come.

But there is a more compelling reason why this site might be called “the doubled one.” It has literally functioned for centuries as both a synagogue and a mosque.

Called Ma’arat Machpelah by Jews and Al-Haram Al-Ibrahimi by Muslims, members of both faiths worship on opposite sides of the large interior space. Today of course, this synagogue/mosque sits atop a virtual powder keg. After 1994, when a Jewish extremist settler, Baruch Goldstein, murdered twenty nine Muslims engaged in prayer in Al-Haram Al-Ibrahimi, the interior was divided by a wall, with two completely separate entrances for Muslims and Jews.

This “doubling” eventually extended to grip the entire city of Hebron. Following the massacre, the IDF imposed increasing curfews and restriction of movement on the Palestinian population. In 1996, as part of the Oslo agreement, Hebron was divided into two sections: H1 and H2. H1 is locally governed by the Palestinian Authority and is home to approximately 120,000 Palestinians. Tens of thousands of Palestinians live in H2 along under the control of the Israeli military, who are charged with the protection of 600 Jewish settlers who have aggressively moved into the city center. Since the Second Intifada, Israel increased their security crackdown on this part of the city, blocking off major streets to Palestinians – most notably the main commercial road, Shehadah Street. (The army refers to them as “sterile roads”).

Virtually every Palestinian shop in H2 has been closed and their doors welded shut by the army. Because the Palestinian residents of Shehadah St. are not allowed to walk on the road, they must enter and exit through the rear of homes because they cannot leave their own front doors. Because of these measures – and the ongoing harassment and violence at the hands of Jewish settlers – what was once the busting commercial center of Hebron has become a ghost town. 42% of its Palestinian homes are empty and 70% of its Palestinian business have been shut down.

Many right wing Jews will claim that this Torah portion – which painstakingly reports Abraham’s negotiations for the cave – is the Jewish people’s “deed of sale” to this site. I would counter that the very attitude that regards a sacred religious text as a literal “deed of sale” explains in no small way how we arrived at this fearful moment.

I’d also suggest that the true power of this portion comes later – following the death of Abraham – when we read: “his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah near Mamre.” (Genesis 25:9)

I can’t help but think this short verse says all that needs to be said about that godforsaken cave. It’s long past time to bury the dead and get on with living.

Guest Post: “A New Spirit in Gaza”

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photo credit: Jennifer Bing (via Acting in Faith)

Here is another report back from our AFSC staff trip to Gaza – this one by my colleague, Jennifer Bing. (Cross posted with Acting in Faith.)

As I drove with my Palestinian colleague to the Erez border crossing between Gaza and Israel—passing hundreds of children coming out of school, dodging donkey carts full of vegetables and fresh eggs, and hearing the call to midday prayers—I asked, “Is it just me, or is there a new spirit of hope in Gaza?” He replied, “Yes, there is a change since you were here two years ago, even in the last weeks.”

My AFSC colleague who listens to Fairuz in the morning and Um Kulthum in the afternoon—two legendary female vocalists in the Middle East—is unable to get a permit to attend meetings outside of Gaza. He has deeply felt the impact of the blockade, especially after his neighborhood of Sheja’iyeh was heavily bombed in 2014. Like the two million residents of Gaza, his family of five have adjusted their lives to the electricity power cuts, lack of clean water and medical care, and overcrowded schools.

“We have to have hope things will be better,” he told me as we said our farewells at the border crossing.

A few days before I arrived in Gaza, Palestinians filled the streets celebrating the beginning of reconciliation talks between Fatah and Hamas, the two main Palestinian political factions. On Oct. 12, a few days after I left Gaza, a national reconciliation pact was signed in Cairo, setting the stage for possible changes that may lead to improvements in the lives of Palestinians in Gaza who suffer from a decade of international blockade, years of internal political strife, and decades of Israeli military occupation.

“The streets support unity,” said one of the young participants in AFSC’s program, whom we met our first night in Gaza. “If unity will bring a better situation, a better future for youth, of course we support it.”

Children play in an alley in Gaza. Photo: Jennifer Bing/AFSC

photo credit: Jennifer Bing (via Acting in Faith)

Today youth in Gaza have a bleak existence, facing with their families the lack of clean water and sanitation, electricity cuts, overcrowded schools, underfunded medical services, high unemployment (62 percent for youth) despite high levels of literacy, and restrictions on leaving Gaza.

“I just want the chance to travel abroad to learn from other cultures and get new ideas,” one youth told us. “I want people to know that Gaza is suffering, but also that we have talented, good creative people who live here—we are not just victims.”

