Category Archives: Civil Rights

“It’s Time for All-Out Freedom” A Passover Guest Post by Maya Schenwar

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Remarks delivered by Maya Schenwar (editor of Truthout and author of “Locked Down, Locked Out” and the upcoming “Prison by Any Other Name”) at the Tzedek Chicago Passover Seder, April 14, 2020. 

A few months ago, which feels like a few centuries ago, Brant and I discussed the idea of me saying something at this seder about the difference between reform and liberation. I’d been writing about how popular prison reforms such as electronic monitoring, drug courts, and psychiatric institutions are actually entrenching the prison-industrial complex. I thought, what better occasion than Passover to talk about how we shouldn’t be pursuing fake liberation, and how we don’t want nicer-looking reforms that are still forms of oppression? What better occasion to affirm that we have to demand all-out freedom and stick with it?

Now, in these terrifying new times, it feels even more imperative to make vast, sweeping demands—demands that rise higher than we might think we can dream. In the midst of a worldwide plague that, in one way or another, engulfs us all, it’s time for that all-out freedom call.

What do I mean by “all-out freedom”? I’m thinking about the refrain that “no one is free while others are oppressed.” I’m thinking about Audre Lorde saying, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” The COVID-19 crisis has deeply and horribly impacted our own communities — and communities everywhere. Marginalized people have, of course, been disproportionately impacted. (Consider that approximately 70% of people who’ve died from COVID-19 in Chicago are Black.)

Right now, we are coming to understand that none of us are healthy while others are sick. As long as anyone is in peril, more will be in peril. And liberation for only some is not liberation.

Yet, in a lot of different arenas, we’ve come to accept small offerings from our political representatives and leaders—a bailout mostly geared toward banks and corporations, a slight reduction in drug prices, a few people freed from prisons, some limits on carbon emissions. We say, “Well, something is better than nothing,” even when the something is far from enough, and when the something leaves many people to die.

Even in the face of coronavirus, the health care plan of the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee would leave many millions of Americans uninsured. At this moment in which all of our lives are threatened, it’s time to call for Medicare for All—and much more. We need comprehensive cost-free mental and physical health services, including treatments that go well beyond doctors and hospitals. We need to recognize that plentiful nutritious food, housing, sleep, free time, relaxation, and self-determination are also part of health and survival—and part of liberation. This is the moment to demand universal housing, universal food access, and drastically improved labor practices, which are key to building the kind of freedom that sacrifices no one.

And, at a time when unemployment is skyrocketing and the climate crisis is amplifying the effects of COVID, where is our Green New Deal? Where is our jobs guarantee, our income guarantee for those who don’t work—and our guarantee that our leaders will do everything in their power to confront the climate emergency, which is on track to kill billions? These aren’t far-off dreams or hypotheticals; they are steps that it makes sense to implement now to directly address the public health and economic crises enveloping our country.

At a time when we’re witnessing a shortage of life-saving equipment – ventilators and protective gear – we can issue a pragmatic call for the end of the war industry. In fact, we can challenge the existence of the military-industrial complex as a whole. Has there ever been a clearer moment to say no to the machinery of death, and to demand a mass shift of funds away from the Pentagon and toward public health?

It’s not a time for compromise—not a time to save some and not others.

Moses abided by this philosophy in his dealings with Pharaoh. He said to Pharaoh, “Let us go into the wilderness and worship our own God!” In response, Pharaoh proposed compromises—little reforms, fake liberations.

Pharaoh’s first compromise proposal was for the Jews to stay in Egypt, but worship their own God there. Some people might have said, “Take what you can get! Stop there, Moses! It’s better than nothing.”

But Moses declined the compromise, which was a little better than nothing—but it wasn’t freedom.

So then some plagues happened, as we know, and Moses asked again. Pharaoh scrounged up another compromise: He would let the men go off into the wilderness, but the women and children would have to stay in Egypt. Of course, women and children were groups that were more vulnerable—multiply oppressed, within the oppressed group. And in this compromise, they’d be thrown under the bus.

This compromise reminds me of the “moderate” reforms we see all over the political stage right now, reforms that modestly benefit some people, while throwing other people entirely under the bus:

For example – the proposal that a few more people can have health care, but there will still be millions and millions who are uninsured. Some would say, It’s better than nothing!

And there are the proposals to let some people with nonviolent first-time drug offenses out of prison, while millions of others will be left in cages. Some would say, It’s better than nothing!

And of course, there’s the compromise that younger people with no criminal record will temporarily not be deported, while older people and people with criminal records are condemned to deportation. Some would say, It’s better than nothing!

These are reforms that throw people away. Liberation refuses to throw anybody away.

Moses said no to the compromise, and we have to say no to the politics of disposability, too.

So then there were more plagues, and Pharaoh issued a final compromise: The Jews, including the women and children, could go into the wilderness – but they’d have to leave their animals behind. Basically, they’d have to be released from captivity with barely any resources.

There’s no freedom without some means to survive, and even thrive. A country where many millions are without health care in the middle of a pandemic is not a free country. A country in which people are starving because they’ve suddenly lost their jobs and have no safety net is not a free country. A country in which a few people are released from jails because of a pandemic, but are released into homelessness, is not a free country. In fact, a country in which people experience homelessness is not a free country.

