I’d like to begin my remarks today where I left off on Rosh Hashanah:
Because of our diverse, multi-racial nature, Jews must necessarily embrace anti-racism as a sacred value. The Jewish Diaspora is a microcosm of the world we seek to create. If the term Ahavat Yisrael means love of your fellow Jew, it must also affirm that love crosses all lines and borders and boundaries.
“Jews must embrace anti-racism as a sacred value” – it must be a mitzvah if you will. At Tzedek Chicago, we’ve actually articulated this as one of our congregation’s core values. If you go to our website, you will read: “We promote a Judaism rooted in anti-racist values and understand that anti-Semitism is not separate from the systems that perpetuate prejudice and discrimination.”
Like all of our other values this one has very practical implications. It will necessarily guide the choices we make as a community: the issues we work on, the groups we stand with, the public statements we make. And in general it will mean we must always foreground the question: “what does it mean, as a Jewish congregation observe anti-racism as a sacred value?”
I’m sure most liberal Jews wouldn’t find this question all that controversial. After all, American Jewry has a long and venerable history of standing up for racial equality, particularly when it comes to our participation in the civil rights movement. But I’d suggest this question presents an important challenge to the Jewish community of the 21st century. And it was actually put to the test this past summer, when a the Movement for Black Lives released their policy statement, “Vision for Black Lives.”
I’m sure many of you are very familiar with Movement for Black Lives. It’s a coalition of over 50 organizations from around that country that focus on issues of concern to the black community. One year ago, their Policy Table began an extensive process, convening national and local groups, and engaging with researchers and community members. This summer they published their Vision for Black Lives: a comprehensive policy platform that focuses on six main areas: Ending the War on Black People, Reparations, Invest/Divest, Economic Justice, Community Control and Political Power.
I will say unabashedly that I believe the Vision for Black Lives platform is one of the most important American policy statements of our time. It’s both an unflinching analysis of the institutional racism against black people in country as well as a smart policy statement about what can be done (and in some cases already being done) to dismantle it.
What makes Vision for Black Lives platform particularly unique is that it wasn’t produced by the usual method, namely by a think tank or special interest group. Rather, it was developed by a coalition of national and grassroots organizations that reflect the communities most directly affected by these particular issues. Moreover, it serves both as an ideological manifesto as well as a practical hard-nosed policy statement that lays out a path toward achieving very specific legislative goals. In so doing, as many have observed, it is moving Black Lives Matter from a structureless network of local organizations toward becoming a genuine political movement.
To quote from their introduction:
We want this platform to be both a visionary agenda for our people and a resource for us. We take as a departure-point the reality that by every metric – from the hue of its prison population to its investment choices – the U.S. is a country that does not support, protect or preserve Black life. And so we seek not reform but transformation…
Our hope is that this is both an articulation of our collective aspirations as well as a document that provides tangible resources for groups and individuals doing the work. We recognize that some of the demands in this document will not happen today. But we also recognize that they are necessary for our liberation.
This platform is also important because it doesn’t limit its concern to issues facing the black community alone. It understands that the systemic racism impacting people of color in this country is but a part of many interlocking systems of oppression that affect communities the world over. As the platform puts it: “We are a collective that centers and is rooted in Black communities, but we recognize we have a shared struggle with all oppressed people; collective liberation will be a product of all of our work.”
If you haven’t read Vision for Black Lives yet, I highly recommend it. I’ll warn you it’s not easy. It’s very long and heavily referenced, so really reading and integrating it will take commitment. I’ve read it three times now and every time I did, I discovered something new and challenging that I hadn’t considered before. But in the end, I found it profoundly inspiring – and that is not something you often say about policy platforms. I would go as far as to call it a prophetic document. As I quoted earlier, it seeks “not reform but transformation.”
Like me, I’m sure many of you have read innumerable books and articles that analyze the institutional racism inflicted on people of color in this country. Usually they leave us pent up with frustration or else just a sense of abject hopelessness. The problem is just so vast and pervasive – how on earth can we ever hope to dismantle it? But this is first time I’ve read such an analysis along with extensive prescriptions toward political solutions. It lays out the problems then it puts forth real solutions. But it has no illusions about the daunting task ahead. As the report says. “We recognize that some of the demands in this document will not happen today. But we also recognize that they are necessary for our liberation.” (When I read this, I can’t help but recall the famous ancient dictum by Rabbi Tarfon: “It is not up to you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”)
Is Jewish community ready to observe anti-racism as a sacred value? I think one important test would be to judge by its response to the release of the Vision for Black Lives platform. And in this regard, I’m sorry to say that the American Jewish establishment failed the test miserably.
