Category Archives: Racism

Brexit, Trump and the Sorrows of Nationalism

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As I was reading the various analyses of the Brexit vote yesterday, I remembered an article I had read back in 2011 by the International Affairs scholar, Stephen M. Walt. His basic thesis was that despite all of the new global trends in 21st century, nationalism was still “the most powerful political force in the world.”

Walt concluded:

Unless we fully appreciate the power of nationalism, in short, we are going to get a lot of things wrong about the contemporary political life. It is the most powerful political force in the world, and we ignore it at our peril.

I recall being a bit irritated when I that article. Like many, I believed that the world had certainly learned its lesson from two cataclysmic world wars and that for all the problems that came with globalization, nationalism was a relic of the past.

But I’m convinced now. And at the risk of sounding too apocalyptic about it, I’m wondering if the peril we’ve ignored is now at our door.

It’s hard not to see the increasing national fervor developing all around us. Great Britain has voted to exit the European Union and other member countries are threatening to follow suit. Nationalist parties are making big gains in countries around Western Europe and Vladimir Putin has whipped a strong nationalist fervor in Russia. Many countries throughout Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia and the Far East are led by leaders who use nationalist rhetoric to win elections and promote their domestic policies.

I’ve never been a fan of nationalism. I accept that nation states are part of the social, political and economic fabric of the modern world – but I’ve long believed that the nation-statism too often fuses with tribalism – particularly during time of economic instability. This phenomenon, as we know all too well, has inevitably led the modern world to dark and destructive places.

As a Jew, I view the ultra-right nationalism that increasingly grips Israel’s political culture as the inevitable outcome of a nation that predicates its identity on one specific group of people. And as an American, I’m watching the toxic, seething national fervor unleashed by Donald Trump with genuine alarm.

In his article, Walt suggested that the US isn’t as susceptible to overt nationalism as other other countries:

Because American national identity tends to emphasize the civic dimension (based on supposedly universal principles such as individual liberty) and tends to downplay the historic and cultural elements (though they clearly exist).

Yes they clearly do exist in this country. Even if Trump loses in November – and I do believe he will – the sick nationalist fervor he has unleashed will not vanish overnight. Nor will the nations around the world that are currently increasing xenophobia, racism and fear of the other.

Now more than ever we need to stand down the sorrows of nationalism. I don’t think its too alarmist to suggest that we heed the lessons of the past lest it become an unimaginable future. As journalist Ed Fuller recently wrote in the aptly titled article: “Nationalism: Back Again Like a Bad Dream:”

I can’t help but think about the political excesses of the 1930s, the protectionism and the xenophobic zeal that were all part of the Nationalistic wave that swept the world following the First World War.  It ultimately resulted in Japan’s invasion of Manchuria, Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland and Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor, ending with Hiroshima.  Something to think about as we grapple with the challenges facing our world today.

Campus Update: Hateful Islamophobia at IUPUI

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Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) has done important and inspirational work on colleges around the country – often in the face of death threats, harassment and personal attack. The latest example: just this past week, a student leader of the SJP at University of Indiana – Purdue University Indianapolis (UIPUI) named Haneen (I’ve been asked to not use her last name out of concern for her safety) has been subject to threats, harassment and defamation through anonymous blog posts and flyers left on campus.

Among other things, this hate campaign characterized her as an advocate and supporter of terrorism, made sexist comments about her appearance, urged “authorities to look into her history of violence and investigate whether or not she is an immediate threat to…the nation’s capital.” One post attacked her for partnering with Black Lives Matter , calling it “a group that is also prone to acts of violence.” She has also received harassing phone calls at her home.

Haneen has received heartening support from a variety of corners, including a group of seventy five UIPUI faculty members and student who have signed a letter that calls upon UIPUI Chancellor Nasser Paydar to:

(1) to issue a strong public statement condemning these attacks and (2) to make clear the status of the University’s investigation of these heinous acts.

We encourage the Deans of each IUPUI school to educate their communities on sexism, Islamophobia, racism, and other threats to our sense of communal well-being.

We ask every IUPUI community member to challenge sexism, racism, Islamophobia, and all other forms of discrimination in their everyday interactions both on and off campus.

Making clear our university community’s values and mission in the face of fear and intimidation is necessary to creating a welcoming campus for all. Courage, hope, and love can defeat the hatred that has shown its face among us. We pledge to help in whatever ways we can.

I was encouraged to learn that the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council has written Haneen a letter of support as well. Despite the appropriate demands that the University administration take immediate and meaningful action, however, the only response to date has been a bland, general statement from Chancellor Paydar that IUPUI “abhors all forms of racism, bigotry and discrimination, including discrimination based on religious beliefs or political views.” 

Representing the faculty letter signers, lecturer Lindsay Lettrell rightly and eloquently responded:

Dear Chancellor Paydar,

While we welcome your statement affirming that “the university abhors all forms of racism, bigotry and discrimination, including discrimination based on religious beliefs or political views,” we, faculty, staff and student supporters of Haneen, believe that these immediate, specific problems of racism, sexism, and Islamophobia need to named and condemned explicitly. Our student’s safety and future is on the line, and Haneen has asked that her University speak publicly about her right to safety as a part of our campus community. While the generalities in your message are relevant, we still ask you to address this specifically. After all, as the team of her supporters has reminded us, “She is a real person, not an idea. Her name is Haneen. She is Palestinian. She is a Muslim. She is a woman. (And, I add, she is our student.) She has a face. She has a voice. And her voice is our voice.”