My longtime pen pal and friend Lacino Hamilton, who is incarcerated in Michigan, wrote me a letter about the experience of the pandemic behind bars. He is hoping to be released soon: After 26 years in prison, his challenge to his conviction appears to be on the verge of being recognized. But, Lacino wrote, “I’m worried that I’ll leave here and materially my life will worsen.” He wrote, “Returning citizens are supposed to be happy with dead-end opportunities, the kind that offer only a ‘piece of a life.’ I want a whole life.”

Everyone should have a whole life. Without that, it’s not real liberation.

So, Moses said “no” to the no-animals compromise, because it was not freedom at all.

Eventually, after the most gruesome and horrifying plague of all, the one we hate to talk about, Pharaoh agreed to the whole package.

Of course, that wasn’t the end of the story. Pharaoh tried to prevent the actual implementation of the plan, necessitating some miracles from God to allow the Jews to truly leave.

Some miracles are probably necessary now, too, because the forces of power are never going to agree to full liberation. But I personally don’t think those miracles will be bestowed by a powerful God (who, to be honest, sometimes comes across in parts of the Torah as another angry dictator). I think we have to make those miracles ourselves.

What would it look like for us to create miracles, in the uniquely brutal time we’re currently living through? A couple of weeks ago, Arundhati Roy wrote a beautiful piece about the COVID-19 crisis, in which she talked about this time as one that forces us into a kind of magic. She wrote,

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.

I love that passage, and it speaks to something important. I don’t think the miracle of a full-scale societal transformation that allows for the possibility of liberation will come from above. As far as I know, God cannot unilaterally snap their fingers and provide a universal health care plan or a Green New Deal, or end white supremacy or incarceration, or provide a home for every human being. We will need to grow these things. And I believe that we can, if we remember that no one is safe and healthy until everyone is safe and healthy, and that liberation cannot mean throwing anyone away.

There are many ways to take action right now to pursue liberatory goals, from mutual aid efforts that address urgent needs and build organizing infrastructure for the world we want to live in, to critical housing and labor campaigns, to racial justice movements working to release people from jails and prisons, to environmental campaigns that are drawing connections between this moment and the looming climate emergency, to the ongoing battle for Medicare for All, and much more. Brant is going to share some links in the chat for this Zoom call that will point you toward ways to get involved. These are only a smattering of the many crucial efforts currently underway.

I don’t think we need to drop horrible plagues on our enemies in order to refuse harmful compromises. Instead, we need to unite against horrible plagues – including the plagues of injustice, inequity, and mass violence – and for mass liberation.

I believe that we can enter the portal and fight for that new world, if we are prepared to do it together.

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Action items (National and Chicago-Based):

* The People’s Bailout: a coalitional effort by environmental, economic, racial and health justice groups to advocate a transformative economic package in response to COVID-19. 

#FreeThePeoplea coalition of advocacy organizations who do work to support imprisoned community members across the state of Illinois.

Physicians for a National Health Plan’s COVID-19 and Medicare for All

•  National Nurses United’s broad-based Medicare for All effort. 

Chicago COVID-19 Help & Hardship Page:  a mutual aid effort for direct food and housing assistance.

Rogers Park Food Not Bombs: Saves food from the waste stream while highlighting the inequities of our society.

Brave Space Alliance’s Crisis Food Pantry and Trans Relief Fund.

Greater Chicago Food Depository.

Restore Justice Illinois: to help provide for someone being released from prison.

Help Love & Protect: to make masks for people in women’s prisons:

Autonomous Tenants Union​: an all-volunteer organization committed to organizing for housing justice from below and to the left.

Lift the Ban: to advocate for lifting the ban on rent control in Chicago.

Organized Communities Against Deportations: resistance movement against deportations and the criminalization of immigrants and people of color in Chicago and surrounding areas.

On Trump’s Executive Order, BDS and the Real Threat of Antisemitism

Donald Trump, Melania Trump

photo credit: AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta

It’s certainly been a strange and surreal week for the American Jewish community. As is all too painfully well known by now, this past Tuesday, the New York Times reported that Donald Trump would sign an Executive Order that would “interpret Judaism as a race or nationality” to prompt a federal law penalizing colleges and universities that failed to protect Jewish students from the threat of BDS activism. This news caused an almost immediate upheaval, with vociferous protest emanating from a wide swath of the Jewish community concerned that this order could easily enable the antisemitic canard of Jewish “dual loyalties.”

While I certainly shared the outrage upon hearing this news, I harbored a deeper concern that I shared on my congregation‘s Facebook group page:  i.e., that the Jewish community was making this issue exclusively about us, ignoring the fact that Trump’s order was ultimately aimed at silencing Palestinians and those who stand in solidarity with them. “As ever,” I wrote:

I would suggest the most important response we can make to this latest cynical maneuver is to redouble our solidarity with the Palestinian people and to rededicate our support of the BDS movement – not merely for the sake of “free speech” but for a free Palestine. We must recommit ourselves to the central goals of the BDS call from Palestinian civil society itself: for a land where all who live between the river and the sea are full and equal citizens.

