Category Archives: Torture

Root Causes of Forced Migration from Honduras: Some Background


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.



Blowing the Whistle: A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5774


I’m sure many of you remember the story of John Walker Lindh, a young American citizen who converted to Islam as a teenager and eventually went to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban. Lindh was captured by the US military in November 2001 and was eventually brought back to the US to stand trial.  It was the Justice Department’s first high-profile case in the post-9/11 war on terror.

While many are familiar with the story of the so-called “American Taliban,” I’m sure far fewer know the story of a woman named Jesselyn Radack, who was a legal advisor to the Justice Department at the time.  Shortly after Lindh was arrested, Radack received a call from an FBI attorney, who asked her about the ethics of interrogating Lindh without a lawyer present, specifically mentioning that Lindh’s father had retained counsel for his son. Radack told the FBI that under no circumstances could Lindh be interviewed without his lawyer present.

In spite of her clear response – and numerous follow-up emails to that effect – John Walker Lindh was subsequently interrogated without counsel. Attorney General John Ashcroft then held a press conference where he stated, bald-faced, “The subject here is entitled to choose his own lawyer and to our knowledge has not chosen a lawyer at this time.”  It was clear to Jesselyn Raddack that Ashcroft and the Justice Department had lied to the American public about its legal handling of John Walker Lindh.

Around this time, Radack discovered the emails she had written to the FBI – emails that explicitly spelled out Lindh’s rights – had disappeared from the Justice Department office files.  When she realized what was going on, she resigned her post. To her mind, something very, very wrong was going on and she refused to be party to it.

When Lindh’s initial hearing began, it became clear to Radack that none of her emails had been presented to the judge on the case – communications that were clearly germane to Lindh’s defense.  Now Radack was now faced with an even more powerful ethical decision.  She could do nothing, which would in effect continue the cover-up, or she could blow the whistle on the Justice Department.

So in June of 2002, three weeks before Lindh’s hearing was to take place, Jesselyn Radack downloaded the emails from her personal files and sent them to Newsweek magazine. Her revelation of the Justice Department’s malfeasance had a powerful impact on the government’s case.  Although he originally faced three life sentences, Lindh eventually plea-bargained to 20 years in prison without possibility of parole.

For her part, Radack’s whistleblowing came at a huge price, as she knew it would.  The Justice Department subsequently brought a criminal case against her, although she was never told for what she was being investigated or for what she might be charged.  She also lost her new job at a private law firm after her former government employers put pressure on her partners.   The Justice Department then referred her for discipline to her bar associations, effectively rendering her unemployable. As a final insult, she was placed on the national “no-fly” list.

The criminal case against Radack was later dropped without explanation and she was eventually removed from the no-fly list, but the damage to her career and her livelihood was permanent.  Her experience obviously cost her any future in government, but in the end it led her to a different calling.  Radack now devotes her life to defending whistleblowers at the Government Accountability Project.

I first learned about Jesselyn Radack’s story when I read an article she wrote about it in, of all places, Reform Judaism magazine.  In the article Radack, who is an active member of the Jewish community, wrote openly and passionately about the Jewish values that lay behind her actions. She quoted her adult Bat Mitzvah Torah portion: “Lo ti’eh aharay rabim” – “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do wrong” (Exodus 22:3) – a dictum she says has motivated her ethical decision-making ever since.

Here’s what Radack had to say in the conclusion of the article:

People also ask me if this experience has engendered a crisis of faith. On the contrary, Judaism has helped me get through this difficult period. My (rabbis have) been sympathetic and supportive. I have also drawn strength from the writings of Rabbi Harold Kushner, who taught me that God did not cause my suffering and could not prevent it.  Rabbi Kushner’s re-interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve teaches that the ability to choose between right and wrong is what makes us human. God does not interfere with that choice. But God can give us the strength of character we need to handle the consequences.

I chose my conscience over my career and take pride in having spoken truth to power.

I remember reading that article back in 2006 – and in particular I remember being deeply affected by the religious and moral convictions that motivated her actions.  On a personal level, I’d always been a strong advocate of whistleblowers and the value of government transparency.  But I don’t think I had ever truly thought about the act of whistleblowing in the context of Jewish values until I read Jesselyn Radack’s words in Reform Judaism magazine that day.

Since that time, I’ve thought a great deal about this issue.  And so this morning I’d like to take some time to discuss the subject of whistleblowing – a subject that has been in the media spotlight a great deal this past year.  I’d like to explore the issues raised by the more well-known whistleblowers such as Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning and Edward Snowden – and others who are not as well known but whose actions are just as worthy of our attention.  Most of all, I want to share with you why I believe whistleblowing is not only a critically important American value, but a deeply sacred Jewish value as well – one that challenges us particularly as we gather now for the New Year.

