Stand in Sacred Solidarity with Imprisoned Hunger Strikers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9 thoughts on “Stand in Sacred Solidarity with Imprisoned Hunger Strikers

  1. kaplandf

    Thank you for making this connections Brant. This post is an important supplement for me as I read “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander.

  2. Brad's Opinion

    As an American I support the California hunger strikers because long term solitary confinement is common throughout the country. Intervention of intentional starvation at Guantanamo is correct. My understanding prison in Israel is generally easier than maximum security throughout the U.S.

    1. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author


      I’m not sure where your understanding of Israeli prisons comes from, but here are a just few important resources:

      From Ha’artetz, May 30, 2013:

      Over 100 inmates have been held in complete isolation at Israeli prisons for months or years under harsh conditions, a stormy debate in the Knesset Interior Committee revealed on Wednesday.

      Most such prisoners take psychiatric pills, and there is no follow-up after their release from jail.

      The inmates in isolation include 10 minors being held in juvenile facilities in either solitary confinement or two-man cells. Some of them see no one but the jailers who feed them through a window of their cell door. In seven of these cases, a judge never approved their prison conditions, which are extremely harsh.

      Ha’aretz, July 8 2013:

      Israeli inmates are allotted roughly a third of the living space the average prisoner gets in the West, according to an annual report released by the Public Defender’s Office, which concluded that Israeli prisons are too crowded.

      According to the report, Israeli prisoners get only 2.9 square meters of cell space per person, compared to 8.8 square meters in the West.

      The Public Defender’s Office, which has been issuing reports on prison conditions each year since 2002, has continually warned about the overcrowding in prisons and detention facilities.

      Israel Prison Service reports have also put living space per prisoner at about three square meters, a figure that hasn’t improved significantly since the 1990s. In newer prisons, a standard was set at 4.5 square meters per prisoner, which includes the toilet and shower area of the cell. By way of comparison, each prisoner in Finland is assigned 10 square meters of cell space; Spain allots 7.4 square meters, Holland, 12 square meters and England, 6.8 square meters.

      From a report by Adameer: Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association:

      Palestinians are routinely arrested at checkpoints, off the street and most commonly, from their homes in the early hours of the morning. In the case of arrest from the family home, units from the Israeli army will typically surround the house between midnight and 4 am and force family members onto the street in their nightclothes, regardless of weather conditions. Upon arrest, detainees are usually handcuffed with plastic cuffs and blindfolded. They are not informed of the reason for their arrest, nor are they told where they will be taken.

      Physical abuse and humiliation of the detainee by Israeli forces is common. Based on numerous sworn affidavits, detainees have reported that they have been subjected to attempted murder and rape, and thrown down stairs while blindfolded, amongst many other forms of physical abuse. During their arrest, detainees have often been forced to strip in public before being taken into custody. Family members have also been forced to remove their clothes in house- to- house arrest campaigns and raids. Mass arrests from homes in entire neighbourhoods continue to take place in the OPT (Occupied Palestinian Territories) during military incursions. Once bound and blindfolded, the detainee is usually placed on the floor of a military jeep, sometimes face down, for transfer to an interrogation and detention centre. Neither the detainee nor his or her family is told why he or she is being detained or where he or she is being taken. Addameer has received numerous reports of abuse of detainees during the transfer process by Israeli soldiers, consisting of beatings, kicking and threats. These journeys can take anywhere from 20 minutes up to many hours…

      Israeli prisons and military detention camps are primarily located within the 1948 borders of Israel. There are a total of 4 interrogation centers, as well as secret interrogation facilities, 5 detention/holding centers, and about 21 prisons in which Palestinians from the OPT are held. The location of prisons within Israel and the transfer of detainees to locations within the occupying power’s territory are illegal under international law and constitute a war crime. The Fourth Geneva Convention explicitly states that “Protected persons accused of offences shall be detained in the occupied country, and if convicted they shall serve their sentences therein.” (Article 76) Most of the Palestinian Prisoners are being held in detention facilities located outside the OPT.

      1. Brad's Opinion

        I can tell you being in jail sucks. I spent a night in jail in the northern suburbs of chicago. The light was on all night and very uncomfortable. Next morning I was taken to the skokie court house and put in the lock up there. That wasn’t a picnic either. The charge was fortunately dropped in court and what happened to me could happen to any one. You are quoting Adameer which has a political objective against Israel and Haaretz which most Israelis consider a left wing joke to support your point. I am sure jail sucks in Israel too. I am not convinced that their jails suck more than most.

  3. Roz

    Thank you, Brad. Rabbi Rosen, I believe you are truly bothered by harsh conditions in Israeli jails, espec. regarding the way many Palestinians are arrested, even those who prove to be guilty of serious charges. No, not a model system, but where is there one? Second, please remember what Chazal said about King Shaul not having the “heart” to kill Agag. Having pity on the merciless leads to being merciless on the innocent. I still think Israel tries hard to do the best under almost impossible circumstances. The Palestinians are not defenseless; they have a govt. to represent them, and have garnered support from most of the world. Yet they play up their hopelessness to cement the notion they either resist violently, or else… Have we all forgotten their “elected” PA doesn’t negotiate, they only demand, and they issue ultimatums to Israel, all doom and gloom. Until the people understand their leadership is leading them down the road to destruction, Israeli jails are going to be full of their people.

  4. Neal Chambers

    I believe that fasting is more than a protest.

    In Rudyard Kiplings, the Jungle Book, his lion (or tiger) fasts before a battle. The idea is that fasting provides additional energy to the muscles and brain that would normally be used in digestion.

    A Buddhist Priest friend of mine fasted for 3 weeks in his priesthood initiation as a cleanse and to enhance spiritual awareness.

    When a person is fasting, it triggers the same mechanisms as LSD. Serotonin levels increase and this causes a person, as they would on LSD, to react to things they have reacted to a million times as something never before experienced.

    I believe this is a biological mammalian function. When one is eating, one’s systems are working fine. When one is hungry, one’s systems have failed and a person must be able to change and adapt and think in new ways to get food.

    Hence mammals biologically create neural pathways. After seeing a rose one, the rose is never again noted in detail (usually). If however one is starving, one will see the rose in a new way, as if one is looking at a rose for the first time.

    Spiritual leaders have long recognized this aspect of fasting. While fasting has become a political tool and a way of helping prisoners adapt and cope with horrific situations, the true nature of fasting is that the indole ring – that part of the molecule in LSD, in Serotonin, in milk, high in Turkey meat and mushrooms, has the capability of routing incoming perception into recognition mode (I’ve already thought about that) or into thinking mode (this is something new to me).

    Serotonin, the neurotransmitter, specifically reroutes a given perception that might normally go into the “I’ve seen that before response (taken for granted) into the thinking part of the brain where the subject of a given perception is thought about.

    There are other aspects of fasting including the cleansing affect that removes blockages from the digestive system and other parts of the body; or that when the body doesn’t have food, it uses the dying and sick cell first for food. Also, when a person is fasting this starves bacteria in the blood as well and helps the body to rid itself of infectious disease.

    Hence, with viruses one must eat but with bacterial infections fasting is almost as good as antibiotics.


  5. Roz

    Neal, that was very informative. Having finished a 25 hour fast yesterday for Tisha B’av, mourning the destruction of our two Temples in ancient Jerusalem, and a host of other tragedies that befell my Jewish people, it’s interesting to read of your well stated medical benefits.


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