Click here to contact Chancellor Paydar and demand that IUPUI denounce this act of hatred and move swiftly to investigate it.

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Yes, Zionism is Settler Colonialism

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Is Zionism “settler colonialism?” It’s an important question that is increasingly invoked in public debates over Israel/Palestine – and BDS in particular.

While I personally do believe Israel to be a settler colonial state, I think it’s critical to understand what we mean when we use this term, what it means in the context of Israel/Palestine, and its implications for the wider struggle against systems of oppression in the US and throughout the world.

Let’s start with the definition itself. Many people use the term “settler colonialism” and “colonialism” interchangeably, but they are not in fact the same thing. Colonialism is defined by the Collins Dictionary as “the policy and practice of a power in extending control over weaker peoples or areas.” Historically speaking, it generally refers to specific European imperial powers during a period that lasted from the 16th to mid-20th centuries.

“Settler colonialism,” is a different concept, as Professor of Anthropology Tate A. LeFevre explains:

Though often conflated with colonialism more generally, settler colonialism is a distinct imperial formation. Both colonialism and settler colonialism are premised on exogenous domination, but only settler colonialism seeks to replace the original population of the colonized territory with a new society of settlers (usually from the colonial metropole). This new society needs land, and so settler colonialism depends primarily on access to territory. Britain, for example, implemented the doctrine of “terra nullius” (“land belonging to no one”) to claim sovereignty over Australia. The entire continent was thereby declared legally uninhabited, despite millennia of Aboriginal occupation.

In other words, while colonialism typically refers to events, settler-colonialism is viewed as an ongoing process. Professor LeFevre puts it this way: “Settler colonialism is premised on occupation and the elimination of the native population, while colonialism is primarily about conquest.”

Given this definition, the claim that Zionism is a form of settler colonialism it is not at all inappropriate and certainly not anti-Semitic (as some of the more vociferous Israel advocates will often claim).

There is, for instance, a striking similarity between the British colonial concept of “terra nullius” and the early Zionist slogan, “a land without a people for a people without a land.” This is not say that Zionists viewed the land as literally empty – they most certainly recognized the existence of an Arab population in Palestine. It does mean, however, that they did not always factor its indigenous inhabitants into their equations – and when they did, it was invariably as a problem to be dealt with.

The father of modern Zionism made this clear in his diary when he wrote of Palestinian Arabs:

We shall try to spirit the penniless population across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries whilst denying it any employment in our own country.

David Ben-Gurion expressed similar intentions in a 1937 letter to his son Amos (who was critical of his father’s intention to support the 1937 Peel Commission partition plan):

My assumption (which is why I am a fervent proponent of a state, even though it is now linked to partition) is that a Jewish state on only part of the land is not the end but the beginning…

The establishment of a state, even if only on a portion of the land, is the maximal reinforcement of our strength at the present time and a powerful boost to our historical endeavors to liberate the entire country.

We shall admit into the state all the Jews we can. We firmly believe that we can admit more than two million Jews. We shall build a multi-faceted Jewish economy– agricultural, industrial, and maritime. We shall organize an advanced defense force—a superior army which I have no doubt will be one of the best  armies in the world. At that point I am confident that we would not fail in settling in the remaining parts of the country, through agreement and understanding with our Arab neighbors, or through some other means.

Thanks to Israeli historians such as Benny Morris, Avi Shlaim, Tom Segev and Ilan Pappe, we now know that the creation of Israel was accomplished through “some other means.”  More recently, journalist Avi Shavit recently made reference to this ignoble history in his book, “My Promised Land.” The most chilling chapter (which was reprinted in the New Yorker magazine) describes in detail the depopulation of the Palestinian village of Lydda.

Even more chilling are Shavit’s musings on the meaning of this tragic event:

Looking straight ahead at Lydda, I wonder if peace is possible. Our side is clear: we had to come into the Lydda Valley and we had to take the Lydda Valley. There is no other home for us, and there was no other way. But the Arabs’ side, the Palestinian side, is equally clear: they cannot forget Lydda and they cannot forgive us for Lydda. You can argue that it is not the occupation of 1967 that is at the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but the tragedy of 1948. It’s not only the settlements that are an obstacle to peace but the Palestinians’ yearning to return, one way or another, to Lydda and to dozens of other towns and villages that vanished during one cataclysmic year. But the Jewish State cannot let them return.

Many who reject the “Zionism as Settler Colonialism” label often argue that this claim ignores the historic and Biblical connection of the Jewish people to the land – and that Jews are its “true indigenous people” who have been longing for a return and restoration to their ancient homeland for centuries.

Leaving aside the use of a profoundly ahistorical document such as the Bible as justification for the establishment for a modern Jewish nation state, let’s look more closely at the Zionist claim of Jewish indigeneity to the land.

It is certainly true following the destruction of the Temple in 73 CE and the spread of the Jewish people throughout the diaspora, Jewish tradition continued to maintain an important attachment to the land of Israel. Eretz Yisrael (“the Land of Israel”) is a central subject in many sacred Jewish texts and numerous traditional Jewish prayers express a longing for a return of the Jewish people to the land. It is also true that there have been small Jewish communities in historic Palestine throughout the ages and that pilgrimage to Eretz Yisrael was considered to be a mitzvah  (“or sacred commandment”.)

