Category Archives: Human Rights

“Confessing Sins on Stolen Ground” – A Sermon for Yom Kippur 5780

photo credit: AP/World Wide

If you visit the website of The Great Synagogue, one of the largest and oldest Jewish congregations in Sydney, Australia, you’ll find the following statement at the bottom of their home page:

Our Synagogue stands on the traditional lands of the Gadigal People of the Eora Nation. We acknowledge and give thanks to the Elders and Traditional Custodians who have cared for this land for thousands of years. May we walk with care on this land which has provided a home for our Jewish community.

We offer respect to the descendants of the first peoples whose presence and cultures are vital to the nation we share.

Land Acknowledgements such as these are fairly common in Australia, where it’s customary for government institutions and organizations to honor the significance of specific lands to Aboriginal peoples. Though I’d known about this custom in Australia, I was still surprised to read the Great Synagogue’s statement.  I’d never heard of a synagogue making a public land acknowledgement before. 

I wondered if there were other Jewish institutions that did likewise. So I surfed a bit more through the internet and discovered that indeed, Temple Har Zion of Thornhill, Ontario also had a land acknowledgment on its site, and that they read it regularly during Shabbat services. Their statement concludes this way:

As Jews and as a community, may we always strive to fulfill our Jewish value of Tzedek Tirdof– the pursuit of justice in our society.

I think it’s significant that the practice of Land Acknowledgement has not become a cultural norm in the United States, where the existence of native peoples is not a particularly important or relevant issue. Otherwise enlightened Americans will assume the ethnic cleansing of indigenous peoples in this country is somehow complete, blind to the reality that there are five million native Americans and 570 federally recognized tribes that still exist in the US. Well meaning liberals will routinely refer to the United States as “a nation of immigrants,” despite the fact that there were indigenous peoples who lived in this land long before colonists and immigrants arrived – and whose descendants are still very much alive today. 

After reading about these two congregations, it occurred to me that this level of sensitivity is absent in the American Jewish community as well. And since that time, I’ve been thinking about the unique responsibility of religious communities in colonized countries to this issue. After all, how can we purport to stay true to the sacred imperative of justice if we remain silent? What does it say about the sanctity of our prayers if we routinely gather to pray on stolen land – and fail to even acknowledge this fact? 

At the very least it feels absolutely appropriate to this Day of Atonement. Shouldn’t we consider it deeply problematic to confess sins on colonized ground without naming the very sin of colonization itself? Without a thought to the original sin of our country: the genocide and dispossesion of Native Americans? 

This Yom Kippur, I’d like to explore what our colonial legacy demands of us. I’d like to offer some thoughts about our connection as Jews to the history of colonialism and what it might suggest for the Jewish community of today. I’d like to ask: If we do choose to reckon with the history and ongoing oppression of native peoples in this country, what would such a reckoning look like? How might it impact our communal life and our sacred tradition? Are there ways that we, at Tzedek Chicago, could model what it means to be a decolonizing Jewish congregation? 

Before I address this issue, however, I want to make it clear that I’m not an expert on the issue of colonialism or the history of indigenous nations. In many ways, my own learning and understanding of this subject is a work in progress. The thoughts I offer you today are ultimately a reflection of my own questions and struggle with this very fraught and painful issue. I’m raising these questions with you this Yom Kippur in the spirit of the season, in the hope that we might find a way to struggle with them together. 

I also want to say up front that I offer these thoughts as non-indigenous person for whom decolonization is essentially a form of solidarity. This means I understand that the objects of this oppression are the only ones who can dictate the terms of their struggle. So even as I offer these thoughts on decolonization here today, I’m well aware that this term means something very different for the colonized: it is quite literally a struggle for their survival on every level. Whatever we might think about this issue, we must ultimately take our cue from the ones most directly impacted by this oppression. 

So let me start with this statement: as a descendent of European immigrants to this country, I must face the fact that I am a colonizer. I am in fact, a settler. If I am to face the truth of colonization seriously, I can’t see how I can honestly come to any other conclusion. 

Of course, as a Jew, I know full well that my people has its own long history of oppression and dispossession. But I’m also well aware that I enjoy significant privilege in this country – and that this privilege was created in no small measure on the backs of the indigenous people of this land. Now I realize that playing “who was oppressed more” is a fruitless and dangerous game to play and I’m not going to engage in it here. But I do think it’s important to examine the unique historical contexts of oppressed peoples – to understand how these oppressions often interact and sometimes even collide with one another. 

It’s important to note that historically, anti-Jewish oppression has not taken the form of colonization per se, but of forced migration. In this regard, I’d argue that the Jewish people have never truly been indigenous to any one particular area or region of the world. While there are many different definitions of indigeneity, I particularly appreciate one that was articulated to me recently by the Jewish poet and writer Aurora Levins Morales. To be part of an indigenous people, Aurora explained, means “to live in one particular place or ecosystem for a prolonged period of time, to plant cultural roots there, and to develop a sense of communal accountability to this ecosystem.”

It is painfully true that the Jewish people have been dispossessed from many different lands and nations over the centuries. We’ve been flung far and wide, as Aurora puts it, like “wind blown seeds,” putting down roots – often significantly deep roots – in a myriad of places throughout the diaspora. It’s extremely important to add, however, that this painful process of rooting and uprooting is not the whole of what it means to be Jewish. Yes, the trauma of dispossession is an indelible part of our historical experience, but so is our resilience, our ability to adapt, to create new homes and new cultures in wild variety of different ecosystems throughout the world. As I put in a sermon three years ago: “Jewish tradition as we know it could never have existed without the Diaspora…the myriad of lands in which we have lived have provided the fertile soil for Jewish spiritual creativity.”