I’ve often been struck that while government whistleblowers are often excoriated as unpatriotic at best and traitors at worst, the practice of whistleblowing is in fact rooted in American values. Our founding fathers fervently believed, and wrote repeatedly, that democracy is strengthened when it is transparent – and that government can only be truly accountable when it ensures an informed citizenry.  As John Adams famously wrote:

And liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people who have a right from the frame of their nature to knowledge … But besides this they have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible divine right to the most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, I mean of the characters and conduct of their rulers.

True whistleblowing is not a traitorous act, though I think many governments would love their citizens to believe so.  Whistleblowers are not employed by enemy nations – by definition they act individually and out of their own conscience. And while they do break laws, they do so not for personal gain but for the greater good. They do so to assert that no one – not even the most powerful of governments – are above the law.

In their defense, governments will invariably claim that secrecy is essential to “national security.”  On the face of it, it’s difficult defense to for us to refute.  After all, every nation’s primary duty is to ensure the safety and security of its citizens – it would be naive and in fact dangerous to try to claim otherwise.  But it would be equally naive to assume that when our government acts in secrecy, it must somehow be doing so for reasons of legitimate national security.  History has taught us repeatedly that governments will invariably use secrecy to cover up their own illegitimate actions – actions that will often end up betraying the very well-being and security of their own citizens.

Possibly the most famous whistleblower in American history, Daniel Ellsberg, has written extensively and eloquently on this subject and about the process he went through that ultimately led to his revelation of the Pentagon Papers in 1971.  Ellsberg was a former marine who joined the Pentagon in 1964 and later worked for the RAND Corporation.  Like almost all whistleblowers, he was originally among the “true faithful” – a patriotic American who believed that the US could and should be a force for good in the world.  But as his government career progressed, he harbored profound inner doubts as he became privy to the highest decision making institutions during the buildup of Vietnam War.

Daniel Ellsberg had first hand knowledge that leaders at the highest levels of government knew from early on that the Vietnam war could never be won and yet insisted otherwise to the Congress and the American public. Moreover, they continued to escalate a war they knew was doomed, knowing full well their actions would lead to more American deaths overseas.

When Ellsberg went public with the Pentagon Papers, he went up against a powerful bureaucracy and government culture of secrecy. As a former insider, he had a first row seat at a massive act of government malfeasance, but he also was constrained by a deep-seated mentality that considered the telling of secrets to be a traitorous act.  It’s no coincidence that most whistleblowers begin as patriotic insiders. But ironically enough, it’s the same motivation that initially drives them to serve their country that eventually drives them to bring the truth of their government’s wrongdoing into the light of day.

It is, of course, an act that carries with it a huge cost.  When whistleblowers decide to go public, they know full well it is an act that will cost them their jobs and their livelihoods.  They know they will likely be publicly vilified, their personal lives dissected, their reputations slandered.  And of course, they also know they will likely endure prison time, be forced to go underground or live in exile.

Whistleblowers are indeed lightning rods – and governments count on this.  That’s why, I believe, we invariably focus more attention on the whistleblowers themselves than the actual crimes they reveal. That’s why, for instance, I believe we’re hearing so much bandied about regarding Chelsea Manning’s personal life and emotional struggles.  Our leaders and the media would much rather we focus on Manning personally. As long as we do so, we’re given a pass on the disturbing information Manning brought to light – and we don’t have to confront the truths of our nation’s crimes in Iraq, in Guantanamo and around the world.

Among Manning’s many revelations through Wikileaks is the now infamous video taken from an Apache helicopter in 2007, in which Americans soldiers shot and killed eleven individuals, including two Reuters reporters, in the streets of New Baghdad.  When a van arrived to help the injured, the soldiers fired upon it as well, seriously injuring two children. As you watch the video, you can hear the voices of American soldiers urging each other on, joking about the dead and dying. At one point a soldier laughs when Humvee runs over a dead body lying in the street.

I remember watching this video when it was released in 2010. I posted and wrote strongly about it on my blog at the time. It was deeply and profoundly horrifying to see the dark reality of our military actions in Iraq in such a graphic and brazen manner.  But I remember well being so grateful that this video had been brought out into the light of day.

As it turned out, however, Manning was not the only member of the military who recoiled from this particular action.  An American infantryman named Ethan McCord rescued the two children from the shot-up van – and after the video was released, McCord publicly thanked Manning for bringing it to light.