However, it is important to note that the Jewish attachment to this land has traditionally been expressed as an inherently religious connection. From its very beginnings, Judaism has spiritualized the concept of the land. Moreover, throughout the centuries, rabbinical authorities strictly prohibited an en masse return to the land in order to establish a Third Jewish Commonwealth. Such an act was viewed as an anathema – a profane forcing of God’s hand. The restoration of the Jewish People to the land would only occur with the coming of the Messiah and the onset of the Messianic Era.

It is against this context that we must understand Zionism as a modern political movement, arising in the 19th century as an explicit rejection of Jewish tradition. While Judaism was a diaspora-based religion that taught God could be found anywhere in the world, Zionism preached “shlilat hagalut” (“negation of the diaspora”), advocating for a literal return to the land in order to establish a modern Jewish nation state. Influenced by the European nationalisms of its day, Zionism sought to create a new kind of Judaism and indeed, a new kind of Jew.

This radical revisioning of Jewish life and culture in many ways represents the exact opposite of indigeneity. Indigenous peoples by definition maintain unique cultural and linguistic practices distinctive to their presence in a particular land. Zionism created a completely new Hebraic Jewish culture – one that was deeply influenced by a European Ashkenazic ethos and transplanted into the Middle East. To be clear: this is not to say that Jews have no connection to this land and no right to live there, only that the claim of Jewish indigeneity is ideological, rather than factual – and that this claim has had a devastating impact on the actual indigenous people of this land.

Other critics of the settler colonialist label point out that there is no such thing as a discrete “Zionism;” that this movement was historically made up of many different Zionisms, not all of which shared the same political goals. There were, for instance, cultural Zionists such as Ahad Ha’am who did not share Herzl’s desire of a Jewish political state but rather advocated for a gradual colonization of Palestine that would make it the center of a Jewish cultural renaissance. There also Zionists such as Judah Magnes and Hannah Arendt, who believed in the creation of a bi-national Jewish/Arab state in Palestine.

These variants of Zionism represent an important fact of history. But it is also true that they are precisely that: part of the historical past. If Magnes or Arendt were living today, they would surely be considered “anti-Zionist”. In the end, the form of Zionism that ultimately triumphed was the political Zionism advocated by those who sought to create a sovereign Jewish state in historic Palestine. And it was this Zionism that aimed to solve the problem of Palestine’s indigenous population “through some other means” – that is, by means of settler colonialism.

In one of the most comprehensive treatments I’ve yet read on this subject, Bennett Muraskin writes:

Zionism is described by its supporters as the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, but it must be recognized that until the 1947 UN Partition Plan, the land it sought to liberate had a minority of Jews, consisting mainly of recent Europeans immigrants living under the protection of an imperial power. When the British turned against the Jewish colony, the Zionists succeeded in liberating themselves, but in the war it fought with the Palestinian Arabs and Arab armies, the Zionists dispossessed the native population.

In this sense, Israel is a colonial settler state.

Muraskin, however, then goes on to list the ways that make Israel different from other settler colonial states.  His intention, I assume, is to leave open the possibility that it somehow isn’t. This equivocal attitude is obvious from the outset – Muraskin’s article is actually entitled “Is Israel a Colonial Settler State? Perhaps but with Lots of Provisos.”

In the end, however, I believe these “provisos” only demonstrate that Zionism represents but one form of settler colonialism. One obvious difference is that Israel was created by what began as a small movement, not an existing colonial power such as Great Britain, France or Belgium. However it is also true that Israel could never have been created without the help of great world powers (Britain and later the US) who supported the creation of the Jewish state because it advanced their own imperial agendas. James Baldwin put it very aptly in 1979: “The state of Israel was not created for the salvation of the Jews; it was created for the salvation of the Western interests.”

In the end, this insight explains why the debate over this term is more than just academic or semantical. Israel’s oppressive policies against the Palestinians do not exist in a vacuum. They are but part of a larger hegemonic system of white supremacy and institutionalized racism that exists in the US and throughout the world.

As Professor LeFevre writes, “Settler colonialism does not really ever ‘end.’”  Perhaps the first step in that direction is to call it out for what it really and truly is.

Shabbat Shalom, Donald Trump!

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Here is the letter I included in my weekly Friday e-mail to my congregants at Tzedek Chicago:

Dear Haverim,

One week ago, Tzedek Chicago cancelled its regularly scheduled Shabbat service in order to attend the Trump protest that was being held outside the UIC Pavilion. It just felt as if this was just too critical a moment to let pass by, particularly for a congregation committed to social justice and anti-racism. As I wrote to you in last week’s email: “Clearly this is not the most conventional way to greet Shabbat. Nevertheless, I do believe – and trust you will agree – that this is where we need to be.”

In the end, about twenty Tzedek members attended the event – and I think all who were there would agree with me that I say it was one of the most powerful Shabbat moments we have ever experienced.

When we arrived there was still a very long line of people waiting to get into the arena. We couldn’t help but notice that the attendees were exceedingly diverse: there were people wearing Trump swag along with women in hijabs, men and women cheering for Trump alongside African Americans wearing “Black Lives Matter” shirts. While it was clearly a tense and uncomfortable atmosphere, there was was no physical violence we could see among those waiting in line.

