Category Archives: Interfaith

On Alice Walker and Antisemitism

American Masters - Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth

The Jewish interwebs have been abuzz regarding Yair Rosenberg’s December 17 Tablet article in which he criticized the New York Times Book Review for its interview with Alice Walker. In last Sunday’s “By the Book” column, the Times asked Walker what books she had on her nightstand; among those she cited was a book by British antisemitic conspiracy theorist David Icke entitled, “And the Truth Shall Set You Free.” Walker commented, “In (his) books there is the whole of existence, on this planet and several others, to think about. A curious person’s dream come true.”

In his article, Rosenberg listed a litany of odious excerpts from Icke’s book, including his praise of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” his claims that the B’nai B’rith was behind the slave trade and his belief that the Rothschilds bankrolled Adolf Hitler. He also offered a long list of the numerous times Walker has endorsed Ickes’ ideas, including her posting of his video interview (now blocked by YouTube) with Infowars’ Alex Jones, of which she wrote:

I like these two because they’re real, and sometimes Alex Jones is a bit crazy; many Aquarians are. Icke only appears crazy to people who don’t appreciate the stubbornness required when one is called to a duty it is impossible to evade.

Rosenberg also posted in full, a deeply disturbing poem written by Walker in 2017 entitled “It is Our (Frightful) Duty to Study the Talmud.” This excerpt should give you a good idea about the tone and substance of Walker’s piece:

For a more in depth study
I recommend starting with YouTube. Simply follow the trail of “The
Talmud” as its poison belatedly winds its way
Into our collective consciousness.

I will sadly confess that I was unaware of Alice Walker’s history of antisemitic attitudes, even though this was apparently common knowledge among many on the left. During the Twitter eruption that followed Rosenberg’s piece for instance, Roxane Gay commented:

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Those of us who were hearing of Walker’s antisemitic proclivities for the first time were particularly saddened to learn that this eloquent champion of anti-racism had been expressing such poisonous ideas toward Jews and Judaism. Journalist/filmmaker Rebecca Pierce spoke for many of us when she tweeted this response:

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In his article, Rosenberg made mention of Walker’s anti-Israel politics, challenging “the progressive left” to call out antisemitism that is “presented in the righteous guise of ‘anti-Zionism.’” Although I don’t share Rosenberg’s conservative Israel politics, I accept his challenge. And yes, it’s painfully true that Walker’s Talmud poem egregiously cites Jewish religious tradition as the root cause of Israel’s oppression of Palestinians (as well as American police brutality, mass incarceration and “war in general”):

For the study of Israel, of Gaza, of Palestine,
Of the bombed out cities of the Middle East,
Of the creeping Palestination
Of our police, streets, and prisons
In America,
Of war in general,
It is our duty, I believe, to study The Talmud.
It is within this book that,
I believe, we will find answers
To some of the questions
That most perplex us.

Walker’s claim that the Talmud is “evil” and “poisonous” – a common antisemitic trope – is worth unpacking here. First of all, what is referred to as “The Talmud” is actually a vast corpus of Jewish civil and ritual law mixed with freewheeling legend and Biblical commentary composed between 200 and 500 CE. Though it is one of Jewish tradition’s foundational texts, Talmudic literature is not, to put it mildly, immediately accessible to the untrained reader. It’s typically studied by traditional Jews in the rarified world of schools known as yeshivot, where students’ primary focus is on the unique pedagogy of Talmudic argumentation.

Like all forms of religious literature, Talmudic tradition expresses a wide spectrum of ideas and attitudes. The contemporary reader would likely find its content to be alternately inscrutable, inspiring, challenging, archaic – and yes, at times even repugnant. It contains passages for example, that are profoundly misogynistic. And as Walker pointed out in her poem, it also contains occasional material that is decidedly anti-Gentile, including a notorious passage that depicts Jesus condemned to suffer in hell in a vat of burning excrement. (Yep, it’s true.) There are also texts that unabashedly claim Jewish lives must take precedence over non-Jewish lives – an idea that was also advocated centuries later by Moses Maimonides.

These texts are undeniably, inexcusably offensive and they must be called out, full stop. At the same time however, it is exceedingly disingenuous to judge a religion on the basis of its most problematic pronouncements. This attitude simplistically accepts these texts at face value, devoid of any context or historical background. It also ignores the fact that almost all faith traditions address the offensive, archaic or inconsistent elements in their sacred literature through the use of hermeneutics – that is, principles and methods that help readers understand their meaning in ever-changing societal contexts.

How for instance, might a contemporary religious feminist read and understand a blatantly misogynist Talmudic text? In an article entitled “When Sages are Wrong: Misogyny in Talmud,” Dr, Ruhama Weiss, of Hebrew Union College offers one hermeneutical approach:

(These Talmudic traditions) caused me a powerful disturbance. They forced me to think and react; to think about mechanisms of power and control and about the ability to be free from them. To make an effort to find and highlight additional voices, earlier voices, buried and hidden in misogynist rabbinic discussions.

Most importantly, these difficult sources teach me a lesson in modesty; from them I learn that unequally talented and wise people with good intentions can bequeath to subsequent generations difficult and bad traditions. I see the moral blind spots of my ancestors, and I am obligated to examine my own moral blind spots. Bad and disturbing sources make me think.