As American Jews, our presence on this land is particularly complicated. Most Jews came to North America as immigrants, whether they were forced from their homes or whether they seeking greater opportunity. But is also true that some Jews arrived here during the colonial era. In the 17th and 18th centuries for instance, American colonists included Spanish and Portuguese Jews, many of whom were descendants from Jews who were persecuted during the Inquisition. During the third wave of Jewish immigration to the US, most came here fleeing violence and pogroms in Eastern Europe, and later, of course, in the wake of the Shoah. To add to these complexities, today’s American Jewish community also includes Jews of color, many of whom, as a result of conversion and intermarriage, are descended from indigenous peoples who have their own history of colonization and enslavement themselves.

And to make things even more complicated than that, the American Jewish community, like so many other sub-communities in this country, has made its home on land that was colonized and stolen from others. 

Of course, if we are going to reckon with what it means to be Jewish in the 21th century, we have to confront the painful legacy of Zionism: a European movement that colonized historic Palestine, dispossessed hundreds of thousands of indigenous inhabitants, creating what is now the largest refugee population in the world. 

While some in the Jewish community refer to Zionism as “the national liberation movement of the Jewish people,” I believe this term is profoundly problematic. Generally speaking, national liberation movements are independence struggles waged by indigenous peoples against imperial, colonizing powers. For its part, Political Zionism was a movement in which European Jews traveled to Palestine to build colonies, with the intention of eventually creating an ethnically Jewish nation state – against the will of the non-Jewish Arabs who were already living there. 

There is a term for this phenomenon: “settler colonialism.”  Unlike traditional colonialism, in which a world power colonizes a particular land in order to exploit its resources and strengthen its own geopolitical dominance, settler colonialism refers to movements that colonize a land in order to create a new society made up of one particular group of people. In the case of traditional colonialism, native populations are subjugated by the dominant power as a form of essential labor. In the case of settler colonialism, native inhabitants are considered to be demographic threats to the dominant group – whose very existence on the land is viewed as a problem.

As someone who was raised to embrace the Zionist narrative as a central part of my Jewish identity, I used to react defensively to the suggestion that Israel’s birth was a product of colonialism – that Zionism was not in fact a national liberation movement but rather a colonial enterprise in its own right. That our so-called “liberation” had actually come to pass through the dispossession of indigenous people. Those of us who have made this shift know all too well the painful sense of betrayal that comes with it – that there is something essentially toxic at the root of everything we’ve been taught to hold sacred about our history. 

But in the end, is this really any different from the national narrative we Americans teach ourselves about the birth of this country? After all, what is our American liberation myth, if not a glorification of colonists rebelling against the mother state to establish a new nation on the backs of people of the indigenous people of this land? 

When I speak publicly about Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people, I will be sometimes be challenged by someone in the audience who will say to me something to the effect of: “You criticize Israel so much, but is it really any different from what the US has done to its native population?” Even though I think these questioners generally pose this as a kind of “gotcha” question, I do think there’s a very important challenge at its core. 

The answer, of course, is: “You are absolutely right. There is really no difference at all.” If we are going to call out Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, we must also be prepared to call out our nation’s treatment of its indigenous people as well.  Those of us who stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people cannot view Zionist colonialism in a vacuum. In the end both are part of the same systems of colonial domination and oppression – and in the end, we must be prepared to call them both out with equal vigor. 

So how do we create a new sacred narrative as American Jews – one that rejects the glorification of our colonial legacy? What could a decolonized Jewish community possibly look like? Again, while I’m only beginning to struggle with these questions, I’d like to offer a few thoughts:

• The first step, it seems to me, is to do the inner work to decolonize our minds. We must challenge the assumptions ingrained within us by our colonial culture. Jews of European ancestry much reckon with the fact that we are settlers, no matter how our ancestors may have arrived at these shores. 

• Our communities must center the experience of Jews of color, many of whom have their own history of colonization and enslavement. As part of this centering work, we must stand down the narrative that the American Jewish experience is only about immigration and opportunity.

• American Jewish communities must learn about the history of the lands upon which we make their homes and the indigenous peoples who are historically connected to the lands. We must take care not to appropriate their cultures and sacred traditions. We must learn about them as living, breathing peoples and cultures and not as idealized objects or stereotypes. We must prioritize the creation of accountable relationships to the native peoples and groups who are our neighbors. 

• It’s high time that American Jewish community followed the example of our Australian and Canadian counterparts and being to make land acknowledgments a regular part of our communal life. At the same time however, we cannot assume such statements somehow will solve the problem or absolve us of our guilt. As our Yom Kippur liturgy reminds us, confessional prayers themselves are not enough. Teshuvah – genuine repentance – can only be made real if words are followed by transformative action. 

• Since indigeneity is marked by a deep sense of accountability to the land upon which native peoples live, communities that seek to decolonize themselves must cultivate genuine ecological accountability to local and global ecosystems. In short, we cannot decolonize ourselves if we fail to respect and honor the land upon which we build our homes and communities. (For more on this subject, please refer to my Rosh Hashanah sermon.)

As you might expect, I hope that Tzedek Chicago can explore together what it means to be a decolonizing Jewish community. And while I’m on the subject, I want to put in a plug for our upcoming Sukkot program next week. As Sukkot coincides this year with Indigenous People’s Day, Tzedek Chicago is partnering with Chi-Nations Youth Council for a Sukkot meal and celebration at the Chi-Nations garden and wigwam. For this program, we’re also partnering with Aurora Levins Morales as part of our participation in her Rimonim liturgy project – a newly created network of Jewish congregations and communities committed to the development of new liturgies that reflect decolonized, diasporic, justice-based values.

And on that note, I’d like to conclude my remarks to you today with a prayer that Aurora wrote specially for Tzedek Chicago. It’s a land acknowledgment that uses the Ve’ahavta liturgy to express our commitment and responsibility to the lands of this particular region – and to honor the native peoples who consider it sacred. We’ll be using it this Sukkot, but I’d like to read it for the very first time now, on this Day of Atonement.

