Category Archives: Politics

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.

Root Causes of Forced Migration from Honduras: Some Background

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Honduran street protest against 2009 coup  (photo: DH Noticias)

It was my honor last week to travel with 75 delegates representing diverse religious traditions and advocacy organizations on a “Root Causes Pilgrimage” to Honduras. Sponsored by the the Bay Area-based SHARE – El Salvador and  Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, we spent seven days traveling throughout the country, meeting with local grass roots groups, indigenous activists and faith leaders to learn about the root causes of forced migration – particularly those driven by US policies and multinational corporate profit.

While there has been a great deal of justified attention paid to the cruel and unjust immigration system in the US, there has been far less public discussion of how our country contributes to the poverty, violence and displacement that causes forced migration from Central America – and other countries across the global south.

Of course empires, nations and corporations have been colonizing and exploiting the natural resources of Central American countries for centuries. Shortly after Honduras gained its independence from Spain in 1821, US corporate influence in the country began with the development of the banana industry. Over the next century, the intervention of the United and Standard Fruit companies in the politics of Honduras would usurp indigenous communal lands to trade for capital investment contracts as the fair rights of Honduran laborers were ignored and exploited. This corporate/political exploitation brought instability, misery and poverty to the people of that country.

However, corporate exploitation is only one side of the story – the other is the courageous resistance of the Honduran people. The general strike of 1954 for instance, was a watershed moment, marking the first time in the history of that a country that a private corporation was pressured to negotiate with protesters to reach a collective agreement. In the 1970s, agrarian land reform reached a peak, in which the campesinos (small farmers) were able to create farm cooperatives. This came to a halt in the 1980s when neoliberal reforms opened the way for the widespread mono-cropping of the African palm tree, which overwhelmed local farms and has created environmental havoc for the region ever since.

By the time of the coup d’etat in 2009, the fortunes of Hondurans were actually starting to improve. President Jose Manuel Zelaya Rosales, who came from the Honduran elite and belonged to one of the two traditional conservative parties, had begun to take more progressive positions, influenced by democratically-elected governments that had come to power in Central America throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. In 2009, Zelaya introduced a non-binding referendum that included the creation of a new constitutional convention that would expand the rights and power of Indigenous people, women, campesinos and other disenfranchised populations in Honduras. The promise of Zelaya’s reforms however, were dashed by a military coup in June 2009, encouraged by the Obama administration.

As a result of the coup, a massive popular protest movement arose throughout the nation of Honduras. Despite widespread grassroots resistance however, the new regime was strengthened by the tacit acquiescence of the US government (Obama and Clinton famously refused to use the phrase “military coup,” which would have legally obligated the US to stop almost all foreign aid to Honduras immediately.) A sham election in late November was likewise supported by the US State Department.

Since the coup, privatization of public lands, the construction of mega-projects on indigenous and campesino land, targeted political repression, and violence has increased throughout the country. Human rights defenders, environmental activists, and others have been targeted by state repression and violence, including the March 2016 assassination of indigenous rights activist Berta Cáceres.

In November of 2017, Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández was reelected with overwhelming evidence of electoral fraud, and in contradiction to the Honduran constitution’s prohibition against multiple terms for presidents. In response, hundreds of thousands of Hondurans again took to the streets to defend their vote and their democracy. In turn, they were met with widespread and systematic human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, torture, forced disappearance, kidnapping, and arbitrary detention. The abuses committed by Honduran security forces that receive U.S. training and funding, amount to crimes against humanity.

I’m sure at this point some readers might be glazing over this all-too-familiar litany of Central American military/corporate interventions. But this history is crucial for so many reasons, not least of which is the US government’s culpability in the forced migration of Hondurans. Indeed, it is impossible to underestimate how our encouragement/acquiescence to the Honduran coup its subsequent regime has normalized the rapid immiseration of the Honduran people and has caused so many of them to migrate northward.

As Professor Joseph Nevins of Vassar College has observed:

Organized crime, drug traffickers and the country’s police heavily overlap. The frequent politically motivated killings are rarely punished. In 2017, Global Witness, an international nongovernmental organization, found that Honduras was the world’s deadliest country for environmental activists.

Although its once sky-high murder rate has declined over the last few years, the continuing exodus of many youth demonstrates that violent gangs still plague urban neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, post-coup governments have intensified an increasingly unregulated, free market form of capitalism that makes life unworkable for many by undermining the country’s limited social safety net and greatly increasing socioeconomic inequality. Government spending on health and education, for example, has declined in Honduras. Meanwhile, the country’s poverty rate has risen markedly. These contribute to the growing pressures that push many people to migrate.

Enough for now. Please consider this your background reading for my next few posts. I encourage you to read the links as well, which contain critical context for the experiences I’ll be sharing over the next few days.

More soon.

 

 

War on Gaza is Inevitable Because it Benefits Israel: A Rabbinic Response

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In her recent op-ed “War Must Never Be Inevitable, Even Between Israel and Hamas,” (Ha’aretz, 11/12/18) Rabbi Jill Jacobs suggests a Jewish religious frame for “avoiding a deadly escalation of violence” between Israel and Gaza. While her attempt to offer hope in the midst of a profoundly hopeless situation is laudable, her analysis suffers from fundamental flaws that ultimately muddle the moral/political context of this tragic crisis.