Indeed, this same hermeneutic method can be applied to Talmud’s xenophobic, anti-Gentile content as well. That is to say, these texts can challenge us to see “the moral blind spots of our ancestors and thus to examine our own moral blind spots.” They can help us confront “mechanisms of power and control” and contemplate the ways we might be able to “free ourselves of them.” These bad and disturbing sources can “make us think.”

Of course there are those who will read the texts of their faith through a more literal, fundamentalist hermeneutic. In such cases, it is up to those who cherish their religious tradition and the value of human rights for all to challenge such interpretations, particularly when the lines between church and state power become increasingly blurred.

On the subject of state power, I must add that I find it exceedingly problematic when folks criticize Talmudic tradition for its xenophobic attitudes without acknowledging the fundamentally anti-Jewish attitudes that are embedded deep within Christian religious tradition. It’s also important to note that antisemitic church teachings were historically used to inspire centuries of anti-Jewish persecution throughout Christian Europe, while the Talmud was written and compiled in a context of Jewish political powerlessness.

Today, in this relatively new era of Jewish power, it is certainly important to remain vigilant over the ways Jewish tradition is used to justify the oppression of Palestinians. Indeed, since the establishment of the State of Israel, this subject has been intensely debated throughout Israel and the Jewish Diaspora. As I write these words in fact, I’m recalling a blog post I wrote back in 2009 about then Chief Rabbi of the Israeli Defense Forces Avichai Rontzki, who made a comment, based on Jewish religious texts, that soldiers who “show mercy” toward the enemy in wartime will be “damned”:

How will we, as Jews, respond to the potential growth of Jewish Holy War ideology within the ranks of the Israeli military?  How do we  feel about Israeli military generals holding forth on the religious laws of warfare? Most Americans would likely agree that in general, mixing religion and war is a profoundly perilous endeavor.  Should we really be so surprised that things are now coming to this?

I do not ask these questions out of a desire to be inflammatory. I ask them only because I believe we need to discuss them honestly and openly – and because these kinds of painful questions have for too long been dismissed and marginalized by the “mainstream” Jewish establishment.

In the end, every faith tradition has its good, bad and ugly. And in the end, I would submit that the proper way to confront these toxic texts is for people of faith to own the all of their religious heritage – and to grapple with it seriously, honestly and openly. And while we’re at it, it’s generally a good rule of thumb to avoid using the bad, ugly stuff in any religion’s textual tradition to make sweeping historical or political claims about that religion and/or the folks who adhere to it.

What is not at all helpful is for people such as Alice Walker to cherry-pick and decontextualize quotes from one particular religious tradition and warn that its “poison” is “winding its way into our collective consciousness.”

Like many of my friends who are just now learning about her adherence to antisemitic tropes, I fervently hope she will come to understand, as Rebecca Pierce put it, that the attitudes she endorses “are part of the same white supremacist power structure she so deftly fought through her written work in the past.”

 

I Witnessed the Horror of Border Militarization, and Vow to Fight It

Cross-posted with Truthout

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Interfaith clergy lead demonstrators through Border Field State Park en route to the San Diego – Tijuana border (photo: Steve Pavey, Hope in Focus, stevepavey.com)

I‘ve just returned from the San Diego-Tijuana border where I had the honor of participating in “Love Knows No Borders” — an interfaith action sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and co-sponsored by a myriad of faith organizations from across the country. As a staffer for AFSC and a member of Jewish Voice for Peace (one of the many co-sponsoring organizations), I took a special pride in this interfaith mobilization, in which more than 400 people from across the country gathered to take a moral stand against our nation’s sacrilegious immigration system. I’m particularly gratified that the extensive media from our action could shine a light on the brutal reality at our increasingly militarized southern border.

The date of the action (December 10) was symbolically chosen to take place on the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and served as the kick off to a nationwide week of action that will conclude on December 18, International Migrant’s Day. The action set three basic demands before the US government: to respect people’s human right to migrate, to end the militarization of border communities, and to end the detention and deportation of immigrants.

Over the course of this past weekend, hundreds of participants streamed into San Diego for orientation and training. To conclude our preparation and as a precursor to the upcoming action, an interfaith service was held in the packed sanctuary of University Christian Church. As one of the Jewish leaders of the service, I noted that it was the eighth and final night of Hanukkah and invited the Jewish members of our delegation up to sing the blessings.

Before the lighting, I explained that the final night of Hanukkah is the night in which our light shines the brightest, and I pointed out the wonderful confluence of this Jewish festival with our interfaith action the following day. Rev. Traci Blackmon, a United Church of Christ leader and prominent social justice activist, delivered one of the most powerful messages of the evening, properly placing the issue of immigrant justice within the context of US white supremacy. (You can find the Facebook Live video of the service here. The Hanukkah lighting begins at the 24:30 mark; Rev. Blackmon’s remarks begin at 1:19:16.)

Arrests at the Border

The next morning, we gathered at AFSC’s San Diego office and left in buses to Border Field State Park, located just north of the border with Tijuana. After a press conference, we marched west down the trail to the beach, then turned south and approached the border fence, which snaked across the beach and jutted several hundred feet into the water. As we got closer, we could see a tangle of barbed concertina wire laid out in front of the fence. Behind the wire stood a phalanx of heavily armed border patrol.

