I’d like to begin my remarks today where I left off on Rosh Hashanah:
Because of our diverse, multi-racial nature, Jews must necessarily embrace anti-racism as a sacred value. The Jewish Diaspora is a microcosm of the world we seek to create. If the term Ahavat Yisrael means love of your fellow Jew, it must also affirm that love crosses all lines and borders and boundaries.
“Jews must embrace anti-racism as a sacred value” – it must be a mitzvah if you will. At Tzedek Chicago, we’ve actually articulated this as one of our congregation’s core values. If you go to our website, you will read: “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.”
Like all of our other values this one has very practical implications. It will necessarily guide the choices we make as a community: the issues we work on, the groups we stand with, the public statements we make. And in general it will mean we must always foreground the question: “what does it mean, as a Jewish congregation observe anti-racism as a sacred value?”
I’m sure most liberal Jews wouldn’t find this question all that controversial. After all, American Jewry has a long and venerable history of standing up for racial equality, particularly when it comes to our participation in the civil rights movement. But I’d suggest this question presents an important challenge to the Jewish community of the 21st century. And it was actually put to the test this past summer, when a the Movement for Black Lives released their policy statement, “Vision for Black Lives.”
I’m sure many of you are very familiar with Movement for Black Lives. It’s a coalition of over 50 organizations from around that country that focus on issues of concern to the black community. One year ago, their Policy Table began an extensive process, convening national and local groups, and engaging with researchers and community members. This summer they published their Vision for Black Lives: a comprehensive policy platform that focuses on six main areas: Ending the War on Black People, Reparations, Invest/Divest, Economic Justice, Community Control and Political Power.
I will say unabashedly that I believe the Vision for Black Lives platform is one of the most important American policy statements of our time. It’s both an unflinching analysis of the institutional racism against black people in country as well as a smart policy statement about what can be done (and in some cases already being done) to dismantle it.
What makes Vision for Black Lives platform particularly unique is that it wasn’t produced by the usual method, namely by a think tank or special interest group. Rather, it was developed by a coalition of national and grassroots organizations that reflect the communities most directly affected by these particular issues. Moreover, it serves both as an ideological manifesto as well as a practical hard-nosed policy statement that lays out a path toward achieving very specific legislative goals. In so doing, as many have observed, it is moving Black Lives Matter from a structureless network of local organizations toward becoming a genuine political movement.
To quote from their introduction:
We want this platform to be both a visionary agenda for our people and a resource for us. We take as a departure-point the reality that by every metric – from the hue of its prison population to its investment choices – the U.S. is a country that does not support, protect or preserve Black life. And so we seek not reform but transformation…
Our hope is that this is both an articulation of our collective aspirations as well as a document that provides tangible resources for groups and individuals doing the work. We recognize that some of the demands in this document will not happen today. But we also recognize that they are necessary for our liberation.
This platform is also important because it doesn’t limit its concern to issues facing the black community alone. It understands that the systemic racism impacting people of color in this country is but a part of many interlocking systems of oppression that affect communities the world over. As the platform puts it: “We are a collective that centers and is rooted in Black communities, but we recognize we have a shared struggle with all oppressed people; collective liberation will be a product of all of our work.”
If you haven’t read Vision for Black Lives yet, I highly recommend it. I’ll warn you it’s not easy. It’s very long and heavily referenced, so really reading and integrating it will take commitment. I’ve read it three times now and every time I did, I discovered something new and challenging that I hadn’t considered before. But in the end, I found it profoundly inspiring – and that is not something you often say about policy platforms. I would go as far as to call it a prophetic document. As I quoted earlier, it seeks “not reform but transformation.”
Like me, I’m sure many of you have read innumerable books and articles that analyze the institutional racism inflicted on people of color in this country. Usually they leave us pent up with frustration or else just a sense of abject hopelessness. The problem is just so vast and pervasive – how on earth can we ever hope to dismantle it? But this is first time I’ve read such an analysis along with extensive prescriptions toward political solutions. It lays out the problems then it puts forth real solutions. But it has no illusions about the daunting task ahead. As the report says. “We recognize that some of the demands in this document will not happen today. But we also recognize that they are necessary for our liberation.” (When I read this, I can’t help but recall the famous ancient dictum by Rabbi Tarfon: “It is not up to you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”)
Is Jewish community ready to observe anti-racism as a sacred value? I think one important test would be to judge by its response to the release of the Vision for Black Lives platform. And in this regard, I’m sorry to say that the American Jewish establishment failed the test miserably.
Almost immediately after its release, every mainstream Jewish organization responded with statements that ranged from critical to outright hostility. Why? Because in the Invest/Divest section there is one section that advocates diverting financial resources away from military expenditures and investing in “domestic infrastructure and community well being.” And in that section there were some brief references to Israel – one that referred to “the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people” and another that called Israel “an apartheid state.” And as you might expect from a section entitled Invest/Divest, there was a statement of solidarity with the nonviolent Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel.
The first official Jewish response to Vision for Black Lives came from the Boston Jewish Community Relations Committee, just two days after it was released. The Boston JCRC said it was “deeply dismayed” by the report and denounced the use of the word genocide and its support for BDS. It had nothing more to say about this voluminous, wide-ranging platform. It spent seven paragraphs on this one issue – and most of that was devoted to this one word.