May these words help us acknowledge, as a community, the sacred ground upon which we stand. May they inspire us to work toward a future of restoration and justice for all who dwell on earth:

There is no earth but this earth and we are its children.  The earth is our home, and there is only one.  The ground beneath our feet was millions of years in the making. Each leaf, each blade, each wing, each petal, each hair on the flank of a red fox, each scale on the sturgeon, each mallard feather, each pine needle and fragment of sassafras bark took millions of years to become, and we ourselves are millions of years in the making.

The earth offers itself and all its gifts freely, offers rain and sunlight, and the shimmer of moon on its lakes, offers corn and squash, apples and honey, salmon and lamb, and clear, cold water and all it asks in return is that we love it, respect its ways, cherish it.

We shall love the earth and all that lives with all our hearts, with all our souls, with all our intelligence, with all our might.   

The names of those who were here before us are syllables of the earth’s name, so know them and speak them, and speak the first names for the places where you dwell, the water you drink, the winds that bring you breath.  Say the name of this place, which is Shikaakwa, and say the names of its people: Myaamiaki, Illiniwek who are also the Inoca, the Asakiwaki and Meskwaki, people of the yellow earth and the red earth, the Hochagra, and the Bodewadmi who keep the hearth fires, for the land held many stories before we came and the places that were made for us were made by shattering their worlds.

Take to heart these words with which I charge you this day.  Cherish this land beneath your feet. Cherish the roots and the waterways, the rocks and trees, the ancestor bones in the ground and the people who dance on the living earth and make new paths with their feet, with their breath, with their dreaming.  Love and serve this world, this creation, as you love the creator who gifted it to us.  Defend it from those whose hunger for riches cannot be filled, who devour and destroy, bringing death to everything we love.

Fight for the earth and protect it with all your heart and soul and strength, and hold nothing back, so that the rains fall in their season, the early rain and the late, and we may gather in the new grain and the wine and the oil, the squash and beans and corn, the apples and grapes and nuts, so that the grass grows high in the fields and feeds the deer and the cattle, so that the water flows clean in river and lake, filled with abundant fish, and birds nest among the reeds, and all that lives shall eat its fill.

Do not be lured into the worship of consumption, comfort, convenience. Do not suck on the drinking straws of extraction, or bow down to the hoarders of what is good. For if we do, the breath of life that is in all things will empty the skies of clouds, and there will be no rain, and the earth will not yield its blessings, but will be laid waste.

So summon all the courage which is in you and in your people, stretching back to the dawn of time and remember this promise by night and by day, with every breath, whatever you are doing.  Let nothing stand in your way.  Put your hands into the soil of this moment and plant good seed that we and all our children may live long in the land and be a blessing. 

Amen.

“Birthday of a World on Fire” – A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5780

photo credit: Reuters

One of the signature moments on Rosh Hashanah is the sentence traditionally proclaimed after the shofar is sounded: “Hayom Harat Olam” (“Today is the birthday of the world.”) On Rosh Hashanah, tradition tells us, we celebrate a world reborn, joyfully acknowledging the order and balance of God’s creation and the awesome power embedded deep within it. What better way to celebrate the potential for our own renewal in the year ahead than by looking to a world that renews itself every year according to the sacred rhythms of birth and rebirth?

While I personally find this idea to be among the most profound of this season, I’ll confess, I’ve been struggling with it in recent years. With the hard reality of the global climate crisis hitting home deeper and deeper every year, I find myself asking, what does it mean to gather every Rosh Hashanah to reaffirm creation even as we are literally undoing it?  How can we honestly celebrate the power embedded in God’s world, even as human power is steadily destroying it? Even as the world is literally on fire? To be completely honest, in this era of global climate crisis, I’m not sure the traditional understanding of Rosh Hashanah really makes much sense any more.

And it is indeed a crisis. Many are suggesting, in fact, that we’ve moved beyond crisis and have entered the category of emergency. And we can’t say we haven’t been warned. As far back as 1992, 1700 scientists around the world issued a famous statement called a “warning to humanity,” declaring that we were on a “collision course” with the natural world if we did not “fundamentally change” the way we lived upon it. 

More than 25 year later, almost all of their chilling predictions are now in full swing. Last year, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued the first in a series of three reports that describe in vivid detail the effects of greenhouse gas emissions throughout the world. The first of three reports, which came out last October, warned that we have only a dozen years to keep global warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius beyond pre-industrial levels. If we go up even half a degree beyond this, we will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people. 

However, this was not merely a prediction: the report made it clear that this crisis was already well underway. The world is currently 1.1 degrees warmer than pre-industrial levels. The average global temperature for 2015–2019 is already the hottest of any five-year period on record. The Amazon rainforest, even as I speak now, is still burning. It’s been estimated that we’ve already lost 50% of the planet’s biodiversity in the past four decades. 20% of the earth’s coral reefs have died. The Antarctic ice sheet has lost three trillion tons of ice in the last 25 years. In roughly that same amount of time, the rate of global ocean warming has doubled. Many, if not most, of these losses are irreversible. 

And these losses are increasing exponentially. Every new half degree will cause rapidly increasing and irreversible chain reactions: growing species extinction, greater food insecurity, the disappearance of coastal cities and island nations, increased migration and social conflict, more wildfires and hurricanes, the destruction of polar ice, the loss of entire ecosystems. 

It’s important to note however, that the IPCC report did not conclude that all is lost. The scientists repeatedly stressed that it was still possible to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. But they also made it clear it will take a radical global effort to achieve this goal. Jim Skea, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group put it this way: “Limiting warming to 1.5°C is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics, but doing so would require unprecedented changes.”