When we reached the edge of the wire, some of the clergy formed a semi-circle and offered blessings for the migrants. As the prayers were spoken aloud, border patrol officers used a megaphone to inform us that we were trespassing on federal property and that we needed to move to the back of the wire. I recited the Priestly Benediction in Hebrew and English (“May God bless you and keep you …”), doing my best to articulate the prayer between the voices of border patrol barking out orders (a ceremonial first for me).

When our blessings were over, we went back to the other side of the barbed wire and those of us in front formed a line directly facing the guards. A border patrol officer repeatedly told us to leave, adding that he did not want any violence — an ironic statement considering that he and the rest of the riot-gear clad border patrol officers wielded automatic weapons in front of our faces. We began to chant freedom chants and held the line, even as the border patrol officers inched forward and started to push us back.

While we were careful not to touch any officers, we continued to hold the line as the border patrol pushed us forward. Eventually, protesters who did not yield were grabbed, pulled to the border patrol’s side of the line and arrested. Most men were thrown to the ground and held down with their faces in the sand while their hands were bound together with plastic ties; women were generally allowed to kneel before they were led away from the beach to waiting border patrol vans

As I continued to hold the line on the far west end of the front line, I noticed a commotion at the other end: Officers had broken through the line and were chasing protesters down the beach. I saw one of our protest organizers, AFSC staffer Matt Leber, roughly thrown to the ground by at least five or six border patrol officers, handcuffed and led away. While Leber did not intend to take an arrest, this kind of intentional targeting of organizers is a common law enforcement tactic.

In this video taken of the incident you can see Leber (wearing the red T-shirt and backpack) guiding the protest when he is suddenly attacked, unprovoked, by the border patrol, who lunge at him and yank off his backpack. You can also see AFSC staffer Jacob Flowers (wearing the yellow vest) being thrown to the ground.

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Border patrol officers arrest AFSC staffer Matt Leber (photo: Steve Pavey, Hope in Focus, stevepavey.com)

Shortly after Leber’s arrest, I dropped to my knees and was grabbed and pinned down by two border patrol officers. When it became clear that I wasn’t resisting, they allowed me to stand of my own accord and led me to the line of arrested protesters who were arrayed along a fence, waiting to be placed into vans.

According to the border patrol, 32 of us were arrested. We don’t currently have an exact arrest count, but it seems that most of us were charged with the misdemeanor of “nonconformity to the orders of a Federal Law Enforcement officer.” When a day went by with no further word about Leber, AFSC released a statement calling for his immediate release. To our collective relief, he was eventually let out of the Metropolitan Correction Center on Tuesday afternoon.

The True Meaning of Border Militarization

During our debrief, many noted the ferocity of the border guard’s response to our prayerful, nonviolent demonstration. Many of us — in particular the white, privileged members of our delegation — agreed that we had gained a deeper sense of empathy and solidarity with our migrant neighbors, a stronger understanding of the toxic effects of militarization on our border communities, and a more profound conviction than ever that we must all fight for a nation that receives immigrants with open hearts and open doors.

This experience also served to demonstrate what “militarization of the border” truly means. My friend and fellow Jewish Voice for Peace member Elaine Waxman put it well when she wrote about our experience on her Facebook page:

What has stuck with me most in the last 24 hours is a deeply uncomfortable sense of what that border surely looks like when the witnesses are gone, the journalists are not taking pictures, and the encounters are with migrants instead of documented (and often white) community leaders. Because what we saw yesterday looks like a police state.

Indeed, when we stood up to the line of armed border patrol officers, I couldn’t help but flash back to my very similar experience in a direct action with Youth Against Settlements during the summer of 2006 in Hebron. In both cases we faced heavily armed soldiers, the loud screaming of orders, and the use of the threat of violence to intimidate and deter those who do not yield to state control.

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Clergy demonstrators hold the line at the San Diego – Tijuana border fence. (photo: Steve Pavey, Hope in Focus, stevepavey.com)

I also noticed another, more specific similarity between these two experiences. When I stood in front of the border guards on the beach, I noticed familiar tear gas canisters belted across their chests. I’d seen the same on soldiers throughout the West Bank and Gaza: silver cylinders with blue writing manufactured by Combined Tactical Systems in Jamestown, Pennsylvania.

Seeing those same canisters at the US-Mexico border reminded me of the multiple intersections between systems of state violence and corporate profit – and of the need for a movement that will expose and dismantle them once and for all.

Responding to Anti-Semitic Violence With Solidarity’s Sacred Power

Crossposted at Truthout

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photo via Getty images

Like so many, when I first heard the news of the horrific shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue Saturday, I went immediately to the news and could not turn away. The initial reports were sketchy and inconclusive. Eventually it became clear that the outcome was as horrible as we could possibly have feared. 11 Shabbat worshippers at Tree of Life synagogue have been killed. Six people wounded.

Then, like so many, I sought any information I could find about the alleged shooter. I learned that he was a white supremacist named Robert Bowers and that among other things, he had a particular fixation with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), the venerable Jewish organization that works to aid and resettle refugees from Latin America, Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

Apparently HIAS had recently sponsored a National Refugee Shabbat as “a moment for congregations, organizations, and individuals around the country to create a Shabbat experience dedicated to refugees.” Bowers posted the list of participating congregations on Gab, an alt-right social media site, with the words: “Why hello there HIAS! You like to bring in hostile invaders to dwell among us? We appreciate the list of friends you have provided.”