Over the next few weeks, one Jewish organization after another denounced the platform for its statements about Israel with only a glancing nod to its analysis, its conclusions and its policy recommendations. Jonathan Greenblatt, the National Director of the Anti-Defamation League called its reference to Israel “repellent” and added patronizingly, “let’s work to keep our eyes on the prize.” Even liberal Jewish organizations such as J St., the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and T’ruah, an American rabbinical organization devoted to human rights, responded with criticism and chastisement.
These responses tell us all we need to know about the Jewish communal establishment’s commitment to the value of anti-racism. But it really shouldn’t come as a surprise. The Jewish institutional community hasn’t been in real solidarity with black Americans and people of color for decades. Most of what we call solidarity is actually nostalgia. For far too long we’ve been championing the role of Jews in the American civil rights movement, invoking the memory of Jewish martyrs such as Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman and Jewish heroes such as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. But those days are over – and it is disingenuous of us to wield its memory as some kind of entitlement when it comes to issues of racism in the 21st century.
There was a time that being a Jew in America meant being part of a discriminated minority, but that has no longer been the case for generations. Today, white Jews are part of the white majority – and as I mentioned on Rosh Hashanah, since white Jews are racialized as part of the majority, we enjoy all of the privileges that come along with it.
I know for many American Jews, particularly young Jews, it might seem downright silly to ask whether or not white Jews are white. But it is actually a subject of debate – at least among white Jews. In fact it’s become a something of a cottage industry. (If you doubt me, just Google “are Jews white?” and see how many hits you get.)
There’s actually a very simple way to answer this question: ask a Jew of color. Let Lina Morales, a Mexican-American Jew, who recently wrote a powerful article on the subject explain it to you:
With all due respect to my white Jewish friends and colleagues, people of color in the United States don’t need to take a course on critical race theory to understand the nuances of race. Anti-Semitism exists, and I’ve received a fair amount of it from fellow people of color, but its impact and extent doesn’t compare to the systematic racism of American society. White Jews simply don’t face the criminalization that black and brown people in this country do. They are not locked up or deported in record numbers. Nor is their demographic growth or struggle to not be capriciously murdered by police considered a threat by a large and reactionary part of our population.
It should be mentioned that thankfully, there were some Jewish organizations that did in fact welcome and endorse the Visions for Black Lives. Not surprisingly, all of them came from outside the Jewish institutional establishment – organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace, IfNotNow, and Jews for Economic and Racial Justice. For me, the most trenchant and powerful response came from the Jews of Color Caucus, which works in partnership with JVP. Among the many important points made in their statement was this one that was sent directly to the Jewish communal establishment:
Recent statements by the Boston JCRC, Truah: the Rabbinic Council for Human Rights, and The Union for Reform Judaism condemning the BLM Platform also send the message that the lives of Black Jews (along with Black gentiles) directly affected by US police brutality are less important than protecting Israel from scrutiny. We reject this message and call on these groups to commit themselves to honor the leadership of Jews of Color, including those critical of Israel…
We are appalled at the actions of the white US institutional Jewish community in detracting and distracting from such a vital platform at a time when Black lives are on the line, simply because the organizers chose to align their struggle with the plight of Palestinians. US Black relationships to Palestine and Israel have never been monolithic, but there are deep historical ties between Black and Palestinian struggle that go back to the Black Power Era. Any attempt to co-opt Black struggle while demeaning these connections, is an act of anti-Black erasure.
Their reference to the Black Power movement of the late 1960s is critically important. This marks the time in which white Jews were leaving cities for the suburbs to become part of the white majority. It also marks the time, following the Six Day War, in which Israel began to become central to American Jewish identity. For many white American Jews, this new relationship between Black and Palestinian liberation movements was experienced as a betrayal of former allies. Many American Jews looked to Zionism as the “liberation movement of the Jewish people” and considered it downright anti-Semitic to claim that Israel was actually a settler colonial project that militarily expelled and displaced indigenous people.
Of course, many American Jews still identify deeply with Israel. And that is why the Jewish institutional responses to the Vision for Black Lives resonate with a strong sense of betrayal. That is why the ADL’s Jonathan Greenblatt wrote we must “keep our eyes on the prize.” There is this yearning for a coalition that no longer exists – and a refusal to accept, as the Movement for Black Lives does, that Israel is part of this system of oppression.
So many otherwise liberal American Jews will insist: Israel is different. Don’t compare Israel to the racist system that oppresses blacks and people of color in this country. Don’t compare Israel to apartheid South Africa or any other state where one ethnic group wields power over another. It’s not the same thing.
Of course every nation is different in many ways from one another – but it’s time to admit that when it comes to systems of oppression, Israel is not different. And this is precisely the place that so many in the Jewish community, even those who are otherwise progressive in every other way, are simply unwilling to go. To admit that in the end, Israel is by its very nature an oppressor state: a system that privileges one ethnic group over another. And that this system is fundamentally connected to a larger system of oppression.
In fact it plays a very integral role in that system. The very same tear gas canisters that are used daily against Palestinians are the ones that were used against protesters in Ferguson. The same security apparatus that is used on the West Bank separation wall is the one that is used on the border wall that the US is building on our southern border with Mexico. The same stun grenades that Israeli soldiers use against demonstrators in Bil’in or Nabi Saleh are the very same ones used by American SWAT teams in Cincinnati and Oakland and St. Paul.
