Category Archives: International Aid

On Haiti Remembered and Gaza Forgotten

Two prominent Israeli columnists ask: why are Israelis so eager to pitch in to the rescue effort in Haiti and yet show such little concern over the dire humanitarian crisis they’ve helped to create just a few kilometers away in Gaza?

Akiva Eldar, writing in Ha’aretz

(The) remarkable identification with the victims of the terrible tragedy in distant Haiti only underscores the indifference to the ongoing suffering of the people of Gaza. Only a little more than an hour’s drive from the offices of Israel’s major newspapers, 1.5 million people have been besieged on a desert island for two and a half years. Who cares that 80 percent of the men, women and children living in such proximity to us have fallen under the poverty line? How many Israelis know that half of all Gazans are dependent on charity, that Operation Cast Lead created hundreds of amputees, that raw sewage flows from the streets into the sea?

The disaster in Haiti is a natural one; the one in Gaza is the unproud handiwork of man. Our handiwork. The IDF does not send cargo planes stuffed with medicines and medical equipment to Gaza. The missiles that Israel Air Force combat aircraft fired there a year ago hit nearly 60,000 homes and factories, turning 3,500 of them into rubble. Since then, 10,000 people have been living without running water, 40,000 without electricity. Ninety-seven percent of Gaza’s factories are idle due to Israeli government restrictions on the import of raw materials for industry. Soon it will be one year since the international community pledged, at the emergency conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, to donate $4.5 billion for Gaza’s reconstruction. Israel’s ban on bringing in building materials is causing that money to lose its value.

Gershon Baskin, in today’s Jerusalem Post:

Humanitarian disasters around the world bring out the best in Israel and in Israelis. The horrific devastation caused by the earthquake in Haiti and the scenes of unbearable human suffering brought about an immediate enlistment of both civilian and public efforts to come to the aid of the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere…

But what about the humanitarian disaster in our own backyard caused in a large part by our own doing? What about Gaza? More than 1.5 million people are living in total poverty, without sanitary drinking water, under an economic and physical siege, locked in what could easily be called the world’s largest prison. While we ask to see in all of the gory details, all of the destruction including hundreds of corpses on the streets of Port-au-Prince, we wish to see none of the human suffering of our Palestinian neighbors in Gaza where we literally hold the keys to the end of their suffering.

What We Need To Do For Haiti

In the wake of the terrifyingly tragic earthquake in Haiti, it has been gratifying to see private citizens give so generously to relief efforts. At the same time however, we shouldn’t forget that our own country’s policies can have a considerable impact on Haiti’s recovery. Check out what constitutional lawyer/human rights activist/Katrina survivor Bill Quigley has to say in his piece, “Ten Things the US Can and Should Do for Haiti.”

Item #3, for example:

Give Haiti grants as help, not loans. Haiti does not need any more debt. Make sure that the relief given helps Haiti rebuild its public sector so the country can provide its own citizens with basic public services.

Gaza: A Rabbinical Exchange

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Since we launched the Jewish Fast for Gaza, we’ve received all kinds of feedback, some supportive, some critical, some utterly unprintable. (My personal favorite from the latter category: “You should all get severe stomach ailments.”)

On occasion, however, our effort has offered us the opportunity for genuinely respectful dialogue. Below is one such exchange – an email I received from a rabbinic colleague, followed by my response:

Dear Ta’anit Tzedek,

Having cares and concerns of the plight of humanity is a most noble cause. That you are willing to extend effort is most commendable. Your organization, however, is extending its efforts in a manner which is not only counterproductive, but can be harmful as well.

How can you look into the face of a 12 year old girl from Sderot who suffers from post traumatic syndrome as for most of life she has been awakened on a nightly basis by sirens and rocket fire? What do you say to the families of victims killed by suicide bombers who killed their teenagers who were casually enjoyed a slice of pizza? What do you say to an organization whose very goal is the annihilation of our people?

You may answer, “Had we been better, they may have liked us more.” or some such configuration thereof. It’s not plausible. Since 1948, the goal of the Arab world has been the removal of a Jewish presence in the middle east. Our interference with their dream of a Pan-Arabic state stretching from Morocco to Iraq is sullied by our very presence.

It would better for your organization to spend is resources on ideals that truly further the continuity of Jews and Judaism.

I await your response,

Rabbi X

Dear Rabbi X,

I want to thank you for taking the time to reach out and respond to our initiative. I’m glad to have the opportunity for this dialogue.