As it turned out, the New York Times report turned out to be false. The actual text of the Executive Order, which Trump signed at a bizarre White House Hanukkah reception, did not explicitly define Jews as a nationality (though it did rely on Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which “prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin” but not religion). Upon hearing this news, many in the Jewish community seemed to breathe a sigh of relief. Others dismissed the order itself, saying it was just a reaffirmation of the Obama administration’s policy and that “it wouldn’t change much at all.”

Whatever else this might mean, we certainly shouldn’t downplay the threat posed by this cynical Executive Order, which essentially puts into law what Israel advocates and their allies in Congress were unable to do with the stalled, ill-fated “Antisemitism Awareness Act.” Going forward, agencies and departments charged with enforcing Title VI can now “consider” using the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which was never intended to be used to be enforce standards on college campuses.

There are a myriad of problems with the IHRA definition. In one oft-quoted line, for instance, it prohibits “applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” However, as journalist Paul Waldman recently pointed out in the Washington Post, while “someone might apply double standards to Israel out of antisemitism, the idea that doing so is inherently antisemitic is preposterous. We can decry double standards, but people use them all the time in policy debates without being defined as bigoted.” Moreover, Waldman wrote, “‘saying criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country’ is not antisemitic would mean criticisms of Israel would have to meet a higher standard than criticism of other countries or else they’re antisemitic.”

Additionally, the IHRA definition deems it antisemitic to “deny the Jewish people their right to self-determination.” This is a muddy and subjective standard that comes dangerously close to making the fallacious claim that anti-Zionism is synonymous with antisemitism. In fact, there are many different definitions of self-determination other than political nation-statism.  It could well be argued (as I have on several occasions) that the Jewish people have no more inherent “right” to create a political nation state in a specific piece of land than any other people might have – and it is certainly not antisemitic to say so. On the other hand, it would be immensely antisemitic to suggest that Jews do not have a right to self-determination as minority communities of the nations in which they live.

I certainly realize that how events of this past week may have conjured up the the deepest fears of American Jews. And I know full well that we cannot and must not be sanguine about the threat of resurgent antisemitism. But I would also suggest that is critically important that we remember where this threat is actually coming from – and where it is not. Indeed, it is critical to note that while the American Jewish community was tying itself up in knots around the issue of the so-called “antisemitic threat” of BDS on college campuses, four people, including two Jews, were killed in a kosher market in Jersey City, an incident the police is now investigating as a hate crime.

In an age where Jews are being regularly targeted and murdered by extremists, it is not only disingenuous of our government to spend so much time, energy and resources on combatting BDS – a nonviolent movement rooted in human rights for all – it is downright dangerous. It is time to stand down the false and pernicious equation of antisemitism coming from both the “right and the left.” We know full well where the most dangerous and deadly antisemitism is truly coming from – and we need to make this clear to the world in no uncertain terms.

In the end, I believe the most telling commentary on the events of this past week came in an op-ed by Kenneth Stern, one of the authors of the definition of antisemitism used in Trump’s Executive Order. I’ll let him have the last word:

Rather than champion the chilling of expressions that pro-Israel Jews find disturbing, or give the mildest criticism (if any) of a president who repeatedly uses antisemitic tropes, why weren’t those Jewish officials who were present when Trump signed the executive order reminding him that last year, when he demonized immigrants and called them “invaders”, Robert Bowers walked into a Pittsburgh synagogue because he believed Jews were behind this “invasion” of brown people as part of a plot to harm white people, and killed 11 of us?

Bearing Witness to Root Causes at Radio Progreso

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The invitation for our Root Causes Pilgrimage to Honduras came from Radio Progreso, a Jesuit-owned radio station based in the city of El Progreso. As one of the few independent media voices in Honduras Radio Progreso does extensive work in advancing human rights, promoting peace, supporting community-based initiatives, and advocating for environmental justice across the country. The station broadcasts its transmissions in nearby San Pedro Sula and the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa to an estimated audience of 1.5 million people.

Radio Progreso is led by Father Ismail Moreno, known to everyone in Honduras as “Father Melo.” Father Melo is one of the most important grassroots leaders in the country and a fierce proponent of human rights.  In a time of increasing threats to freedom of speech, Radio Progreso is one of the most fiercely dependable sources of truth in the country.

In 2001, Padre Melo founded a companion project of Radio Progreso — Equipo de Reflexión, Investigación y Comunicación (ERIC), which provides grassroots investigation and reporting of the many forms of injustice and violence that plague Honduran activists and peasants working to reform the political and economic structures that stifle the development of the country’s poor and marginalized people. Melo has been the director of the radio station since 2006.