Almost immediately after its release, every mainstream Jewish organization responded with statements that ranged from critical to outright hostility. Why? Because in the Invest/Divest section there is one section that advocates diverting financial resources away from military expenditures and investing in “domestic infrastructure and community well being.” And in that section there were some brief references to Israel – one that referred to “the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people” and another that called Israel “an apartheid state.” And as you might expect from a section entitled Invest/Divest, there was a statement of solidarity with the nonviolent Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel.
The first official Jewish response to Vision for Black Lives came from the Boston Jewish Community Relations Committee, just two days after it was released. The Boston JCRC said it was “deeply dismayed” by the report and denounced the use of the word genocide and its support for BDS. It had nothing more to say about this voluminous, wide-ranging platform. It spent seven paragraphs on this one issue – and most of that was devoted to this one word.
Over the next few weeks, one Jewish organization after another denounced the platform for its statements about Israel with only a glancing nod to its analysis, its conclusions and its policy recommendations. Jonathan Greenblatt, the National Director of the Anti-Defamation League called its reference to Israel “repellent” and added patronizingly, “let’s work to keep our eyes on the prize.” Even liberal Jewish organizations such as J St., the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and T’ruah, an American rabbinical organization devoted to human rights, responded with criticism and chastisement.
These responses tell us all we need to know about the Jewish communal establishment’s commitment to the value of anti-racism. But it really shouldn’t come as a surprise. The Jewish institutional community hasn’t been in real solidarity with black Americans and people of color for decades. Most of what we call solidarity is actually nostalgia. For far too long we’ve been championing the role of Jews in the American civil rights movement, invoking the memory of Jewish martyrs such as Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman and Jewish heroes such as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. But those days are over – and it is disingenuous of us to wield its memory as some kind of entitlement when it comes to issues of racism in the 21st century.
There was a time that being a Jew in America meant being part of a discriminated minority, but that has no longer been the case for generations. Today, white Jews are part of the white majority – and as I mentioned on Rosh Hashanah, since white Jews are racialized as part of the majority, we enjoy all of the privileges that come along with it.
I know for many American Jews, particularly young Jews, it might seem downright silly to ask whether or not white Jews are white. But it is actually a subject of debate – at least among white Jews. In fact it’s become a something of a cottage industry. (If you doubt me, just Google “are Jews white?” and see how many hits you get.)
There’s actually a very simple way to answer this question: ask a Jew of color. Let Lina Morales, a Mexican-American Jew, who recently wrote a powerful article on the subject explain it to you:
With all due respect to my white Jewish friends and colleagues, people of color in the United States don’t need to take a course on critical race theory to understand the nuances of race. Anti-Semitism exists, and I’ve received a fair amount of it from fellow people of color, but its impact and extent doesn’t compare to the systematic racism of American society. White Jews simply don’t face the criminalization that black and brown people in this country do. They are not locked up or deported in record numbers. Nor is their demographic growth or struggle to not be capriciously murdered by police considered a threat by a large and reactionary part of our population.
It should be mentioned that thankfully, there were some Jewish organizations that did in fact welcome and endorse the Visions for Black Lives. Not surprisingly, all of them came from outside the Jewish institutional establishment – organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace, IfNotNow, and Jews for Economic and Racial Justice. For me, the most trenchant and powerful response came from the Jews of Color Caucus, which works in partnership with JVP. Among the many important points made in their statement was this one that was sent directly to the Jewish communal establishment:
Recent statements by the Boston JCRC, Truah: the Rabbinic Council for Human Rights, and The Union for Reform Judaism condemning the BLM Platform also send the message that the lives of Black Jews (along with Black gentiles) directly affected by US police brutality are less important than protecting Israel from scrutiny. We reject this message and call on these groups to commit themselves to honor the leadership of Jews of Color, including those critical of Israel…
We are appalled at the actions of the white US institutional Jewish community in detracting and distracting from such a vital platform at a time when Black lives are on the line, simply because the organizers chose to align their struggle with the plight of Palestinians. US Black relationships to Palestine and Israel have never been monolithic, but there are deep historical ties between Black and Palestinian struggle that go back to the Black Power Era. Any attempt to co-opt Black struggle while demeaning these connections, is an act of anti-Black erasure.