McCord later criticized the media for going into great and often lurid detail about Manning’s gender identity issues while utterly ignoring the devastating significance of his revelations.  In a letter to the editor of New York Magazine, McCord wrote the following:

By focusing so heavily on Manning’s private life (the article) removes politics from a story that has everything to do with politics. The important public issues wrapped up with PFC Manning’s case include: transparency in government; the Obama Administration’s unprecedented pursuit of whistle-blowers; accountability of government and military in shaping and carrying out foreign policy; war crimes revealed in the WikiLeaks documents… and more.

McCord then ended his letter with these words:

If PFC Manning did what he is accused of, he is a hero of mine, not because he’s perfect or because he’s never struggled with personal or family relationships –most of us do – but because in the midst of it all he had the courage to act on his conscience.

Chelsea Manning has paid a profound price for blowing the whistle on the actions of the American military.  After her arrest, she was put in a Marine brig in Quantico, Virginia, held in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day for nine months, forced to sleep naked without pillows and sheets and restricted from physical recreation or access to a television or newspaper. Manning’s punishment was later condemned as “excessive” by a military judge and “torture” by the UN. And of course, Manning has now been sentenced and faces an additional 35 years in prison.

As for the soldiers responsible for the attack in the video?  The US military conducted its own investigation of the incident and eventually cleared everyone involved of wrongdoing. To date, no one has ever been held accountable – for these or for any of the numerous disturbing revelations Manning has brought to light.

I don’t think I could put it any better than the ACLU when it made this statement following Manning’s sentencing:

When a soldier who shared information with the press and public is punished far more harshly than others who tortured prisoners and killed civilians, something is seriously wrong with our justice system.

On Rosh Hashanah, the day for asking the hard questions, it’s well worth asking: who has committed the greater crime? The government that breaks the law and covers its actions up under the pretense of national security, or the single individual that breaks the law in order that these crimes might be brought out into the light?

It’s well worth asking why?  Why is Chelsea Manning facing thirty five years in prison for revealing the disturbing truths about our government’s actions in Iraq while the very leaders who deceived us into that war have yet to be made to account for their actions?

And why, for that matter, has Edward Snowden, the man who blew the whistle on the NSA’s surveillance on American citizens, been forced to live in exile in Russia while our Director of National Intelligence can deny the facts Snowden brought to light under oath and still remain in his job?

I believe Jewish tradition demands that we ask these kinds of questions. After all, asking hard questions to powerful leaders is a time-honored Jewish value that dates all the way back to the days of the Prophets.  The Prophets were, in fact, the whistleblowers of their day. Just like our present day examples, they too spoke truth to power; they too sought to publicly reveal political corruption and hypocrisy of the governments of their time; and they too were hounded and persecuted by the powers that be for their truth-telling.

I’ve said and written often that I believe the prophetic stream in Judaism to be the most important – and in many ways the most sacred – of our tradition. As a Jew, I’ve always been enormously proud of the classic rabbinical response to government power. I believe that the Jewish people have been able to survive even under such large and mighty powers because we’ve clung to a singular sacred vision that says there is a Power even greater. Greater than Pharaoh, greater than Babylon, even greater than the mighty Roman empire and the myriad of powerful empires that have come and gone since.

As Jews, we know all too well that powerful nations and empires have historically exploited fear in order to increase their control at home and abroad. To be sure, it’s when times are fearful that we need these kinds of truth tellers the most.  In today’s post 9/11 world, I think it’s fair to say that levels of our government’s control – and the secrecy it employs to cover it up – go deeper than anything we witnessed even at the height of the Cold War.

Indeed, over the past decade, we’ve created a national security bureaucracy that many believe has evolved into a juggernaut with a life of its own. As one important Washington Post investigative article concluded:

The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.

During his first presidential campaign, Obama promised to rein in Washington’s culture of secrecy that has grown so significantly during our nation’s so-called War on Terror.  While we can argue about whether or not he’s been successful in this regard, it cannot be denied that Obama has become he most aggressive president in American history when it comes to whistleblowers.

Until this administration, only three government whistleblowers (including Daniel Ellsberg) had ever been charged by the Justice Department under the Espionage Act of 1917.  Under Obama, the Justice Department has brought charges against eight individuals – more than all previous American presidents combined.  His administration’s actions drive home the reality that this issue is not really about left or right.  It is about government – and in particular, large powerful governments such as ours, that will invariably abuse their power and act to cover up their abuses.