You ask what I would say to the 12 year old girl from Sderot or the families of terror victims. I believe I would say that as a fellow Jew that their pain is my pain as well. I would say that I could not begin to comprehend the realities they must face. But I would also share my belief that that Israel’s current treatment of the people of Gaza will bring them neither safety nor security – and that the only true way out of these traumas is a lifting of the blockade and the negotiation of a settlement by all parties involved.

As regards Hamas “whose very goal is the annihilation of our people:” though I have no love lost for Hamas, the reality is that Israel will have to deal with them if any true peace will be achieved. And in truth, Israel has already dealt with Hamas through any number of channels over the years already. Making peace is a sacrosanct Jewish value – and as difficult as it is, the truth is that we make peace with our enemies. In the past, Israel has made peace with former enemies whom we once believed sought nothing but our “annihilation.” To surrender this value means to doom the people of this region to endless violence and tragedy.

Thus we do indeed believe that this effort furthers the resources of Jews and Judaism. We do not hold that the only Jewish path is the one that addresses Jews and Jewish “needs” alone. In the case of Jews and Palestinians in particular, our fates are fundamentally intertwined: we will either live together or else we will die together. The Jewish path has always been to choose life – this sacred imperative is at the core of our initiative.

Thank you again for sharing your thoughts with us. Even as we may disagree, I hope you will share my conviction that our conversation is a “machloket l’shem shamayim” (“argument for the sake of heaven.”)  I also know that you join with me in prayers for peace for this tortured region that is so dear to both of us.

Kol Tuv,

Rabbi Brant Rosen

Jewish Fast for Gaza

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In response to the dire humanitarian crisis in Gaza, my dear friend and colleague Rabbi Brian Walt and I have organized a new initiative, Ta’anit Tzedek – Jewish Fast for Gaza.

See below for the press release about the project, which is already attracting increasing numbers of supporters, including many rabbis. Click the link above to visit the website and sign up yourself…

RABBIS  ANNOUNCE MONTHLY FAST FOR GAZA

Seeking “to end the Jewish community’s silence over Israel’s collective punishment in Gaza,”  an ad-hoc group of American rabbis has called for a communal fast.  Known as Ta’anit Tzedek – Jewish Fast for Gaza, this new initiative will organize a series of monthly fasts beginning on July 16.

The project was initiated by a group of thirteen rabbis representing a spectrum of American Jewish denominations. The group’s website explains the religious meaning of the campaign: “In Jewish tradition a communal fast is held in times of crisis both as an expression of mourning and a call to repentance. In this spirit, Ta’anit Tzedek – Jewish Fast for Gaza is a collective act of conscience initiated by an ad hoc group of rabbis, Jews, people of faith, and all concerned with (this) ongoing crisis…”

The fast has four goals: to call for a lifting of the blockade, to provide humanitarian and developmental aid to the people of Gaza, to call upon Israel, the US, and the international community to engage in negotiations with Hamas in order to end the blockade, and to encourage the American government to “vigorously engage both Israelis and Palestinians toward a just and peaceful settlement of the conflict.”

The water-only fast will take place every third Thursday of the month, from sunrise to sunset. In addition to signing on to the fast statement, participants have been asked to donate the money they save on food to the Milk for Preschoolers Campaign sponsored by American Near Eastern Refugee Aid, a relief campaign that combats malnutrition among Gazan preschool children.

Since the electoral victory of Hamas in January 2006, Israel has imposed a blockade that has severely restricted Gaza’s ability to import food, fuel and other essential materials. As a result, the Gazan economy has completely collapsed and it suffers from high levels of unemployment and poverty and rising levels of childhood malnutrition.

“Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people in Gaza amounts to nothing less than collective punishment. While we condemn Hamas’ targeting of Israeli civilians, it is immoral to punish an entire population for the actions of a few,” said Rabbi Brant Rosen, who serves Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, IL. “This blockade has only served to further oppress an already thoroughly oppressed people.  As Jews and as human beings of conscience, we cannot stand idly by.”

“We’ve been enormously encouraged by the initial response we’ve received from the Jewish community thus far,” said fast organizer Rabbi Brian Walt, former Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights – North America, who noted that the initiative has signed up numerous supporters prior to the launch of the project. “We truly believe this effort is giving voice to a significant number of people who been looking for a Jewish voice of conscience on this issue.”