Here in Chicago, as in so many cities around the country, there is a new recognition of how the militarization of police departments is being used in ways that target communities of color. Those who say that we can’t compare this systemic racism to Israel should know that Chicago’s Jewish Federation regularly sponsors “police exchange programs” – trips that take the CPD to go to Israel to learn the latest military techniques from the IDF.
Regarding these exchange programs, the JUF’s Executive VP Jay Tcath has said this:
Helping connect and thereby improve the work of both Israeli and Chicago police is a natural role for JUF, committed as we are to the safety of the entire Chicago community and the Jewish State. From advising us on ways to enhance the physical security of our Jewish community’s institutions to helping us ensure the safety of JUF events – everything from dinners to pro-Israel rallies – we are grateful for the extraordinary commitment of CPD, Cook County’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management and our other public law enforcement partners. These missions to Israel both reflect and help deepen these valued relationships.
So we can’t have it both ways. The Jewish establishment cannot simultaneously empower the systems that oppress people of color in this country and at the same time say we stand in solidarity with them. If we are going to be anti-racist, we can’t make an exception for Israeli militarism or rationalize away its critical place in these systems.
Some of us have already made it clear where we stand. But sooner than later all of us in Jewish community will have stop dancing around this issue and make a decision. When it comes to Israel, we cannot continue to cling to a two state solution that Israel has already made impossible. As I’ve said before, the real choice we will have to face is a choice between two one-state solutions: one apartheid state in which a Jewish minority rules the non-Jewish majority or a state where all have equal rights and citizenship, regardless of their ethnicity or religion.
But on still deeper level, we must also reckon with the separatist assumptions behind the “two state solution.” What are we really doing when we advocate for a Jewish state that must have a demographic majority of Jews in order to exist? The same liberal Jews who cling to the notion of a two state solution would recoil at the suggestion of solving Jim Crow by separating black Americans from white Americans. That the only way two peoples living in the same country can co-exist is to physically segregate them from one another.
So to return once again to my original question: how can we, as Jews, embrace anti-racism as a sacred Jewish value? I’d like to offer a few suggestions in conclusion:
1. It would mean that the white Jewish establishment must embrace the concept of solidarity. Specifically, that means we cannot make it about us. The objects of oppression are the ones who must dictate the terms of their struggle. If we have issues with how they articulate their vision, we must raise these issues with them face to face in genuine relationship – not through public chastisement.
2. It would mean letting go of our reverence of a civil rights era that is long past and take an honest look at our complicity in the current reality in which white Jews are part of the privileged white majority. Anti-Semitism does exist in the US today, but it is not institutionally imposed upon us the way it is upon communities of color.
3. It would mean letting go of the old paradigm of “Black-Jewish relations.” According to some estimates, 10% to 20% of Jews in this country are Jews of color. Estimates of black Jews in the US range from 20,000 to 200,000. And unlike white Jews, Jews of color are impacted by institutional racism. Any new anti-racist paradigm must reject Jewish white supremacy and center the experience of Jews of color.
4. It would mean subjecting Israel to the same analysis we use when it comes to our own country. Israel is not separate from the systems that oppress people of color at home and abroad. We must be willing to identify these connections and call them out as we would any other aspect of institutional racism.
Finally, and perhaps most difficult, it would mean to letting go of a Zionist dream that never really was. To recognize that the Zionist dream was realized on the backs of Palestinians – just as the American Dream was realized on the backs of indigenous peoples and blacks who were brought to this country in chains. Yes, it painful to give up on dreams, but it is even more painful to hold onto them until they turn into a nightmare for all concerned.
After all, on Yom Kippur we vow to let go of the dreams of what might have been, but have led us down the wrong path. But it is also the day in which we can dream new dreams. We can dream of a world in which systems of exploitation and oppression are no more. As Sarah Thompson reminded us in her guest sermon last night, we must begin the year by focusing on the end – even if we know that by the end of the year we will not have arrived at the ultimate end we seek. To paraphrase the Vision for Black Lives, we recognize that some of these dreams will not happen today – or even in our lifetime. But we also recognize that they are necessary for our liberation.
May we realize this dream bimheyra beyameynu – speedily in our day.
Today marked a day of global action of protest against the Ugandan Parliament’s so-called “Anti Homosexuality Bill.” It was my honor to participate by delivering a rabbinic letter to the Ugandan consulate in Chicago along with 15 other members of the the Jewish community, including five rabbis.
This bill, which was passed in December 2013, is a hate-filled piece of legislation that threatens the health and lives of LGBT Ugandans and is a grave violation of human rights. First introduced in 2009, the bill seeks to strengthen existing penalties in Ugandan law against homosexuality. Among the bill’s many cruel and unconscionable provisions is life imprisonment for “repeated homosexual behavior.” It also criminalizes what it describes as “the promotion of homosexuality,” which includes funding organizations that provide basic services such as healthcare to LGBT people.
Our action today was a sponsored by American Jewish World Service, who responded to a call from its partners in Ugandan Human Rights NGO by organizing in communities throughout the US. In addition to Chicago, similar actions took place in New York, Washington DC, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Here’s the text of the letter we delivered to the Ugandan consul in Chicago:
Dear President Museveni,
I am writing to implore you, respectfully, to veto Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill that was recently passed by the Ugandan Parliament.