Jacobs bases her argument on a teshuvah (legal opinion) issued by former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv Rabbi Hayyim David Halevy, who forcefully advocated for a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt on the eve of the Camp David Accords. Jacobs applies his message to today’s current reality, observing that Halevy’s position “represented a courageous act of religious leadership at a time when most of the religious right opposed the agreement…” There is however, a critical difference between the reality facing Israel and Egypt in 1978 and the one in which Israel and Gaza finds itself today.

When he wrote those words, Halevy was addressing a situation of relative parity between two major nation states, each of whom maintained significant military power. Only a few years earlier, they had been engaged in what we might call a conventional war that eventually drew to a military stalemate. In other words, the Israel-Egypt negotiations emerged out of a balance of power that played out on a level playing field in which two regional powers found it in their respective national interests to make peace instead of war.

But there is no level playing field when it comes to Israel and Gaza. This is not a pairing of two equal sovereign powers, but rather of vast inequity where one power maintains almost complete control over a people it has dispossessed and occupied. Israel enjoys an immense power advantage over Gaza – and it has wielded it mercilessly throughout the years. For over a decade now, Israel has maintained a crushing blockade, turning a 140-square-mile strip of land into a virtual open-air prison. While Jacobs does briefly refer to the blockade, she does so in counterpoint to the equal “blame” borne by Hamas, as if this constituted in any way a balanced conflict.

Jacobs also uses the pedagogy of “both sides” when it comes to direct military violence, claiming that “Hamas bears significant blame for ongoing flare ups at the border” and noting that “firing rockets into civilian areas constitutes a human rights violation.” Again, this frame completely decontextualizes the historical reality in Gaza, a strip of land that was filled with refugees Israel dispossessed from their homes in 1948/49 and whose right to return they have denied ever since. It also ignores the research that convincingly demonstrates the violence in Gaza consistently flares up when Israel – not Hamas – has broken cease fires. (This was indeed the case this past week, when its covert operation “went bad,” leaving seven Palestinians dead.)

Moreover, the devastating series of military operations Israel has launched on Gaza over the past decade cannot rationally be viewed as “conventional wars.” On the contrary: these regular assaults have pitted the world’s most powerful military against small militias that wield crude and largely ineffective missiles and an imprisoned civilian population that literally has nowhere to run.

If there were any doubt, the statistics should make the disproportionate devastation abundantly clear. During “Operation Protective Edge” in 2014, the Israeli military killed at least 2,104 Palestinians, including 1,462 civilians, of whom 495 were children and 253 women. 11,000 were wounded, including 3,000 children. 20,000 homes were destroyed and up to 500,000 residents displaced. By contrast, during the same military operation, six Israeli civilians, one migrant worker and 66 Israeli soldiers were killed.

Jacobs writes that “avoiding a descent into violence will require Israeli political leaders to loosen the closure of Gaza” and to “provide humanitarian relief.” In fact, an end to the violence will only occur when Israel ends its brutal blockade of Gaza, full stop. By using this “noblesse oblige” approach, Jacobs only continues to normalize the inherent inequity of this conflict.

After “loosening the closure,” Jacobs writes optimistically, Israel should “take the leap of faith necessary to negotiate a long-term agreement with sworn enemies.” Of course in order for this to happen, the US government would have to serve as an honest broker. The Carter administration played just such a role the Camp David Accords of 1978, because it – along with Israel and Egypt – deemed a peace treaty as in its own strategic self-interest. This is decidedly not the case today. On the contrary, the US and Israel both consider Hamas to be a “terrorist organization” and a proxy of Iran. Given the current geopolitical reality, it is the height of naïveté to assume either power would view comprehensive negotiations with Hamas in its national or regional self-interest.

Quoting Halevy further, Jacobs writes: “Just as for a generation, we carried out wars with
strength and might, God will bless us now that we will also know how to make peace.” It’s a powerful statement, but it offers no insight into how a nation should know when to stop making war and start making peace. Indeed, the government of Israel has continued to carry out wars against Hamas with “strength and might,” offering no indication it would consider otherwise. And why should it? It oppresses the people of Gaza with impunity – and with the full support of the world’s largest superpower.

Yes, as Jacobs points out, “Israeli communities on the border should not have to live in fear of rocket fire or arson or need to race their children into shelters night after night,” but in reality, Israel has long calculated that this is the price it is willing to pay for maintaining its strategic military edge over the Palestinian people. There is also ample evidence that Israel benefits economically from keeping Gaza on the brink of humanitarian catastrophe and from using Gaza as a laboratory in which it can test its latest military hardware.

In the end, this is where Jacobs’ analysis ultimately fails. Notwithstanding her romantic notion that “Zionism has always meant doing the impossible,” historically speaking sovereign nations have always decided to make peace when it benefits them more than waging war – and Israel has been no different in this regard. However, when it comes to conflicts between oppressor and oppressed, powerful nations don’t tend to give up their power unless they are forced to do so. And so it is in the case of Israel’s oppression of Gazans – and of Palestinians at large.