Their reference to the Black Power movement of the late 1960s is critically important. This marks the time in which white Jews were leaving cities for the suburbs to become part of the white majority. It also marks the time, following the Six Day War, in which Israel began to become central to American Jewish identity. For many white American Jews, this new relationship between Black and Palestinian liberation movements was experienced as a betrayal of former allies. Many American Jews looked to Zionism as the “liberation movement of the Jewish people” and considered it downright anti-Semitic to claim that Israel was actually a settler colonial project that militarily expelled and displaced indigenous people.
Of course, many American Jews still identify deeply with Israel. And that is why the Jewish institutional responses to the Vision for Black Lives resonate with a strong sense of betrayal. That is why the ADL’s Jonathan Greenblatt wrote we must “keep our eyes on the prize.” There is this yearning for a coalition that no longer exists – and a refusal to accept, as the Movement for Black Lives does, that Israel is part of this system of oppression.
So many otherwise liberal American Jews will insist: Israel is different. Don’t compare Israel to the racist system that oppresses blacks and people of color in this country. Don’t compare Israel to apartheid South Africa or any other state where one ethnic group wields power over another. It’s not the same thing.
Of course every nation is different in many ways from one another – but it’s time to admit that when it comes to systems of oppression, Israel is not different. And this is precisely the place that so many in the Jewish community, even those who are otherwise progressive in every other way, are simply unwilling to go. To admit that in the end, Israel is by its very nature an oppressor state: a system that privileges one ethnic group over another. And that this system is fundamentally connected to a larger system of oppression.
In fact it plays a very integral role in that system. The very same tear gas canisters that are used daily against Palestinians are the ones that were used against protesters in Ferguson. The same security apparatus that is used on the West Bank separation wall is the one that is used on the border wall that the US is building on our southern border with Mexico. The same stun grenades that Israeli soldiers use against demonstrators in Bil’in or Nabi Saleh are the very same ones used by American SWAT teams in Cincinnati and Oakland and St. Paul.
Here in Chicago, as in so many cities around the country, there is a new recognition of how the militarization of police departments is being used in ways that target communities of color. Those who say that we can’t compare this systemic racism to Israel should know that Chicago’s Jewish Federation regularly sponsors “police exchange programs” – trips that take the CPD to go to Israel to learn the latest military techniques from the IDF.
Regarding these exchange programs, the JUF’s Executive VP Jay Tcath has said this:
Helping connect and thereby improve the work of both Israeli and Chicago police is a natural role for JUF, committed as we are to the safety of the entire Chicago community and the Jewish State. From advising us on ways to enhance the physical security of our Jewish community’s institutions to helping us ensure the safety of JUF events – everything from dinners to pro-Israel rallies – we are grateful for the extraordinary commitment of CPD, Cook County’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management and our other public law enforcement partners. These missions to Israel both reflect and help deepen these valued relationships.
So we can’t have it both ways. The Jewish establishment cannot simultaneously empower the systems that oppress people of color in this country and at the same time say we stand in solidarity with them. If we are going to be anti-racist, we can’t make an exception for Israeli militarism or rationalize away its critical place in these systems.
Some of us have already made it clear where we stand. But sooner than later all of us in Jewish community will have stop dancing around this issue and make a decision. When it comes to Israel, we cannot continue to cling to a two state solution that Israel has already made impossible. As I’ve said before, the real choice we will have to face is a choice between two one-state solutions: one apartheid state in which a Jewish minority rules the non-Jewish majority or a state where all have equal rights and citizenship, regardless of their ethnicity or religion.
But on still deeper level, we must also reckon with the separatist assumptions behind the “two state solution.” What are we really doing when we advocate for a Jewish state that must have a demographic majority of Jews in order to exist? The same liberal Jews who cling to the notion of a two state solution would recoil at the suggestion of solving Jim Crow by separating black Americans from white Americans. That the only way two peoples living in the same country can co-exist is to physically segregate them from one another.