To quote another great American truth teller, the venerable investigative journalist Izzy Stone,  “All governments lie.”   Stone didn’t mean this to be a criticism of government itself – on the contrary, he wrote endlessly about the critical role governments must play in creating ordered and just societies.  He simply meant that there will always be a gap between what a government does and what it says it is doing. And that as citizens, we simply cannot sit back and assume governments will voluntarily rein in their abuse of power or hold themselves to account.

That, quite frankly, is our job. And that is why whistleblowers are so critical and why I believe they are worthy of our gratitude and support. They represent, in a sense, the final defense of an informed citizenry. They are the ones who are willing, at great personal sacrifice, to hold the most powerful people and institutions in the world accountable.

I know that all citizens want to trust their governments. We all want to believe our governments have our best interests at heart and will act to keep us safe – particularly in fearful times such as these.  But as fearful as we are, we would do we to ask whether increased militarism abroad and the narrowing of our civil liberties here at home will truly bring us security in the end.

As for me, I tend to agree with Daniel Ellsberg, who recently wrote: “One of the lessons of the Pentagon Papers and Snowden’s leaks is simple: secrecy corrupts just as power corrupts.”  Today, as in years past, we owe a profound debt to those who courageous enough to tear down the shrouds of secrecy, often at enormous personal cost, so that we may all find our way to a future of true security – not a false sense of security in which the powerful hide behind higher and higher walls but a real security based upon leaders and citizens are truly accountable to one another.

After all, isn’t that really what our sacred day today is all about? When we sound the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah, we are, in a sense, “blowing the whistle.”  The Shofar represents, among other things, an act of revelation. When the shofar is sounded, we bring all the secrets of the past year out of the shadows. We announce our readiness to shine light into the dark places of our souls and all the actions for which we are accountable.  We do this because we know, deep down that secrecy corrupts the soul – and that true security, true liberation, can only come from living lives of transparency and openness.

I do believe what is true for our national soul is true for our individual souls as well.  Up until now, I’ve been specifically addressing the topic of government whistleblowers, but of course, whistleblowing takes many forms – it comes in may shapes and sizes. You might say that each of us is presented the opportunity to be a whistleblower in ways large and small each and every day. Every day, each of us is challenged by the Torah demonstrated to us so eloquently by Jesselyn Radack: “Do not follow the multitude to do wrong.”

Indeed, in the coming year, each of us will inevitably be faced with the challenge to speak out or remain silent. To remain in the darkness, in a place or secrecy and shame, or to shine a light into the dark places that we might all find our way forward together.  This New Year, I hope we can all find the means to be truth tellers in our own right, to find the courage to speak where there is only silence.  And to wrestle honestly with the questions: what is the world in which we truly seek to live?  Where, in the end, will we find true security? And what will we be willing to do about it?

Baruch ma’avir afeilah u’meivi orah – Blessed is the one who removes the darkness and brings light.


Stand in Sacred Solidarity with Imprisoned Hunger Strikers

This year, the Islamic fast of Ramadan (which began Monday night and will last until August 7) will serendipitously coincide with the Jewish fast of Tisha B’Av (Monday night July 15 to Tuesday, July 16). Given this harmonic interfaith convergence, I’ve been thinking more about the function of fasting as a time honored tactic of sacred protest – and in particular as a powerful act of civil disobedience. And so in honor of both of these sacred fasting festivals, I’d like to spotlight several ongoing fasts/hunger strikes that I believe are profoundly worthy of our attention and solidarity:

At Guantanamo Bay, many prisoners have been engaged in a longtime hunger strike to protest their conditions and their indefinite confinement. Lawyers for prisoners say the most recent strike began in February; according to the military, 106 of the 166 detainees met criteria to be declared hunger strikers (a definition that includes missing nine consecutive meals):

Prison medical officials have determined that 45 of the prisoners have lost enough weight that they can be fed liquid nutrients, by force if necessary, with a nasogastric tube to prevent them from starving themselves to death. The U.S. military intends to feed all prisoners, including those on hunger strike, before dawn and after sunset during the Muslim holy period of Ramadan to accommodate the men’s religious practices. Military officials have said the feeding process is not painful and only done to prevent any of the men from dying, not as punishment.

A recently released video (above) certainly belies the military’s claims.  In an act of what can only be called deeply courageous solidarity, rapper/actor/activist Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def) subjected himself to the force-feeding to demonstrate the grievous nature of this procedure. I will warn you that it’s not at all easy to watch. I’ll let you judge for yourself as to whether this act constitutes torture or cruel/unusual punishment, but as far as I’m concerned, this video is worth a thousand words.  On this point, it’s worth nothing that a US federal judge ruled yesterday the practice appears to violate international law – and that President Obama can resolve the issue.