It’s difficult to understate the courage of institutions like Radio Progreso. In 2011, correspondent Nery Jeremias was gunned down; three years later, marketing manager Carlos Mejia was stabbed to death. The station has also been vandalized repeatedly over the years, After the station was critical of the fraudulent 2017, its antenna was destroyed by vandals. Father Melo himself lives with the constant threat to his life and well-being; his entry into public activism followed the brutal 1989 assassinations of his mentor, Jesuit Fr. Ignacio Ellacuría, and five confreres at the University of Central America in El Salvador.brant_melo

We also spent the morning touring the station and learning about its work from the staff. As I quickly learned, Radio Progreso understands its work as a radio station in service of its role as an advocacy organization on behalf of the Honduran people. As it was explained to us, RIC plays an important role in researching and conveying news to its listeners on critical issues such as:

  • Political malfeasance;
  • The corruption of the electoral system;
  • The effects of the highly militarized local and national police;
  • Threats, intimidation and murder delivered against local people, human rights activists, environmentalists and farmers who oppose the ongoing environmental destruction caused by internationally-financed hydroelectric dams, extractive industries, agribusiness and the newly developed tourism industry;
  • The violence of criminal drug cartels which frequently have links to Honduran government officials or the grieving families whose migrating children who have mysteriously disappeared on the way to the US.

During a presentation by Father Melo and the staff, we participated in a moving IMG_0315ceremony which included an offering of gifts from our delegation. Among others, my friend and colleague Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb brought Father Melo a braid of sweet grass (at right) from the Lakota tribe at Standing Rock as a symbol of friendship and shared resistance.

After visiting the station, our delegation broke up into three groups and boarded buses for trips to different regions throughout the county. My group embarked on a 6 hour ride to Bajo Aguán. We made many stops along the way, however, including \a lovely seaside stop at La Ceiba beach on the northern coast.

We arrived in time for dinner and a briefing on the political situation in Bajo Aguán. It was an unforgettable visit – I’ll go into detail in my next post.

More soon.

Root Causes of Forced Migration from Honduras: Some Background

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Honduran street protest against 2009 coup  (photo: DH Noticias)

It was my honor last week to travel with 75 delegates representing diverse religious traditions and advocacy organizations on a “Root Causes Pilgrimage” to Honduras. Sponsored by the the Bay Area-based SHARE – El Salvador and  Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, we spent seven days traveling throughout the country, meeting with local grass roots groups, indigenous activists and faith leaders to learn about the root causes of forced migration – particularly those driven by US policies and multinational corporate profit.

While there has been a great deal of justified attention paid to the cruel and unjust immigration system in the US, there has been far less public discussion of how our country contributes to the poverty, violence and displacement that causes forced migration from Central America – and other countries across the global south.

Of course empires, nations and corporations have been colonizing and exploiting the natural resources of Central American countries for centuries. Shortly after Honduras gained its independence from Spain in 1821, US corporate influence in the country began with the development of the banana industry. Over the next century, the intervention of the United and Standard Fruit companies in the politics of Honduras would usurp indigenous communal lands to trade for capital investment contracts as the fair rights of Honduran laborers were ignored and exploited. This corporate/political exploitation brought instability, misery and poverty to the people of that country.

However, corporate exploitation is only one side of the story – the other is the courageous resistance of the Honduran people. The general strike of 1954 for instance, was a watershed moment, marking the first time in the history of that a country that a private corporation was pressured to negotiate with protesters to reach a collective agreement. In the 1970s, agrarian land reform reached a peak, in which the campesinos (small farmers) were able to create farm cooperatives. This came to a halt in the 1980s when neoliberal reforms opened the way for the widespread mono-cropping of the African palm tree, which overwhelmed local farms and has created environmental havoc for the region ever since.

By the time of the coup d’etat in 2009, the fortunes of Hondurans were actually starting to improve. President Jose Manuel Zelaya Rosales, who came from the Honduran elite and belonged to one of the two traditional conservative parties, had begun to take more progressive positions, influenced by democratically-elected governments that had come to power in Central America throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. In 2009, Zelaya introduced a non-binding referendum that included the creation of a new constitutional convention that would expand the rights and power of Indigenous people, women, campesinos and other disenfranchised populations in Honduras. The promise of Zelaya’s reforms however, were dashed by a military coup in June 2009, encouraged by the Obama administration.

As a result of the coup, a massive popular protest movement arose throughout the nation of Honduras. Despite widespread grassroots resistance however, the new regime was strengthened by the tacit acquiescence of the US government (Obama and Clinton famously refused to use the phrase “military coup,” which would have legally obligated the US to stop almost all foreign aid to Honduras immediately.) A sham election in late November was likewise supported by the US State Department.

Since the coup, privatization of public lands, the construction of mega-projects on indigenous and campesino land, targeted political repression, and violence has increased throughout the country. Human rights defenders, environmental activists, and others have been targeted by state repression and violence, including the March 2016 assassination of indigenous rights activist Berta Cáceres.

In November of 2017, Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández was reelected with overwhelming evidence of electoral fraud, and in contradiction to the Honduran constitution’s prohibition against multiple terms for presidents. In response, hundreds of thousands of Hondurans again took to the streets to defend their vote and their democracy. In turn, they were met with widespread and systematic human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, torture, forced disappearance, kidnapping, and arbitrary detention. The abuses committed by Honduran security forces that receive U.S. training and funding, amount to crimes against humanity.