When we crossed the street to where the protest was being held, we were swept into a huge sea of people that was quickly being cordoned off by a massive police presence. As the crowd grew, it grew more difficult to keep our contingent together – and eventually we were separated into groups. A variety of different speakers took the microphone and led chants as those attending the rally continued to file into the pavilion.

While the majority of protestors seemed to be of college age, it was clearly an ethnically diverse crowd. It also quickly became evident that this protest was not just about Donald Trump. As Tzedek member Liz Rose subsequently wrote in her post for the blog Mondoweiss:

People came primarily to protest Trump, of course.  But they were trying to draw attention to other pertinent issues as well (issues which might only worsen if Trump is elected).  The diverse crowd was a convergence of these frustrations.  Some protesters carried signs calling for Anita Alvarez to leave Chicago with Trump (Alvarez is the District Attorney who waited a year before bringing murder charges against the officer in the Laquan McDonald case).  Many Chicago public school teachers were at the rally, wearing the red t-shirts that marked the 2012 strike (the Chicago Teachers’ Union is currently prepared to strike again if an agreement cannot be reached regarding their contract).  Black Lives Matter signs and t-shirts were seen throughout the crowds as well, joined by chanting of the now-famous phrase…A scattering of signs showing solidarity with Palestine could be seen throughout the rally.

When word spread through the crowd that Trump had cancelled his event, we were quite simply, dumbstruck. None of us expected this to happen, nor did we ever believe it to be the goal of the protest. At any rate, our shock soon turned to joy and celebration when we realized that together, we had managed to keep the world’s most public purveyor of hate speech from speaking in Chicago.

After celebrating the moment, a group of us walked over to a nearby park and made kiddush and motzi together. It was, as I has suspected it would be, a Shabbat like no other.

Many of us had friends who were on the inside of the pavilion who told us later that there was no real violence in the arena either. Contrary to news reports, the attendees waited together fairly quietly until it was officially announced that the rally was being cancelled. At that point, anti-Trump protestors started cheering and celebrating. This precipitated some scuffling, pushing and shoving in some parts of the arena. But as my friends all reported to me, there was nothing they would describe as “violence.”

In fact, considering that this protest had no clear leaders or organizers, the level of restraint we witnessed outside was quite remarkable – which is why I was truly dismayed to see our protest portrayed as a violent melee in news reports. That is, alas, the power of our 24 hour media. (I couldn’t help but notice that TV reports on the protest repeated the same one or two clips of pushing and shoving over and over.)

I do believe that the media’s characterization of these events follows a common narrative – one that repeatedly portrays street as protesters disruptive trouble makers who are only interested in shutting down freedom of speech. (Leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement surely know this media narrative all to well.) In fact, as any who have attended such protests in Chicago will attest, the overwhelming majority of these protests are nonviolent actions organized to raise a collective voice against racism and injustice.

I’m also struck by those who claim that these kinds of protests infringe on “freedom of speech.” It’s a curious use of the term. The First Amendment of the Constitution, in fact, is intended to be a restriction on the government’s ability to prohibit the public from exercising their freedom of speech. That certainly does not apply in this case. If Freedom of Speech has any relevance to this particular situation at all, it is that “we the people” had exercised our right to freely assemble and protest. (There are, however, laws that prohibit hate speech – laws that might certainly apply to one such as Trump.)

I can’t vouch for what might have happened at rallies in other cities, but I suspect the protesters were nowhere near as violent as the media (and Trump) would have us believe. As a result, some on the left are counseling passivity and quiet is the best course of action in response to a “bigot and bully” such as Trump.

I disagree. Generations from now, we will be asked where we were during Trump’s toxic Presidential campaign. I’m proud to say we were among those who stood up and kept him from spreading his hate in our city.

On Sukkot and the Struggles Over Chicago’s Dyett High School and the South Side Trauma Center

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We’re currently in the midst of the Jewish festival of Sukkot – the harvest festival that commemorates the wanderings of the Israelites in the wilderness. I’ve always been fascinated tension by an inherent tension in this holiday: on the one hand Sukkot is referred to as “Zman Simchateinu,” the “time of our rejoicing,” but it is also a time tinged with seriousness and an innate sense of existential fragility.

Yes, this is the season in which we rejoice over our bountiful harvest – but this is also the time in which we plant a new set of crops and begin our prayers for rain, keenly aware that they/we are ultimately dependent upon forces outside our control. Yes, we rejoice as we arrive at this latest point in our journey – but we build and dwell in impermanent sukkot, as if to acknowledge the challenges and trials that most certainly await us on the road ahead.

I can’t help but think of this Sukkot-tension in relation to two local struggles going on here in Chicago. The first is the movement to save Dyett High School in the South side neighborhood of Bronzeville. Dyett was one of the many Chicago public schools that was closed by the city in predominantly black and brown communities. In response, a local coalition formed that developed an extensive plan to reopen Dyett as open enrollment neighborhood school focused on Global Leadership and Green Technology.