Click here to sign a petition that condemns the use of force-feeding, and demand that President Obama help end the hunger strike by addressing the legitimate grievances of detainees.

Here at home, 30,000 prisoners in California prisons began a hunger strike yesterday in what has been described as possibly “the largest prison protest in state history.”  The protest, organized by a group of inmates held in segregation at Pelican Bay State Prison demands an end to state policies that allow inmates to be held in isolation indefinitely, in some cases for decades.  While the UN has determined solitary confinement for longer that 15 days constitutes torture, many prisoners in California state prisons have languished in solitary for 10 to 40 years.

In California, there are nearly 12,000 prisoners who spend 23 of 24 hours living in a concrete cell smaller than a large bathroom. The cells have no windows, no access to fresh air or sunlight. People in solitary confinement exercise an hour a day in a cage the size of a dog run. They are not allowed to make any phone calls to their loved ones or talk to other prisoners.  They are denied all educational programs, and their reading materials are censored.

Yesterday, the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition released a lengthy statement that details the history of this issue and explains why the decision was made to begin a hunger strike:

Family members, advocates, and lawyers will announce their support for the peaceful hunger strike and job actions beginning today throughout the California prisons starting on Monday July 8.   Prisoners have been clear since January that they are willing to starve themselves unless the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) agrees to negotiate honestly about their demands.

Click here to support the California prison hunger strikers and to sign a personal “Pledge of Resistance.”

I’ve also written extensively in the past about Palestinian prison hunger strikers who have long been engaged in nonviolent resistance to Israel’s illegal practice of administrative detention. While these protests consistently and egregiously fly under the radar of the mainstream media, they demand our attention – particularly as a response to the chronic question “where are the Palestinian Ghandis?”

Click here to learn more about the most current Palestinian hunger strikers. This link also includes the names/addresses of Israeli government, military and legal authorities to whom you can write to protest the prisoners’ treatment and demand their release.

May our respective fasts bring us closer to empathy and solidarity. As we say in my spiritual tradition: Baruch matir asurim – Blessed is the One who liberates the imprisoned.

The Critical Difference Between “The Gatekeepers” and “5 Broken Cameras”


Emad Burnat with wife Soraya and son Gibreel at the Academy Awards

Like many Israel/Palestine activists, I was thrilled to see two thoughtful films on the subject nominated for Best Documentary Oscars – and if I was pulling for any movie at all last Sunday night, it was Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi’s “5 Broken Cameras.”   If you haven’t seen it yet, please do. It is, I believe, one of the most important films on Palestine and Palestinians you will ever see. It’s also brilliantly constructed and deeply, almost unbearably moving. It’s available for free on Netflix, so you won’t need to wait for it to come to a theater near you.

I knew, of course, that it was a long shot, but oh, what an incredible, incredible opportunity it would have been if Emad Burnat could have gotten up before 3 billion people and read the speech he had prepared:


I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about the differences between “Cameras” and the other nominated Israel/Palestine documentary, “The Gatekeepers.”  I’m particularly struck that the latter film, which features interviews with six ex-Shin Bet chiefs, is in many ways as characteristically Israeli as “Cameras” is Palestinian. For me, the most fundamental difference between the two films resides in their literal perspectives: In “Gatekeepers,” we largely view Palestinians from above – mostly through footage taken by the Israeli Air Forces as they surgically strike their targets from the skies. We never see anyone actually get killed  – they just seem to disappear in a sudden puff of smoke.

By contrast, “Cameras” was filmed on the ground in a Palestinian village. We see Palestinian non-violent protesters getting beaten and shot. In one particularly heartbreaking instance we witness the shooting death of Bassem (“Phil”) Abu-Rahma.  Indeed, the moral center of this movie resides in the way it places us firmly in the lives and reality of these Palestinians – we experience their humanity, their tragedies, their courage up close and personally.

For all of its depth and nuance, “The Gatekeepers,” is ultimately a film that presents us with the moral angst of a people who are, quite simply, on the side of the oppressor.  Many critics have have been struck by the level of ethical soul-searching evidenced by ex-Shin Bet chiefs who were, after all, the heads of Israel’s powerful security establishment – and I fully agree. It is a tribute to the genius of “Gatekeepers”  that it gives us a genuine glimpse into the humanity of men who occupy a position of invisibility in Israel’s massive national security apparatus.

For me, however,  this insight cuts both ways. While we can and should understand the concerns of the real, living flesh and blood human beings behind the Shin Bet, their humanity is ultimately subsumed by an inherently oppressive infrastructural reality. And this reality is much, much larger than these individuals, no matter how deeply they might engage in soul-searching over their actions.