With apologies to Rabbi Halevy, I’d suggest the ancient wisdom of the Talmud would serve us better when it comes to the tragic reality facing Israel and Gaza: “Rabbi Simeon ben Gamliel said, ‘three things preserve the world: truth, justice, and peace.’” (Avot 1:18)

In other words, true peace will not come when Israel deigns to negotiate a treaty, but when it is held to account by movements and nations who push them to recognize that peace without justice is no peace at all.

After Pittsburgh, We Can No Longer Cry Wolf on “Campus Anti-Semitism”

Cross-posted with Truthout  (UPDATED)

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MARK DIXON / FLICKR

If the charge of antisemitism becomes a tactic to suppress open criticism and debate on the State of Israel, its practices of dispossession and occupation, its founding and the ongoing implications of that founding for Palestinians, then it will lose its claim to truth…Who will believe the charge when it is used to name and oppose the rising forms of fascism or actual ideologies bound up with its actual toxicity?

– Judith Butler, “On Antisemitism: Solidarity and the Struggle for Justice”

The tragic killing of 11 worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue last Saturday has created a painful reckoning over the resurgence of anti-Semitism in the US. If there was ever any question about the threat white nationalism poses to the Jewish community, there can be no doubt after this attack, which some are calling the deadliest act of anti-Semitism in American history.

But if we are to truly respond to this resurgence, we must take pains to analyze anti-Semitism for what it is and what it is not. This is particularly important in the face of Israeli politicians and Israel advocacy organizations that are currently muddling the definition of anti-Semitism for cynical political gain.

One stark and egregious example of this occurred the day after the massacre, when Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to the US, conflated neo-Nazi Jew-hatred with what he described as anti-Semitism of the “radical left” found on college campuses:

One of the big forces in college campuses today is anti-Semitism. And those anti-Semites are usually not neo-Nazis, on college campuses. They’re coming from the radical left. We have to stand against anti-Semitism whether it comes from the right or whether it comes from the left.

While it is important to acknowledge that truly anti-Semitic ideas that paint Jews as rich, conspiratorial “globalists” are occasionally parroted on the left as well as on the right, Dermer is not talking about real anti-Semitism within leftist communities; rather, he is disingenuously seeking to cast all Palestine solidarity activism as necessarily anti-Semitic.

While some Jewish college students may feel discomfort when confronted by a strong criticism of Israel by Palestine solidarity activists, this does not mean that criticisms of Israel are by definition anti-Semitic. This claim blithely conflates the state of Israel with all Jews and ignores the historic reality that there have always been Jews who have criticized Israel’s oppression of Palestinians – and have even opposed the very premise of an ethnically Jewish nation-state itself.  In truth, there is a significant and growing percentage of Jews actively participating in Palestine solidarity campaigns who are not motivated by “Jewish self-hatred” but by the deeply held Jewish values of justice and the dignity for all.

The attempt to conflate criticisms of Israel on the left with bigoted anti-Semitism on the right is a tactic that has long been employed by the Israeli government and professional Israel advocacy organizations. Now that we are coming face to face with the deadly truth of neo-Nazi anti-Semitism in our country, however, it is becoming increasingly clear how their tactic not only enables violence toward Palestinians, but also puts Jews at greater peril by ignoring the resurgence of alt-right rhetoric and violence against them.

Unfortunately, there is every sign that Israel advocacy organizations are doubling down on this tactic. This past week, the Louis B. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law in conjunction with Hasbara Fellowships ( a pro-Israel campus advocacy organization) announced the launching of its so-called “Jigsaw Initiative,” described as an “unprecedented pilot program to train law students and combat and prevent insurgent anti-Semitism.”

In a press release, Brandeis Center President and General Counsel Alyza B. Lewin stated:

As the tragic and horrific events in Pittsburgh made abundantly clear, anti-Semitism is escalating at an alarming rate in the US…We must reverse this rising trend of anti-Semitism and ethnic racism, and there is no substitute for legal action. By properly training a select team of law students to work with undergraduates and utilize specific tools and strategy, we can begin to take the tide in this battle.

While Lewin didn’t mention it in her statement, the “anti-Semitism” the Brandeis Center seeks to fight legally has nothing to do with white supremacist Jew-hatred. In fact, the Louis B. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law is an organization which, despite its lofty universalist name, has dedicated itself almost exclusively to fighting public criticism of Israel by branding critics as “anti-Semitic.” Over the years, the Brandeis Center and other Israel advocacy organizations had tried and failed to prosecute campus anti-Semitism cases through the Office of Civil Rights under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act — a provision that was originally used during the 1960s to desegregate schools in the South.

The Brandeis Center was founded in 2012 by Kenneth L. Marcus, a far-right ideologue who has a history of abusing civil rights law to further a conservative political agenda and suppress college activists’ criticism of Israel. During his tenure as head of the US Commission on Civil Rights under George W. Bush, he oversaw the publication of a report backing the dismantling of affirmative action in law schools and argued against universities’ use of race-neutral criteria to achieve diversity. He also opposed a proposal to expand the scope of the US Commission on Civil Rights to investigate violations of LGBTQ rights and broader human rights.