Bowers also reposted another white supremacist’s post that read: “It’s the filthy EVIL jews Bringing the Filthy EVIL Muslims into the Country!! Stop the kikes then Worry About the Muslims!” Finally, he wrote this ominous post: “HIAS likes to bring invaders that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics. I’m going in.”

Shortly after, he entered Tree of Life Synagogue armed with an AR-15-style assault rifle and at least three handguns.

For those trying to make sense of this senseless moment, two things seem immediately clear. One is that the growth of far-right white supremacy (not so-called “Muslim extremism,” the fear of which is stoked by racism and xenophobia) is the most significant threat to Jewish safety and security in the US. Another is that many white supremacists view both Jews and Muslims as a threat to their “way of life” in the United States.

Moreover, we know that Jews of color; Jews with disabilities; trans, queer and nonbinary Jews; Jewish immigrants and Jews from other marginalized groups are targeted in multiple ways, as overt white supremacist violence festers around the country.

What then, might be the appropriate response this terrible tragedy? I would suggest that the answer, as ever, is solidarity.

What might this solidarity look like? Here’s an example: In September 2017, protests filled the streets of St. Louis after a white former city policeman, Jason Stockley, was found not guilty of the first-degree murder of Anthony Lamar Smith, a Black 24-year-old whom he shot to death on December 20, 2011. The St. Louis police eventually used tear gas and rubber bullets against the demonstrators. Some of the demonstrators retreated to Central Reform Congregation of St. Louis, which opened its doors to the protesters. (The police actually followed them and surrounded the synagogue. During the standoff, a surge of anti-Semitic statements trended on Twitter under the hashtag #GasTheSynagogue.)

Another example: last year, a 27-year-old man entered a mosque in Quebec City and opened fire on a room filled with Muslim worshippers, killing six men and wounding another 16. The following week, Holy Blossom Temple, a Toronto synagogue, organized an action in which multi-faith groups formed protective circles around at least half a dozen mosques. It was inspired by the “Ring of Peace” created by about 1,000 Muslims around an Oslo synagogue in 2015, following a string of anti-Semitic attacks in Europe.

Returning to the current moment: Very soon after the news of the shooting broke, Muslim organizations and organizations led by other communities targeted by white supremacist violence responded with fundraisers for the victims and their families. And I was heartened to read on Sunday about an interfaith candlelight vigil of solidarity with Tree of Life Congregation that took place last night in downtown Chicago. Among the primary sponsors: the Chicago office of the Council on American Islamic Relations. Here is how the vigil was described:

Join an interfaith, inter-community vigil of solidarity in memory of the fallen members of the Tree of Life Synagogue, and those killed in Kentucky earlier this week. Anti-Semitism can have no home in America. We must call it out directly as well as speaking out against homophobia, transphobia, islamophobia, xenophobia, racism, sexism, and bigotry of all forms. Join us to mourn, pray, and stand in solidarity.

Yes, among the many important takeaways from this terrible, tragic moment is the simple truth that we must never underestimate the sacred power of solidarity. Moments such as these must remind all targeted minorities that we are always stronger when we resist together.

My New Chapbook: “Songs After the Revolution: New Jewish Liturgy”

fullsizeoutput_32I’m thrilled to announce that my new chapbook, “Songs After the Revolution: New Jewish Liturgy” has just been published by my congregation, Tzedek Chicago.

I’ve been writing original prayers for some time now and I’ve used many of my prayers in a variety of worship settings. This new collection offers a sample of my efforts: new versions of traditional prayers for holidays, re-imagined Psalms and wholly original prayers for new occasions (such as my “Jewish Confession for Nakba Day”). It also includes “A Lamentation for Gaza,” a prayer I wrote for the festival of Tisha B’Av 2014, which occurred during Israel’s devastating military assault of that year.

I fervently believe that the function of prayer is not simply to worship but to challenge, to provoke, to motivate action and to transform the world around us. To this end, I’ve purposely designed this anthology to be read and appreciated by a wide readership. I hope and trust you will find this collection meaningful – even if you are not Jewish or do not not consider yourself a particularly “prayer-ful” person.

At the moment, “Songs After the Revolution” is available exclusively through the Tzedek Chicago website. 100% of the proceeds from sales will benefit the congregation.

Click here to order.

Faith Floods the Desert: Humanitarian Aid is Never a Crime

IMG_4568.jpgI’ve just returned from a weekend at the border in the southern Arizona desert where I participated in a delegation of 60 faith leaders from around the country in an initiative called “Faith Floods the Desert,” supporting the of No More Deaths/No Mas Muertes. It was a powerful and at times overwhelming experience. I’ll try to do my best to do it justice here.

As I mentioned in my previous post, No More Deaths is an organization that provides humanitarian relief to migrants, mobilizes search and rescue operations for disappeared migrants, and documents how border enforcement pushes migration into some of the most remote and dangerous areas in Arizona’s deserts. “Faith Floods the Desert” was an initiative sponsored jointly between NMD, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, and the Unitarian Universalist Association in response to the increasing criminalization of migrant relief work by the US government.

Earlier this year Scott Warren, a humanitarian aid provider with No More Deaths, and two people receiving humanitarian aid were arrested by US Border Patrol. Now Warren is facing a federal felony charge and eight other No More Deaths volunteers have been charged with federal misdemeanor charges relating to their humanitarian aid work on the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge – a vast and remote stretch of land that shares 56 miles with the US-Mexico border. (Warren’s arrest is particularly suspicious as it occurred eight hours after NMD released a video of border police dumping water and destroying supplies left by relief workers.)