This institutional soul-searching is, in fact, a time honored Israeli cultural enterprise – they even have a name for it: “Yorim U’vochim” (“Shoot and Cry”) –  a term that was coined in the wake of the Six Day War to describe this uniquely Israeli expression of angst. Indeed, Israelis have produced countless films, books, poetry and essays that struggle deeply over their treatment of Palestinians. But in the end, no amount of individual soul searching, no matter how heartfelt, can itself erase the collective guilt of what Israel has perpetrated – and continues to perpetrate – against Palestinians.

Take a look at the clip below: an interview with “Gatekeepers” director Dror Moreh on “Democracy Now.” Pay particular attention to Moreh’s comments at the 3:30 mark, where he expresses his discomfort with those who portray Israelis as the oppressors and the Palestinians as the poor innocent victims. In a (possibly) unguarded but telling moment, he says, “After, all, there is a reason why the Shin Bet is doing what it is doing.”  Moreh continues: this is not a black and white situation – we must see it in “shades of grey.”

I fully agree that this is a complicated situation. But I would add that there is nothing complicated about the institutional oppression that the Shin Bet inflicts on Palestinians. While the fears and pain and moral anguish of Israelis very real, we must be willing to admit that these feelings are largely helpless in the face of a larger infrastructural reality that Israelis have created – and within which they have become subsumed.

Critics who condemn those who stand in solidarity with Palestinians often fail to appreciate this point: it is not Israelis to whom we stand in opposition, but rather the oppressive institutions that they have constructed and which we believe threaten the well being and future of Israelis and Palestinians alike.  In watching “The Gatekeepers,” I could understand the concerns of men such as Ami Ayalon, Avraham Shalom and Carmi Gillon. But I never forgot for a second that the organization they led was and remains a profoundly oppressive, even criminal institution – and no amount of soul-searching, no matter how heartfelt can wash away this essential reality.

A final note: less than one week before the Academy Awards ceremony, the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet arrested a 30 year Palestinian named Arafat Jaradat, claiming that he threw stones at cars from a nearby settlement. Jaradat was taken first to the Jalameh Interrogation Center in the northern West Bank before being transferred to Megiddo Prison. Four days later, he was dead, tortured to death by the Shin Bet.

Jaradat was a student at Al Quds Open University, married with two children (Yara, 4 years old and Mohammad, 3 years old) and was expecting a third child with his wife Dalal.  His lawyer, Kamil Sabbagh, who defended him in a court hearing two days before he died, reported that Jaradat was terrified and complained of intense back pain when he saw him.

The Shin Bet claimed Jaradat died from cardiac arrest, despite the fact that an initial autopsy indicated he was in fine cardiac health. A subsequent autopsy determined that Jaradat had been beaten with repeated blows to his chest and body and had sustained a total of six broken bones in his spine, arms and legs; his lips lacerated; his face badly bruised.

I agree with Dror Moreh: there is a reason the Shin Bet is doing what it is doing. We just disagree what that reason actually is.  Their ultimate goal is not simply the security of Israelis, but the security of Israelis maintained through the subjugation of Palestinians.

And for all the Israeli soul-searching on this point, this oppression will only make Israel less secure in the long run.

“Beneath the Blindfold” and Torture’s Tragic Legacy

“Zero Dark Thirty” hasn’t come to Chicago yet, so I can’t weigh in on the controversy surrounding its portrayal of the torture in the Bin Laden raid. Having read countless articles already, however (most notably the pointed criticisms by Glenn Greenwald), I can safely say it’s going to be pretty hard for me to overcome my prejudices going in. I certainly can’t imagine feeling sanguine about a film that gives the mistaken (and dangerous) impression that torture “works.” Still, I’ll do my best to keep an open mind – and offer my thoughts after I’ve actually seen the movie.

In the meantime, if you’re looking interested in a film that accurately and powerfully explores torture’s tragic legacy, check out “Beneath the Blindfold,” a new documentary by Evanston-based independent filmmakers Ines Somer and Kathy Berger. The film follows the lives of four torture survivors – a nurse from Africa, an actor from Colombia, A US Navy veteran from Chicago, and a physician from Guatemala – and documents their journeys as they attempt to build new lives, careers, and relationships. Despite the painful fallout from their experiences, we witness each of them becoming empowered to speak out and become public advocates for an end to torture.

“Beneath the Blindfold” has been garnering rave reviews and was just voted the Best Political Documentary of 2012 by the Chicago Reader. JRC was honored to host Ines and Kathy four years ago when they showed and discussed some footage of their work in progress. Now that the film in finished, we are thrilled to screening and discussion with the filmmakers on Saturday, January 19 at 7:00, in partnership with Percolator Films. (Click here for more info.)