Unprecedented indeed. Given our voracious dependance upon fossil fuels – and the economic interests in the companies that produce them – the hard truth is that we have only twelve years to reverse the growth of global capitalism itself. This is not a radical statement – I’d argue it’s actually quite reasonable under the circumstances. Those who dismiss advocate structural proposals such as the Green New Deal as naive, “pie in the sky” ideas routinely miss this one essential point: we need radical solutions if we are to take on the unfettered economic greed that has brought us to this terrifying moment in human history.

Now I know that many, if not most of you have heard these facts and figures before. But even so, as I pondered what to talk about this Rosh Hashanah, it felt enormously important to me that the findings of the IPCC report be spoken out loud. We need to say them out loud. Otherwise, I’m really not sure if the rest of our prayers really make much sense.

I realize how depressing, how enormous – how terrifying – it is to contemplate all of this. But as we gather for Rosh Hashanah, I really can’t think of a more important issue for us to talk about. And so this morning, I’d like to push a brief pause on our celebration of creation’s power and face the ways we are willfully degrading that power. I’d like to offer a few thoughts on how we might reframe our understanding of this crisis so that we might avoid the inevitable overwhelm, paralysis and despair that comes with it. Ultimately, I suppose, what I’d really like to do is offer a measure of hope in the face of an increasingly hopeless reality. To take our cue from the new year and imagine a world reborn – so that we might feel that much more ready to go forth and actually make it so. 

When most of us confront the overwhelming reality of the global climate crisis, I think we tend to do what comes naturally: we compartmentalize it. We silo it into its own separate category the way we do with so many other complex social issues. We view it as one issue among many in the desperate hope that if we isolate it, we might be able to find a way to somehow address it. 

But in truth, the climate crisis isn’t one issue. In fact, I would say it is in many ways the issue. It’s the one universal issue that connects all others. The changes we are causing to the earth’s temperatures have direct causal relationships to immigration, to human rights, to poverty, to housing, to war, to so many examples of social and political upheaval worldwide. 

So yes, addressing this crisis means we must advocate for policies that will keep global temperatures from reaching the 1.5 mark. But it cannot only mean that. It must also mean that we must stand with the scores of people around the world who are already suffering from the effects of the climate crisis. In the end, there is really no contradiction between working for justice and climate activism. They are, in fact, intimately intertwined. 

We know full well that the primary brunt of the global climate crisis is being borne by the poor and communities of color. It has been estimated that the global climate crisis could push more than 120 million more people into poverty by 2030. Even if we do manage to increase to only 1.5 degrees by 2100, extreme temperatures in the global south will leave disadvantaged populations increasingly food insecure, with less incomes and worsening health. Increasing numbers of people will have to make the agonizing choice between starvation or migration. 

Here in the US, we can see the connection between the climate crisis and structural racism all too well. Polluting facilities are routinely built in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, which means that people with marginalized identities experience more asthma, a greater likelihood of heart attacks and premature death. The disadvantages that come with those health issues create a cycle of poverty and lack of access to opportunity for people of color and the poor in the United States.

It’s a sad irony that the ones least responsible for the climate crisis are bearing the brunt of it – and have the least capacity to protect themselves. This phenomenon has been referred to as “environmental racism” or “climate apartheid” – in which the wealthy have the means to escape overheating, hunger and conflict while the rest of the world is left to fend for itself. 

We witnessed climate apartheid in full swing when the devastating Hurricane Dorian slammed into the Bahamas earlier this month. In advance of the hurricane, the ultra-wealthy homeowners on Abaco Island hired local workers to board up their vacation houses, while they escaped to their primary homes in the US or Europe. The Baker’s Bay Golf & Ocean Club hired a private security team, equipped with helicopters and assault rifles, to protect their property. The rest of the island’s residents, made up mostly of undocumented Haitians, had nowhere to go and had to ride out the storm in shanty towns and church shelters. Within hours, the community was almost completely flattened. Dozens of poor residents were killed and thousands more are still missing. 

As Jews, we need to acknowledge that climate apartheid is deeply enmeshed throughout Israel/Palestine as well. Since the Middle East is among the hardest hit by global warming, the issue of justice in Israel/Palestine is directly related to the control of water resources – and Israel has almost complete control over water sources in the region. The so-called Mountain Aquifer, the most critical water source in Israel/Palestine, is situated almost completely east of the Green Line. This goes a long way to explain why Israel has not and likely will never give up the West Bank – as doing so would mean surrendering its most valuable water source. 

The environmental situation in Gaza is even more dire, due largely to Israel’s crushing blockade. At present, 97% of Gaza’s freshwater is unsuitable for human consumption, and only 10% of Gaza’s two million people have access to safe drinking water. As a result of Israel’s regular military assaults, 110 million liters of raw and untreated sewage are pouring directly into the Mediterranean every day, creating a massive sanitation crisis. 

But, as is invariably the case in all forms of climate apartheid, what goes around comes around. This past June, Ha’aretz reported on the effects of Gaza’s toxic pollution on Israel. The headline read: “Collapsing Environmental State of Gaza Poses Threat to Israel’s National Security, Report Warns.” Tellingly, even as it maintains total control over natural resources, Israel cannot escape the devastating impact of the growing climate crisis.

My friend and colleague, Robert Cohen, a writer and blogger from the UK, recently wrote a post in which he argued that “the climate emergency makes Zionism obsolete.” In it, he made this very compelling argument:

How can Israel present itself as a Jewish safe haven from a hostile world when its water security is at high risk, crop yields will soon be falling and fires will be raging all year round. In a region already fraught with conflict, climate analysts expect temperature rise to have a multiplier effect that exacerbates and accelerates wars and mass migrations. Promoting Zionism starts to look like an invitation to Jews to jump from the metaphorical frying pan into the literal fire.

When it comes to climate change, national borders will offer no protection from antisemitism. Climate has no interest in faith or ethnicity or in historical or religious claims to a particular piece of land. Climate change is staunchly apolitical, ahistorical and agnostic.