I’m sure at this point some readers might be glazing over this all-too-familiar litany of Central American military/corporate interventions. But this history is crucial for so many reasons, not least of which is the US government’s culpability in the forced migration of Hondurans. Indeed, it is impossible to underestimate how our encouragement/acquiescence to the Honduran coup its subsequent regime has normalized the rapid immiseration of the Honduran people and has caused so many of them to migrate northward.

As Professor Joseph Nevins of Vassar College has observed:

Organized crime, drug traffickers and the country’s police heavily overlap. The frequent politically motivated killings are rarely punished. In 2017, Global Witness, an international nongovernmental organization, found that Honduras was the world’s deadliest country for environmental activists.

Although its once sky-high murder rate has declined over the last few years, the continuing exodus of many youth demonstrates that violent gangs still plague urban neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, post-coup governments have intensified an increasingly unregulated, free market form of capitalism that makes life unworkable for many by undermining the country’s limited social safety net and greatly increasing socioeconomic inequality. Government spending on health and education, for example, has declined in Honduras. Meanwhile, the country’s poverty rate has risen markedly. These contribute to the growing pressures that push many people to migrate.

Enough for now. Please consider this your background reading for my next few posts. I encourage you to read the links as well, which contain critical context for the experiences I’ll be sharing over the next few days.

More soon.

 

 

Reckoning with the Arc of the Moral Universe in the Age of Trump: A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5779

Arc of the Moral Universe

Writing topical High Holiday sermons is a process fraught with peril. It’s common knowledge among rabbis that if you sit down to write at the beginning of the summer, chances are pretty good that your chosen issue will be obsolete by the time the holidays roll around. In the current political moment however, where current events have accelerated to warp speed, it feels as if issues become obsolete every hour on the hour. Thus my challenge this year: how do I respond without contributing to the ever-increasing barrage that has become our current reality?

More to the point: how do I avoid contributing to the widespread despair that so many of us are feeling? I’m sure most of us are experiencing current events as an onslaught. They come at us faster and faster: every new policy strike-down, every new act of deregulation, every new appointment feels like yet another kick to the stomach.

To put it simply, the world that so many of us fought for seems to be unraveling before our eyes. So many of the socio-political gains we’ve struggled so hard for for so long are being rolled back on an almost daily basis.

So this Rosh Hashanah, I want to forgo the topical sermon in favor of some deeper questions. Namely, how can we maintain our equilibrium during the current political moment? How do we respond to the onslaught? How do we resist the despair that for so many of us, characterizes the nightmare age of Trump?

Since the election, we’ve been hearing from mental health experts that there’s been a dramatic spike in anxiety and depression since the election – a kind of “political stress disorder” – but that’s not what I’m talking about. Rather, I’d like to explore why so many of our previously held beliefs about our world seem to have come crashing down on top of us. In particular, I want to look closely at the assumptions that Americans – particularly liberal Americans – use to understand the history of progress in our country.

I’d like to ask, have they been harmful in ways we don’t often stop to realize? And if they are, might there be different frames we can use to understand the world around us? Ones that will help us stand down the despair and give us the strength to fight for the world we want to see? And finally, on this new year, I’d like to explore how Torah and Jewish tradition address this question in ways that might help us find a way forward together.

Let’s start with one very common assumption: the view that history is a march toward progress. This view is considered a central tenet of liberalism and it dates all the way back to the Enlightenment. In fact, this idea is so deeply embedded in the mindset of so many Americans that it is almost taken for granted.

Now certainly, when we look at the unfolding of American history, we could make a very strong case for this view. It certainly seems that the arc of history bends toward justice. Our march toward progress is well known: the abolition of slavery, the creation of labor laws, the right of women to vote, civil rights legislation, environmental regulation.

The idea in a nutshell: “We struggled, we won, progress was achieved.” This linear view of socio-political progress is deeply ingrained in the mythos of liberal America. When these historical moments occur, they enter into our national consciousness and become part of a collective narrative of progress. We venerate them, we celebrate them – often on an annual basis – and then either consciously or unconsciously, we assume that history will continue to progress in a linear fashion from that point onward.

The only problem with this assumption is that it doesn’t. And it never has.

Let’s use the first example on the list I just mentioned: abolition. Most of us date the abolition of slavery back to 1865 with the adoption of the 13th amendment – but in truth, abolition resulted from over century of struggle on many different fronts. But it wasn’t a linear struggle. And the struggle is far from over.

During Reconstruction, former slaves did make meaningful political, social and economic gains. Black men voted and even held public office across the South. Biracial experiments in governance flowered. Black literacy surged, surpassing those of whites in some cities. Black schools, churches and social institutions thrived.

But as W.E.B. Du Bois famously wrote “the slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.” After the formal fall of slavery in the South, there was sharecropping, in which black farmers became debt slaves to their white landlords; there was the convict lease system, in which black men were leased out to wealthy plantation owners and corporations; there were widespread lynchings in the South and yes, often in the North as well. There was Jim Crow – a legal caste system that literally divided black and white Americans.