Click here for Ines’ and Kathy’s recent interview with Jerome McDonnell on WBEZ’s Worldview.

Children are Disappearing in Nabi Saleh

Over the past month, Israeli activist Joseph Dana has been chronicling Israel’s practice of arrest and detention of Palestinian children in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh. I don’t know what to say except that his reports have left me numb:

“They come for our woman and our children,” Bassem Tamimi, the leader of the Popular Committee of Nabi Saleh recently told me, “they [the Israeli army] know that woman are half our population and half our strength and so they target them along with the children.” Tamimi, a gentle man with a warm smile spoke to me about the repression of his village as we sat in his home overlooking the settlement of Halamish. “They know where to apply pressure on our resistance. It has become really difficult since the last wave of arrests.”

Israel is devoting maximum effort to the repression of Nabi Saleh’s determination to demonstrate against the Occupation. The specific method of repression has been in development for the past eight years and is not only designed to break the demonstrations but to leave permanent psychological scars on the next generation of Nabi Saleh villagers. In short, children are used to implicate the leaders of the Popular Committee for incitement in demonstrations, providing evidence for their long term incarceration. In the last month, six children have been arrested or detained in Nabi Saleh by the army.

The video above shows the capture of eleven year old Kareem Tamimi who is chased down and grabbed by Israeli border police before he is shoved into a police van. The voice you hear screaming in the background is his mother.

Other videos on Dana’s site are no less disturbing. Two clips document late night home raids by the IDF, who go from from house to house photographing children and recording their names and ID numbers. As Dana explains:

14 year old Islam Tamimi, one of the children seen being photographed in a night raid, has been in jail for the past three weeks. Days after the video was shot he was arrested and detained for a number of hours at the Halamish military base. Two days after he was detained, the army raided his home at 02h00 and arrested him. He was left in the cold, blindfolded and bound for the rest of the night and then taken imminently to interrogation without lawyer or parents present. The interrogation lasted eight hours. Incidentally, the day that Tamimi was arrested the IDF Spokespersons office tweeted that ‘a wanted suspect was arrested overnight and taken for security questioning.’

In another post, Dana reported that fourteen year old Islam had a hearing on February 14 (in which he was brought before a judge while wearing an over sized adult prison uniform). While he originally was held in a cell with his 24 year old brother (who was jailed on stone throwing charges), he was subsequently moved away to another prison.  His trial is scheduled to take place next week.

This is not only an issue for Nabi Saleh. According to the Middle East Children’s Alliance, thirty two Palestinian children were arrested by Israeli authorities in the first two weeks of February alone. A recent report by Defense for Children International (Palestine Section) has concluded:

Each year approximately 700 Palestinian children are arrested, interrogated and detained in the Israeli military court system, and reports of torture and ill-treatment are common.

My friend Father Cotton Fite, who is currently visiting Israel/Palestine, has dear friends in the village of Beit Ommar. Shortly before he left, he heard from them that the IDF had come to their home and was targeting one of their young sons. The family was understandably terrified.

Cotton is visiting the family now and is also meeting with B’tselem field workers to find out exactly what is happening on the ground. He promised to send in a post about his experiences. (In the meantime, you can read this report from last summer that claims that over a dozen youth from Beit Ommar were arrested in less than a month’s time.)

Nelson Mandela is famously quoted as saying,

There can be no keener revelation about a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.

Bear these words in mind as you watch the film clip above…

Beneath the Blindfold

Last night, JRC was honored to host an important program in recognition of Human Rights Week. We were joined by Dr. Mary Fabri, Senior Director of the Marjorie Kovler Center for the Treatment of Survivors of Torture, along with documentary filmakers Ines Sommer and Kathy Berger, who presented the first public showing of the trailer for their new film, “Beneath the Blindfold.” That’s Dr. Fabri above on the right, next to Ines, Kathy and JRC member Ellen Rosen Kaplan, who organized the program for our congregation.

Though torture is now infamously on the political radar screen of most Americans, the one dimension of this issue that is too often neglected is the profoundly traumatic effect of torture on torture survivors themselves. The film sensitively but powerfully presented the stories of several survivors, each of whom have been forever transformed and are responding differently to the reality of their experiences. Even at just eight minutes, the “Beneath the Blindfold” demo reel offered a profound insight into the human cost of torture, on survivors, their families, and on society itself.  Perhaps most important, the film gives a real, human face to the human beings behind this political issue.