Our delegation gathered last Saturday in Ajo, AZ, a small former copper mining town located 40 miles north of the US/Mexico border. While the majority of clergy were UU ministers, I was honored to be a part of a five-person rabbinical cohort (with my colleagues Rabbis Margaret Holub, Ari Lev Fonari, Shahar Colt and Salem Pearce). On our first full day, we attended a briefing with leaders and volunteers from NMD, who explained the history and context of the crisis at the border. For those interested in learning more, I strongly recommend their report, “Disappeared: How the US Border Enforcement is Fueling a Missing Persons Crisis.” Among other things, the report does a thorough job of describing how the US Border Patrol adopted an enforcement strategy called “Prevention Through Deterrence” in 1994 – the same year that the US signed the NAFTA treaty.  As the report notes:

With the implementation of this policy, the Border Patrol sought to control the Southwest border by heightening the risks associated with unauthorized entry. To do so, the agency concentrated enforcement and infrastructure to reroute migration away from urban ports of entry and into wilderness areas. By pushing traffic into remote and hostile terrain, the agency speculated that border crossers would now find themselves “in mortal danger” when attempting to enter the US without authorization. The increased danger was intended to then deter other people from considering the journey, with the overall goal of preventing migration….

As a consequence of Prevention Through Deterrence, thousands of people have perished in the borderlands due to dehydration, heat-related illness, exposure, and other preventable environmental causes. Extreme heat and bitter cold, scarce and polluted water sources, treacherous topography, and near-total isolation from possible rescue are used as weapons of border enforcement.

In other words, the US government is responsible for the policy that is knowingly causing the migration of immigrants into “remote and hostile terrain” – as well as the policy that sends the border patrol to literally hunt them down. And now our government is actually arresting those who are trying to keep them alive.

On Saturday evening, our delegation gathered in the Ajo town plaza for a press conference. I was particularly moved by the remarks of Reverend Susan Frederick-Gray, President of the Unitarian Universalist Association:

We need to recognize that this system of criminalization and cruelty is devastating the lives of children and parents and families here at the border, all over the world, and also in the interior of the United States. These same mechanisms of criminalization are aimed not just at migrants and activists, but they are aimed at the poor, they are aimed at communities of color, they are aimed at people with mental health issues. Everywhere, criminalization is undermining human rights and civil rights here in the United States. Those of us who identify as Americans lose some of our humanity when we allow this to continue.

In my remarks, I made a similar point, connecting the criminalization of relief work at the border with the very same phenomenon in Gaza and Palestine:

I can’t help but be mindful of the fact that just last week there was a boat that was taking humanitarian goods to Gaza that was intercepted by the Israeli navy. The volunteer workers on board were brutalized, incarcerated and ultimately deported. This is the same work that we are doing, ultimately and I think it’s very important for all of us to understand that what’s going on here at the border is going on in Gaza and too many places around the world. As we stand in solidarity here, we need to be mindful that we are standing in solidarity in so many other ways as well.

On Sunday morning, our delegation was split into two groups. One went south to distribute water via the Devils Highway – a well-known and infamous road extending through some of the most remote and desolate regions of the Sonaran Desert. Our group traveled to the Charlie Bell Road, a trail in the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge along the Growler Mountain Range. Both of these are among the few entrances to West Desert that are open to the public.

Our group of 20 consisted of faith leaders, media and NMD medics and EMTs and we traveled into Charlie Bell in four trucks. Because our action was well publicized beforehand, we fully expected to encounter law enforcement and as it turned out, several officers from the Department of Fish and Wildlife stopped us at the entrance to see our entrance permits (picture below). They also asked to see the ID’s of everyone who was is the lead car. Although it was not entirely a surprise, volunteers from NMD told us this was the first time any of them had been stopped by the “Fish Cops” at the entrance to the refuge.

The day quickly became blisteringly hot – by noon it was already 110 degrees. We walked carrying two to three gallons of water each approximately one and a half miles down the trail along the mountain range. When we arrived at a well marked with a beacon and flag, we wrote messages of hope and solidarity on our plastic jugs of water and set them down. Afterwards, several of us distributed additional bottles at another site close by.

This well, by the way, is not intended for use by human beings – it was constructed by the nature preserve to water a nearby trough for wildlife (picture below). As we peered inside, we could see that the water inside was dirty and mossy, clearly unfit for human consumption. The irony did not need to be pointed out to any of us: those who maintain this area provide water for animals – while water left for human beings is confiscated and destroyed.

We also saw clear signs in the vicinity that migrants had passed through. Among them: slippers made out of carpet worn over shoes to hide their tracks and a wrapper of electrolyte powder purchased in Mexico (pictures below). The evidence of the presence of migrants was not hard to find and it all seemed fairly familiar to our NMD guides.

All in all, we spent the better part of the morning and afternoon in the open desert, traveling on foot approximately 3.5 miles. The final 1/2 mile was uphill and though I made a point of hydrating constantly, the heat was constant and overpowering. (It was so hot, in fact, that the glue on the bottom of my shoes literally melted the soles off of my feet.)  I cannot begin to comprehend how migrants to walk 80 to 100 miles through such extreme terrain and hostile conditions – and I cannot consider it anything but a sacrilege that our government knowingly drives human beings into a region such as this under the guise of “deterrence.”