So to return once again to my original question: how can we, as Jews, embrace anti-racism as a sacred Jewish value? I’d like to offer a few suggestions in conclusion:
1. It would mean that the white Jewish establishment must embrace the concept of solidarity. Specifically, that means we cannot make it about us. The objects of oppression are the ones who must dictate the terms of their struggle. If we have issues with how they articulate their vision, we must raise these issues with them face to face in genuine relationship – not through public chastisement.
2. It would mean letting go of our reverence of a civil rights era that is long past and take an honest look at our complicity in the current reality in which white Jews are part of the privileged white majority. Anti-Semitism does exist in the US today, but it is not institutionally imposed upon us the way it is upon communities of color.
3. It would mean letting go of the old paradigm of “Black-Jewish relations.” According to some estimates, 10% to 20% of Jews in this country are Jews of color. Estimates of black Jews in the US range from 20,000 to 200,000. And unlike white Jews, Jews of color are impacted by institutional racism. Any new anti-racist paradigm must reject Jewish white supremacy and center the experience of Jews of color.
4. It would mean subjecting Israel to the same analysis we use when it comes to our own country. Israel is not separate from the systems that oppress people of color at home and abroad. We must be willing to identify these connections and call them out as we would any other aspect of institutional racism.
Finally, and perhaps most difficult, it would mean to letting go of a Zionist dream that never really was. To recognize that the Zionist dream was realized on the backs of Palestinians – just as the American Dream was realized on the backs of indigenous peoples and blacks who were brought to this country in chains. Yes, it painful to give up on dreams, but it is even more painful to hold onto them until they turn into a nightmare for all concerned.
After all, on Yom Kippur we vow to let go of the dreams of what might have been, but have led us down the wrong path. But it is also the day in which we can dream new dreams. We can dream of a world in which systems of exploitation and oppression are no more. As Sarah Thompson reminded us in her guest sermon last night, we must begin the year by focusing on the end – even if we know that by the end of the year we will not have arrived at the ultimate end we seek. To paraphrase the Vision for Black Lives, we recognize that some of these dreams will not happen today – or even in our lifetime. But we also recognize that they are necessary for our liberation.
May we realize this dream bimheyra beyameynu – speedily in our day.
Guest Post: Observations on the Jewish Response to the Movement for Black Lives Platform from a Self Loving Antiracist White JewPosted: August 14, 2016
A guest post from my friend Martin Friedman:
For the purpose of this piece I will be referring to Blacks who are for the most part gentile and white Jews (Jews who have come to get the racial designation of White in the context of the US regardless of self identification).
This particular piece is really written for Jews who have come to be called White. Jews who are also people of color are writing excellent pieces from their unique perspective. I will not attempt to speak from that perspective.
What a(nother) crucial time for relationships between “Blacks” and “Jews”! What will we choose? Will we, as we have done so many times in the past, choose whiteness and the perceived safety that we feel goes with that in the US or will we choose to align ourselves with those that are most oppressed in a given society? This is a very familiar spot for the Ashkenazi (and occasionally Sephardi) Jew who now gets a racial designation as white in the US.
Let’s get this out of the way right now. Jewish, in the United States, isn’t a race. It is a culture that includes both spirituality and religion and also includes non religious ways of life. Jewish is also, arguably, an ethnicity based on being a cultural marker that has traveled with us and defined us. In this country Jewish is not a race.
So please, Ashkenazi Jews, just stop saying, “I’m not white. I’m Jewish.” Yes we are Jewish and we will also be assigned a race based on how we are commonly perceived by institutions and systems. How we see ourselves or how we self identify does not matter in this race-constructed and race-constitutionalized country. A Jewish person who is also Black, Latino, Asian, Native American or mixed race will be identified first by their race even as they self identify as a Jew.