One university researcher we met in Gaza told us: “Youth feel estranged in their own communities. Seventy-four percent of youth would emigrate from Gaza if given the chance. They don’t see that they have influence over their social or political lives and are not participating in collective ways such as unions or political parties.”

As Palestinians in Gaza focus on their daily survival—navigating power cuts and making sure families are fed (70 percent are now food aid dependent)—many don’t focus on challenging the structural violence of military occupation.

“We are happy to feel any kind of hope, but reconciliation must result in the liberation of Palestine.” This perspective was shared by a Palestinian fishermen who sat with us over morning coffee on the docks in Gaza City. Proud of their role in one of Palestine’s major industries, the fishermen told us that the blockade has dramatically reduced the quality and quantity of fish caught in Gaza’s seas. Israeli restrictions on the nautical miles they are allowed to fish, Israeli army attacks on fishing boats, high fuel prices, and raw sewage dumped daily into the sea due to electricity shortages have had devastating effects on the fishing economy.

One fisherman told us: “We want to work on our sea without danger, and feed our people who need to eat. We want a job with dignity. We need protection from Israeli and U.S. weapons.”

Another added, “We are the port to the world, but the blockade needs to end.”

Fishermen repair their nets in Gaza. Photo: Jennifer Bing/AFSC

photo credit: Jennifer Bing (via Acting in Faith)

As we drove through the streets of Gaza from the North to the South, we witnessed reconstruction efforts mainly funded through Gulf countries. Despite improvements, some buildings, such as a new hospital funded by Qatar, did not include funding for staff and equipment and thus is yet to open.

Border crossings in the North and South were empty. One of the Palestinian non-governmental employees we met said financial assistance to Gaza has been impacted by regional conflicts, and “donor fatigue” is an issue for reconstruction. “Some people are optimistic that the reconciliation talks will mean more funding will be available for Gaza and that the blockade will ease, bringing some measure of stability.”

Daily life goes on in Gaza despite the blockade. We saw farmers harvesting olives, mechanics repairing old cars, gold sellers meeting with prospective brides, merchants selling fresh dates at street corners, children playing tag in alleyways, women going to hair salons, bridal parties singing congratulations, and boys playing soccer on the beach. Walking on the dark streets of Gaza City at night—streets only lit by the hotel generators that power wedding parties into the late hours—I felt the energy of Palestinians desiring to live a normal existence.

Yet lives in Gaza are not normal, and the United Nations has predicted that the area will be “unlivable by 2020.” Children in Gaza are growing up in a world where they have never seen clean water come out of their faucets nor electricity continuously provided for a full day. A father of a small boy shared with us that he noticed that his small son would always be lying on the floor each morning rather than on his mattress. The father finally realized that the intense summer heat in Gaza was making his son roll out of bed in search of a cooler surface—the floor. “What kind of normal life is that?” he asked us.

“Your advocacy is crucial for us,” said a Palestinian we met with over coffee. “Tell our stories. We need to bring people to Gaza to see the life we lead. All the news cannot show the beauty of the people, nor how we can be destroyed in a blink of an eye.”

As we share the stories and hopes of Palestinians in Gaza through projects like Gaza Unlocked, we must continue to advocate for opening Gaza’s borders and giving Palestinians their right to freedom of movement so critical to the success of any negotiated agreement. As I passed through the long above-ground tunnel out of Gaza heavily fortified by the Israeli army, I was reminded by the highly weaponized border that the hopes for reconciliation and unity among Palestinians cannot succeed until the Israeli military occupation ends.

Overcoming Isolation in Gaza: A Report Back

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Gaza City, 10/8/17. The Bakr children were killed on this beach by Israeli military forces on 7/16/14.

I’ve been writing a great deal on this blog about Gaza for over ten years but until this past week, I haven’t had the opportunity to visit in person. I’m enormously grateful for the opportunity to experience Gaza as a real living, breathing community and I’m returning home all the more committed to the movement to free Gaza from Israel’s crushing blockade – now eleven years underway with no end in sight.

For the past ten days, I’ve been attending strategic planning meetings with staff colleagues of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) to sharpen our vision for our Israel/Palestine programs in the US, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. We began with three days of meetings in Ramallah – with our Gazan staff members joining us via Skype. Following these meetings, six of us spent two days in Gaza, hosted by the two full-time members of the Gaza staff: Ali Abdel Bari and Firas Ramlawi.

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AFSC Israel/Palestine staff meeting in Ramallah (with Ali and Firas joining us from Gaza via Skype).