In the evening, we attended a monthly memorial vigil in the Ajo town plaza for migrants who perished in the West Desert region. The majority of names spoken aloud were  “Desconocido” (“Unknown”). According to NMD, at least 128 bodies were recovered just last year, including 57 in the desert where we focused our action. Many of them will never be identified. And many more will continue to remain undiscovered in the wilderness in areas that are inaccessible to relief workers.

At the end of our stay, my colleague Rabbi Ari Lev Fonari wrote the following on his Facebook page:

What I know to be true:

1. Water is life.

2. Migration is an organic part of life, a human right and a tactic of survival.

3. The border is an unnatural divide generating industry and environmental harm.

4. People have been crossing dangerous deserts by the light of the moon seeking safety and freedom, hunted by the state and sustained by their faith, for as long as human beings have been alive.

Ari Lev speaks my head and my heart. I’ve visited several militarized borders now – and I am more convinced than ever that they serve no other purpose than to shore up the power and profit of those who design, construct and maintain them. Now more than ever we must fight for a world without borders, for a world where freedom of movement over our shared earth is respected and honored.

In the meantime, however, we must reckon with the world as it currently is: a world in which nations hunt down those who dare to cross these unnatural lines in search of a better life for themselves and their families. A world in which governments criminalize those who offer migrants life-saving relief and assistance. A world in which the powerful assume no one will ultimately care about the humanity they deem disposable.

In the end, it will be up to all of us to prove them wrong.

I’m deeply grateful to those in the UUA and UUSC for convening this delegation, the volunteers of No More Deaths/No Mas Muertes, whose work taught us simple but powerful lessons about the discipline of human decency, and the wonderful people of Ajo who opened their community and their homes to us.

Please support the work of No More Deaths by signing this letter to the land managers of the West Desert, demanding that they “acknowledge the gravity and severity of the humanitarian crisis occurring on the lands (they) steward, and take immediate action to protect the lives and dignity of all people on these lands by upholding the right to receive and provide humanitarian aid.”

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Lunch at Immaculate Heart Catholic Church, Ajo, AZ

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Fish and Wildlife officers at the entrance to the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge (photo: Ari Lev Fonari)

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Feeding trough that provides water to wildlife in the Cabeza refuge

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Carpet slippers worn by migrants to cover their tracks.

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Rabbi Salem Pearce, holding a used packet of electrolyte powder purchased in Mexico .

On Marc Ellis, Exile and the Prophetic (or Welcome to the New Diaspora Rabbi Rosen!)

IMG_4236My remarks at a Festshrift in honor of Marc Ellis held at Southern Methodist University, April 14-16, 2018. The gathering included presentations by a number of Marc’s colleagues and friends, including Naim Ateek, Sara Roy, Santiago Slabodsky, Robert O. Smith, Joanne Terrell, Susanne Scholtz, Robert Cohen and Marc’s two sons, Aaron and Isaiah Ellis:

I first learned about Marc Ellis’ book “Toward a Theology of Jewish Liberation” shortly after the first edition was published in 1987. I discovered it quite by accident on the shelf of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College library. Questions abounded: What on earth was Jewish Liberation Theology? And who on earth was Marc Ellis? Like any pretentious young rabbinical student, I thought I knew my contemporary Jewish theologians. Then I saw from the byline that he taught at Maryknoll. Wait, was he even a Jewish theologian?

It took me only a few paragraphs into the book to learn that he was in fact Jewish. As I read on however, it became clear that Marc Ellis was unlike any Jewish theologian I’d ever read. For one thing, he wrote about Palestinians. A lot. He presented Israel’s oppression of Palestinians as theological category. He wrote about the moral cost of Jewish empowerment. He wrote about Jewish collective confession to the Palestinian people. It was radical Jewish theology in every sense of the word.

I wasn’t ready to fully hear what Marc had laid before me at the time. I don’t think I even finished the book. It’s wasn’t for lack of concern for Palestinians – as a liberal Zionist, I had long identified with the Israeli peace movement and had supported Palestinian statehood back when such things were considered beyond the pale by the organized Jewish community. But I would never dare to view Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as a theological concern. Like most liberal Zionists, I viewed the peace process in pragmatic terms. I didn’t necessarily support a two state solution for moral reasons – it was all about Israel remaining “Jewish and democratic.” I also don’t think I would have been too comfortable referring to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as “oppression.” Like most liberal Zionists, I would have said it was “complicated,” with enough blame to go around.

Over the years however, I struggled with nagging, gnawing doubts over these talking points. Although I was able to keep these doubts at bay for the most part, I was never able to successfully silence them. When I was ordained as a rabbi in 1992, the stakes were raised on my political views. As you know, rabbis and Jewish leaders are under tremendous pressure by the American Jewish organizational establishment to maintain unflagging support for what Marc would later call “Empire Judaism.” Few, if any congregational rabbis would dare cross this line publicly.

I’d been a rabbi for about 10 years when I returned to “Toward a Theology of Jewish Liberation,” which had just been released in a much-expanded third edition. This time I was ready. I read it cover to cover. And this time, Marc’s unflinching moral clarity made a direct line to my head and my heart. Liberal Jewish thinkers typically treated Israel/Palestine as a complex political issue that needed addressing. Marc, on the other hand stated unabashedly that Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians was the issue – the central moral issue facing Jews and Judaism today. All the rest was commentary.

