Category Archives: Economic Justice

Creative Women’s Empowerment in Rwanda

Tuesday began with another return visit: this time to the Ineza Woman’s Sewing Cooperative in the Ramera district of Kigali. Ineza was founded in 2006 by WE-ACTx, who helped group of women with ten sewing machines to create an income generation project for their community.  They were initially supported by WE-ACTx, who helped connect them with the Latin School in Chicago and eventually Ineza dolls were sold at (of all places) the swanky Barney’s store in Chicago’s Gold Coast for $50.00 to $100.00 a piece.

Now a thriving women’s craft cooperative, Ineza sews a variety of items out of beautiful African textiles, including handbags, clothing, laptop cases, wallets, etc. They have now grown to the point where they are financially independent of WE-ACTx and maintains their own bank account. Their gorgeous merchandise has also become available via the internet through Manos de Madres, so as soon as you finish reading this post you should check them out and buy their products.

After lunch, the youth members of our delegation joined the young people of the WE-ACTx youth program for the afternoon while the rest of us volunteered at another WE-ACTx  income generation project – a new women’s jewelery cooperative in Nyaconga (below).

The women of Nyaconga make lovely glass beaded bracelets as well as recycled paper necklaces and earrings. Right now their work space and showroom is located in a large drab space that does little to show off their beautiful work.  So with the help of our new artist friend William (who designed the mural painted last Friday at the WE-ACTx children’s library) we were mobilized to paint the walls of the space in colorful shades of light purple, pink, green and yellow (below).

I have to say we’re getting pretty good at painting – and it’s been enormously satisfying to help support these economic empowerment efforts in this way.  Four of us will return to the showroom on Thursday to finish assembling the showcase and arrange the large amounts of jewelry inside.

Our teenagers reported that they had an amazing, joyful afternoon with the WE-ACTx young people. I’m going to try to coax one or more of them to write guest posts about their experiences. Stay tuned…

Rabbi Mordechai Liebling: Why I Now Support Church Divestment

My good friend and colleague Rabbi Mordechai Liebling has just written one of the most eloquent and thoughtful statements in support of church divestment I have yet read. Mordechai’s voice on this subject is particularly noteworthy becuase he has long been an important Jewish community leader on the issue of ethical investing.

Mordechai has previously served as the director of the “Torah of Money” initiative at The Shefa Fund and later became the Executive Vice President of Jewish Funds for Justice. He currently serves as the director of the newly created Social Justice Organizing Program at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.  His statement is all the more powerful because in 2004 he wrote a public article questioning the effectiveness of divestment as a strategy – and as late as two years ago, he still viewed divestment as counterproductive.

As he wrote in his statement, he has reconsidered his position for compelling reasons:

What happened that made me change my views? I changed a little, and the reality on the ground changed even more.

At the time I wrote the article I was organizing the Jewish Shareholder Action Network in my capacity as the Torah of Money Director at the ShefaFund. I was very involved in the world of faith-based socially responsible investments and learned a lot about shareholder activism.

When Protestant churches started considering selective divestment from corporations profiting from the occupation back in the mid-2000′s, I knew many of the socially responsible investment staff people in those denominations. I did not think divestment was a good strategy and said so to my colleagues. But things have changed since.

I was concerned about the potential that divestment measures would have in undermining the Israeli political center. I was concerned about Israelis feeling more isolated than ever and adopting a circle-the-wagons mentality that would make peace harder to attain. These concerns are valid and real. But in the last number of years, the Israel political center has moved to the right–even without divestment. The Israeli government has become more intransigent in its position; the settlers more aggressive. The Netanyahu government has already circled the wagons.

Given this reality, we need to take a look at new approaches. We cannot rule out options that are rooted in non-violence, promote non-violence and call for an end to unjust practices. Divestment is one such option. Palestinian nonviolent direct action is another.

If the reality on the ground in Israel and in the West Bank has changed, so have the attitudes of Israeli Jews and Jews abroad towards the use of tools such as divestments and boycotts. Previously very few Jewish groups would have supported such initiatives. Now we see a lively discussion inside our Jewish communities about the appropriateness of using these tactics to end the occupation and oppose settlement expansion. Countless Israeli artists refuse to perform in the Cultural Center of the settlement of Ariel in the West Bank. Boycotting settlement goods is now discussed in Israel, in the pages of the New York Times, and inside our very own Jewish communities. Symptomatic of its move to the right, the Israeli government has outlawed this practice, and the brave Israelis that speak about it, risk heavy court-mandated fines for expressing their views. But inevitably, the more intransigent the Israeli government, the more popular this and other nonviolent measures will become.