The brief taste of the film was sometimes painful, but in the end, deeply inspiring. After the showing, Dr. Fabri, Ines and Kathy led an extended conversation on the film and the complex, critical issues it raises. By evening’s end, we were motivated all the more to work to end the sacrilege of torture once and for all.

Ines and Kathy are currently editing “Beneath the Blindfold” and continue to raise the funds they need to finish the film. I believe this is a movie that must be completed and seen by as many people as possible. If you would like to contribute, contact the filmakers at or

Finally, Justice in Chicago

Here in Chicago, a decades-long shandeh may finally be coming to an end: US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald announced today that former Police Commander Jon Burge (above) has been arrested and charged with two counts of obstruction of justice and one count of perjury for denying his department tortured suspects in their custody.

According to witness allegations, Burge led the torture of criminal suspects for two decades, coercing dozens of confessions with fists, kicks, radiator burns, guns to the mouth, bags over the head and electric shock to the genitals. Burge was suspended by the police department in 1991 and fired in 1993, but, amazingly, was never charged with a crime.

Just to compound the outrage, Burge had since retired to Florida to spend his golden years boating and fishing while the city of Chicago paid for his pension and legal fees.  While the statute of limitations has run out on the torture, there is some satisfaction in knowing that Burge could still be brought to justice for lying about it to prosecutors decades later.

In a press release, the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs called Burge’s arrest “a remarkable victory for all who have vigorously stayed the course in seeking justice for the victims of the torture,” adding:

We now call on the City of Chicago to cease it’s pension payments to Burge and it’s support for his legal defense. Justice is long overdue. We are gratified that action has finally been taken and the prosecution of Burge can commence. We applaud all who have worked so tirelessly to bring the Burge case to justice.

To learn more, check out this archive from the Chicago Tribune as well as these reports from the People’s Law Office, who have been doggedly seeking justice for Burge’s victims.

Stop Torture Now

June has been designated as “Torture Awareness Month” – a time set aside to shine a light on the growing use of torture by our own country as well as other nations around the world. To mark this occasion, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) and Rabbis for Human Rights – North America (RHR-NA) have mobilized more than 275 faith communities around the country to openly display banners in front of their houses of worship that convey one basic message: torture is a critical religious and moral issue for our nation.

There are 27 Jewish congregations displaying banners and I am proud to say that JRC is one of them (see above). JRC also recently joined the K’vod Habriot inititative of RHR-NA – a national network of Jewish communities and individuals committed to building a Jewish commitment to human rights. The K’vod Habriot Statement of Principles will give you some idea of the Jewish values behind this effort:

– “Every human being is created in the image of God” (“Bidmut Elohim asah oto”): It is incumbent on each of us to act in a way that affirms the fundamental dignity of every human being. Respect for each human being is the foundation of Jewish ethics.

– “[We must] do what is just and right.” (“La’asot Tzedek U’Mishpat): For a nation to have legitimacy, it must enforce a system of law that is fair, equitable, and just.

– “Do not oppress the stranger, orphan or widow.” (“Ger, Yatom, V’Almananah Al Tonu”): We have a duty to promote a society that cares for the economic well-being of all of its members, especially those who are most vulnerable.

– We believe that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights flows from these Jewish values, as well as from our own historical experience, especially that of the treatment of Jews during the Holocaust. Therefore, it is incumbent on us, as Jews, to defend the human rights of all who are oppressed.

I encourage you and/or your congregation to join K’vod Habriot and help us put human rights firmly on the agenda of the North American Jewish community. NCRAT is also organizing an anti-torture Statement of Conscience – I’d say that signing onto it would be a very appropriate way to mark Torture Awareness Month.

Crushed Spirit, Cruel Bondage

gitmo_torture.jpgFrom this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Va’era:

But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage. (Exodus 6:9)

This short verse offers a profound insight into the psychological/spiritual disconnect that results from physical oppression. Here is a more contemporary rendering of these effects, described by ASTT (Advocates for Survivors of Torture and Trauma):

The effects of torture are wide-ranging, and may be multiple and long-term in nature. Physical effects may include brain damage, loss of vision or hearing, atrophy or paralysis of muscles, scarring, and injury to internal organs, including the reproductive organs. Survivors may experience chronic pain or find it difficult or impossible to undertake certain activities.

The psychological effects of torture can include major depression, anxiety, and the constellation of symptoms known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Survivors of torture and trauma may also experience feelings of shame, guilt, powerlessness or worthlessness, an inability to visualize the future, and difficulty connecting to other people…

For more information about how you can speak out against governments that currently practice the systematic crushing of spirit through cruel bondage, click here.