OK, let’s get something else out of the way too. I am a self loving Jew (who is also white). I love my Jewishness. I am unapologetically Jewish. So let’s just wipe out the whole, “Oh, he must be a self hating Jew because he isn’t mortally offended that the Movement for Black Lives platform used the terminology of genocidal and apartheid policies in relationship to Israel.” Or, “Oh, we don’t have to listen to Martin because he went to Israel and visited the West Bank and East Jerusalem and has been critical of Israeli policy on his Facebook page”. Not true! On my grand and great grandparents! On my great Aunt Leah from whom I got my middle name. I love my Jewishness! I love the connection I feel to my Eastern European Jewish heritage.
I am also in love with an ideal of Jewishness that isn’t rooted in whiteness and domination. A Jewish ideal of true Tikkun Olam; of Repairing the world. All the world! Not just a world defined by whiteness or Europeanness. Not a world where we get to control the conversation.
The world is broken. Does our refusing to engage with BLM help repair it? Can we repair it if we don’t engage with people who criticize current Israeli policy and US financial and Military support for the government that developed and enforces those policies?
It’s time for White Jews to stop choosing whiteness and align ourselves with those most oppressed in the US because that is what true Jewishness is about. And why wouldn’t we? The point of the Movement for Black Lives Platform was to speak truth to all power, not to use pleasing language. It is our duty to sit across the table from people who have been most oppressed in our country and hear what they have to say about what they perceive to be genocidal policy that’s connected to Institutional, Systemic and Structural Racism in the US.
What are we afraid of? Why are we, of all people, afraid of conversation about oppression? If the policies of the Israeli government really are leading to a fair two or one state solution, why can’t we sit at a table and discuss it? Remember, the one piece of the platform we are so hyped up about is about governmental policy both here and in Israel not about hating or oppressing Jews? Remember that Egypt was mentioned at the same time as Israel? I hope we are not forgetting those things because this is just an easy reason to disengage.
We are a people who have such a long history of debate and multiple interpretations of the same text (or in this case policies) so why are we shutting this conversation down? Because of multigenerational historical trauma from the European Holocaust? All the more reason to sit down with people who have multigenerational historical trauma from the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and US chattel slavery. Multigenerational trauma from lynchings and Jim Crow. From a Eugenics narrative that was studied here in the US by German Nazis. My people, we share roots in our historical trauma.
We, White Jews, have confused comfort with safety. And the root of that confusion is the root of the problem, power. Power is defined (by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond) as legitimate access to institutions and systems sanctioned by the state. Power that is equivalent to Whiteness. People that have strong access to institutional and systemic power confuse discomfort with safety all the time.
I put forth, vehemently, that the wording of one section of the Movement for Black Lives platform makes us uncomfortable, not unsafe. We must be willing to engage. It’s pure privilege to get to pick and choose when and with whom we engage on this subject. It’s extreme privilege to just say no, I’m done. Extreme privilege to be able to shut someone down.
This is another in a long line of moments in history where we as white Jews get to chose alignment with whiteness or with People of Color. And what’s even crazier this time is that it feels like it’s our Jewishness that is at stake. It’s even crazier because it feels like this is anti Semitism. Again, being anti-Israeli policy and anti-US government policy is not the same thing as being anti-Semitic.
Historically, we’ve chosen the perceived safety of whiteness. Our ability to become fully White was due to governmental policy, the GI bill plus redlining which gave us our whiteness while excluding Blacks and Latinos who such a short time earlier had been our partners and friends. But they couldn’t access it in the same way as we could due to racism.
Yes, many of us were in the civil rights movement. Yes, many of us marched side by side. But we let ourselves get coopted so soon after. We chose whiteness because it got us out of the ghetto (named because of us by the way!) It was our literal ghetto pass. We need to understand that we left our brothers and sisters behind.
What are the costs of choosing Whiteness over Jewishness? One of the costs of our comfort and our privilege is Black and Brown lives. As long as we align ourselves with whiteness we contribute to the deaths of Black and Brown people at the hands of institutions. Their deaths are part of the the cost of our comfort, safety and privilege.
The other loss is the loss of what it really means to be Jewish. That it means to not stand idly by our neighbor’s blood. That it means true Tikkun Olam. We are at such a(nother) crucial time of choice.
Let’s choose our Jewishness over Whiteness this time. Let’s choose life.