Now to be sure, boycott and selective divestment are not the same thing. The former is carried out by consumers; the latter by investors. Divestment from a corporation does not come in a vacuum. It is the logical step that follows after shareholders try to negotiate with a company to address their concerns and after shareholder activism fails. Back when I opposed divestment, I was concerned that divestment was being invoked when the first two steps had not been tried yet, or at least pursued to its completion. This is not the case today. To their credit, the churches have gathered a full record of failed corporate engagement and have experienced years of frustrated shareholder resolutions that do not achieve the desired change in corporate behavior. Now that step one and step two have failed, it is time to move to the inevitable step three, and that is divestment. Not doing so puts at risk the integrity of the whole socially responsible investment model.

I want to make clear that I would not support divestment or boycotts from Israel as a whole. I do not support turning Israel into a pariah state. And it is precisely because of this that I support the churches’ measure approach to selective divestment. The resolutions under consideration–divesting from Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions, and Hewlett-Packard–do not single out Israel, and they certainly do not single out Jews either. They single out specific corporate complicity with the occupation. Churches hold tobacco companies in their no-buy list, not because they believe that smokers are bad people. They do not single out smokers for criticism. They do so because smoking is wrong. In the same way, bulldozing civilian homes and making people homeless is wrong too. It does not matter whether this happens in Israel or elsewhere. The problem is not with the place or with the people, but with the action. This bulldozing is taking place in Jerusalem, where Palestinian homes are being bulldozed to make room for more Jewish settlements. Not condemning wrongdoing simply because it happens in Israel is singling out Israel. Israel does not need affirmative action; it needs to be treated exactly the same as every other state, not better, and not worse. This means acknowledging when it does things right, but also taking corrective action when it does not.

I’m thrilled that Mordechai has now signed on to our Rabbi’s Letter campaign in advance of the United Methodist Conference in Tampa this week, where the divestment resolution will be presented once again.

There will be much more to report on this important story – please stay tuned.

Sacred Space from the Second Temple to Zuccotti Park

Trashed books from the Occupy Wall St. library

Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper, writing in Religion Dispatches:

On Monday night, November 14, 2011, the mayor of New York City ordered the police to evict the 500 or so overnight occupiers in Zuccotti Park. As part of the eviction, tents and computers, books and papers, food and toilet paper were destroyed, actually ground fine in dumpsters. Many falsely thought the movement wouldn’t survive its physical eviction and material destruction. They were and are wrong.

Sacred space may start with tents and have a middle stage in church buildings, even sanctuaries. But sacred space has no need of one place. It can occupy many at the same time. They did not destroy all the books in the Occupy library. Some of those books are being retrieved at the New York Police Department “lost and found.” Sacred space is not one place; and you can grind a book to dust but not destroy it.

Though she doesn’t mention it specifically, I couldn’t help but think of the destruction of the Second Temple and the creation of the Jewish diaspora when I read this description of the razing of Zuccotti Park. Indeed, wasn’t this precisely the idea that gave birth to rabbinical Judaism? Following the trauma, there came the realization that “sacred space is not one place”

From the Temple to tent cities, tyrants have made the fatal mistake in believing that by destroying the place they can destroy the idea…

Sorry Newt, but there is no Anti-Semitism at Occupy Wall St.

Accusations of anti-semitism in the Occupy Wall Street movement are flying fast and furious now. Newt Kingrich leveled the charge today on the CBS’s Early Show. David Brooks insinuated it in the NY Times not long ago. And Bill Kristol’s Emergency Committee on Israel has actually bought air time in New York and DC to run a laughably misleading ad that implores viewers to “Tell Obama and Leader Pelosi to stand up to the (anti-semitic, anti-Israel) mob.”

Watch the above clip for the real story.  Then read this thorough piece by commentator MJ Rosenberg. It would all be pretty hilarious if it wasn’t such a horribly cynical exploitation exploit the real pain and fear of anti-semitism to slow down a movement committed to justice and dignity for all – which is, in the end, what Judaism is all about.

A Religious Defense of Big Government: Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5772

Source: Economic Policy Institute, The State of Working America 2011

Three years ago, I traveled with several JRC members and nearly 1,500 others to Postville, Iowa. We went to show our solidarity with 400 immigrant workers of the Agriprocessor kosher meat packing plant who had recently been arrested and imprisoned. It was, at the time, the largest single-site workplace raid in US history.

After participating in an interfaith service, we marched through the streets of Postville. As we reached the downtown area, we met up with angry counter-protestors, many of whom were holding signs condemning the invasion of “illegal immigrants” into their communities. One woman held a large sign that still sticks in my mind – it read: “What Would Jesus Do? Obey the Law.” I distinctly remember pointing out the irony of this sign to a fellow marcher, considering Jesus is actually considered to be one of the earliest practitioners of civil disobedience.

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