Of course, climate change won’t make antisemitism go away. But like much else that’s wrong and unfair about the world, the Climate Emergency compels us to look at things differently, consider the root causes, and understand the interconnectedness of injustice. As well as terrible threats, climate change forces upon us the possibility of a profound ethical revolution.

I believe Robert hits the nail on the head with this analysis. In a way, the Israel/Palestine issue is a microcosm of a much larger, universal issue. In the face of global climate crisis, nationalism will not save us. Stronger borders will not save us. Sooner or later this crisis will come for us all. In the meantime, however, we can be sure that those who have more power will do everything they can to protect themselves from its effects until the very bitter end – at the expense of everyone else. 

This is where, as Robert Cohen puts it, the “profound ethical revolution” comes in. Yes, to address the climate crisis, we must be advocating for policies and practices that decrease our global carbon output – but it must mean standing in solidarity with those most affected by the crisis as well. There can be no separation between the two. And in this regard, we all have a part to play. 

The first step, I believe, is to resist the temptation toward overwhelm and despair. This is, quite frankly, a luxury we cannot afford. While it can be tempting to adopt a fatalistic, “all is lost” attitude, we would do well to remind ourselves that some of the most committed, inspired climate activists are those who are most directly affected by it. If they have not succumbed to despair, than neither can we.

In fact, the movement for climate justice is being led by members of indigenous nations worldwide. This past April in Brazil, an estimated 4,000 indigenous peoples from various tribes gathered for three days in that nation’s capital to protest for their rights, demonstrate their traditions and confront congressional leaders. This nonviolent mobilization, called Free Land Camp, has taken place every year since 2004 and is organized by the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil — an alliance of indigenous communities and organizations from several regions of the country. 

Closer to home, the resistance by at Standing Rock has been at the vanguard of the fight for climate justice in this country. And as this movement is increasingly youth led, we need to be lifting up the work of indigenous youth activists – young people such as 15 year old Autumn Peltier, of the Wiik-wem-koong First Nation in Northern Ontario who recently spoke at the UN and 19 year old Naelyn Pike, of the San Carlos Apache tribe in Arizona, who had this to say in her speech at a youth leadership gathering in 2017:

I’m saying no! And many people, millions of people in this world, are saying no! We have so many sacred lands that are going to be desecrated, so many fights to protect Chaco Canyon, to protect Bears Ears, to protect Indigenous land, food, water, the right to live, our identity. We’re fighting against so many pipelines. And the thing is that these generations behind us had told us this prophecy.

But there’s another prophecy: That the youth is going to stand. And that’s us today. That’s us here and now.

In addition to Indigenous-led movements, there are any number of growing climate justice movements that deserve our attention and support – and I know many in this room have long been active in these efforts: the Sunrise Movement, the Climate Strike, +350 and Extinction Rebellion, to name a few. And as I mentioned earlier, given everything that is at stake, we need to wage an all-out political fight against the economic interests that make greater profit through increased greenhouse gas emissions. In this country, this fight is primarily being waged nationally via the Green New Deal, but it is also being fought on state and local levels as well. As I said before, there is a part we can all play. The main thing is to connect the dots, to understand that the climate crisis is at heart a justice issue – and that all struggles for justice are ultimately bound up with the movement to roll back the climate crisis. 

So what can Rosh Hashanah mean at this moment in human history, in this unprecedented time when the very future of our world is literally hanging in the balance? I want to suggest that we can no longer celebrate the new year – the birthday of the world – without explicitly spelling out what is at stake. Yes, it is a day of hope, but this hope must be celebrated together with a hard and sober realism. 

We know that the task ahead of us will be daunting. We know that some of the effects of climate change can yet be turned back. But we also know that some of the damage we’ve inflicted upon the earth is permanent. We do have a window of time in which we can stop or decrease global temperatures, but it will take a Herculean world-wide effort to achieve this. We’ve been told by scientists that we have 12 years before the social and economic fabric we take for granted starts to unravel beyond the point of no return. We need to admit this and say it out loud if these New Year’s rituals are to retain any meaning for us whatsoever any more. 

In the end, it may well be that the High Holidays will hold more meaning than ever before. After all, when the new year is through, when we move toward Yom Kippur, our prayers will literally evoke a world that hangs in the balance. We will ask “who shall live and who shall die?” We will plead to be written into the Book of Life. We will ask ourselves honestly, how can we change our ways to ensure it shall be so? It seems to me that these prayers have never had more universal, global meaning than right now.

One of the things I love most about Judaism and Jewish culture in general, is that it invites us to work toward the world to come, the world as it should be. Yes, this work can be a struggle, but it can also be filled with joy and celebration. And there are yet times during the struggle when we create a microcosm – when we get a glimpse of the world to come. These moments remind us we must continue to live with a spirit of joyous resistance, even if we know full well that world we seek may never be at hand.

How do we possibly do this? How do we find the strength to fight a fight we know we may not win? And to so joyfully? Let me share with you the words of indigenous activist and organizer, Kelly Hayes, who offers us as eloquent a manifesto for the new year as I can imagine:

I would prefer to win, but struggle is about much more than winning. It always has been. And there is nothing revolutionary about fatalism. I suppose the question is, are you antifascist? Are you a revolutionary? Are you a defender of decency and life on Earth? Because no one who is any of those things has ever had the odds on their side. But you know what we do have? A meaningful existence on the edge of oblivion. And if the end really is only a few decades away, and no human intervention can stop it, then who do you want to be at the end of the world? And what will you say to the people you love, when time runs out? If it comes to that, I plan on being able to tell them I did everything I could, but I’m not resigning myself to anything and neither should you. Adapt, prepare, and take the damage done seriously, but never stop fighting. Václav Havel once said that “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something is worth doing no matter how it turns out.” I live in that certainty every day. Because while these death-making systems exist both outside and inside of us, so do our dreams, so long as we are fighting for them. And my dreams are worth fighting for. I bet yours are too.