As a rabbi, I honor the inherent dignity of each and every person. Jewish theology, tradition and history compel me to uphold the values of kavod habriyot, respect for all of creation, and btzelem elohim, the notion that all people–including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people–are created in the Divine image. Tragically, I know from our history that the stripping away of human rights from specific minorities is often a precursor to targeted destruction.
If this bill is signed into law, it would be a grave violation of human rights and would be one of the most abhorrent manifestations of discrimination against LGBT people worldwide.
My LGBT friends and colleagues in Uganda are frightened–and I believe they have every reason to be. I do not believe they should live in fear just because of who they are or who they love. I hope you share the same view.
I urge you, Mr. President, to use the power of your position to uphold the human rights and human dignity of all Ugandan citizens. Please stand on the right side of history by vetoing this bill.
It’s time to stand with LGBT Ugandans – and all who are targeted by hate-legislation.
The recent decision of the American Studies Association (ASA) to endorse the academic boycott of Israel has engendered increasingly intense press coverage and social media conversation over the past several days. I’ve already engaged in more than a few of them via Facebook – but now I’m ready now to weigh in and offer some thoughts in a more systematic fashion.
First, some background:
The ASA is according to its website, “the nation’s oldest and largest association devoted to the interdisciplinary study of American culture and history.” According to a released statement, the ASA has been discussing and debating whether or not to endorse an academic boycott since 2006. On December 4, the ASA National Council announced its support of the academic boycott. Then this past Monday, the ASA membership endorsed the boycott resolution by a two to one margin. 1252 voters participated in the election – the largest number of participants in the organization’s history.
Because there is so much misinformation regarding the precise nature of the boycott, I think it’s important to quote the ASA statement at length:
The Council voted for an academic boycott of Israeli institutions as an ethical stance, a form of material and symbolic action. It represents a principle of solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom and an aspiration to enlarge that freedom for all, including Palestinians.
We believe that the ASA’s endorsement of a boycott is warranted given U.S. military and other support for Israel; Israel’s violation of international law and UN resolutions; the documented impact of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian scholars and students; the extent to which Israeli institutions of higher education are a party to state policies that violate human rights; and the support of such a resolution by many members of the ASA.
Our resolution understands boycott as limited to a refusal on the part of the Association in its official capacities to enter into formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions, or with scholars who are expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of those institutions, or on behalf of the Israeli government, until Israel ceases to violate human rights and international law.
The resolution does not apply to individual Israeli scholars engaged in ordinary forms of academic exchange, including conference presentations, public lectures at campuses, or collaboration on research and publication. The Council also recognizes that individual members will act according to their convictions on these complex matters.
For all of the concern over the resolution’s attack on academic freedom, it is important to note, as the ASA statement does, that Israel actively curtails and denies the academic freedom of Palestinian academics and students on a regular basis. Palestinian universities have been bombed, schools have been closed, scholars and students have been deported and even killed. Palestinian scholars and students have their mobility and careers restricted by a system that limits freedoms through an oppressive bureaucracy. Many Palestinian scholars cannot travel easily, if at all, for conferences or research because they are forbidden from flying out of Israel.
Though many are excoriating the Association’s decision as a denial of Israeli academic freedom, their resolution does not endorse a blanket boycott of individual academics and institutions – as was the case with the academic boycott of South Africa, for instance. The ASA endorsement responds to the call from the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), which explicitly targets institutions, not individuals. It does not endorse limiting the academic freedom of individual Israeli scholars to participate in conferences, lectures, research projects, publications etc.
Why is the ASA refusing to collaborate with Israeli academic institutions? Because it knows that every major Israeli university is a government institution that is intimately tied to the Israeli military, furnishing it with scientific, geographic, demographic and other forms of research that directly supports Israel’s human rights abuses of Palestinians.
This 2009 report by the Alternative Information Center cites a myriad of such collaborations. For example, Haifa University and Hebrew University have special programs for military intelligence and training for the Shin Bet (the Israeli security service) and members of the military and Shin Bet have served on administrative boards of Israeli universities. The Technion – Israel Institute of Technology has strong ties to Israeli military and arms manufacturers such as Elbit Systems. And as of the date of the report, Tel Aviv University had conducted 55 research projects with the Israeli army.
Many criticize the ASA boycott endorsement by asking why, of all the odious regimes in the world, are they singling out and targeting Israel? This is probably the most commonly heard refrain against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement in general, and I’ve addressed it numerous times in previous posts.
I’ll repeat it again: this accusation is abject misdirection. The academic boycott is part of a larger call for BDS that was sent out in 2005 by over 170 Palestinian political parties, organizations, trade unions and movements – the overwhelming majority of Palestinian civil society – to support their resistance against Israeli oppression through classic, time honored methods of civil disobedience. The ASA did not initiate this boycott – it made a principled, good faith decision to respond to the Palestinian call for support. Thus the real question before us when addressing BDS is not “what about all of these other countries?” but rather “will we choose to respond to this call?” To miss this point is to utterly misunderstand the very concept of solidarity.