It’s extremely rare for Americans to receive permission from Israel to enter Gaza through the Erez Crossing. Permits are generally issued only for journalists and staff people of registered international NGOs. Though I was technically allowed to enter Gaza as an AFSC staff member, I wasn’t 100% sure it would really happen until the moment I was actually waved through the crossing by the solider at Passport Control in Erez.

Quakers have a long history in Israel/Palestine – dating back to before the founding of the state of Israel. The Ramallah Friends School for Girls was founded in 1889, and their School for Boys in 1901. The two schools subsequently merged into one; now well into the 21st century Ramallah Friends remains a important and venerable Palestinian educational institution. (The former head of the school Joyce Aljouny, was recently appointed AFSC’s General Secretary.)

AFSC has a particularly significant connection to Gaza. In 1949, immediately following Israel’s founding and the start of the Palestinian refugee crisis, the organization was asked by the UN to organize relief efforts for refugees in the Gaza Strip. Their efforts continued until the United Nations Relief Works Agency started its operations there a year later. Since that time, AFSC has retained its programmatic presence throughout the Israel and the Occupied Territories.

Up until relatively recently, AFSC’s Palestine youth program focused largely on Public Achievement, seeking to strengthen the civic ties of youth to their communities. Our current program, Palestinian Youth Together for Change (PYTC) is a more ambitious project, working to combat Palestinian geographical, social and cultural fragmentation in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. It’s difficult to overestimate the devastating impact of this fragmentation – particularly on Palestinian youth who are growing up with increasing separation from one another. This isolation is most keenly felt of course, by the youth of Gaza who are literally imprisoned by Israel inside a small 140 square mile strip of land.

When we met the Gazan youth who participated in the PYTC program, they spoke powerfully about their experiences growing up with a strong sense of Palestinian identity while isolated from their peers in Israel and the West Bank. This particularly hit home for me when I heard one young woman speak of entering into Israel through the Erez Crossing for the first time to travel to the West Bank for meetings with her fellow participants. She was eighteen years old and had never seen an Israeli Jew in person in her life. Up until that time, she said, she had only seen them as “helicopters, planes and bombs.” Needless to say, this contrasted dramatically from the experience of her West Bank peers, who encountered Israeli soldiers as a very real, everyday presence in the streets and at checkpoints.

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With current participants of AFSC’s Palestinian Youth Together for Change program.

It’s also important to bear in mind that this isolation is not a “humanitarian” issue that can be fully addressed by greater NGO and civil society investment. Rather it is the result of very real and very intentional policies promulgated by Israel to purposefully divide and weaken Palestinian society. By the same token, the PYTC program is not a merely a youth service project – it’s ultimate goal is to strengthen Palestinian identity in order to counter the brutal and unjust occupation of their people. In this regard this program is connected in important ways to AFSC programs in the US that promote “co-resistance:” initiatives that support the Palestinian civil society call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, advocate for Palestinian children held by Israel in military detention and educate the public about the devastating costs of the Gaza blockade.

There’s so much more I could write about my experiences in Gaza. As I prepare now to head back to the States, I’m struggling to give voice the myriad of emotions that are flooding through me. At the moment, I’m thinking particularly of Ali and Firas, our Gaza staff members, who were not only gracious and wonderful hosts (although they were entirely that); but also talented and visionary organizers who teach us a great deal about how to do this work effectively in the most extreme of circumstances.

Even under the brutality of Israel’s blockade, we could not help but be struck by the beauty of this place and the dignity of its people and culture (which includes, I hasten to add, the deliciousness of its cuisine). As it happened, our visit occurred immediately after the beginning of reconciliation talks between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, brokered by the Egyptian government. Most of the Gazans we spoke to expressed a guarded sense of hope that it might result in some easement of the blockade – particularly in regards to freedom of movement, drinkable water and electrical service. Of course this optimism occurs within a constant context of isolation and vulnerability. The next Israeli military assault is altogether possible at any moment – and every Gazan must contend with this horrible reality every moment of every day.

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Left to right: AFSC staff Jennifer Bing, Lucy Duncan, Erin Polley, Brant Rosen, Mati Gomis-Perez, Aura Kanegis and Firas Ramlawi. Kneeling: Ali Abdel Bari

I’ve posted below some additional pictures (and one video clip) of memorable moments from our visit. My staff colleagues will be writing more about these moments and I will be sure to share their posts here. For now, I’ll end on a note of gratitude: to AFSC for giving me the opportunity to participate in this sacred work; to our gracious hosts in East Jerusalem, Ramallah and Gaza; and to my US staff colleagues who are true travel companions in more ways than one.