Today marks Yom Hashoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day – and as it turns out, this year it falls on a serendipitous milestone: namely the 52nd anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Although MLK wrote his letter to respond to the reality of Jim Crow in the American South, I do believe his words have much to offer us as we remember those who perished at the hands of the Nazis during World War II – in particular, King’s insistence on the moral imperative to break unjust laws and the inherent immorality of legal segregation:
(There) are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws…
Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.
All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I it” relationship for an “I thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful.
In light of King’s words, it is worth noting that the rise of Nazism in Germany was facilitated by largely “legal” means – through a myriad of laws and regulations that successfully segregated them from the rest of German society. King himself pointed this out in his letter when he wrote:
We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal…” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers.
In this regard, Dr. King’s insight might well inspire us to commemorate this sacred day by redoubling our resolve to eradicate laws that segregate peoples on the basis of their national, ethnic or religious identities.
While it pains me to say it, I cannot help but note that the very country that first established Holocaust Remembrance Day itself enforces its own form of legal segregation between Jews and non-Jews. As one Israeli observer wrote in Ha’aretz five years ago, “Segregation of Jews and Arabs in Israel…is almost absolute.” In the West Bank, Jews and non-Jews are segregated by separate legal systems, separate roads, separate transportation systems, and in some cases, separate sidewalks. And in Gaza, Palestinians are segregated from the outside world entirely.
I have no doubt that there will be those who consider it unseemly of me – or worse – to point this out on Yom Hashoah of all days. To this inevitable criticism, I can only respond, how can we purport to take the lessons of the Shoah to heart while ignoring realities such as these? How long will we, as Jews, look way from these unjust laws in Israel that “distort the soul and damage the personality?” On this, of all days, shouldn’t we, as King suggested in his letter, “bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive?”
May the memory of the fallen be for a blessing.
On Friday morning we headed south to visit the AJESOV association in Nyamata. On the way we stopped at two prominent massacre sites of the Rwandan genocide: the churches at Ntarama and Nyamata. We visited the Nyamata site in 2008 and I wrote at some length about the experience. While this time around I had some idea of what awaited me, our visits to these sites were emotionally overwhelming nonetheless.
Ntarama is the smaller of the two churches, located in an area that had historically witnessed violence toward Tutsis prior to the genocide. As our tour guide explained to us, Tutsis were able to find sanctuary in this church during the upheavals of 1992. In 1994, however, even churches did not offer protection from the killers – and 5,000 Tutsi men, women and children seeking refuge were eventually murdered in the Ntarama church. (According to a 2002 report issued by Rwanda’s Ministry of Local Government, eleven per cent of the country’s genocide victims were killed in churches).
The Ntarama church has been preserved in much the same condition as it was following the genocide. White and purple banners (white being the sign of hope and purple, symbolic of mourning) are draped throughout the compound. In the main sanctuary the bloody clothes of the victims are draped over the pews. Skulls and bones are arranged on shelves in the rear of the room and multiple caskets line the center of the sanctuary. Across the podium on the pulpit hangs a banner quoting a poem written by a genocide survivor: “If you really knew me and you really knew yourself, you would not have killed me.”
Outside the church remain holes in the walls created by grenades (see top picture). In a smaller building, that once served as the religious school, the blood of slain children remains splattered across the walls. The church kitchen’s interior remains charred – the burned mattress used to set it ablaze lays crumpled on the floor. Before leaving the church, we stopped at a spot designed as a prayer/meditation space (below) to say Kaddish.
The larger church in Nyamata (below), where thousands were likewise killed after seeking sanctuary, remains much the same as it did during our 2008 visit. Like the Ntarama site, the main sanctuary of Nyamata church contains rows upon rows of arranged clothes of the victims. Beneath the sanctuary is a room created to display some of the remains of the victims (bottom pic) as well as a casket containing the body of a young woman whose torture and murder is considered to be paradigmatic of the abject brutality displayed during the Nyamata massacre.
We said Kaddish once again at the mass grave in the rear of the church before signing the guest book and getting back on our bus. An inexplicably poignant moment: we saw and heard the joyful voices of young children playing in a primary school located directly across from the church. This cognitive dissonance seemed to epitomize our experience in Rwanda: it is utterly impossible to reconcile this beautiful country of brave and gracious people with the history of unimaginable brutality its citizens unleashed upon one another less than two decades ago.