After first refusing, CPS eventually agreed to consider the community’s plan – but when it became clear that CPS had no intention in engaging in an honest, engaged process with the community, twelve members of the coalition went on a hunger strike in protest. (It was my honor, along with members of my congregation Tzedek Chicago, to draft a Jewish community letter to Mayor Rahm Emanuel demanding that he respond to the Dyett hunger strikers request. We delivered it to the mayor’s office on the second day of Rosh Hashanah)

After three weeks, CPS announced a “compromise.” It would reopen Dyett as a neighborhood public school, but not according to the Global Leadership Plan or any of the two other plans that had since been put forth. At the time the hunger strikers rejected this decision, stating that it was made over the heads of community members and without any due consideration of the desires of those who actually live in Bronzeville. The hunger strike continued on for a total of 34 days before they ended their action due to the health concerns of some of the strikers.

In announcing the end of the strike, hunger striker Monique Redeaux-Smith commented:

While we cannot yet claim complete victory, we do understand that our efforts so far have been victorious in a number of ways … Last year, Dyett was closed. But through community resistance, it was slated to be reopened in 2016 and ’17. And even though there was a request for proposals, we know that the plan was for that space to become another privatized school within Bronzeville. But again, through community resistance and this hunger strike, we pushed CPS and the mayor to commit to reopening Dyett as a public, open-enrollment neighborhood school. So that is an accomplishment.

The other local struggle I’m thinking of this Sukkot is the movement to establish a Level 1 trauma center on Chicago’s south side.  There are eight adult trauma centers serving Chicago, but none are in this area that includes some of the city’s most gun violence-prone neighborhoods. Victims of gun violence are much more likely to die when more than five miles from a trauma center. As a result, large sections of the south side comprise Chicago’s only “trauma center desert.”

The campaign for a south side Level 1 adult trauma center was formally launched after 18-year-old student and youth activist Damian Turner was shot near the corner of 51st Street and Cottage Grove Avenue, just a few blocks away from the University of Chicago hospital. Turner was transported to a hospital farther away due to the absence of a nearby Level 1 trauma center, but he died an hour-and-a-half later.

The trauma center coalition was led by the remarkable youth-based grassroots organization, Fearless Leading by the Youth. Here’s an excerpt from an interview with FLY organizer Veronica Morris Moore:

As a young Black queer organizer, I feel affirmed by the trauma center campaign. The principles of the BLM movement helped us frame our tactic around the Obama library and I believe that framing our message with BLM principles put the [University of Chicago] in a big spotlight locally and nationally in terms of race issues. Having this national conversation about police shootings created opportunities to address gun violence in the Black community and the reality and root of the problem. Gun violence is the leading killer of young Black people in poor neighborhoods across this nation, and growing up on the South Side of Chicago, FLY members understand that gun violence stems from the economic violence that bankrupts our communities and bankrolls big business hospitals like the University of Chicago.

Like the Dyett HS struggle, this grassroots effort leveraged people power to shift political power. On September 10, the University of Chicago and Sinai Health System announced that they would partner to open a Level-I Adult Trauma Center at Holy Cross Hospital. But like the Dyett struggle, it was clear to organizers that the victory was not complete – having been made with no accountability or transparency to the community impacted by this decision. Moreover, in making their decision, the University of Chicago reneging on its previous commitment to raise the age of its pediatric trauma center.

If you are a member of the Chicago Jewish community you should should know that on Sunday, November 1, the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs – one of the members of the trauma center coalition – will host “L’Chaim: JCUA Community Meeting for Trauma Care” at KAM Isaiah, 1100 E. Hyde Park Ave. This meeting will provide an important opportunity to:

► Celebrate the growing momentum of this campaign, and be a part of the next victory.
► Take part in one of the most important racial justice issues facing Chicago today.
► Hear from the youth leaders that started the campaign for trauma care.
► Take action so the University of Chicago keeps all of its commitments for trauma care.

This Sukkot, let us rejoice in our victories – and let us give each other strength for the struggle that inevitably lays ahead…

The Uprooted and Unwanted: A Sermon for Tzedek Chicago’s First Yom Kippur Service

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Like you, I’ve been profoundly horrified by the refugee crisis that has resulted from Syria’s ongoing civil war. The reports and images and statistics continue to roll out every day and the sheer level of human displacement is simply staggering to contemplate. Since 2011, over half of that country’s entire population has been uprooted. At present, there are more than 4 million Syrian refugees are registered with the UN. Another 7 million have been internally displaced. Experts tell us we are currently witnessing the worst refugee crisis of our generation.

The tragic reality of forced migration has been brought home to us dramatically this past summer – but of course, this crisis did not just begin this year and Syria is not the only country in the region affected by this refugee crisis. Scores are also fleeing civil war and violence from countries such as Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and Yemen. In all of 2014, approximately 219,000 people from these countries tried to cross the Mediterranean to seek asylum in Europe. According the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, in just the first eight months of 2015, over 300,000 refugees tried to cross the sea – and more than 2,500 died.

And of course this issue is not just limited to the Middle East. It extends to places such as Latin and Central America and Sub-Saharan Africa as well – and it would be not at all be an exaggeration to suggest that the crisis of forced human migration is reaching epidemic proportions. Just this past June, the UN High Commissioner on Refugees issued a report that concluded that “wars, conflict and persecution have forced more people than at any other time since records began to flee their homes and seek refuge and safety elsewhere.”

It is all too easy to numb ourselves to reports such as these – or to simply throw up our hands and chalk it up to the way of the world. But if Yom Kippur is to mean anything, I would suggest it demands that we stand down our overwhelm. To investigate honestly why this kind of human dislocation exists in our world and openly face the ways we are complicit in causing it. And perhaps most importantly to ask: if we are indeed complicit in this crisis, what is our responsibility toward ending it?

