Guest Post By Rabbi Brian Walt: We are Building Up a New World

Dorothy Cotton (middle) with Israeli and Palestinian Activists (Photo: Rev. Osagyefo Sekou)

Cross-posted with Rabbi Brian’s Blog

We are building up a new world, we are building up a new world,
We are building up a new world, builders must be strong.
Courage brothers don’t be weary, courage sisters don’t be weary,
Courage people don’t be weary, though the road be long.

This is one of the many songs I sang as I led a remarkable delegation of US Civil Rights movement leaders, young human rights leaders, prominent Black academics and educators and several Jewish activists that traveled through the West Bank two weeks ago.

Our delegation was a project of the Dorothy Cotton Institute, an organization dedicated to human rights education and to building a global human rights community. Dorothy Cotton served as the Director of Education of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and was the only woman on the executive staff.  She led the Citizenship Education Program that empowered the disenfranchised to exercise their rights as citizens.

The goals of this historic delegation were:

– to create and build an ongoing relationship between leaders of the US civil rights movement and the leaders of the growing Palestinian nonviolent resistance movement on the West Bank and their Israeli allies;

– to increase the visibility of this movement in the US and internationally;

– to learn from one another about nonviolence, effective solidarity and social transformation;

– and to educate Americans about the role the United States plays in supporting the status quo on the West Bank.

Our delegation spent two weeks on the West Bank.  We visited three Palestinian villages – Budrus, Bilin, Nabi Saleh – that have engaged for many years in a popular nonviolent struggle to reclaim land expropriated by the Israeli military.  We met several young Palestinians who are building the Coalition for Dignity, a grassroots, youth – led nonviolent movement.

And we met Israeli allies who stand in solidarity with the Palestinian nonviolent movement and who work in their own society to end militarism and human rights violations against Palestinians.  We learned from many Israeli and Palestinian nonviolent activists about their work, their vision and their dreams.

In short, our delegation saw and learned about realities that the overwhelming number of visitors to Israel never see or hear.

Singing was an essential part of the spiritual and political life of our trip.  Dorothy has a beautiful spirit, a powerful voice, and loves to sing.  Throughout the delegation, she always reminded us that singing was a critical tool for energizing the civil rights movement.  She told me,

We had songs for different occasions. We sang at mass meetings, and we sang at funerals … We sang, “I am going to do what the Spirit says do” and our singing inspired us to do just that.

And so our new civil rights delegation sang as we traveled through the West Bank.  Singing was just one powerful way in which our delegation made a connection between the Black-led struggle for civil rights in the US and the Palestinian struggle for justice, peace and security for all.

This, for instance, is the song we sang at the grave of a young man in Budrus who was killed in a nonviolent demonstration to protest the confiscation of his village’s land:

Come By here my Lord, come by here.
For our brother, my Lord, come by here.
For his courage my Lord, come by here.

Standing around the grave, delegates spontaneously composed the lyrics. It felt like we were praying, acknowledging the courage and the profound cost that the struggle for freedom demands.

We sang before we joined the weekly nonviolent demonstration in Nabi Saleh, another village on the West Bank fighting to reclaim their land.   The residents of the village had made special signs composed of quotations from Dr. Martin Luther King in honor of our visit.  “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” read one of the signs.

And we sang:

Ain’t going to let nobody turn me around, turn me around, turn me around.
Keep on walking, keep on talking, marching down to freedom land.

We sang to express our appreciation and to provide support after hearing activists tell us their stories – Palestinians and Israelis who told us of their amazing work and the toll it has taken on their lives, and sometimes even their spirits and souls.  One such occasion was after Israeli activist Gabi Laski told us of her work to defend children from villages like Nabi Saleh who are arrested at night.

We’re going to keep on marching forward, keep on marching forward, keep on marching forward, never turning back, never turning back.