One of the most widely read criticisms of the ASA boycott endorsement came from Open Zion’s Peter Beinart, who wrote that the “real problem” with the boycott was the problem with BDS as a whole:
BDS proponents note that the movement takes no position on whether there should be one state or two between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. But it clearly opposes the existence of a Jewish state within any borders. The BDS movement’s call for “respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties” denies Israel’s right to set its own immigration policy. So does the movement’s call for “recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality”, which presumably denies Israel’s right to maintain the preferential immigration policy that makes it a refuge for Jews. Indeed, because the BDS movement’s statement of principles makes no reference to Jewish rights and Jewish connection to the land, it’s entirely possible to read it as giving Palestinians’ rights to national symbols and a preferential immigration policy while denying the same to Jews.
This is the fundamental problem: Not that the ASA is practicing double standards and not even that it’s boycotting academics, but that it’s denying the legitimacy of a democratic Jewish state, even alongside a Palestinian one.
This is classic Beinart: while he writes in the reasonable tones of a liberal Zionist, when you actually deconstruct his analysis, it’s really quite draconian. Beinart condemns the majority of Palestinian civil society for asking that their right of return be respected – a right that is enshrined in international law. Then he goes on to criticize Palestinians for not respecting Israel’s “right” to create preferential immigration policies that keep them from their own ancestral homes (a right that is enshrined nowhere in particular.)
As ever, Beinart seems galled that the BDS movement is not J St. No, the BDS National Committee does not respect preferential treatment for Jews. No, it is not actively lobbying for a two-state solution. While Beinart remains imprisoned in the vagaries of national rights, the BDS call is grounded in the values of universal human rights.
From the BDS National Committee Website:
The campaign for boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) is shaped by a rights-based approach and highlights the three broad sections of the Palestinian people: the refugees, those under military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Palestinians in Israel. The call urges various forms of boycott against Israel until it meets its obligations under international law by:
1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantling the Wall;
2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.
This call takes no stand on the final political parameters of the conflict, nor should it. As a rights based call, it recognizes that the first order of business is to pressure Israel to end its violations of human rights and to adhere to international law. If at the end of the day, a two-state solution is made impossible, it will not be because of the Palestinian people’s desire for their legal right of return to be respected and recognized – rather it will be due to Israel’s ongoing colonization and Judaization of the Occupied Territories.
I’ve heard many say that this one little resolution by one American academic organization is really no big deal and doesn’t really amount to much at the end of the day. But if this was truly the case, why are so many people talking about it so often and so fervently? Yes, the ASA is but one humble scholarly institution. But by endorsing this boycott, it is clearly becoming part of a movement – and one that is gaining in strength. Just last April, the Association for Asian American Studies broke the ice to be the first American academic institution to endorse the boycott. And immediately on the heels of the ASA, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association has now signed on as well.
I realize that it is painful for many to see Israel isolated in such a fashion. But in the end, as long as the US government remains unwilling to use its leverage to end its oppressive behavior, this movement will only gain in strength and influence. For those who doubt its effectiveness, we have only to look at the way the international BDS campaign against apartheid South Africa eventually reached a tipping point until the Pretoria regime had no choice but to dismantle apartheid.
As the world mourns Mandela’s death, we would do well remind ourselves of the ways popular movements can help bring institutional systems of oppression to an end.
In memory of Nelson Mandela, I offer you this breathtaking Yom Kippur sermon that was delivered three months ago by my dear friend Rabbi Brian Walt. Brian grew up in South Africa and his activism in the anti-apartheid struggle was a defining aspect of his own spiritual/political evolution. I can think of no better tribute to Mandela’s legacy than to share the words of this visionary rabbi, whose grandson now bears Mandela’s name.
In June, when Chana and Lincoln, my daughter and son-in-law, announced at the naming/covenant ceremony that the name of their second child would be Micah Mandela Ritter, I was deeply moved. I never imagined that I would be blessed with a grandchild named Mandela. I feel so blessed to be the zeyde (grandfather) of a child who carries the name of a moral hero of our time, a man who has been central to my own life and has inspired me in so many ways.
I grew up in Cape Town, one of the most beautiful cities in the world. My family’s home was in Sea Point, a suburb that lies between the mountain and the ocean. Our home, number 14 Queens Road, was just a few houses from the ocean. If you looked up the road you could see the mountain; in the other direction, the ocean. The natural beauty that surrounded us was nothing less than spectacular: miles of oceanfront in both directions, lush vegetation, gorgeous flowers and the mountain in the background. In Habonim, my Zionist youth group, we sang, “We come from Cape Town, land of sea and mountain!” Yes, we lived in a spectacularly, beautiful place, “a land of sea and mountain” and much more.
Our family loved to go for walks on the beachfront. We would pass swimming pools, restaurants, playgrounds — all restricted to whites. The only people of color allowed to live in our neighborhood were domestic servants who lived in separate servants quarters. Blacks who worked in Sea Point lived in townships far from the city, came in during the day to work and had to carry a pass book confirming that they had a job in our area.
On clear days, we could see an island in the distance: Robben Island, the prison where Nelson Mandela and many of his African National Congress comrades were imprisoned for decades. The gulf between our comfortable and glorious suburb and the prison island we could see with our own eyes was enormous. It seemed unbridgeable. That tragic gap reflected the gulf between the reality of most white South Africans and that of majority of the people who lived in South Africa.