I took the picture at the top of this post during our final hours in Gaza. As we debriefed on a beautiful morning over coffee at a seaside cafe, three young boys who likely should have been in madrassa came down to the beach to hang out and have fun together. The loveliness of the moment was both very real and very illusory. There was no mistaking the beauty of the place and people with whom we were sharing this moment. At the same time, however, we were aware that we were in the affluent tourist part of town and that we were privileged enough to soon be leaving Gaza to travel without restriction. We were also well aware that not far from the place these boys were standing, Ismail Mohammed Bakr (9), Zakaria Ahed Bakr (10), Ahed Atef Bakr (10) and Mohamed Ramez Bakr (11) were murdered by Israeli naval fire while they played soccer on the beach on July 16, 2014.

There can be no illusions where Gaza is concerned. As I leave for home, I’m more convinced than ever that we are all complicit in this cruelty – and that we are the ones who must end it.

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The almost mile-long corridor between the Erez Crossing in Israel and the entrance into Gaza.

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Our meeting with the Gazan Fishermen’s Union. Ali translates the presentations of Zakaria Bakr – chair of the union and uncle of the murdered Bakr boys (Center), and Amjad Shrafi, President of the union (Right). Below: video from our morning excursion with Gazan fishermen:

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At the Rafah crossing, on Gaza’s southern border with Egypt.

Sermon for Yom Kippur 5778: Another World is Possible – A Jewish View on Police/Prison Abolition

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In 1902, Clarence Darrow delivered a speech to a group of inmates at the Cook County Jail. Never known for mincing his words, he made the following point:

There should be no jails. They do not accomplish what they pretend to accomplish. If you would wipe them out, there would be no more criminals than now….They are a blot upon civilization, and a jail is an evidence of the lack of charity of the people on the outside who make the jails and fill them with the victims of their greed.

There’s no record of what the prison administration thought of his remarks, but I think it’s fair to assume they weren’t happy.

Another anecdote, this one more recent: Two years ago, after the killings of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and several Dallas police officers, Fox News hosted a panel discussion on police violence. One of panelists was a young African American activist and rapper named Jessica Disu. The discussion inevitably started to get heated. Disu didn’t mix in for the most part, but when someone accused Black Lives Matter activists of calling for the death of cops, Disu finally spoke up.

Speaking over the din, she said, “This is the reason our young people are hopeless in America.” Then she added, “Here’s a solution, we need to abolish the police.” The panel quickly descended into pandemonium.

Disu later commented that she had never previously considered herself to be a police abolitionist. But since that evening, she said, abolition has come to be the only way forward that makes sense to her. “It’s more than a repair, she said. “We need something new.”

It’s safe to say that liberal White Americans are starting to struggle with the deep legacy of institutional racism in our country. There seems to be something of an awakening to the ways that racism so painfully intersects with policing and the prison industrial complex. Of course this is an awakening to a reality that marginalized peoples have long known: that the problems of racism and violence are systemic to American society and always have been.

But while increasing numbers of liberal Americans understand this larger system of oppression, we’re nowhere near consensus on what to do about it. However, I think it’s fairly safe to say that most would not call themselves abolitionists – to say that the prison industrial complex is so incorrigibly violent, it needs to be completely dismantled. Most would likely believe such thoughts to be the product of naive, utopian minds.

This Yom Kippur, I’d like to explore the contemporary movement for police and prison abolition more deeply. I don’t believe that the contemporary abolitionist movement is anywhere near as simplistic as its critics make it out to be. At the very least, I think there’s a need for real debate on this issue. Should we be seeking incremental or fundamental change? Which approach will ultimately be the most effective? What theories of change have historically yielded results? Whether we agree with them or not, abolitionist arguments have an important place in this debate.

I think it is altogether appropriate to explore these questions on Yom Kippur: the day in which we look out across the year to come and vow that a better world is possible; a world free of injustice, oppression and violence. This is the day that we stand together and swear that we are indeed better than this. This is the day we imagine collectively what it will take to set the world right.