This new year, let us commit to fight like hell for the world of our dreams, for a world reborn anew. Let us fight with joy, commitment and solidarity, knowing full well that this is a fight for the survival of the world as we know it. And let us fight not with the certainty that we will ultimately be victorious, but with the faith that it is worth waging no matter what.             

Ken Yehi Ratzon – May it be our will this new year – and every new year from this time forward.

Shanah Tovah.

White Supremacy is Coming For All of Us

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(Crossposted with Newsweek)

If ever there was a moment of clarity for us, it’s now.

As we witness and grieve the carnage of two back-to-back mass shootings, we cannot afford to ignore the clear signs that the ascendance of white supremacy in our nation is all too real. 2018 saw a national increase in hate crimes, with nearly all extremist homicides carried out by the far right. Last May, the head of the FBI’s counter-terrorism unit, Michael McGarrity, testified to Congress that the bureau was investigating about 850 cases of domestic terrorism. Read this again: 850. We know conclusively that white nationalist extremists have killed more people in the United States than any other category of domestic extremists since September 11, 2001.

Many of these crimes might seem different on the surface: When a white supremacist killed nine Bible study students at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, SC, the victims were African-American; when eleven worshippers were gunned down by a white supremacist at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, the targets were Jews; the white supremacist who killed 20 at an El Paso mall last Saturday was gunning for Latinix immigrants, according to his manifesto. And within 24 hours another mass shooting occurred in Ohio, the motivation of which is still unclear as of this writing.

We can’t deny the influence of one massacre on another. One empowered white male with guns is invariably followed by another. Indeed, the manifesto attributed to the El Paso gunman is clearly inspired by the New Zealand shooter’s manifesto, which promoted a white supremacist theory called “the great replacement”—an ideology that claims elites in Europe have been working to replace white Europeans with immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa. This is akin to the “white genocide” theory affirmed by the Pittsburgh shooter.

The needs of this moment could not be clearer. The time has come for a structural intervention. We should rightly expect every branch of government to take clear and unmistakable actions to halt the growth of white supremacy in our nation. We must demand of every politician, every media figure, every pundit and faith leader to name and call out this toxic racism wherever it may come from, including—especially—when it comes from the White House.

It can no longer be up for debate whether or not our president is emboldening this rise in white supremacy and the increase in mass shootings. He is. There is no way to question this in good faith. The same person who inspired a crowd to chant “send her back” to Somalian-American Representative Ilhan Omar, the same person whose tweets are increasingly racist, the same person who welcomes white supremacists to the White House, is more than a part—a huge part—of the problem. He is the catalyst to much of this violence.

But this is also a time of action—a time to stand up and reach out to those who are being targeted. And those of us who are members of these targeted minorities must stand in common cause and solidarity with one another. For instance, as a Jew, I cannot begin to say how heartened and supported I felt when, in the wake of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, I learned that the Muslim American community responded immediately by raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to support the families of the victims.

I am likewise proud of the work of Never Again Action, a new Jewish network working with local allies around the country to organize actions of civil disobedience at ICE detention centers. History will judge how we responded in this time, and we are now well past the wake-up call. We must prioritize the fight against white supremacy in this country and beyond.

This weekend will mark the Jewish observance of Tisha B’Av (the “ninth of the month of Av”)—a fast day that mourns the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people, symbolized by the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. One of the central lessons of this day is that the Temple was not destroyed by any external enemy, but by the sinat chinam—“baseless hatred”that ultimately destroyed the Jewish community from within.

This Tisha B’Av, I am all too aware of the toxic sinat chinam of white supremacy that is so clearly on the rise, corroding our nation and our global community. At the same time, I cannot but redouble my commitment to the growing diverse social justice movement in all its forms, welcoming and uniting our struggles, mourning our loses and striving to protect one another, over and over again.

During this horrible, clarifying moment, I take heart in the sacred power of solidarity.

Playing Politics with Human Rights: Thoughts on the Recent Anti-BDS House Bill

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photo: Mohammed Asad/Middle East Monitor

Last Tuesday, the House voted overwhelmingly to pass an anti-BDS bill with the strong support of progressive democrats (including “squad” member Ayanna Pressley). I know there are many who are asking how and why did this happen? As I see it, the answer, as always, is pure politics.

Just a bit of history: the genesis of the bill known as H. Res. 246 dates back to the AIPAC convention last March, when a number of liberal Jewish groups, including  J Street, Ameinu, National Council of Jewish Women, Partners for Progressive Israel and Reconstructing Judaism (my own denomination), met informally to give their preliminary approval to this prospective bill. As they saw it, this was a strategic move. The bill was designed to give cover to liberal Democrats who had previously voted against anti-constitutional bills that virtually criminalized BDS. This new bill would allow them to vote on the record for a non-binding bill that criticized BDS without curtailing freedom of speech or labeling it as antisemitic. It would also give Democrats aligned with liberal Zionist groups the opportunity to reaffirm their support for the two state solution.

Like I said, pure politics.

Still, no matter how much liberal Democrats might rationalize their support for H. Res. 246, (Rep. Pressley explained on Twitter that her vote affirmed to her “constituents raised in the Jewish faith Israel’s right to exist”) no amount of explaining can wash away the fact that this resolution is a cynical political move that unfairly and incorrectly attacks a genuinely non-violent movement for human rights – and will do little to advance the cause of real justice in Israel/Palestine.

Just a few responses to the actual text of the resolution:

• While the resolution mentions “rising anti-Semitism,” it is completely silent on anti-Palestinian oppression and the threat of Islamophobia. Even the simple term “occupation” is nowhere to be found.