At that time it was illegal to quote Mandela or to print a photograph of him. Merely mentioning his name could make one the subject of suspicion. White South Africa and the Western world, including the United States, considered him persona non grata. He was a “communist” and a “terrorist.” The United States never took Mandela off the terrorist list until 2008 and kept the ANC on the list but made it possible for the status to be waived at times.
It was clear that if there were to be peace in our country it would involve freeing Mandela from prison, legalizing the ANC, and entering into negotiations. When I was growing up this seemed beyond any possibility. We all feared that our country was on the road to a massive and bloody civil war.
Growing up in South Africa, a country with so much racial hatred and devastating poverty and suffering alongside extraordinary privilege and wealth, was very painful for me as a child. But I also feel profoundly blessed to have grown up in a country with moral heroes like Nelson Mandela and so many others, people who devoted their lives to the pursuit of justice and dignity for all. I am also very fortunate to have grown up in a country that went through a miraculous transformation brought about by thousands of human beings all around the world who put their lives on the line for justice.
I believe that my grandson and all of us have much to learn from Nelson Mandela. And so tonight I want to share three of the many lessons I learned from this extraordinary man: first, about justice and moral vision; second, about compassion and forgiveness; and third, about hope, community and social change.
These lessons are directly relevant to us this day as we reflect on our lives, our own moral vision and issues of forgiveness and change. Many of us are the beneficiaries of economic and racial privilege and live in a country with a history not so different from South Africa’s.
Lesson #1: A moral vision of justice
The Torah commands us: “Justice, justice shall you pursue!” The prophets of our tradition call us to justice. “Let justice well up like water,” says Amos. “You know what God has commanded you,” says Micah, “to act justly, love kindness and walk humbly.” The prophetic tradition which is the core of Reform Judaism and much of liberal Judaism puts justice at the center of our religious vision.
Nelson Mandela, although he is not religious, is in the line of the prophetic tradition. His life was devoted to justice and guided by a clear moral vision of a democratic country, a non — racist South Africa, where all people would enjoy equality, dignity and justice. In 1963, when I was 11 years old, Mandela was convicted along with 10 of his comrades, five of whom were Jewish, in the Rivonia Trial, which ended with Mandela sentenced to life imprisonment.
In a moving statement at the trial he articulated this moral vision. First, he described the injustices Africans suffered and what they deserve.
Africans want to be paid a living wage. Africans want to perform work which they are capable of doing, and not work which the government declares them to be capable of. Africans want to be allowed to live where they obtain work, and not be endorsed out of an area because they were not born there. Africans want to be allowed to own land in places where they work, and not to be obliged to live in rented houses which they can never call their own. Africans want to be part of the general population, and not confined to living in their own ghettos.
African men want to have their wives and children to live with them where they work, and not be forced into an unnatural existence in men’s hostels. African women want to be with their menfolk and not be left permanently widowed in the reserves. And then he articulated the most important demand:
Above all, we want equal political rights, because without them our disabilities will be permanent.
This then is what the ANC is fighting. Their struggle is a truly national one. It is a struggle of the African people, inspired by their own suffering and their own experience. It is a struggle for the right to live. During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal that I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
Mandela’s vision of a “democratic and free society in which all persons live in harmony and with equal opportunities” was not only Mandela’s personal vision; it was the vision of a broad movement that was articulated in the Freedom Charter. In 1955 the African National Congress sent 50,000 volunteers out into the countryside to ask people what freedoms they wanted. Based on this, they drafted the Freedom Charter, which was then adopted by the multiracial South African Congress Alliance.
The Charter began:
We the People of South Africa declare for our country and the world to know that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of all the people.” The document includes demands for basic human rights (many of which are still not part of the moral vision of the United States): a forty – hour week, equal pay for equal work, a national minimum wage, free compulsory universal and equal education for all children, universal health care.
The document is so inspiring. Most of it, except for the clauses that deal with nationalizing industry or redistributing land, was incorporated into South Africa’s extraordinary constitution in 1996. Mandela’s vision was not based in any religious tradition, but it is consonant with the central core values of all religion as we understand it: that each and every human being is a child of God entitled to dignity, equality and justice.
Mandela pursued this moral vision relentlessly and at enormous personal cost. When he was offered a deal that would free him but would not guarantee voting rights, he chose to remain in prison and did not emerge until that most basic demand was met.
Mandela’s dedicated commitment to justice was integrated with a profound compassion for all people, even his enemies. This is evident in his unrelenting commitment to a non-racial democracy but also in his greatness of spirit and the forgiveness with which he approached his white oppressors. This is best exemplified in two stories about his relationships to those his enemies and those who supported him.
Lesson #2: Compassion and Forgiveness
In his inauguration address as president of the new South Africa, Mandela urged South Africans to forgive one another and to move beyond the hatred of the past. He declared:
The time for the healing of the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come.
He called on South Africans to work toward a country in which “all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, sure of the inalienable right to human dignity – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”
On that inauguration day, one of the guests of honor who received a personal invitation from the new president was a man by the name of James Gregory, one of Mandela’s jailers on Robben Island. Gregory worked there for nine years, from 1967 till 1976. When he was transferred to Cape Town, he continued to censor the letters of inmates on the island. Later he was transferred to Pollsmoor prison, and when Mandela and four other A.N.C.leaders were transferred there, Gregory was assigned to Mandela.