Taking his cue from the Holocaust theologians he analyzed so well in his book, he viewed Jewish empowerment following the Holocaust as a critical turning point in Jewish history. Like them, Marc embraced this empowerment – he had no desire to turn the clock back to an old diaspora of a bygone era. But unlike thinkers such as Irving Greenberg, Richard Rubenstein, et al, he was unwilling to view support for Jewish empowerment – embodied by the state of Israel – as a “sacred Jewish obligation” for the current era. Quite the contrary: if we had any sacred obligation at all, it was to repent and make confession to the Palestinian people for our collective sins against them.

However, there still remained the question: “Who is this guy?” I noticed that he was now teaching at Baylor University and had established its Center for American and Jewish Studies. Of course I understood that someone who espoused ideas such as these wouldn’t necessarily be welcome in Jewish institutional circles – but it was still astonishing to me that his name was not counted among the top Jewish thinkers of our day.

I discovered that he had become quite prolific since the publication of “Theology of Jewish Liberation.” I also discovered that his ideas had deepened and broadened. He had coined terms such as “Constantinian Judaism” and the “Ecumenical Deal.” He wrote extensively about “Jews of Conscience” and the “Jewish Prophetic.” He wrote about the end of ethical Jewish history.

As I personally evolved on the issue of Israel/Palestine, Marc’s work became a central guiding force for me. And while I wasn’t always ready to go to the places he did, it was liberating to know there was someone in the Jewish world who was actually saying these words out loud. More than anyone I had ever encountered, here was someone who embodied the essence of the prophetic. Frankly, liberal Jews had been bandying this word to the point that it has now become an empty cliche. But Marc understood that prophetic meant daring to utter aloud the unutterable.

Of course it also meant being regulated to what our Jewish communal gatekeepers considered the fringe of “normative” community.  I was deeply saddened to hear in 2011, that he had been forced out of Baylor – but by then I knew enough to understand why. And though I had never met him, I felt compelled to join the voices who were rallying to his support.

This is what I wrote in my blog at the time:

I first read Professor Marc Ellis’ book “Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation” as a rabbinical student back in the mid-1980s – and suffice to say it fairly rocked my world at the time. Here was a Jewish thinker thoughtfully and compellingly advocating a new kind of post-Holocaust theology: one that didn’t view Jewish suffering as “unique” and “untouchable” but as an experience that should sensitize us to the suffering and persecution of all peoples everywhere.

And yet further: Ellis had the courage to take these ideas to the place that few in the Jewish world were willing to go. If we truly believe in the God of liberation, if our sacred tradition truly demands of us that we stand with the oppressed, then the Jewish people cannot only focus on our own legacy of suffering – we must also come to grips with our own penchant for oppression, particularly when it comes to the actions of the state of Israel. And yes, if we truly believe in the God of liberation this also means that we must ultimately be prepared to stand with the Palestinians in their struggle for liberation.

When I first read Ellis’ words, I didn’t know quite what to make of them. They flew so directly in the face of such post-Holocaust theologians as Elie Wiesel, Rabbi Irving Greenberg and Emil Fackenheim – all of whom viewed the Jewish empowerment embodied by the state of Israel in quasi-redemptive terms. And they were certainly at odds with the views of those who tended the gates of the American Jewish community, for whom this sort of critique of Israel was strictly forbidden.

Over the years, however, I’ve found Ellis’ ideas to be increasingly prescient, relevant – and I daresay even liberating. As a rabbi, I’ve come to deeply appreciate his brave willingness to not only ask the hard questions, but to unflinchingly pose the answers as well.

Three years after I wrote those words, I ran into some professional difficulties of my own. Up until that point, the congregation I had served for the past 17 years had found a way to countenance my increasing Palestine solidarity activism. But gradually, perhaps inevitably, discord grew in my congregation. In early 2014, I learned that a small group of members had organized and wrote an open letter to our board demanding that they rein me in. When I spoke out publicly during Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza, their calls grew even stronger. When I participated in a public disruption at a Chicago Jewish Federation fundraiser for the war effort, the tensions grew yet worse still. Then I was ejected from the Board of Rabbis of Greater Chicago. In the fall of 2014, I made the anguishing decision to resign from my congregation.

It was an enormously painful and traumatic time in my life and for the most part I’ve avoided speaking about it publicly. I’ll just say for now that when all this went down, I didn’t know if I could be a rabbi any more. I didn’t know how I would continue to be Jewish any more.

Less a week later, I learned that Marc had written about my resignation in his column at Mondoweiss. I was astonished – I had no idea he’d even heard of me. But here he was voicing his public approval and support of my actions, and in such classically Marc Ellis fashion:

The Jewish Reconstructionist Synagogue in Evanston, Illinois is looking for a new rabbi. Rabbi Brant Rosen is moving on. No one who is really going to look Israel in the eye need apply…

The whole thing is sad beyond words – who we have become. Rosen is one of the few rabbis in America with an ethical spine. He’s an outspoken advocate for Palestinian rights and co-chair of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council. I’m not sure what more needs to be said to analyze the situation.

Jewish congregational life, no matter how divided, can’t support Jewish leadership that has the prophetic at its core…Maybe the war in Gaza was the final straw. Rabbi Rosen and his congregation came face to face with the end-times of Jewish history. Rosen stood fast. It seems that Rabbi Rosen’s synagogue leadership blinked. What happened behind the scenes will probably remain secret – except for the voluminous leaks that are part of the vibrancy of congregational life.