Last year, Trump announced Marcus’ nomination to be the new head of the Education Office’s Civil Rights. During his confirmation hearings last year, hundreds of civil rights organizations and academics expressed their opposition to Marcus’ appointment. Despite widespread concern, Marcus was eventually confirmed by a narrow 50-46 Senate vote — and since then it was only a matter of time until he used the power of his new office to quash criticism of Israel on college campuses. One month later, Marcus and the Office of Civil Rights announced they would be reopening a seven-year-old case brought by a Zionist group against Rutgers University, saying the Obama administration, in closing the case, ignored evidence that suggested the school allowed a hostile environment for Jewish students.

Marcus also did not waste any time in announcing his support for the reintroduction of the Congressional Anti-Semitism Awareness Act. While the title of this legislation suggests a sensible government attempt to raise the public consciousness, this bill has zero to do with combating actual anti-Semitism. Quite the contrary, in fact.

The Anti-Semitism Awareness Act has a long and somewhat tortured history. In December 2016, the Senate passed the first version of this bill quickly, unanimously and without debate. Introduced by Senators Bob Casey and Tom Scott, the bill purports to address claims of anti-Semitism on college campuses as “civil rights violations.”

For many, most troubling aspects of the bill came from the way it defined anti-Semitism itself:

For purposes of this Act, the term ‘‘definition of anti-Semitism’’’—

(1) includes the definition of anti-Semitism set forth by the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism of the Department of State in the Fact Sheet issued on June 8, 2010, as adapted from the Working Definition of Anti-Semitism of the European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia (now known as the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights); and

(2) includes the examples set forth under the headings ‘‘Contemporary Examples of Anti-Semitism’’ and ‘‘What is Anti-Semitism Relative to Israel?’’ of the Fact Sheet.

Both the State Department and the “What is Anti-Semitism Relative to Israel?” fact sheets contain definitions of Anti-Semitism that include such vague criteria as “demonizing,” “delegitimizing,” and “applying a double-standard to the state of Israel” — broad and vague language that would allow virtually any criticism of Israel to be labeled as anti-Semitic.

The Anti-Semitism Awareness Act was pushed through the Senate despite the strong opposition of numerous civil rights and free speech advocacy groups. Following its passage, the ACLU released a statement warning that the bill “poses a serious threat to the First Amendment free speech rights of those on campus who may hold certain political views,” adding that they were confident that Senators “must have been unaware of the unconstitutional implications of the only operative provision of the bill.”

The House soon introduced its own version of the bill, but despite furious lobbying by Israel advocacy groups, it failed to pass before Congress wrapped up its 2016 legislative session. Not surprisingly, Congress re-introduced the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act in June 2018.  Shortly after, in an August letter obtained by The New York Times, Marcus notified the Zionist Organization of America that the Office of Civil Rights would put the full force of his government office behind the State Department definition of Anti-Semitism.

Clearly, the effects of this new inquisition on the Palestine solidarity movement on campus — and the cause of free speech in general — are potentially devastating. At the same time, many are warning this legislation will do meaningful damage to the cause to fight the very real threat of Trump-era anti-Semitism in the US.

In his testimony before the House Judiciary Committee during its debate over the original Antisemitism Awareness Act, Holocaust historian Barry Trachtenberg of Wake Forest University openly stated that the supporters of the bill were “motivated less by an actual threat facing American or world Jewry than they are part of a persistent campaign to thwart debates, scholarly research, and political activism that is critical of the State of Israel.”

He went on to point out that despite widely reported “depictions of rampant anti-Semitism… in the press,” a Stanford University study reported that they do not represent the “actual experiences” of Jewish students at the campus level. They discovered that campus life is neither threatening nor alarmist. “In general,” noted Trachtenberg, “students reported feeling comfortable on their campuses, and, more specifically, feeling comfortable as Jews on their campuses.”

It is also worth noting that like all forms of racism, anti-Semitism is most dangerous and deadly when it is enabled and supported by state power. In the US, the anti-Semitism that fits this description is the “alt-right” anti-Semitism enabled and emboldened by a Trump administration that clearly views this movement as an essential part of its base. We would do well to view legislation such as the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act as a form of state-sponsored oppression inasmuch as it unfairly targets an oppressed group and its allies for exercising their constitutional rights of free speech.

While this misguided focus commits a very real injustice to the cause of Palestinian human rights, it will also make it more difficult to identify and combat the real threat of anti-Semitism in our midst today. If there was ever any doubt, it should have been made abundantly clear last summer in Charlottesville, when neo-Nazis rallied in Charlottesville with torches chanting “Jews will not replace us” while others stood across from a local synagogue armed with semi-automatic rifles shouting “There’s the synagogue!” and “Sieg Heil!”

Following the tragic Pittsburgh synagogue massacre of course, there can no longer be any doubt that old-style anti-Semitism is real and deadly in the United States. While our government uses spurious claims of anti-Semitism to suppress criticism of Israel on college campuses, real anti-Semites have gunned down 11 Jewish worshippers in their synagogue. It’s long past time to put to rest the equation of “far right and far left anti-Semitism” for cynical political gain.

The stakes are simply far too high.