We sang after standing next to the thirty foot high Separation Wall in Jerusalem dividing a Palestinian neighborhood in two.  And we sang on the bus as we went through a checkpoint on our way to the airport at the end of our trip, encouraged by our Palestinian guide to keep singing even when the soldier boarded our bus.  (Our bus was pulled aside for a security check because it was a Palestinian bus while Israeli buses and motorists were waved through the checkpoint).

We returned to the United States both inspired and disturbed by our experience.  We were inspired by the determination, vision and commitment of so many Palestinians and their Israeli allies, working tirelessly day after day, year after year, often at great personal and communal cost, for justice, freedom and equality for all.  Now that we are home, we look forward to sharing the stories and vision of these courageous civil rights activists with our friends and communities.

But our trip was not simply inspiring.  It was profoundly disturbing to witness the harsh realities of life on the West Bank that are so invisible to the discourse in America.  Every day we saw and heard about a systematic denial of human rights in countless ways: land confiscation, extensive restrictions on movement, humiliation at check points, home demolition, the arrest of children, the revocation of residency permits and many other violations.

The delegates were profoundly shocked. Several American civil rights veterans  commented that the discrimination, humiliation and injustice they witnessed was “frighteningly familiar.”

While we were on the West Bank the two presidential candidates tried to outdo one another in their public declarations of support for Israel in the final presidential debate.  They mentioned Israel 31 times with only one passing reference to Palestinians.  The contrast between American policy and what we witnessed is stark.  Now that we have returned, we are determined to share this disturbing reality with our communities; to challenge the ways in which our country funds, provides diplomatic cover, and enables these injustices.

I have visited the West Bank before but never for more than a day or two, and almost always with progressive Israeli groups.  On this visit, however, we spent virtually all out time in the West Bank – on the other side of the Separation Wall.  For me personally, it was a transformative experience.  It was a privilege to travel with such a special group of people and to see the profound impact of our delegation on the activists that we met.

Before we left on our journey, I was struck by a comment made by Dr. Vincent Harding, a close associate of Dr. Martin Luther King, a person with a long history of involvement in the struggle for freedom and a very close life-long connection to Jewish teachers, fellow travelers and co-workers.  Dr. Harding talked about “encouragement” as one of his primary goals for the trip.  I was struck by the word and the simple power of his intention.  He wanted to meet activists on the West Bank and to “encourage” them.

And that is exactly what happened. The people we met commented how encouraged they felt by meeting people who had spent their entire lives fighting for freedom in the US.  Dr. Harding and others would repeatedly ask all our presenters to tell us about themselves, their families and what motivated them to do what they were doing.

He and others always shared how much he appreciated their work and how important it was for all of us and for our collective future.  After hearing an inspiring talk by Fadi Quran, one of the young leaders of the Palestinian nonviolent movement, Dr. Harding said, “Fadi, I want to tell you how proud I am and how grateful I am for you, and want to encourage you to keep on going.”

It felt like we were building a new world.  On the very first day of our trip, Dorothy Cotton sang and danced with three women activists, Israeli and Palestinian, who had spoken to us. It was a joy to see the profound gift she was giving them and that they were giving her in return. Those who had spent their lives building a new world in America were creating a relationship with those who were building a new world in Israel/Palestine.

Towards the end of the trip we realized that we were just beginning to build a new world in another way by creating a new possibility for the relationship between Jews and Blacks in our own country.   Historically, Israeli policy has been a source of tension between the African American and Jewish communities.  While many African Americans on the delegation have deep and positive connections to Jews, it is often difficult for Blacks and Jews to have honest conversations about Israel.

There were eight Jews on this delegation.  On this trip we joined together as a group of Blacks, Jews, Christians and people with varied faith commitments, united in our commitment to nonviolence and our dedication to justice, freedom and equality in Israel/Palestine, in our own country, and around the world.  We are renewing an alliance between Blacks and Jews, an alliance rooted in our shared values.

We are building up a new world, we are building up a new world.
We are building up a new world, builders must be strong.
Courage brothers don’t be weary, courage sisters don’t be weary,
Courage people don’t be weary, though the road be long.

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