I’m sure many people struggle with the very word “abolition.” When most hear the term they’re likely to think of the 18th-19th century movement to abolish the American slave trade. The end of slavery however, did not signal the end of racist institutions that oppress black and brown people in our country – on the contrary, they have morphed into different more “socially acceptable” systems of oppression. Michelle Alexander put it very well in her book The New Jim Crow:

Since the nation’s founding, African Americans repeatedly have been controlled through institutions such as slavery and Jim Crow, which appear to die, but then are reborn in new form, tailored to the needs and constraints of the time. (p. 21)

As William Faulkner famously said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” It’s much too easy to assume that since we’ve abolished slavery and dismantled Jim Crow, institutional racism is now a thing of the past. Indeed, the statistics show otherwise: 1 out of every 4 African American males born this decade can expect to go to prison in his lifetime; black women are incarcerated at a rate nearly 3 times higher than white women; someone who is black and unarmed is 3.5 times more likely to be shot by police than someone who is white and unarmed; in the federal system black people receive sentences that are 10% longer than white people for the same crimes. The litany of course, goes on and on.

The contemporary abolitionist movement began in the early 1970s and gained steam in the late 1990s, when the activist/scholar Angela Davis co-founded Critical Resistance, an organization that coined the term “prison industrial complex.” According to its mission:

Abolition is a political vision with the goal of eliminating imprisonment, policing, and surveillance and creating lasting alternatives to punishment and imprisonment.

From where we are now, sometimes we can’t really imagine what abolition is going to look like. Abolition isn’t just about getting rid of buildings full of cages … An abolitionist vision means that we must build models today that can represent how we want to live in the future. It means developing practical strategies for taking small steps that move us toward making our dreams real and that lead us all to believe that things really could be different. It means living this vision in our daily lives. Abolition is both a practical organizing tool and a long-term goal.

Many may be surprised to learn that number of prominent national organizations are avowedly abolitionist. Two years ago, for instance, the National Lawyers Guild adopted a resolution calling for “the dismantling and abolition of all prisons and of all aspects of systems and institutions that support, condone, create, fill, or protect prisons.” Last year, the Movement for Black Lives released a platform that stated, among other things:

Until we achieve a world where cages are no longer used against our people we demand an immediate change in conditions and an end to all jails, detention centers, youth facilities and prisons as we know them.

Over the past decade, Chicago has become an important hub for abolitionist organizing. This is due in no small way to the efforts of organizer/activist Mariame Kaba, who lived and worked in Chicago for 20 years before recently moving back to New York. During her years here, Kaba influenced a generation of young organizers who now lead some of the most important local organizations that protest police brutality and have created new models for community safety and restorative justice.

In an interview two years ago, this is how Mariame Kaba defined abolition:

(W)hen I talk about abolition, it’s not mainly a project of dismantling, though that’s critically important. It’s actually a project of building. It’s a positive project that is intended to show what we believe justice really looks like…For me, abolition involves how we are going to organize ourselves to be safe. And right now we devolve the authority for keeping us safe to the state. If you were to begin a conversation around abolition, the question is, “How would we, as communities, as autonomous spaces, decide what we would do when harm occurs?” We would have to think those things through together. That’s a collective project.

One of the primary goals of the new abolitionist movement is to shine a light on the vast amounts of wealth we spend on policing, prisons and surveillance – and to advocate for a greater investment in our communities. Currently, the United States spends more than $80 billion annually on our criminal justice system. Here in Chicago, we spend $1.5 billion on police every year—that’s $4 million every single day. Nearly 40% of our city budget is allotted to the Chicago Police Department (compared to around 1% for Chicago Public Schools).

But it’s not just a numbers game. Examining how we use public funds goes to the heart of the question of what actually creates safety. Is it more police or more community investment? Benji Hart, a Chicago abolitionist activist/educator wrote about this powerfully in one of my favorite blog posts on the subject, “You are Already an Abolitionist:”

Last summer, while working as a camp counselor during the week that Alton Sterling and Philando Castle were both shot by law enforcement, I ended up sitting down with a group of almost entirely wealthy, white elementary-aged kids to talk about the police. One of the questions we asked ourselves was why there was so much violence in certain parts of our city, namely on the South and West sides, and not in others. One student suggested that maybe it was because there weren’t enough police to protect those neighborhoods.

We sat on the floor of an arts studio in Lincoln Square, a majority white and very wealthy neighborhood on the North side, in which many of the students lived. I asked them how often, when walking to camp, they had seen police cars patrolling the neighborhood, or stopping people on the street. Almost none of them had. I admitted that I hadn’t, either.

“If there are so few police in this neighborhood,” I asked, “why do we feel safe here?”

It took a moment for the young people to think it through, but they got there on their own: Resources. There was low crime in Lincoln Square because most people there had places to live and good food to eat. There were lots of stores and restaurants, and people could afford to shop and dine there. There were quality schools, libraries, parks and after-school programs, many of them within walking distance from one another. It was access to the basic things people needed, not the presence of police, that made its residents feel secure.