The lessons of this paradox are by not means simple. At times such as this, the words “Never Again” come to us almost reflexively, but I must confess that given the tragically chronic reality of human rights abuse, these two familiar words ring increasingly hollow for me. I can’t help but think we must dig much deeper – and face more painful truths about ourselves – before uncover the the light that will that will show us the way out of the legacies bequeathed to us by places such as Ntarama and Nyamata.
What are the lessons? These words provide as good a place as any for us to begin:
If you really knew me and you really knew yourself, you would not have killed me…
In recognition of Holocaust Remembrance Day, please read these words of Ahmed Tibi, a Palestinian citizen of Israel and member of Knesset, who offered the following words before the Israeli Parliament in 2010:
This is the place and the time to cry out the cries of all of those who were and are no longer with us, the cries of those who have remained and who are struggling, justifiably so, to unburden themselves from the scenes of death and horror. I will once again repeat that I am full of empathy for the families of the victims of the Holocaust wherever they may be around the world, including those with whom I live on the same land, in the same country.
This is the moment in which every individual must relieve oneself of all of his nationalist or religious hats, relieve oneself of the otherness and wear just one robe: the robe of humanity. One must look at himself, look around him, and be human. Only human.
Full speech here.
Simon, who is the son of a national public relations director for B’nai B’rith, was asked to speak at the General Assembly of Jewish Federations in New Orleans last November to speak about the good work the Federation is doing in post-Katrina NOLA (where “Treme” is filmed.) To the surprise of his audience, he took the Jewish community to task for not doing nearly enough to help non-Jewish residents there.
Simon was recently interviewed for Tablet, where he elaborated at length on his criticisms. Here are a few choice quotes (to which I can only add a hearty “right on!!”):
– Upon hearing that most of the $28 million raised by the Federation to help post-Katrina New Orleans was spent on restoring and rebuilding the city’s Jewish community:
At the point when they were doing that, tens of thousands of New Orleanians were still living elsewhere and couldn’t get home…The average income of a Jewish family in New Orleans was $180,000 a year. The average income in New Orleans, $30,000 a year. And you’re subsidizing the Jews? That hyper-segregation of the Jewish community from the problems in the world, that alienation from tragedy that isn’t tribal is one of the most disappointing things to me as a Jew.
– On the response of Jewish leaders when he would raise this issue with them:
…They go to the anecdotal. I’m like, “Listen, I’m talking systemically. Don’t give me your anecdotal bullshit that you went and sang with some Baptist choir or you had some Baptist choir come to your synagogue. Or that you guys had a day where you took canned food down. Come on. There are lives in the balance down there. This is the community where the people are the most vulnerable, where the desperation is profound.”
– On the Jewish Federations’ concern about “Jewish continuity:”
The preservation of the Jewish faith and people-hood, while an essential task, says nothing to any other nation beyond our own, especially if we preserve ourselves for no purpose other than the perpetuation of one branch of monotheistic thought. Surely, the world needs the Jewish mind and spirit for something more fundamental than that.
Until there is a hard moment of real self-reflection here, younger and more secular Jews like myself—who were raised in the tradition and who still are proud of their Jewishness—are going to be increasingly abandoning organized Jewish giving and going directly at the actual problems.
– On his controversial comment at the GA that the black urban poor are victims of “a Holocaust in slow motion:”
No, there is no barbed wire around West Baltimore. No, there is no political imperative to segregate them from the greater society, or ultimately, to murder them en masse. That would be a Holocaust at normal speed. Instead, we have simply participated—either tacitly or actively—in constructing a national economic model that throws away 10 to 15 percent of our poorest and most vulnerable citizens. There is no work for more than half the adult black males in Baltimore. Other than the drug corners, of course. Can anyone argue that the percentage of human destruction among adult males of color in these neighborhoods has not for generations approached the genocidal?
I’ve always believed that in the wake of the Holocaust, the popular Jewish imperative “Never Again” shouldn’t just apply exclusively to Jews, but to all peoples everywhere. While it might come out of our particular experience, it must be considered a universal imperative. Since we Jews know first hand about such things, never again can we remain silent when any people’s existence is threatened by murderous regimes.