Reckoning with the Arc of the Moral Universe in the Age of Trump: A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5779

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Writing topical High Holiday sermons is a process fraught with peril. It’s common knowledge among rabbis that if you sit down to write at the beginning of the summer, chances are pretty good that your chosen issue will be obsolete by the time the holidays roll around. In the current political moment however, where current events have accelerated to warp speed, it feels as if issues become obsolete every hour on the hour. Thus my challenge this year: how do I respond without contributing to the ever-increasing barrage that has become our current reality?

More to the point: how do I avoid contributing to the widespread despair that so many of us are feeling? I’m sure most of us are experiencing current events as an onslaught. They come at us faster and faster: every new policy strike-down, every new act of deregulation, every new appointment feels like yet another kick to the stomach.

To put it simply, the world that so many of us fought for seems to be unraveling before our eyes. So many of the socio-political gains we’ve struggled so hard for for so long are being rolled back on an almost daily basis.

So this Rosh Hashanah, I want to forgo the topical sermon in favor of some deeper questions. Namely, how can we maintain our equilibrium during the current political moment? How do we respond to the onslaught? How do we resist the despair that for so many of us, characterizes the nightmare age of Trump?

Since the election, we’ve been hearing from mental health experts that there’s been a dramatic spike in anxiety and depression since the election – a kind of “political stress disorder” – but that’s not what I’m talking about. Rather, I’d like to explore why so many of our previously held beliefs about our world seem to have come crashing down on top of us. In particular, I want to look closely at the assumptions that Americans – particularly liberal Americans – use to understand the history of progress in our country.

I’d like to ask, have they been harmful in ways we don’t often stop to realize? And if they are, might there be different frames we can use to understand the world around us? Ones that will help us stand down the despair and give us the strength to fight for the world we want to see? And finally, on this new year, I’d like to explore how Torah and Jewish tradition address this question in ways that might help us find a way forward together.

Let’s start with one very common assumption: the view that history is a march toward progress. This view is considered a central tenet of liberalism and it dates all the way back to the Enlightenment. In fact, this idea is so deeply embedded in the mindset of so many Americans that it is almost taken for granted.

Now certainly, when we look at the unfolding of American history, we could make a very strong case for this view. It certainly seems that the arc of history bends toward justice. Our march toward progress is well known: the abolition of slavery, the creation of labor laws, the right of women to vote, civil rights legislation, environmental regulation.

The idea in a nutshell: “We struggled, we won, progress was achieved.” This linear view of socio-political progress is deeply ingrained in the mythos of liberal America. When these historical moments occur, they enter into our national consciousness and become part of a collective narrative of progress. We venerate them, we celebrate them – often on an annual basis – and then either consciously or unconsciously, we assume that history will continue to progress in a linear fashion from that point onward.

The only problem with this assumption is that it doesn’t. And it never has.

Let’s use the first example on the list I just mentioned: abolition. Most of us date the abolition of slavery back to 1865 with the adoption of the 13th amendment – but in truth, abolition resulted from over century of struggle on many different fronts. But it wasn’t a linear struggle. And the struggle is far from over.

During Reconstruction, former slaves did make meaningful political, social and economic gains. Black men voted and even held public office across the South. Biracial experiments in governance flowered. Black literacy surged, surpassing those of whites in some cities. Black schools, churches and social institutions thrived.

But as W.E.B. Du Bois famously wrote “the slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.” After the formal fall of slavery in the South, there was sharecropping, in which black farmers became debt slaves to their white landlords; there was the convict lease system, in which black men were leased out to wealthy plantation owners and corporations; there were widespread lynchings in the South and yes, often in the North as well. There was Jim Crow – a legal caste system that literally divided black and white Americans.

And after the civil rights movement helped bring down segregation, we’ve seen the emergence of the “New Jim Crow” as a result of mass incarceration. As scholar Michelle Alexander and others have pointed out, more black men are currently behind bars or under the thumb of the criminal justice system than there were enslaved at the height of slavery.

Yes, the abolition of slavery was a significant victory and yes, we should celebrate our victories. But we cannot assume that injustice will simply end or evaporate with these victories. More often than not, it morphs into different forms in insidious ways.

It seems to me that liberal Americans – particularly white liberal Americans – chronically underestimate the tenacity and staying power of injustice. Why? Well for one thing, although we don’t often acknowledge it, this country was founded on injustice – on the original sins of indigenous genocide, slavery and the economic supremacy of white property-holding men. Injustice is part of our national DNA. As long as we fail admit this, it’s too easy to ignore the ways injustice is chronically manifest in the life of our country.

Our American political culture reinforces the notion that struggles for liberation invariably lead to the eradication of injustice. The way we memorialize the civil rights movement provides a good example. In her recent book, “A More Beautiful and Terrible History,” Professor Jeanne Theoharis writes powerfully about the ways political elites – who historically fought the passage of civil rights – regularly use this history as proof of how great our country is. President Ronald Reagan for instance, repeatedly resisted efforts to turn Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday into a national holiday. He finally relented however, when he realized he could co-opt MLK and the civil rights movement.

When Reagan signed the bill into law, he said,

We’ve made historic strides since Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus. As a democratic people, we can take pride in the knowledge that that we Americans recognized a grave injustice and took action to correct it. And we should remember that in many countries, people like Dr. King never have the opportunity to speak out at all.