Last week, Tzedek Chicago held an action for the 2nd day of Rosh Hashanah outside of Rahm Emanuel’s office in City Hall in support of the #NoCopAcademy campaign. This new initiative is protesting the Mayor’s recently unveiled plan to spend $95 million to build a Police and Fire training center in West Garfield Park – a neighborhood that recently closed six schools. The campaign is demanding a redirecting of this $95 million into Chicago’s most marginalized communities. As the campaign’s statement puts it:

Real community safety comes from fully-funded schools and mental health centers, robust after-school and job training programs, and social and economic justice. We want investment in our communities, not expanded resources for police.

While it’s certainly a daunting prospect to organize against a project this massive, it’s important to note that abolitionist organizations have played key roles in some notable political victories over the past several years. We Charge Genocide and Project NIA were integral to the coalition that won a $5.5 million reparations settlement for victims of torture by the Chicago Police Department. Here’s another example: many states across the country use cash bail systems that force poor defendants to remain in jail while awaiting trial – sometimes for months – because they cannot afford to pay their bail. This past summer, Cook County Chief Judge Tim Evans signed an order which will strengthen the directive to judges to set bonds that defendants are actually able to pay. This victory was due in no small part to the organizing efforts of the Chicago Community Bond Fund – a local organization that raises money for people who cannot afford to pay their own bail. The CCBF and other advocates for the abolition of monetary bond continue to monitor courtrooms to ensure judges are complying with the new law.

Critics of abolition invariably say it’s unrealistic and naive to advocate for something so radical – something we know can never and will never happen. To my mind, however, this claim misses the essential point of this movement. Contemporary abolitionists begin by asking the questions: What is the world we wish to see? How would this world promote real collective safety – through armed policing or community investment? How would it handle transgressive behavior – through restorative or retributive justice? After these questions have been fully explored, local community initiatives are created to demonstrate such a world in action. I’m sure many of you are familiar with some of these organizations here in Chicago: the Chicago Childcare Collective, Curt’s Cafe, Circles and Ciphers, the People’s Response Team, the Let Us Breathe Collective and Mothers Against Senseless Killing are just a few examples.

In addition to local initiatives, abolitionist organizations also develop strategies for organizing toward policy change on a wider scale. If you visit the website of the Movement for Black Lives, you will see a plethora of extensive policy recommendations on community control, economic justice, ending the war on black people and more. In the words of the platform: “We recognize that not all of our collective needs and visions can be translated into policy, but we understand that policy change is one of many tactics necessary to move us towards the world we envision.”

Abolitionist thinking thus focuses on the world we are trying to create, not merely the individual problems we are trying to solve. For abolitionists, a vision of the world as it should be is always the starting point. And when you think about it, why not? Why not aim for the world that we want rather than the world that we are willing to settle for? If our starting point is “the ideal is not possible” aren’t we automatically rendering it impossible? At this current moment there are forces in our country who have no compunction about abolishing wholesale the institutions that actually protect the public good. If we ever hope to stand them down we’re going to have to be at least as visionary as they are.

Now I realize that there may be some here who aren’t able or ready to go to this place – who feel the concept is just too extreme. And I’m not standing here making a pitch for us to formally become an abolitionist congregation. But I do think these ideas are at the heart of an immensely important debate. And if there is a congregation anywhere in the country that can have this conversation, I believe it’s Tzedek Chicago.

After all, this isn’t only a political issue – it’s a religious one as well. Jewish tradition, like all religions has a great deal to say about “creating the world we all want to see.” Indeed, one of the most important functions of religion is to assert that another world, a better world is possible – and to help us live our lives in such a way that we may ultimately bring it about.

I would suggest that there is a significant tradition of abolitionist thinking in Judaism. The sabbatical and Jubilee years are perhaps the most prime examples, both of which are commandments that come directly from the Torah. The Sabbatical (or “Shemitah”) year is commanded to be observed every seven years, when all debts are to be forgiven, agricultural lands to lie fallow, private land holdings are open to the commons and basic staples such as food storage and perennial harvests are freely redistributed and made accessible to all. On the Jubilee (the “Yovel”) year, which comes every fiftieth year, all Israelites who had been enslaved during the previous forty nine years are granted their freedom and any properties purchased during that time are returned to their original owners.

There’s been a great deal of rabbinical commentary over the centuries that attempt to explain how something so economically and socially radical could possibly be have been observed. Whether or not this ever was the case, it’s important to note that these commandments are still read, studied and debated in our tradition’s most sacred text. Moreover, they continue to have political impact centuries after they were written. The Liberty Bell, which became the central symbol of the original American abolitionist movement contains the Biblical commandment for the Jubilee year: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof.” The Jubilee also inspired the debt forgiveness initiative known as Jubilee 2000, which sought to cancel the crippling debts that plague the poorest nations in our world.