There is ample evidence that we as Americans, are deeply complicit in the refugee crises in the Middle East. After all, the US has fueled the conflicts in all five of the nations from which most refugees are fleeing – and it is directly responsible for the violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.

In Iraq, our decade-long war and occupation resulted in the deaths of at least a million people and greatly weakened the government. This in turn created a power vacuum that brought al-Qaeda into the country and led to the rise of ISIS. Over 3.3 million people in Iraq have now been displaced because of ISIS.

In Afghanistan, the US occupation continues and we are war escalating the war there, in spite of President Obama’s insistence that it would end by 2014. According to the UN, there are 2.6 million refugees coming out of Afghanistan.

In Libya, the US-led NATO bombing destroyed Qaddafi’s government. At the time, then Secretary of State Clinton joked to a news reporter, “We came, we saw, he died.” Shortly after Libya was wracked with chaos that led to the rise of ISIS affiliates in northern Africa. Many thousands of Libyans are now fleeing the country, often on rickety smuggler boats and rafts. The UN estimates there are over 360,000 displaced Libyans.

In Yemen, a coalition of Middle Eastern nations, led by Saudi Arabia and backed by the US, has been bombarding Yemen for half a year now, causing the deaths of over 4,500 people. We continue to support this coalition, despite the fact that human rights organizations are accusing it of war crimes that include the intentional targeting of civilians and aid buildings. As a result, the UN says, there are now over 330,000 displaced Yemenis.

And the US is not free of responsibility for the crisis in Syria either. For years now, we have been meddling in that civil war, providing weapons to rebels fighting Assad’s government. But since the rise of ISIS the US has backed away from toppling his regime – and there are now reports that the US and Assad have even reached “an uncomfortable tacit alliance.”

Despite our role in the Syrian civil war, our government is taking in relatively few refugees from that country. Just last Monday, Secretary of State Kerry announced that the US would increase the number of refugees to 100,000 by 2017, saying “This step is in the keeping with America’s best tradition as land of second chances and a beacon of hope.” In reality, however, this number is still a drop in the bucket relative to the dire need – and only an eighth of the number that Germany has pledged to take in this year.

Kerry’s comment, of course, expresses a central aspect of the American mythos – but in truth it is one that flies in the face of history. While we like to think of ourselves “as a land of second chances and a beacon of hope,” these words mask a darker reality: it is a hope that only exists for some – and it has largely been created at the expense of others. Like many empires before us, our nation was established – upon the systemic dislocation of people who are not included in our “dream.”

If we are to own up to our culpability in today’s crises of forced human migration, we must ultimately reckon with reality behind the very founding of our country. The dark truth is that our country’s birth is inextricably linked to the dislocation and ethnic cleansing of indigenous peoples this land. It was, moreover, built upon the backs of slaves who were forcibly removed from their homes and brought to this country in chains. It is, indeed, a history we have yet to collectively own up to as a nation. We have not atoned for this legacy of human dislocation. On the contrary, we continue to rationalize it away behind the myths of American exceptionalism: a dream of hope and opportunity for all.

And there’s no getting around it: those who are not included in this “dream” – the dislocated ones, if you will – are invariably people of color. Whether we’re talking about Native Americans and African Americans, the Latino migrants we imprison and deport, or the Syrian, Iraqi, Afghani or Yemini refugees of the Middle East. If we are going to reckon with this legacy, we cannot and must not avoid the context of racism that has fueled and perpetuated it.

As a Jew, of course, I think a great deal about our legacy of dislocation. To be sure, for most of our history we have been a migrating people. Our most sacred mythic history describes our ancestors’ travels across the borders of the Ancient Near East and the Israelites’ wanderings in the wilderness. And in a very real sense, our sense of purpose has been honored by our migrations throughout the diaspora – yes, too often forcibly, but always with a sense of spiritual purpose. For centuries, to be a Jew meant to be part of a global peoplehood that located divinity anywhere our travels would take us.

Our sacred tradition demands that we show solidarity with those who wander in search of a home. The most oft-repeated commandment in the Torah, in fact, is the injunction against oppressing the stranger because we ourselves were once strangers in the land of Egypt. And given our history, it’s natural that we should find empathy and common cause with the displaced and uprooted.

However, I do fear that in this day and age of unprecedented Jewish success – and dare I say, Jewish privilege – we are fast losing sight of this sacred imperative. One of my most important teachers in this regard is the writer James Baldwin, who was an unsparingly observer of the race politics in America. In one particularly searing essay, which he wrote in 1967, Baldwin addressed the issue of Jewish “whiteness” and privilege in America. It still resonates painfully to read it today:

It is galling to be told by a Jew whom you know to be exploiting you that he cannot possibly be doing what you know he is doing because he is a Jew. It is bitter to watch the Jewish storekeeper locking up his store for the night, and going home. Going, with your money in his pocket, to a clean neighborhood, miles from you, which you will not be allowed to enter. Nor can it help the relationship between most Negroes and most Jews when part of this money is donated to civil rights. In the light of what is now known as the white backlash, this money can be looked on as conscience money merely, as money given to keep the Negro happy in his place, and out of white neighborhoods.