• The resolution claims that the BDS “seeks to exclude the State of Israel and the Israeli people from the economic, cultural, and academic life of the rest of the world.” In fact, this is not the goal of BDS; the very suggestion reduces the entire movement to an essentially nefarious aim. Rather, the Palestinian civil society call for BDS advocates for non-violent economic activism as a tactic toward three rights-based goals: an end to the occupation, equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and a recognition of the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

• The resolution claims that BDS “undermines the possibility for a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by demanding concessions of one party alone and encouraging the Palestinians to reject negotiations.” The three goals of BDS above are not “concessions” – they are basic rights enshrined in international law that have been patently ignored or denied in previous negotiations. There is nothing in the BDS call that “rejects negotiations.”

• The resolution quotes BDS leader Omar Barghouti (who addressed Tzedek Chicago on the eve of Passover this year) thus: “We oppose a Jewish state in any part of Palestine. No Palestinian, rational Palestinian, not a sell-out Palestinian, will ever accept a Jewish state in Palestine.” While this quote is genuine, it crucially omits the first part of his statement: “A Jewish state cannot but contravene the basic rights of the land’s indigenous Palestinian population and perpetuate a system of racial discrimination that ought to be opposed categorically, as we would opposed a Muslim state or a Christian state or any kind of exclusionary state…”

Here, Barghouti calls into question whether an exclusively Jewish state – as opposed to one state of all its citizens – can ever be truly democratic. This is an important question that deserves genuine consideration and debate. This egregiously truncated quote, however, only serves to imply Barghouti and the BDS movement seeks nothing more than the “destruction of the Jewish state.”

• The resolution states that the BDS movement ” targets … individual Israeli citizens of all political persuasions, religions, and ethnicities, and in some cases even Jews of other nationalities who support Israel.” This is a false and spurious accusation that the resolution offers with no evidence whatsoever. The targets of BDS campaigns have always been institutions, not individuals. (The government of Israel and Israel advocacy organizations, however, routinely target individuals with blacklisting websites such as Canary Mission and by barring entry of Palestine solidarity activists into the country.)

• The resolution states “BDS does not recognize the right of the Jewish people to self-determination.” There is no universal consensus that self-determination for any group of people must ipso facto mean the establishment of an independent nation state on a particular piece of land. Self-determination goes by many definitions and takes many forms. There are millions of Jews around the world who are happy to enjoy individual self determination in the nations in which they live. (It’s also worth noting that the Israeli government recently passed a law declaring that only Jews have a right to self-determination in Israel.)

• The resolution states that BDS “leads to the intimidation and harassment of Jewish students and others who support Israel.” Here again, the resolution is putting out a damaging claim without offering any evidence whatsoever. What can be stated however, is that however uncomfortable some Jewish students may be made to feel by pro-divestment campaigns on their campuses, pro-Israel activist students enjoy significant support from college and university administrations. By contrast, Palestine solidarity activists (including many Jewish students) experience routine suppression of their freedom of speech. Palestine Legal reports that “seventy-six percent of the incidents Palestine Legal responded to in 2018 were campus related” and that they “responded to 51 administrative complaints against Palestine activists, double the number from 2017.”

• The resolution states “in contrast to protest movements that have sought racial justice and social change, the Global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement targeting Israel is not about promoting coexistence, civil rights, and political reconciliation but about questioning and undermining the very legitimacy of the country and its people.” To this, I can only say, see bullet point #2 above. In fact, the BDS call is actually very much akin to “protest movements that have sought racial justice and social change.” Nowhere does it “delegitimize” the state of Israel. Anyone who take the time to read the actual call will see it focuses exclusively on the basic, essential rights that Israel routinely denies Palestinians.

To this final point, it was quite sobering to contemplate that on the very day that the House voted to condemn a nonviolent Palestinian call for human rights, House members were notably silent in response to Israel’s massive demolition of homes in East Jerusalem that took place at the very same moment.

In the end, despite the cynical politics behind this particular bill, I cannot personally view this as merely a political issue alone. As a Jew and a person of faith, I view the BDS call as nothing short of a religious imperative. I said as much in an address I was honored to deliver at the American Academy of Religion two years ago:

I realize there may be some in this room who cannot bear to hear me say these words, but I – and increasing numbers of people around the world – believe them to be true, no matter how painful it feels to hear them. Israel is oppressing Palestinians. And when a people are oppressed, they will inevitably resist their oppression – yes sometimes violently.

In this case, however, a nonviolent call for popular resistance has been placed before us. Thus, for those of us that believe God hears the cry of the oppressed and demands that we do the same, the BDS call represents a direct challenge to our faith. Will we be like God, and hearken to their cries, or will we be like Pharaoh and ignore them?

As a Jew, as an American, as a person of conscience, I would suggest this call presents us with nothing less than the most consequential spiritual challenge of our time.

Blessed are the ones who hearken to the cry of the oppressed.

AOC is Right: Trump is Running Concentration Camps on the Border

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Insider the Homestead Concentration Camp, Homestead, FL.

(Cross-posted with Newsweek)

Last December, I was arrested on the border in San Diego while standing with faith leaders to protest, among other things, Trump’s unlawful incarceration of immigrants. My experiences on the border and at immigrant detention centers in my home state of Illinois have left me with no doubt whatsoever that our nation is warehousing humanity in concentration camps—and that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is correct when she refers to them by this term.

As a rabbi, I am compelled to act on behalf of immigrants because my religious faith and historical legacy demands that I do so. And I’m not alone: most American Jews embrace progressive values of social justice—and understand that we ourselves have a history of oppression at the hands of state violence.

Yesterday, AOC stirred something of a hornet’s nest when she retweeted an article in Esquire by an expert on immigrant detention who characterized Trump’s immigrant detention centers as “concentration camps.” Almost immediately, some Republican politicians, the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York pounced, claiming AOC’s “regrettable use of Holocaust terminology to describe these contemporary concerns diminishes the evil intent of the Nazis to eradicate the Jewish people.”