To be completely fair, however, it’s easy enough to determine to not stand idly by in the face of government-sponsored brutality – but it’s quite another to determine what in fact should be done. Our current military operations in Libya provide the perfect case in point.
Among the many pieces I’ve read on these horrible developments, I was interested to learn that Ban Ki-Moon had in fact invoked “Never Again” while discussing Libya during a recent tour of the US Holocaust Museum. And it was extremely significant to me to learn that National Security Advisor Samantha Powers – an eloquent voice of conscience on the subject of genocide – was among those who urged Obama to support military action against the Kadaffi regime.
However, while I do indeed believe in “Never Again,” and while it has been increasingly agonizing to read the tragic reports coming out of Libya, I must reluctantly admit I do not support our military operations there.
First, and probably foremost, whatever is happening in Libya, it is not close to the scale of a genocide. If that sounds overly crass, it is worth asking why we are eager to engage militarily with Libya yet have chosen not to act on behalf of Cote D’Ivoire, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, or any number of other countries whose governments are committing atrocities that are no less brutal than Kadaffi’s (and in some cases more so.)
On this point, Israeli journalist Yael Lavie comes to a fairly blunt conclusion:
Call me a cynic, call me a product of the Middle East or better yet a citizen of this region who witnessed the outcome of western intervention over the course of the last 20 years – but the war that has just begun is not just. It is not being waged to stop the Libyan people from being killed. If that were the case we can name many ongoing genocides around the world, such as the decade long holocaust in the Sudan, where no western UN resolution motivated military action has ever been taken and ask why now?
As it stands right now we may be facing another attempt by the west for enforcing regime change in the Middle East with the usual western personal agenda – the agenda of oil. There is one thing recent history has proven to us time and time again – Where there is no oil, there is no intervention.
Even if one doesn’t share Lavie’s level of cynicism, we’d do well to ask whether or not it’s our place to engage militarily with every oppressive regime around the world. Especially given our recent history of military regime change with Muslim nations, our operations in Libya might at least give us cause for concern.
As for me, I believe it is profoundly ill-advised for our country to pursue yet another war against an Arab country. While it is true that the Arab League voted to back a no-fly zone, that support is already waning now that air strikes are killing Libyan civilians. Make no mistake: we are now waging war in Libya.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich, as usual, hit this point right on the head on the eve of the UN Security Council vote:
While the action is billed as protecting the civilians of Libya, a no-fly-zone begins with an attack on the air defenses of Libya and Qaddafi forces. It is an act of war. The president made statements which attempt to minimize U.S. action, but U.S. planes may drop U.S. bombs and U.S. missiles may be involved in striking another sovereign nation. War from the air is still war…
The last thing we need is to be embroiled in yet another intervention in another Muslim country. The American people have had enough. First it was Afghanistan, then Iraq. Then bombs began to fall in Pakistan, then Yemen, and soon it seems bombs could be falling in Libya. Our nation simply cannot afford another war, economically, diplomatically or spiritually.
None of this is meant to diminish the sacrosanct imperative of “Never Again.” But beyond the moral absolutes there are difficult and painful questions we must face when confronted with human rights abusing nations: when should we deem it necessary to authorize the use of military force? Why are we compelled to act in some cases but not others? To what extent are our decisions motivated less by need than by national self-interest?
I’ll give the final word to a recent Nation editorial:
(There) is a worrying dimension to this intervention, in that it reflects a mindset that associates US foreign policy, whether alone or as part of an allied force, with heroic crusades to bring down the bad guys. But it is exactly that mindset that has done so much damage in the Middle East over the years and that has saddled us with the costly burdens of two ongoing wars in Muslim lands. And Washington’s support for military action in Libya, on avowedly humanitarian grounds, should call into question ever more sharply the cynical American acquiescence in brutal suppression of peaceful demonstrations in Bahrain.
The democratic awakening in the Arab world presents the United States with an opportunity to put that past behind us. It offers us a chance to align our interests with democratic change and economic progress. It would be a tragedy if we allowed the intervention in Libya to distract us from these difficult and important challenges. We need to deal with longstanding allies like Jordan, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia—which continue to resist democratic reforms—and to help the Egyptian people consolidate democracy and create jobs and economic opportunity. The most productive role for America in the Middle East today is diplomatic and economic, not military.