One does not wish, in short, to be told by an American Jew that his suffering is as great as the American Negro’s suffering. It isn’t, and one knows that it isn’t from the very tone in which he assures you that it is…

For it is not here, and not now, that the Jew is being slaughtered, and he is never despised, here, as the Negro is, because he is an American. The Jewish travail occurred across the sea and America rescued him from the house of bondage. But America is the house of bondage for the Negro, and no country can rescue him. What happens to the Negro here happens to him because he is an American.

In other essays, Baldwin referred to white immigrant success in America as “the price of the ticket” – in other words, the price for Jewish acceptance into white America was the betrayal of the most sacred aspects of our spiritual and historical legacy. We, who were once oppressed wanderers ourselves, have now found a home in America. But in so doing we have been directly or indirectly complicit in the systematic oppression and dislocation of others.

On Rosh Hashanah I talked about another kind of Jewish deal called Constantinian Judaism – or the fusing of Judaism and state power. And to be sure, if we are to talk about our culpability this Yom Kippur in the crime of forced migration, we cannot avoid reckoning with the devastating impact the establishment of the state of Israel has had on that land’s indigenous people – the Palestinian people.

According to Zionist mythos, the Jewish “return” to land was essentially a “liberation movement.” After years of migration through the diaspora, the Jewish people can finally at long last come home – to be, as the national anthem would have it, “a free people in their own land.”

The use of the term “liberation” movement, of course is a misnomer. It would be more accurate to term Zionism as a settler colonial project with the goal of creating an ethnically Jewish state in a land that already populated by another people. By definition the non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine posed an obstacle to the creation of a Jewish state. In order to fulfill its mandate as a political Jewish nation, Israel has had to necessarily view Palestinians as a problem to somehow be dealt with.

Put simply, the impact of Jewish nation-statism on the Palestinian people has been devastating. The establishment of Israel – a nation designed to end our Jewish wanderings – was achieved through the forced dislocation of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes, which were either destroyed completely or occupied by Jewish inhabitants.

In turn, it created what is now the largest single refugee group in the world and our longest running refugee crisis. Millions of Palestinians now live in their own diaspora, forbidden to return to their homes or even set foot in their homeland. Two and a half million live under military occupation in the West Bank where their freedom of movement is drastically curtailed within an extensive regime of checkpoints and heavily militarized border fences. And nearly two million live in Gaza, most of them refugees, literally trapped in an open-air prison where their freedom of movement is denied completely.

This, then, is our complicity – as Americans, as Jews. And so I would suggest, this Yom Kippur, it is our sacred responsibility to openly confess our culpability in this process of uprooting human beings from their homes so that we might find safety, security and privilege in ours. But when then? Is our confession merely an exercise in feeling bad about ourselves, in self-flagellation? As Jay said to us in his sermon last night, “Our sense of immense guilt over our sins, collective and individual, could paralyze us. How do we move forward with teshuvah when the task is so great?”

According to Jewish law, the first step in teshuvah is simply recognizing that a wrong has been committed and confessing openly to it. This in and of itself is no small thing. I daresay with all of the media attention to the Syrian refugee crisis, there is precious little, if any, discussion of the ways our nation might be complicit in creating it. And here at home, we are far from a true reckoning over the ways our white supremacist legacy has dislocated Native Americans and people of color in our own country. And needless to say, the Jewish community continually rationalizes away the truth of Israel’s ongoing injustice toward the Palestinian people.

So yes, before we can truly atone, we must first identify the true nature of our wrongdoings and own them – as a community – openly and together. The next step is to make amends – to engage in a process of reparations to effect real transformation and change. But again, the very prospect of this kind of communal transformation feels too overwhelming , too messianic to even contemplate. How do we even begin to collectively repair wrongs of such a magnitude?

I believe the answer, as ever, is very basic. We begin by joining together, by building coalitions, by creating movements. We know that this kind of organizing has the power to effect very real socio-political change in our world. We have seen it happen in countries such as South Africa and Ireland and we’ve seen it here at home – where Chicago became the first city in the country to offer monetary reparations to citizens who were tortured by the police. In this, as in the aforementioned examples, the only way reparations and restorative justice was achieved was by creating grassroots coalitions that leveraged people power to shift political power.

And that is why we’ve prominently identified “solidarity” as one of our congregation’s six core values:

Through our activism and organizing efforts, we pursue partnerships with local and national organizations and coalitions that combat institutional racism and pursue justice and equity for all. We promote a Judaism rooted in anti-racist values and understand that anti-Semitism is not separate from the systems that perpetuate prejudice and discrimination. As members of a Jewish community, we stand together with all peoples throughout the world who are targeted as “other.”

How do we effect collective atonement? By realizing that we are not in this alone. By finding common cause with others and marching forward. It is not simple or easy work. It can be discouraging and depleting. It does not always bear fruit right away and it often feels as if we experience more defeats than successes along the way. But like so many, I believe we have no choice but to continue the struggle. And I am eager and excited to begin to create new relationships, to participate as a Jewish voice in growing coalitions, with the myriad of those who share our values. I can’t help but believe these connections will ultimately reveal our true strength.

I’d like to end now with a prayer – I offer it on behalf of refugees and migrants, on behalf of who have been forced to wander in search of a home:

Ruach Kol Chai – Spirit of All that Lives:

Help us. Help us to uphold the values that are so central to who we are: human beings created in the image of God. Help us to find compassion in our hearts and justice in our deeds for all who seek freedom and a better life. May we find the strength to protect and plead the cause of the dislocated and uprooted, the migrant and the refugee.