Gregory talks about his extraordinary relationship with Mr. Mandela during this period of time:
When he was alone I used to go and sit with him in his cell for hours at a time. We spoke about everything – his family, my family. But never politics and never trying to convince me of his views.
He always called me Mr Gregory and I addressed him as Nelson. When visitors came I would address him as Mr Mandela. After he was released he phoned me here at home and I said, “Hello, Mr Mandela,” and he said, “Where does this mister suddenly come from? You call me Nelson as you always did.” He now calls me James.
When Mandela was released from Pollsmoor Prison in 1993 James Gregory received a white card to ‘W/O Gregory’. In neat, rounded handwriting, it said: “The wonderful hours we spent together during the last two decades end today. But you will always be in my thoughts.”
In explaining the reason for the invitation to Gregory and two other former prison wardens , Mandela said, “I invited them to come because I wanted them to share in the joys that have emanated around this day. Because in a way they have also contributed.”
What extraordinary forgiveness! To forgive those who have served as your jailers. What a powerful story for this day of forgiveness when each of us is called to ask for and grant forgiveness.
Can we forgive those who have hurt us? Will we?
Alan Brigish, a friend of mine who lives on Martha’s Vineyard and who also grew up in South Africa, tells another extraordinary story about Mandela. His father, Harry Brigish, gave Mandela a job as a law clerk in 1947 .
In 1999, Mandela’s final year as president, Alan took his dad to the doctor who told him that the President had asked him about his father and wanted to see him. Alan immediately called Mandela’s and left a message that he was Harry Brigish’s son and that he had been told the president wanted to see him. He wanted to let him know that Harry would love to see him.
A day later, six cars arrived at the apartment block and Mandela came over for a cup of tea. Alan’s mom asked the president what he was going to do now that his term of office was over. “I am going to be doing much the same as what I am doing now. I am going to find the people who helped me and meet with them to thank them personally and I am going to find the people who hurt me and meet with them and forgive them face to face.” What compassion! What humility! What menshlichkeit!
Do we have the same capacity to thank those who have loved and helped us and to forgive those who have hurt us. Will we do so?
Lesson # 3. Hope and Change
Growing up in South Africa, it was hard to imagine any future other than a massive civil and racial war in which thousands of people would be killed. And yet the determined resistance of millions of South Africans and people around the world made possible what seemed impossible. The apartheid government, facing mounting pressure from the resistance inside the country and from those around the world engaged in Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment, decided to free Nelson Mandela and the other leaders of the resistance and to negotiate with them. The relatively peaceful transfer of power in South Africa was nothing short of miraculous and it is a source of great hope for all who seek social change. Social change takes a long time and demands huge devotion, courage and many sacrifices, but it is possible. Mandela and the movement he led always held to their moral vision and their belief that change could and would happen.
What we can learn is that change is possible when people join together in movements to make change. There is an extraordinary seven-part documentary made by Connie Fields, “Have You Heard From Johannesburg”, that describes how actions in the country and around the world engaged in Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against South Africa made that happen.
In July, my sister Yda, a fabric artist who lives in Johannesburg, gave me a shirt she had designed with a quote from Mandela. It reads: “A winner is a dreamer who never gives up.”
A Blessing for Micah Mandela:
And so, my dear Micah Mandela: the man after whom you are named is a winner, a dreamer who never gave up. I hope carrying his name brings you blessings in your life: the blessing of living your life according to a moral vision of justice, your heart filled with compassion for all people, always offering forgiveness. A life of hope, that you always know deep in your heart that people joining together can make a difference in the world. I hope you find your particular way of joining with others to make our world a more just and decent place, and the blessing of honoring the prophetic voices of your Jewish legacy, your own prophetic voice and the prophetic voices in your world.
Always remember the Jewish prophetic legacy that you have received as a gift. Remember what the prophet Micah taught us all. It is not complicated. You know what God desires of you: Act justly, love kindness and walk humbly.
This is my blessing to you and to all your buddies, the next generation who will inherit this world.
And so my dear friends, this is my blessing to you as well. May we always follow a vision of justice, justice that is integrated with compassion and forgiveness, and may we join together in this place with others in the world who are devoted to creating a more just and democratic and peace-loving United States and a just and peaceful world. May we forgive those who have hurt us and thank those who have helped us. May we have compassion for those we perceive to be “enemies.”
As Nelson Mandela said in his inauguration address:
Let there be justice for all.
Let there be peace for all.
Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all.
Let each know that for each the body, the mind and the soul have been freed to fulfill themselves.
Let freedom reign. God bless Africa.
And let us add: May God bless us all.
May we all be sealed for a sweet, joyous and healthy New Year.
My dear friend and colleague Rabbi Margaret Holub (who recently joined me as co-chair of the JVP Rabbinical Council) has just traveled to South Africa to spend the next six weeks in Cape Town. It’s her second sojourn there and in addition to reconnecting with old friends, she’ll be spending her time interviewing clergy in the Dutch Reformed Church about their life during and after the fall of apartheid.
The DRC is the Afrikaans-speaking church which was famous – or notorious – for more or less inventing apartheid and upholding it all the way through to its end in the 1990s. The Church has come a long way since then – their leaders recanted the doctrine of apartheid, appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to publicly ask forgiveness and have made moves to integrate their churches.