And after the civil rights movement helped bring down segregation, we’ve seen the emergence of the “New Jim Crow” as a result of mass incarceration. As scholar Michelle Alexander and others have pointed out, more black men are currently behind bars or under the thumb of the criminal justice system than there were enslaved at the height of slavery.

Yes, the abolition of slavery was a significant victory and yes, we should celebrate our victories. But we cannot assume that injustice will simply end or evaporate with these victories. More often than not, it morphs into different forms in insidious ways.

It seems to me that liberal Americans – particularly white liberal Americans – chronically underestimate the tenacity and staying power of injustice. Why? Well for one thing, although we don’t often acknowledge it, this country was founded on injustice – on the original sins of indigenous genocide, slavery and the economic supremacy of white property-holding men. Injustice is part of our national DNA. As long as we fail admit this, it’s too easy to ignore the ways injustice is chronically manifest in the life of our country.

Our American political culture reinforces the notion that struggles for liberation invariably lead to the eradication of injustice. The way we memorialize the civil rights movement provides a good example. In her recent book, “A More Beautiful and Terrible History,” Professor Jeanne Theoharis writes powerfully about the ways political elites – who historically fought the passage of civil rights – regularly use this history as proof of how great our country is. President Ronald Reagan for instance, repeatedly resisted efforts to turn Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday into a national holiday. He finally relented however, when he realized he could co-opt MLK and the civil rights movement.

When Reagan signed the bill into law, he said,

We’ve made historic strides since Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus. As a democratic people, we can take pride in the knowledge that that we Americans recognized a grave injustice and took action to correct it. And we should remember that in many countries, people like Dr. King never have the opportunity to speak out at all.

But it’s not only conservative politicians who promote this new mythic history. Theoharis also quotes Barack Obama from a 2007 speech in Selma, Alabama. Referring to the civil rights generation, he said, “They took us 90 percent of the way there, but we still got that 10 percent in order to cross over to the other side.” The implication that we have eradicated 90% of the racial problems in our country is of course, serious political hyperbole. And it speaks to a very common trope in our national culture: that our great nation was founded on a struggle for freedom, that these struggles are what make this country great, and that these struggles somehow eradicate injustice from our midst.

In reality, however, these struggles don’t succeed because of our country – they succeed in spite of our country. And they certainly do not end racism and injustice once and for all. Whether they stem from hyperbole, ideology or unconscious assumptions, I believe that these false tropes breed complacency. After all, why worry too much if we believe history proves our struggle will eradicate injustice in end? And when injustice metastasizes into new and different forms, it upsets our neat, linear assumptions about American progress. As a result, we’re ill-equipped – emotionally and strategically – to respond properly to this new reality.

I’d like to turn now to Jewish tradition and explore whether or not the Torah has anything to offer us on this particular question. It’s often been observed by liberal scholars in fact, that this linear view of historical progress can be traced back to Biblical tradition. According to this school of thought, the polytheistic traditions of the Ancient Near East viewed history as circular, embodied in the never ending, constantly repeating cycles of nature. Israelite monotheism however, upended these traditions, sublimating the gods of nature to the one God of history, who alone could control nature and events according to his will.

Here’s a good representation of this view – I’m quoting from an essay by Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, the former Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary:

The consequences of this shift from nature to history reinforce the idea of ethical monotheism. Judaism develops a linear concept of time as opposed to a cyclical one and sanctifies events rather than places. The mountain of Sinai is not holy, or even known, but the moment of revelation is. The Torah intentionally conceals from us the place where Moses is buried. Time is a medium less susceptible to idolatry or polytheism, in which God’s presence is made manifest audibly rather than visually. Time becomes for Judaism the realm in which humanity and God join to complete together the work of creation…The triumph of morality will eventually render nature perfect, bringing history to its messianic conclusion.

While this is a popular view of many Jewish scholars, I find it to be problematic on so many levels. Particularly this notion that “the triumph of morality will eventually render nature perfect, bringing history to its messianic conclusion.” This kind of linear messianic thinking leads to a concrete end game, a victory that will solve all our problems. Messianic movements of course, have historically arisen during periods of acute crisis – times in which the vision of the ideal world becomes profoundly exciting and intoxicating to the growing numbers of people. But as we know all too well, messianic movements almost always end in upheaval, disillusionment and too often, tragedy.

You don’t have to be fundamentalist or even particularly religious to engage in linear messianic thinking. We all have a tendency, particularly during difficult times, to focus our expectations on an idealized conclusion. While this is undeniably inspiring and motivating, we too often end up mistaking the victories we experience along the way as the end game itself. We fall into the trap of viewing progress as an entitlement rather than something that must be constantly, constantly struggled for in every generation. It sometimes feels to me that this fixation on the end game is itself a kind of idolatry. We might say that we create a false god whenever we objectify one idea or concept or movement as the ultimate panacea for the problems of the world.

This is not however, the only Jewish frame for understanding history. I’d like to suggest another – one that I personally find to be much more helpful and inspiring. It is embodied by the word,“Yisrael” which literally means “one who struggles with God.” In the book of Genesis, Jacob’s name is changed to Yisrael after he wrestles with a mysterious night visitor that turns out later to be God. Jacob is victorious – and this moment marks a critical turning point in his life. But at the same time, he is wounded by the encounter – he limps as he crosses the river the next morning.