But it’s not only conservative politicians who promote this new mythic history. Theoharis also quotes Barack Obama from a 2007 speech in Selma, Alabama. Referring to the civil rights generation, he said, “They took us 90 percent of the way there, but we still got that 10 percent in order to cross over to the other side.” The implication that we have eradicated 90% of the racial problems in our country is of course, serious political hyperbole. And it speaks to a very common trope in our national culture: that our great nation was founded on a struggle for freedom, that these struggles are what make this country great, and that these struggles somehow eradicate injustice from our midst.

In reality, however, these struggles don’t succeed because of our country – they succeed in spite of our country. And they certainly do not end racism and injustice once and for all. Whether they stem from hyperbole, ideology or unconscious assumptions, I believe that these false tropes breed complacency. After all, why worry too much if we believe history proves our struggle will eradicate injustice in end? And when injustice metastasizes into new and different forms, it upsets our neat, linear assumptions about American progress. As a result, we’re ill-equipped – emotionally and strategically – to respond properly to this new reality.

I’d like to turn now to Jewish tradition and explore whether or not the Torah has anything to offer us on this particular question. It’s often been observed by liberal scholars in fact, that this linear view of historical progress can be traced back to Biblical tradition. According to this school of thought, the polytheistic traditions of the Ancient Near East viewed history as circular, embodied in the never ending, constantly repeating cycles of nature. Israelite monotheism however, upended these traditions, sublimating the gods of nature to the one God of history, who alone could control nature and events according to his will.

Here’s a good representation of this view – I’m quoting from an essay by Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, the former Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary:

The consequences of this shift from nature to history reinforce the idea of ethical monotheism. Judaism develops a linear concept of time as opposed to a cyclical one and sanctifies events rather than places. The mountain of Sinai is not holy, or even known, but the moment of revelation is. The Torah intentionally conceals from us the place where Moses is buried. Time is a medium less susceptible to idolatry or polytheism, in which God’s presence is made manifest audibly rather than visually. Time becomes for Judaism the realm in which humanity and God join to complete together the work of creation…The triumph of morality will eventually render nature perfect, bringing history to its messianic conclusion.

While this is a popular view of many Jewish scholars, I find it to be problematic on so many levels. Particularly this notion that “the triumph of morality will eventually render nature perfect, bringing history to its messianic conclusion.” This kind of linear messianic thinking leads to a concrete end game, a victory that will solve all our problems. Messianic movements of course, have historically arisen during periods of acute crisis – times in which the vision of the ideal world becomes profoundly exciting and intoxicating to the growing numbers of people. But as we know all too well, messianic movements almost always end in upheaval, disillusionment and too often, tragedy.

You don’t have to be fundamentalist or even particularly religious to engage in linear messianic thinking. We all have a tendency, particularly during difficult times, to focus our expectations on an idealized conclusion. While this is undeniably inspiring and motivating, we too often end up mistaking the victories we experience along the way as the end game itself. We fall into the trap of viewing progress as an entitlement rather than something that must be constantly, constantly struggled for in every generation. It sometimes feels to me that this fixation on the end game is itself a kind of idolatry. We might say that we create a false god whenever we objectify one idea or concept or movement as the ultimate panacea for the problems of the world.

This is not however, the only Jewish frame for understanding history. I’d like to suggest another – one that I personally find to be much more helpful and inspiring. It is embodied by the word,“Yisrael” which literally means “one who struggles with God.” In the book of Genesis, Jacob’s name is changed to Yisrael after he wrestles with a mysterious night visitor that turns out later to be God. Jacob is victorious – and this moment marks a critical turning point in his life. But at the same time, he is wounded by the encounter – he limps as he crosses the river the next morning.

It’s also notable that Jacob’s struggle does not end with this one episode. His life certainly does not follow a straight line from this point on. Nor does the journey of the people of Israel who bear his name. In fact, the Torah narrative always ends before the Israelites enter the Promised Land. Just when they arrive at the threshold, we literally rewind the Torah back to the beginning and we start the journey anew. The cycle begins once again.

In other words, redemption is not located in any particular place or point in time – it is experienced in the act of struggle itself. God cannot be found in a land or place, nor at some literal end time. God is in the struggle. We might even say, God is the struggle.

Now I know for some this might seem on the surface to be a bit on the bleak side. Some might of you might be thinking, “Is this all we have to look forward to? Life is just one long endless struggle? And we never even get to the Promised Land? How is this inspiring?

Please understand: I’m not saying we can ever give up on our vision of our the world we want to see. I am suggesting that at some point it is important to let go of the expectation that we must inevitably get there – because I really do believe that holding on too tightly to that expectation is a set up for despair and disillusionment.

Yes, this spiritual frame does involve an acknowledgement that we will not literally arrive in the Promised Land; that the Messiah will not actually come. But at the same time, its worth considering that we do indeed enter into messianic time in ways we never stop to consider: when we show up for our fellow strugglers, when we celebrate our victories along the way, when our efforts are infused with our highest values of justice and equity and sacrifice, at those moments we find ourselves dwelling in the world we’ve been fighting for all along. We experience the world we want to see because we create it for one another.