As a self-described rabbi “edging into the world of organizing about ending Israel’s occupation of Palestine,” Margaret is particularly interested in learning more about the experience of white South African clergy:
What was it like, I wonder, for the rest of them as the world’s banks and universities and entertainers boycotted South Africa, as other churches condemned and isolated the DRC? What was it like as it became clear that white rule and the separation of the races were going to end? Did they feel cornered? Did these ministers have misgivings about their church’s teachings? Did they feel like they had to defend them even so? Were their certain messages that penetrated their defenses? What would they say to rabbis today, twenty years after apartheid ended, about being on the wrong side of history? Maybe, with all this hindsight, they’d even have some advice… I really don’t know, but I look forward to asking.
The quote above came from Margaret’s blog, “Summer in Winter,” in which she promises to faithfully chronicle her experiences on this amazing trip. I plan to follow her adventures faithfully and recommend that you do too!
On Sunday, we headed northwest, winding our way through a long, gorgeous mountain pass, to Volcanoes National Park, where we spent an incredible afternoon at the Iby’Iwacu Cultural Village. Iby’Iwacu was founded by Rwanda Eco-Tours, the visionary tour agency that has shepherded us along our trip (as well as our last one in 2008). During the course of our tour, we’ve been so appreciative of RET’s skillful readiness to help us organize such a complex and unorthodox tour of Rwanda’s NGO world. The real bread and butter of their organization, however, is their eco-tourism mission.
From their website:
Rwanda Eco-Tours was founded and is run by native Rwandans who are passionate about their country, their people, their natural resources and providing you with the highest quality yet educational tourism experience that responsibly contribute to the conservation of Rwanda’s beautiful natural resources – her parks, lands and indigenous animals, most notably the endangered mountain gorillas – as well as the development and socio-economic well being of local people.
The Iby’Iwacu Cultural Village, one of RET’s signature projects, was founded to allow ex-poachers the opportunity to embrace conservation and cultural preservation, while still being able to make a living and strengthen the economic sustainability of their local community. It is quite remarkable to consider that this effort has allowed these local Rwandans, whose existence previously depended upon poaching and bush meat, to become transformed into environmental and cultural conservationists.
Immediately upon exiting the bus at the village, we were greeted by a wave of local children selling original crayon-drawn pictures of gorillas, elephants and other local species (above). The compound itself was built to resemble a traditional Rwandan native village. We then met our guide, John, who started our tour in front of the King’s hut. In a semi-solemn ceremony, Rich was elected king, I was made King’s Advisor, and Katia Waxman, Queen. After the three of us were dressed in Rwandan royal finery, were were all walked through an interactive simulation of Rwandan social/political/cultural protocol.
When we emerged from the royal hut, we were joyfully greeted by singing, drumming, dancing Rwandan “tribesmen.” After joining in the celebration (above), we were treated to a demonstration in a medicine man’s clinic and honed our native archery skills (below).
Then the real celebration began. (See bottom pic and the fabulous clip up top).
For anyone contemplating a trip to Rwanda, I can’t say enough about Rwanda Eco-Tours – an important agency that truly embodies the best of the eco-tour movement. And I highly, highly recommend a stop at Iby’Iwacu Village, a place that definitely hits the sweet spot between local community development, environmental conservation, cultural preservation and joyful abandon.
On Friday afternoon, we visited another CHABHA-sponsored neighborhood association, AJESOV (an acronym for “Association des Jeunes Volontaires Pour Les Soutien Aux Orphelins du VIH/SIDA” or “Association of Volunteer Youth Helping Orphans Affected by HIV/AIDS”). After breaking up into groups and going on more home visits, we return back to the AJESOV office in Nymata for lovely English language and musical presentations by youth program participants. Afterwards we made a presentation of soccer jerseys that were collected and brought over by delegation participants for the AJESOV children (above and below).
Saturday was dedicated to the AMAHORO association (located in the Kucyiru district of Kigali, more home visits, and later, a truly astonishing visit to a local primary school that serves as the location for AMAHORO’s English/Drama program. We were treated to yet another presentation by participants, though truthfully, nothing could have prepared us for the nature of this particular performance.
After greeting us, the young people of AMAHORO put on a drama presentation that utilized specific situations as the centerpiece for their original skits. In one, a teacher dealt with an unruly student by punishing everyone but the actual culprit. In another, a new student (named “Shut Up”) brings his misbehaving dog (named “Trouble”) to class. (As you might guess, Abbott and Costello hijinks ensue). In still another (below) a restaurant patron discovers too late that he doesn’t have the money to pay for his meal, so he tries to get off for free by putting a cockroach on his plate. (He doesn’t succeed).
I’m not exaggerating when I say the skits were utterly hilarious – almost worthy of Second City. It was so clearly obvious that the dialogue was written through the improvisatory efforts of the students themselves, which made their performances all the more inspired. Their humor – and spot on comic timing – quite simply left everyone doubled over with laughter.
Considering they have only been learning English since March, their performance was truly something to behold. This remarkable achievement was due in no small measure to their enormously talented teacher, Caroline, who later explained to us that she strongly believes in helping her students learn English by appealing to their own innate creative talents. The children’s love for this program – and their teacher – was palpable. It was yet another example of the inspiring efforts currently being invested in a new generation of Rwandans.
Below, the class poses with Caroline (front row, middle).