Voluntary or forced and probably a combination of the two, Rabbi Rosen has his ticket to ride.

The Jewish rails?

Exile it is Rabbi Rosen! Welcome to the New Diaspora!

Shortly after his post appeared, I spoke with Marc on the phone. At first he was apologetic, hoping that he did not make things even more complicated for me. I reassured him that at that point, nothing could really make things more complicated than they already were. During our long conversation he told me something that he’s told me several times since. He said I needed to grasp how my participation in the Federation disruption was, in fact, contrary to everything I was trained to be in rabbinical school. What rational reason could possibly explain why I did this? For a congregational rabbi to disrupt a room filled with hundreds of Jewish leaders and community members? Why did I do it? How could I possibly explain it rationally?

In a subsequent article, Marc wrote further:

Out of the blue the prophets arise, are shot down, then reappear. It hasn’t changed much in thousands of years. The prophetic is too deeply ingrained in Jewish life to pass quietly into our newly embraced colonial night.

Apparently, synagogues are not for prophets. Those who practice the prophetic and attend synagogue, should take note. Your expulsion is inevitable.

The prophetic was happening, in Evanston of all places. Now Rabbi Rosen is packing his bags. With his conscience intact.

While I realize that Marc was offering out his hand in friendship and support at that moment, I think his gesture went even deeper than that. Though I sense his ideas about the prophetic have been informed by his own personal experience, I don’t think they come from a place of self-aggrandizement. After all, personal and professional banishment is not a pleasant experience. It is anguishing. It is traumatic. It is emotionally wounding. Marc wasn’t simply joking when he wrote, “Welcome to the New Diaspora, Rabbi Rosen!” He was letting me know that he had been there too and that yes, this “New Diaspora” as he called it, could be a brutal place. But he was also reassuring me that despite the trauma I was experiencing, even though I had lost everything I had thought to be Jewish up until then, I needed to understand that I had indeed acted in authentically Jewish fashion.

To hear this from someone I considered to be an intellectual and spiritual mentor meant the world to me. Ultimately it helped me to understand my actions as something other than merely ill-advised career suicide.

Now that I’m a few years removed from that time, I’m delighted to say that I’ve been able to carve out a fairly comfortable corner in the New Diaspora. It is, in fact, a steadily growing corner – and much of this is due to the path Marc has painfully charted. We’re witnessing the growth of what Marc would call a Jewish community of conscience. It is primarily an activist community, expressed through organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace. I daresay those who have found a home in this community owe a significant debt to Marc whether or not they stop to realize it. I’ve tried to do my part in ensuring they know that Marc Ellis is, in no small way, their spiritual forbearer.

At the same time, I am acutely aware that he is not – and does not consider himself – an activist. As one who understands the Jewish prophetic to its core, he does not flinch from critique even of activist Jews of conscience like myself. As you all know, he perfectly willing to call out any behavior or analysis that he feels lacks depth – and the growing Jewish movement of solidarity with Palestinians is not immune from this critique. Like the prophets of old, he has no trouble serving as an equal-opportunity annoyance. Or maybe he just can’t help himself. Either way, Marc’s keen eye keeps us all honest.

In the spring of 2015, in an attempt to create a spiritual home for Jews of Conscience, I founded a congregation, Tzedek Chicago. True to form, Marc greeted this news with a characteristic blend of joy, skepticism, amusement and hope.

Here’s what he wrote in Mondoweiss:

We have arrived at the end of Jewish history and now another, prophetic, opportunity presents itself. Life is strange that way. Why worry about a failed future when the abyss we Jews inhabit is so obvious?

So fare forward, Tzedek Chicago. The deep and treacherous Jewish waters you ply are uncharted.

Or are they? Another way of being Jewish in the world is a return to our prophetic origins.

Yes, I hesitate. Yes, I join. As a witness at the end. With hope that there is more.

In more ways that he knows, he has helped to inspire our new “congregation of the abyss.” So yes, Marc Ellis has become a member of a synagogue. Yes, I am now Marc Ellis’ rabbi.

Last year, Tzedek Chicago brought out Marc to be our congregation’s scholar in residence, on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of “Toward a Theology of Jewish Liberation.” For Marc, it was the opportunity to teach in a Jewish space for the first time in many years. For me, it marked the turning of a significant cycle in my life that began that day in 1988, when I took a book off the shelf of my rabbinical school library, with no way of knowing that it would become a kind of spiritual bellwether for my own journey.

Today we celebrate another important milestone – a long overdue gathering of Marc’s friends, colleagues, students and children. To quote Marc, “the deep and treacherous Jewish waters we ply are uncharted.” But we are charting them together. If we have indeed arrived at the end of Jewish history, I have faith that together we will discover how to begin it anew.

I will end with a quote from Marc’s book – it’s a passage that resonates with deeper meaning each time I return to it:

Prophetic Jewish theology, or a Jewish theology of liberation, seeks to bring to light the hidden and sometimes censored movements of Jewish life. It seeks to express the dissent of those afraid or unable to speak. Ultimately, a Jewish theology of liberation seeks, in concert with others, to weave disparate hopes and aspirations into the very heart of Jewish life.

I can think of no better mission statement for life in the New Diaspora.

Prayer for the Poor People’s Campaign

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photo: Clayton Patterson

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

Friends, let us bless:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.