It’s also notable that Jacob’s struggle does not end with this one episode. His life certainly does not follow a straight line from this point on. Nor does the journey of the people of Israel who bear his name. In fact, the Torah narrative always ends before the Israelites enter the Promised Land. Just when they arrive at the threshold, we literally rewind the Torah back to the beginning and we start the journey anew. The cycle begins once again.

In other words, redemption is not located in any particular place or point in time – it is experienced in the act of struggle itself. God cannot be found in a land or place, nor at some literal end time. God is in the struggle. We might even say, God is the struggle.

Now I know for some this might seem on the surface to be a bit on the bleak side. Some might of you might be thinking, “Is this all we have to look forward to? Life is just one long endless struggle? And we never even get to the Promised Land? How is this inspiring?

Please understand: I’m not saying we can ever give up on our vision of our the world we want to see. I am suggesting that at some point it is important to let go of the expectation that we must inevitably get there – because I really do believe that holding on too tightly to that expectation is a set up for despair and disillusionment.

Yes, this spiritual frame does involve an acknowledgement that we will not literally arrive in the Promised Land; that the Messiah will not actually come. But at the same time, its worth considering that we do indeed enter into messianic time in ways we never stop to consider: when we show up for our fellow strugglers, when we celebrate our victories along the way, when our efforts are infused with our highest values of justice and equity and sacrifice, at those moments we find ourselves dwelling in the world we’ve been fighting for all along. We experience the world we want to see because we create it for one another.

Struggle is hard work, but if we view it exclusively as a means to an end, it will be only that: hard work. However, if we view struggle as an inherently sacred act, we may yet see the face of God in our comrades and those who have gone before us. We may come to understand that the messianic age is not simply a far off dream. We may yet find we are dwelling in the Promised Land in ways we have never been able to realize before.

According to Jewish tradition, Rosh Hashanah is a kind of “spiritual reboot” for ourselves and our community. In the traditional liturgy we say “Hayom Harat Olam” – it is the birthday of the world! On one level I think this means we never forfeit the ability to view the world with different eyes, through new and different frames. And if we can do this, we may well be able to transform the world itself. Yes, we live in painful, difficult times, but this is nothing new. Yes, there have been significant setbacks to many hard won battles in our country, but the struggle is far from over. In fact, as our liturgy would have it, it may be just beginning.

To all of you in Am Yisrael – and by this I mean all who struggle side by side for the cause of justice in the world – I wish you a heartfelt chazak ve’ematz – strength and courage. May it be a sweet and victorious year for us all.

 

Seder at the Mountaintop: A Guest Post by Jay Stanton

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Delivered by Rabbinic Intern Jay Stanton at the Tzedek Chicago Passover Seder, April 4, 2018.

I have been thinking about the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Today marks 50 years since his assassination, and I have been thinking about how blessed we are by Dr. King. Although his dream of racial equity is not yet realized, King’s vision of a just world and of a beloved community benefits us all. Still on the march to freedom, we shall not be moved. In the words of Ella Baker, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest.”

So tonight bothers me. Why are we here? What are we doing here? We could be spending our time in so many immediately effective ways. We could be on the picket line with striking teachers in Oklahoma and Kentucky. We could be outside the Israeli Embassy protesting the shooting of unarmed Gazan civilians. We could be praying with our feet. Instead, we’re here, engaged in a ritual that involves praying with our taste buds. Why not abandon the traditional Passover rituals and observe the holiday by working for justice? In familiar words, why is this night different from all other nights?

I found the beginnings of an answer in the speech Dr. King gave the day before he died. Often referred to as the “Mountaintop” or “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech, the remarks he offered on April 3, 1968, on behalf of sanitation workers in Memphis are striking (pun intended). The most revisited part chronicles Dr. King’s prophetic sense of his imminent demise. But in the beginning, King imagines the extraordinary opportunity of standing with God.

In Dr. King’s imagination, God offers to take him to any point in time. Martin Luther King says:

I would take my mental flight by Egypt and I would watch God’s children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the promised land. And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn’t stop there.

Though King’s choice is obvious, his purpose is not. Stopping in liberatory moments where freedom of thought and freedom of action expanded, he brings his listeners on his imagined journey through time. Finally, he arrives at the liberatory moment of the Poor People’s Campaign.

After acknowledging the injustices of his world, King continues:

Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee – the cry is always the same: “We want to be free.”

Dr. King echoes a core aspect of the Passover seder. We say bejol dor vador jayyav adam lir’ot et ‘atzmo ke-ilu hu yatza mimitzrayim – in every generation, each person must see themselves as if they themselves went free from Egypt. This fulfills the verse “You shall tell your child on that day that God freed you from Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm.”

We often take this as an echo of Torah’s most repeated rule. Having been strangers in Egypt, we must be kind to the stranger. But we don’t need a seder to have empathy for the stranger. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute have shown that the best way to cultivate empathy is habitual activation of a structure in the brain called the right supermarginal gyrus. We can activate our brain’s empathy structure by focusing on others. Increasing empathy cannot be the effect of telling our story.