Struggle is hard work, but if we view it exclusively as a means to an end, it will be only that: hard work. However, if we view struggle as an inherently sacred act, we may yet see the face of God in our comrades and those who have gone before us. We may come to understand that the messianic age is not simply a far off dream. We may yet find we are dwelling in the Promised Land in ways we have never been able to realize before.

According to Jewish tradition, Rosh Hashanah is a kind of “spiritual reboot” for ourselves and our community. In the traditional liturgy we say “Hayom Harat Olam” – it is the birthday of the world! On one level I think this means we never forfeit the ability to view the world with different eyes, through new and different frames. And if we can do this, we may well be able to transform the world itself. Yes, we live in painful, difficult times, but this is nothing new. Yes, there have been significant setbacks to many hard won battles in our country, but the struggle is far from over. In fact, as our liturgy would have it, it may be just beginning.

To all of you in Am Yisrael – and by this I mean all who struggle side by side for the cause of justice in the world – I wish you a heartfelt chazak ve’ematz – strength and courage. May it be a sweet and victorious year for us all.

 

On Rabbi Andy Bachman’s Public Congratulations to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

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Dear Rabbi Bachman,

While I share your admiration for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s recent victory in New York’s 14th Congressional District, I am dismayed by the heavy-handed way you chose to convey your congratulations. I’m referring to your open letter to her (Jewish Journal, 7/4/18) in which you expressed your concern that her public statements about Israel and Palestine indicated a “less than nuanced perspective” and invited her to join you on a tour of the region.

While you did not identify which of her public statements you were referring to, I can only assume you meant this recent tweet, which she posted in response to Israel’s violent military response to Palestinian protesters in Gaza:

This is a massacre. I hope my peers have the moral courage to call it such. No state or entity is absolved of mass shootings of protesters. There is no justification. Palestinian people deserve basic human dignity, as anyone else. Democrats can’t be silent about this anymore.

In a subsequent interview with the Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald, Ocasio-Cortez clarified the motivation behind her statement:

I think I was primarily compelled (to speak out) on moral grounds because I could only imagine if 60 people were shot and killed in Ferguson or if 60 people were shot and killed in the West Virginia teachers’ strikes. The idea that we are not supposed to talk about people dying when they are engaging in political expression just really moved me.

Again, I can only assume these were comments to which you referred. Her tweet was quoted and commented upon extensively in the Jewish press. As far as I can tell, she has made no other public statements on this issue,

Was it her use of the word “massacre” that bothered you? It is admittedly a strong word, but I’m not sure it is inappropriate under the circumstances. Since the weekly protestsbegan in late March, the Israeli military has responded by shooting live ammunition directly into crowds of largely nonviolent protesters nearly 1,000 meters away. To date, over 140 Palestinians have been killed and more than 15,000 have been injured. Almost all causalities have been civilians, of whom at least 1,200 were children treated in hospitals.

Amnesty International has called these killings “murderous,” calling upon “governments worldwide to impose a comprehensive arms embargo on Israel following the country’s disproportionate response.” According to AI’s report:

In most of the fatal cases…victims were shot in the upper body, including the head and the chest, some from behind. Eyewitness testimonies, video and photographic evidence suggest that many were deliberately killed or injured while posing no immediate threat to the Israeli soldiers.

For its part, the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem has referred to Israel’s actions as “criminal” and has publicly called upon soldiers to refuse to open fire on demonstrators in Gaza. Noting that it is a criminal offense to obey patently illegal orders, B’Tselem stated that “as long as soldiers in the field continue to receive orders to use live fire against unarmed civilians, they are duty-bound to refuse to comply.”

Given the findings and public statements of these respected human right organizations, I’m curious what in Ocasio-Cortez’s words you found to be “less than nuanced.” I’m sure you would agree that state violence directed at unarmed protesters should be called out as such. I was struck that in your letter you chose not to identify who actually did the killing and who was actually killed in Gaza, describing the events passively as “recent violence and tragic deaths.” To my mind, this is the kind of “nuance” that ultimately drains all moral context from the facts on the ground.

I’m also troubled that you chose not to respond to her actual words, opting instead to give her a tutorial on the history of Zionism, the Jewish people’s historic connection to the land of Israel and the importance of a two-state solution. You are certainly welcome to your opinions, but I don’t understand what they have to do with her comments or why, under the circumstances, you felt she should take them to heart.

As a public figure, Ocasio-Cortez responded to clear human rights abuses in a forthright and courageous manner. She deserved much more than a condescending lecture and a personal invitation to your own “nuanced” tour of Israel/Palestine.

 

Seder at the Mountaintop: A Guest Post by Jay Stanton

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Delivered by Rabbinic Intern Jay Stanton at the Tzedek Chicago Passover Seder, April 4, 2018.

I have been thinking about the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Today marks 50 years since his assassination, and I have been thinking about how blessed we are by Dr. King. Although his dream of racial equity is not yet realized, King’s vision of a just world and of a beloved community benefits us all. Still on the march to freedom, we shall not be moved. In the words of Ella Baker, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest.”