It is deeply problematic, highly partisan—and historically incorrect—to declare that the use of “concentration camps” is to be constrained to the limits of “Holocaust terminology” (itself hardly an academic term.) As scholar Jonathan Katz recently pointed out in the LA Times, the term “was invented by a Spanish official …during Cuba’s 1895 independence war.” FDR, notably, also used the term in reference to his Executive Order to incarcerate Japanese Americans during World War II. And enough people have pointed out in recent days the usage of the term by the British suppressing the Boer rebellion in South Africa for it to be elaborated on here.

We Jews do not own this term. But in fact, I would argue it is imperative that we Jews use this term whenever these dreadful facilities are imposed on groups of people other than ourselves. History has shown us that the concentration of humanity into forced detention invariably leads entire societies to exceedingly dark places. This practice did not begin with Nazi policies against European Jewry—nor did it end there.

The same is true of AOC’s impassioned and all-too familiar call, “Never again.” As a rabbi, a Jew and a person of conscience, allow me to put it as plainly as I can: AOC’s use of this phrase was altogether appropriate. I do not and cannot view this call as “Holocaust terminology.” On the contrary: “Never Again” means never again for anyone, or else it doesn’t mean anything at all.

The fact that we are even debating these terms shows just how twisted the conversation has become. Rather than parsing the words of a human rights champion like AOC for petty political gain, these politicians and Jewish leaders should be directing their criticism where it truly belongs: at a morally depraved national policy that parses out access to human rights according to origin and ethnicity, tears apart families, and cages children in, yes, concentration camps.

Confessions of a Wicked Child: A Passover Reflection by Jay Stanton

1930sArnold Eagle.jpegHere are the remarks that Jay Stanton offered at Tzedek Chicago’s Passover seder last night. Jay was formerly Tzedek’s rabbinical intern – and I’m delighted to announce we’ve just hired him to be part of our staff for the coming year:

In a traditional seder, four children are described: a wise child, who likes learning all the ins and outs of Jewish law, a wicked child, who pokes fun at the whole idea of a seder, a simple child who seeks basic information, and a child who does not know how to ask.  These archetypical children help us explore what it means to fulfill the mitzvah of telling our children about the Exodus from Egypt.

I have a confession to make; I am a wicked child.  Of course, there are the ways society and the Jewish community in general have cast me as the wicked child: being queer and trans and supporting Palestinian rights not least among them.  But I’m also a self-identified wicked child. I am personality-wise and ethically the kind of person that voices my disapproval of standard approaches and doesn’t care what you think of me in response.  I’m a contrarian by nature, and I like asking difficult questions. Last year at this time, I asked all of us what we were doing here when we could be somewhere else doing something to make the world better.  And here we are this year, doing this peculiar ritual yet again.

I’m a wicked child.  I want to know what this means to you and why you think this is the way we should celebrate liberation.  Wouldn’t it be better to hear directly from people who have escaped modern slavery and to have real conversations about global abolition of slavery and how to establish reparations to address the ongoing legacies of slavery in America?  Plus, the Exodus never happened; the seder is an exercise in remembering alternative facts, which is to say lies.

I told you I’m a wicked child.  And I’m guessing I’m not the only one here.  Despair not! Wicked children are valued by Jewish tradition.  Because the Talmud values contrarians. Because the seder itself values the wicked child.  After their question, “What does this ritual mean to you?”, the wicked child is not sent to bed without their supper.  Instead, the parent responds in kind.

“This is because of what God did for me when I went free from Egypt.  For me, and not for you, because if you had been there, you would not have gone free.”  It’s a contrarian response, not a real argument. In our Exodus narrative, more people than the Israelites left Egypt together.  In Hebrew this is called ‘erev rav, translated as a very diverse group or coalition.  I imagine the wicked children marched out of Egypt as part of the liberation coalition, where they found ample opportunity to critique the choices of the liberatory leaders, like leading the group directly to a body of water while being chased by the Egyptian military.  Maybe a frustrated wicked child yelled at Moses, “What are you going to do now? Hold up your staff and just wait for God?!”

Voices of critique and dissent have pushed our conversation toward progress, inclusion, and more ethical behavior for thousands of years.  They are enshrined in Talmud and indeed in the Haggadah. Judaism is enriched, not threatened, by a multiplicity of opinions and approaches.

To put it differently, the vital role of wicked children in our Passover seder exemplifies spiritual freedom.  Spiritual freedom, one of Tzedek Chicago’s core values, is more than active inclusion of atheists, agnostics, and non-Jews in our midst.  It is an affirmation of the ‘erev rav as a diverse, universalist community, and it is an elevation of critique from an obstacle to overcome to a necessary part of collective liberation.  We not only allow the wicked child to derail the Passover seder, we need them. Judaism needs its wicked children.

Just as political freedom provides a check against political tyranny, spiritual freedom provides a check against spiritual tyranny.  Both human and so-called divine spiritual authority have tendencies toward the coercive and oppressive. We could dismiss this problem as one that only affects the religious right. However, we are also at risk of spiritual tyranny here at Tzedek Chicago. We could give too much power to our spiritual leader and follow Brant even if and when he’s wrong, but spiritual freedom gives every one of us the tools to speak up if Brant starts leading us down the wrong path.  We are a community for people who share Tzedek’s specific values, and we say freely that people who object to them can find other Jewish communities. There’s not much distance between that and establishing some kind of review committee to determine whether you faithfully adhere to every line of each of our core values in every aspect of your life. Don’t worry; we’re not going to establish an Inquisition. Spiritual freedom ensures we are universalist not only in our outcomes but also in our process. When our leaders are wrong or when we feel excluded, we get to speak up and remain wicked children at the table.

As a wicked child, I wonder how the rest of the wicked child Passover conversation goes.  If I were continuing it, I would caution the parent, saying “Now you sound like the oppressor.  Do you want to be like Pharaoh?!”

Mah ha’avodah hazot lakhem?  What does this ritual mean to you?

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.