Our seder tells us something different, tells us something Dr. King tells us in his Mountaintop speech. For King, humanity is always striving to become free, and God is always liberating the oppressed; today’s freedom marches are the same in sacred time as the Exodus from Egypt. When we see ourselves as if we went forth from Egypt, we live in that sacred moment.

Our seder allows us to live through the Exodus mythologically. Then, not only can we have empathy for the oppressed, we can share the joy of redemption and participate in liberation. For those of us currently experiencing oppression, the seder’s ritual journey allows us to memorize a feeling of having been liberated, which we will recognize when we get there.

In his Mountaintop speech, Dr. King details the ways demonstrators remained unfazed by Bull Connor’s violent tactics, stressing that liberation starts in the mind. Tonight, those of us facing oppression remember that Jews observed Passover even while oppressed – in the ghettos and shtetls of Europe and by the double standard of dhimmi status in the Middle East and North Africa. Black Jewish slaves in the American South also observed Passover, even while owned by Jews. (Yes, there were Jewish slaves and Jewish slave owners in America – feel free to ask me about it later. Can you imagine slaves serving at a Jewish master’s seder and then holding their own seder during the night?) Tonight, the oppressed among us, and those too oppressed to be here with us, assert that our liberation is God’s objective. Ain’t nobody can turn us ‘round.

For those of us currently experiencing freedom, the seder’s journey cultivates gratitude for our liberation and solidarity with the oppressed. Focusing on the Exodus story allowed Dr. King to emphasize solidarity with the striking workers in Memphis. Desegregation was an important step toward collective freedom for Black Americans, but desegregation did not solve the economic injustices of Black generational poverty and wage discrimination. As King points out in his journey through the history of liberation, our specific liberations, whatever they may be, are only pieces of a greater process of redemption. If we are free while others remain oppressed, we are still living in the bondage of a narrow place.

For most of us in this room, the reality is that we experience both oppression and freedom in different moments and in different ways. Some of us may experience sexual harassment at work but enjoy equal partnership at home. Some of us may be targeted by police because of the color of our skin but know simultaneously that Black is beautiful. Some of us may encounter hate from our family members concerning sexual orientation or gender identity, but enjoy the support of our queer beloved community. Some of us may encounter antisemitism from our Congressional candidates or in the newspaper, but benefit from white privilege.

We may be targets of oppression based on class, ability, immigration status, and religious affiliation, to name a few, but none of us are enslaved. We share the freedom of movement that allows us to be in this room tonight. We share the freedoms of religion and free association that allow us to have a seder here tonight. The seder, like our lives, reflects both our oppression and our liberation.

Right now, I invite you to step into this night of transformation. The root of the word “nishtanah” in mah nishtanah is change. What will change on this night, as opposed to other nights? I invite you to open your heart to be transformed by tonight. So that tomorrow when you take action for justice, you experience sacred time. So that tomorrow when you take action for justice, you know that you have been liberated. So that tomorrow when you take action for justice, you have gratitude for the freedom you enjoy. So that tomorrow when you take action for justice, you have a sense of history. So that tomorrow when you take action for justice, you stand on the shoulders of your elders. So that tomorrow when you take action for justice, you do so in a beloved community. So that tomorrow when you take action for justice, you are in solidarity with all the oppressed. So that tomorrow, when you take action for justice, you will not be moved.

Once we were slaves. Now we have been freed. How does that change you?

Prayer for the Poor People’s Campaign

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photo: Clayton Patterson

(Delivered at the Poor People’s Campaign Rally for Action, Grace Lutheran Church, Evanston, March 22, 2018.)

Friends, let us bless:

This is a blessing for the ones
who stand up police lines and say:
you may invade our communities,
you may profile and survielle us
you may shoot at our black and brown bodies,
but you will never break us.

This is a blessing for the ones
who lose their homes to predators,
who lose their pensions and healthcare,
while the wealthy grow wealthier
but will never accept that this
is simply the way things must be.

This is a blessing for the ones
who live under the terror
of our drones and our bombs,
whose blood fills the coffers
of our war economy,
whose only consolation is the truth
that while empires may rise,
they are destined to fall.

This is a blessing for the ones
who stand on street corners,
who live in tent encampments
next to luxury condos that soar to the sky
yet refuse to surrender their humanity
to the gears of an inhumane system.

This is a blessing for an earth
that grows more inhabitable by the day
yet is still inhabited by those who struggle
for a planet that will provide a sustainable home
for their children’s children.

This is a blessing for the immigrants
who fear every knock on the door
every cop that pulls them over,
every job application they are handed
yet never give up on the dream
of a better future for themselves
and their families.

So let the justice
that trickles down shallow creeks
roar through the valley and saturate
the dry parched earth,
let it flow relentlessly throughout the land
where life once grew and will grow again.

Let those who cry out in pain
feel strength growing within their broken souls
like green stems shooting through
cracked pavement.

Let us live to see new life spreading
through abandoned streets and
neighborhoods and cities and nations and
let the promise of transformation beckon still
that we might finally take the first
tentative step into this new day, yes
let it be so.

Amen.