I would claim that Shabbat is at heart an abolitionist concept as well. When you think about it, the notion to cease from creative work every seventh day is an exceedingly radical concept. Shabbat essentially commands us to take one day every week to leave the world as we know it and experience the world as it should be. According to traditional liturgy, Shabbat is a day in which there is no “tzarah, ve’yagon, va’anacha” – “distress, pain or mourning.” On the seventh day, the sages teach us, we get to experience a taste of “Olam Ha’ba” – the “world to come.”

In other words, Shabbat is not merely a day of personal rest and replenishment. It’s a day in which we pause from our efforts to change the world so that we may dwell in the world we are praying and working and struggling for: the world as it should be. And when Shabbat ends hopefully we are that much more inspired to make that world a reality.

Just as Shabbat is much more than a long litany of prohibitions, abolitionism is so much more than dismantling of oppressive institutions. In the words of Mariame Kaba, “You can’t just focus on what you don’t want, you have to focus also on what you do want. The world you want to live in is also a positive project of creating new things.”

I’d like to end now with my new version of Psalm 92 – the Song for the Day of Shabbat – to give you a sense of how we might understand these values in spiritual context. We’ve already used this Psalm several times at Tzedek Chicago Shabbat services. I offer it to you now in honor of this Shabbat Yom Kippur 5778:

Tonight we raise the cup,
tomorrow we’ll breathe deeply
and dwell in a world
without borders, without limit
in space or in time,
a world beyond wealth or scarcity,
a world where there is nothing
for us to do but to be.
They said this day would never come,
yet here we are:
the surging waters have receded,
there is no oppressor, no oppressed,
no power but the one
coursing through every living
breathing satiated soul.
Memories of past battles fading
like dry grass in the warm sun,
no more talk of enemies and strategies,
no more illusions, no more dreams, only
this eternal moment of victory
to celebrate and savor the world
as we always knew it could be.
See how the justice we planted in the deep
dark soil now soars impossibly skyward,
rising up like a palm tree,
like a cedar, flourishing forever
ever swaying, ever bending
but never breaking.
So tonight we raise the cup;
tomorrow we’ll breathe deeply
to savor a world recreated,
and when sun sets once again
we continue the struggle.

May this be a new year in which we find the strength to affirm that another world is possible. May that vision keep us going – and may it inspire us to do what we must to make it so.

Amen.

Guest Post by Jay Stanton: A Piyut to End Police Violence this Rosh Hashanah

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This piece was written and read yesterday by Tzedek Chicago’s rabbinical intern Jay Stanton for our 2nd Day Rosh Hashanah action at Chicago City Hall (above). It is a re-imagining of a well-known medieval Sephardic piyut (liturgical poem) traditionally chanted on Rosh Hashanah. In this new version, Jay connects the theme of the Binding of Issac to police violence in Chicago.

Our ritual at City Hall was a call to action in support of the recently launched #NoCopAcademy campaign. (Read here for more information). 

Jay’s commentary follows.

In the season of open gates

In the season of open gates
When you blow the shofar
Bear in mind how we got here
The binder, the bound, and the altar

Abraham got up early that day
picked up his partner
packed the tear gas and riot gear in the trunk
loaded his gun and gassed up the squad car.
He felt good about his mission
to serve and protect our city
driving west, looking for some kid to call son
before putting in the ground
Bear in mind how we got here,
The binder, the bound, and the altar

Abe drove past a church with a sign on the lawn
A list of shot children, already gone
Bear in mind how we got here
The binder, the bound, and the altar

Unfazed, Officer Abraham began to recount
how his wife got so mad at him
he had to send his first son and his baby mama clear across town
“To a neighborhood like this?” gasped his partner, astounded.
I wouldn’t know, haven’t talked to Hagar since.
Bear in mind how we got here
The binder, the bound, and the altar

The dash cam caught Abe joking around
Gun already cocked while driving through town
Bear in mind how we got here
The binder, the bound, and the altar

He pulled to a corner not unlike many others
BK, McDonald’s, and Family Dollar
Where his partner saw a drug deal take place
With a boy who doesn’t yet shave his zit-covered dark face.
Seeing the squad car, the boy started to run
Abe thought, “What’s he holding?” and lifted his gun
Bear in mind how we got here
The binder, the bound, and the altar

Abe shouted, “Stop!  Hold it right there.
Drop your weapon; son, and please come with me.”
The boy thought of his mother
The tears she would cry
He wished her solace
As his life passed before his eyes.
“Abraham!  Abraham!  Put down your gun!
It’s just some pot; I’m unarmed.”
Knees on the ground, hands in the air
Young Isaac pleaded, “Officer Abe,
don’t shoot me, please.”