Rescue the Spirit of Humanity

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The humanitarian situation in Gaza has grown beyond intolerable.  If you have any doubts, just read this devastatingly important article by Sara Roy, senior research scholar at Harvard’s  Center for Middle Eastern Studies:

Today, 96 percent of Gaza’s population of 1.4 million is dependent on humanitarian aid for basic needs. According to the World Food Programme, the Gaza Strip requires a minimum of 400 trucks of food every day just to meet the basic nutritional needs of the population. Yet, despite a 22 March decision by the Israeli cabinet to lift all restrictions on foodstuffs entering Gaza, only 653 trucks of food and other supplies were allowed entry during the week of May 10, at best meeting 23 percent of required need.

Israel now allows only 30 to 40 commercial items to enter Gaza compared to 4,000 approved products prior to June 2006. According to the Israeli journalist, Amira Hass, Gazans still are denied many commodities (a policy in effect long before the December assault): Building materials (including wood for windows and doors), electrical appliances (such as refrigerators and washing machines), spare parts for cars and machines, fabrics, threads, needles, candles, matches, mattresses, sheets, blankets, cutlery, crockery, cups, glasses, musical instruments, books, tea, coffee, sausages, semolina, chocolate, sesame seeds, nuts, milk products in large packages, most baking products, light bulbs, crayons, clothing, and shoes.

What possible benefit can be derived from an increasingly impoverished, unhealthy, densely crowded, and furious Gaza alongside Israel? Gaza’s terrible injustice not only threatens Israeli and regional security, but it undermines America’s credibility, alienating our claim to democratic practice and the rule of law.

And now the news has just come in that Israel has seized the “Spirit of Humanity,” a boat carrying a cargo of humanitarian aid in international waters, and  is  forcibly towing it to an Israeli port.  The boat contained 21 human rights workers from 11 countries, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire and former U.S. Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney. It was bringing medicine, toys, and other much needed humanitarian relief.

If you’re looking for a way to channel your upset over this dire situation into effective contribution to Gaza relief, I particularly recommmend American Near East Refugee Aid.  Their projects in Gaza include:

– Delivery of  life-saving pharmaceuticals and medical supplies to hospitals and clinics;

– Distribution of  fortified milk and high-energy biscuits to 25,200 children in 186 preschools.

– Water projects that bring water networks to families in need and pumping systems to keep raw sewage off the streets.

– A psychosocial program that helps thousands of children and parents struggling to survive the effects of war.

– Cash-for-work programs that employ workers to clear agricultural land of plastic waste and provide 200 families a means of self-reliance.

The Season of our Sustenance: A Sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah

As I sat down to write my sermons this New Year, I somehow found myself returning to the theme of “sustainability.”  Click below for my remarks on Erev Rosh Hashanah:

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JRC Says Farewell to Africa

On our final day in Africa, we visited the Nankusi and Namanyonyi primary schools, both of which are supported by the Peace Kawomera’s fair trade social premiums. Both schools are engaged in building projects to create more classrooms and more essential educational resources. In each school we saw overcrowded classes (many cramming in over 100 students) and most classrooms are not even equipped with a chalkboard. Similarly, in both schools these important construction projects are currently stalled out due to lack of funding, materials and workers. At Namanyonyi, we were told that they needed the equivalent of $2,000.00 to finish the project.

We’ve heard these kinds of appeals several times on our trip and they are challenging to the core. On the one hand, in the face of such direct need, it’s all you can do to not take out the money and just donate it on the spot. On the other hand, this would clearly raise more questions than it would solve: why is this school more deserving than the one down the road? What kinds of social tensions would you be exacerbating by privileging one one school over another? How would we ensure that the money would be used in the way we were told? What kind of unhealthy power dynamic are we reinforcing when we throw money around in this way? We’ve discussed these kinds of questions a great deal as a group and in the end we’ve resolved to live with the difficulties and complexities that attend the phenomenon of world poverty, arguably the most intractable issue facing the world today.

One important thing we do take away from these experiences is the resolve to support NGOs on the ground that we know are making a real difference in the lives of real people. We have been transformed by our relationships with organizations like WE-ACTx, the Foundation for the Development of Needy Communities and Peace Kawomera, who are leading the charge to create better futures for the communities they serve.

If we have learned anything on this trip, it is that we much redouble our resolve to support their efforts and to encourage others to do so as well. In a world that is so desperately in need of heroes and role models, these are the ones who truly inspire: people like Dr. Mardge Cohen, Samuel Watalatsu, JJ Keki, and so many, many others who work largely off the PR radar screen, but whose vision and drive are bringing hope and change in the areas of the world that need it most.

We’re coming home now, but our work is really just getting started…