So tonight bothers me. Why are we here? What are we doing here? We could be spending our time in so many immediately effective ways. We could be on the picket line with striking teachers in Oklahoma and Kentucky. We could be outside the Israeli Embassy protesting the shooting of unarmed Gazan civilians. We could be praying with our feet. Instead, we’re here, engaged in a ritual that involves praying with our taste buds. Why not abandon the traditional Passover rituals and observe the holiday by working for justice? In familiar words, why is this night different from all other nights?

I found the beginnings of an answer in the speech Dr. King gave the day before he died. Often referred to as the “Mountaintop” or “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech, the remarks he offered on April 3, 1968, on behalf of sanitation workers in Memphis are striking (pun intended). The most revisited part chronicles Dr. King’s prophetic sense of his imminent demise. But in the beginning, King imagines the extraordinary opportunity of standing with God.

In Dr. King’s imagination, God offers to take him to any point in time. Martin Luther King says:

I would take my mental flight by Egypt and I would watch God’s children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the promised land. And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn’t stop there.

Though King’s choice is obvious, his purpose is not. Stopping in liberatory moments where freedom of thought and freedom of action expanded, he brings his listeners on his imagined journey through time. Finally, he arrives at the liberatory moment of the Poor People’s Campaign.

After acknowledging the injustices of his world, King continues:

Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee – the cry is always the same: “We want to be free.”

Dr. King echoes a core aspect of the Passover seder. We say bejol dor vador jayyav adam lir’ot et ‘atzmo ke-ilu hu yatza mimitzrayim – in every generation, each person must see themselves as if they themselves went free from Egypt. This fulfills the verse “You shall tell your child on that day that God freed you from Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm.”

We often take this as an echo of Torah’s most repeated rule. Having been strangers in Egypt, we must be kind to the stranger. But we don’t need a seder to have empathy for the stranger. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute have shown that the best way to cultivate empathy is habitual activation of a structure in the brain called the right supermarginal gyrus. We can activate our brain’s empathy structure by focusing on others. Increasing empathy cannot be the effect of telling our story.

Our seder tells us something different, tells us something Dr. King tells us in his Mountaintop speech. For King, humanity is always striving to become free, and God is always liberating the oppressed; today’s freedom marches are the same in sacred time as the Exodus from Egypt. When we see ourselves as if we went forth from Egypt, we live in that sacred moment.

Our seder allows us to live through the Exodus mythologically. Then, not only can we have empathy for the oppressed, we can share the joy of redemption and participate in liberation. For those of us currently experiencing oppression, the seder’s ritual journey allows us to memorize a feeling of having been liberated, which we will recognize when we get there.

In his Mountaintop speech, Dr. King details the ways demonstrators remained unfazed by Bull Connor’s violent tactics, stressing that liberation starts in the mind. Tonight, those of us facing oppression remember that Jews observed Passover even while oppressed – in the ghettos and shtetls of Europe and by the double standard of dhimmi status in the Middle East and North Africa. Black Jewish slaves in the American South also observed Passover, even while owned by Jews. (Yes, there were Jewish slaves and Jewish slave owners in America – feel free to ask me about it later. Can you imagine slaves serving at a Jewish master’s seder and then holding their own seder during the night?) Tonight, the oppressed among us, and those too oppressed to be here with us, assert that our liberation is God’s objective. Ain’t nobody can turn us ‘round.

For those of us currently experiencing freedom, the seder’s journey cultivates gratitude for our liberation and solidarity with the oppressed. Focusing on the Exodus story allowed Dr. King to emphasize solidarity with the striking workers in Memphis. Desegregation was an important step toward collective freedom for Black Americans, but desegregation did not solve the economic injustices of Black generational poverty and wage discrimination. As King points out in his journey through the history of liberation, our specific liberations, whatever they may be, are only pieces of a greater process of redemption. If we are free while others remain oppressed, we are still living in the bondage of a narrow place.

For most of us in this room, the reality is that we experience both oppression and freedom in different moments and in different ways. Some of us may experience sexual harassment at work but enjoy equal partnership at home. Some of us may be targeted by police because of the color of our skin but know simultaneously that Black is beautiful. Some of us may encounter hate from our family members concerning sexual orientation or gender identity, but enjoy the support of our queer beloved community. Some of us may encounter antisemitism from our Congressional candidates or in the newspaper, but benefit from white privilege.

We may be targets of oppression based on class, ability, immigration status, and religious affiliation, to name a few, but none of us are enslaved. We share the freedom of movement that allows us to be in this room tonight. We share the freedoms of religion and free association that allow us to have a seder here tonight. The seder, like our lives, reflects both our oppression and our liberation.

Right now, I invite you to step into this night of transformation. The root of the word “nishtanah” in mah nishtanah is change. What will change on this night, as opposed to other nights? I invite you to open your heart to be transformed by tonight. So that tomorrow when you take action for justice, you experience sacred time. So that tomorrow when you take action for justice, you know that you have been liberated. So that tomorrow when you take action for justice, you have gratitude for the freedom you enjoy. So that tomorrow when you take action for justice, you have a sense of history. So that tomorrow when you take action for justice, you stand on the shoulders of your elders. So that tomorrow when you take action for justice, you do so in a beloved community. So that tomorrow when you take action for justice, you are in solidarity with all the oppressed. So that tomorrow, when you take action for justice, you will not be moved.

Once we were slaves. Now we have been freed. How does that change you?