Guide us. Guide us toward one law. One justice. One human standard of behavior toward all. Move us away from the equivocation that honors the divine image in some but not in others. Let us forever affirm that the justice we purport to hold dear is nothing but a sham if it does not uphold basic human dignity for all who dwell in our midst.

Forgive us. Forgive us for the inhumane manner that in which we too often treat the other. We know, or should, that when it comes to crimes against humanity, some of us may be guilty, but all of us are responsible. Grant us atonement for the misdeeds of exclusion we invariably commit against the most vulnerable members of society: the uprooted and unwanted, the unhoused, the uninsured, the undocumented.

Strengthen us. Strengthen us to find the wherewithal to shine your light into the dark places of our world. Give us ability to uncover those who are hidden from view, locked away, forgotten. Let us never forget that nothing is hidden and no one lost from before you. Embolden us in the knowledge that no one human soul is disposable or replaceable; that we can never, try as we might, uproot another from before your sight.

Remind us. Remind us of our duty to create a just society right here, right now, in our day. Give us the vision of purpose to guard against the complacency of the comfortable – and the resolve in knowing that we cannot put off the cause of justice and freedom for another day. Remind us that the time is now. Now is the moment to create your kingdom here on earth.

Ken Yehi Ratzon. May it be your will. And may it be ours.

And let us say,

Amen.

Kevin Coval Rewrites the Haftarah for Yom Kippur – Chicago Style

Jeffrey_Conroy_mosaic_2

mosaic by Jeffrey Conroy

Written and read by Chicago poet Kevin Coval as the Haftarah for Tzedek Chicago’s Yom Kippur service yesterday:


atoning for the neo-liberal in all or rahm emmanuel as the chicken on Kapparot

written on the eve and day of Yom Kippur

Do you call that a fast,
A day when the Lord is favorable?
No, this is the fast I desire:
To unlock the fetters of wickedness,
And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free;
Isaiah 58: 5-6

you are the first jewish mayor of Chicago
but have not yet lit one yahrzeit candle
for constituents murdered by the police.

you vacation in montana with the governor
bring your family to Chile on a whim
and never worry about crossing borders
or encountering their patrolmen
or the rent upon return.

your grandparents sought refuge here.
escaping those trying to end them.
they came, worked, learned, created
a life that enabled your parents to raise you
in the suburbs: the immigrant face of the american dream.

when your parents took you
to visit sick children in Israel
you cried. now you clothe
feed, care and ensure
your children’s safe passage
and university of Chicago
lab school tuition, $30000
per year, but you have closed
over fifty public schools
in neighborhoods your family
used to live in. neighborhoods
you no longer live in or love
or allow your children to visit.
neighborhoods bustling with Black
and Brown bodies, whose children
must cross borders called gang lines
you are well aware of, yet wonder
why the murder rates rises.

you dismantle the same system in which your family benefited:
union pay, livable wages, park space safe enough to play outside
arts funding to take ballet, a decent well-rounded public education.

the same ladder your family climbed
you kick the rungs from.

if the schools, housing, health care
trauma centers and corners that cause trauma
are fair across this flat, segregated land-
then eat today. every day there is a harvest
on the carcass of this city for sale. the satiated
carve at a distance, plan and map and redistrict

with careless indifference. how many times
have you been to Kenwood, Woodlawn
Lawndale. what are the names of the people
you know there. what homes have you sat in.

how can you fast
this week, when food
was refused by grandmothers
and educators and organizers
in your back yard, in the front
lawn of a school Chief Keef attended
in a neighborhood you militarize;
more guns and police your solution
to poverty or an extermination strategy.

how can you fast
when those on hunger
strike you couldn’t stand
with in the same room
in a public forum
which is your job by the way:
to listen. you are the antithetical
Studs Terkel.

this not the city he loved
to listen to, not the city
your grandparents were promised

where is your apology
for sending so many jobs elsewhere
for privileging your childrens’ future
and pillaging others’

what do you know of labor
and no savings account and counting
pennies for a pass, for permission to move
or see a movie or museum in this city
of no access and grand canyons of inequity.

your middle name is Israel
it’s come to mean apartheid
in the city, you are mayor
and in Palestine, the city
your family colonized.

there is no safety
said my G-d
for the wicked (1)

for the divvier of cities
for the divider of nations
for the ignorer of horror
for the builder of walls

atone for the smug assuredness
atone for the maintenance of two cities
stratified and unrecognizable to the other
atone for the bounty of the north side
the scarcity of the south
the want of the west
atone for the erasure of the public
school, space, housing, parking
atone for the centrism, the move right
the cow-tow to corporations
atone for the inconceivable income disparity
between those funding your campaign
and those over which you reign
atone for the city’s change
it’s white wash and removable
workers who used to make it
work by working
in jobs with pensions
and benefits
atone for the benefits we have
by merely being white
on the north side of the city
country where that is enough
to make you safe and not think
about driving a car or going
for a jog or walk outside
atone for the rite to the city
that’s for some, not for all
not for real

israel means may G-d prevail

and we pray that’s real, for real
amen
____________________________
Isaiah 57:21 (1)