While the Biblical Abraham took this chance to relent
Officer Abraham hardly noticed till his cartridge was spent
Later he’d say he feared for his life
He felt for the family but
Our safety needed this kid sacrificed
And the chief and the mayor would join in assent
Bear in mind how we got here
The binder, the bound, and the altar

In Chicago, we have
Too many Isaacs
And the list starts with
Cedric Chatman, 14
Laquan McDonald, 17
Roshad McIntosh, 19

In Chicago, we have
Too many Officer Abes still being paid.
And way too many modern-day Sarahs.
We still cry “Abraham!  Abraham!”
with every blast of the ram’s horn

Stop. Killing. Isaacs.
Beat your pistols into shofars, your AR-15s into trumpets, your M-16s into trombones.
Use your riot shields as drums.
Use the $95 million to turn
The FOP into a city-funded brass band
playing fanfares declaring #blacklivesmatter

Abraham!  Abraham!  Put down your gun!
Will this be the year the mayor listens to the shofar’s call?
When will Rahm repent?
When will he say “Hineni – Here I am.”

In the season of open gates
when you blow the shofar
Bear in mind how we got here
The binder, the bound, and the altar

Author Commentary:

The penitential poem עת שערי רצון was written by the medieval poet Yehuda Ibn Abbas, who was born in Fez, spent time in Baghdad, and died in Aleppo.  It connects the story of the sacrifice of Isaac with the blowing of shofar.  The sacrifice of the ram in place of Isaac is regarded as the origin of the shofar, not only by Ibn Abbas, but starting with our early rabbis, who explain in the midrashic work Pesikta deRav Kahana that the shofar blown during revelation at Mount Sinai was one horn of the ram Abraham sacrificed instead of his son and that the other horn will be used as the shofar when the Messiah comes.

Ibn Abbas’ version of the binding of Isaac doesn’t attempt to shield the reader from the gruesome nature of sacrificing one’s son.  It includes a verse of Isaac, bound and ready to be sacrificed, envisioning his mother’s grief.  Other poets were so inspired by Ibn Abbas’ poem that it started a genre of ‘aqedot, poetic retellings of the binding of Isaac, including one purportedly by Maimonides.  In pan-Sepharadi communities, from Morocco to Baghdad, from Curaçao to London, עת שערי רצון is sung on Rosh Hashanah before the blowing of the shofar.

I wrote the poem above for Tzedek Chicago’s Rosh Hashanah action at City Hall.  At our action, the shofar was blown to wake the city and its mayor up to social justice.  This year, we sought to highlight the injustice of spending $95 million on a luxury building for police training in West Garfield Park, which saw six of its schools close in 2013 because the city supposedly did not have money to run them.

At Tzedek, we endorse the #nocopacademy campaign, which seeks to have those $95 million reinvested in schools and social service agencies in disinvested neighborhoods including West Garfield Park.  I was thinking about all the Black and Brown “Isaacs” living in our city whose lives are viewed, especially by the police, as needed sacrifice to keep our city safe.

This is my ‘aqeda for 5778, dedicated to those working on the #nocopacademy campaign and dedicated to Cynthia Lane, mother of Roshad McIntosh, a sister-in-grief with the Biblical Sarah.  Lane recently succeeded in getting further review of her son’s murder by CPD Officer Robert Slechter.  Though the original investigation did not interview any civilian eyewitnesses (but did interview officers who didn’t see the shooting) and did not include a forensic investigation, eyewitnesses say that contrary to original police testimony, McIntosh was unarmed, and, in fact, was in surrender posture when Officer Slechter shot him.

Many of the lines allude to specific incidents of murder by police in the city of Chicago, though they are taken from far too many murders. Structurally, I attempted to maintain similarity, where possible, with the original piyyut.  The refrain “the binder, the bound, and the altar” comes from Ibn Abbas, and there are several other allusions to the original poem.  Every line Ibn Abbas wrote rhymes.  That is a poetic feat I have not achieved, though I have used many end rhymes and approximate rhymes, as well as internal rhyme and alliteration to attempt to create the type of connections through lines Ibn Abbas creates.

In this new year, may the shofar be heard in our city as the call to end police shootings.