RHR2010: links roundup

Over the course of the 2+ days of Human Rights Under Fire: A Jewish Call to Action, Rabbis for Human Rights - North America's third conference on Judaism and human rights, I blogged somewhere inthe neighborhood of 27,000 words. Here they are:

A logistical note on the material linked above: when there were plenary sessions, we were all together listening to one thing; when there were breakout sessions, there were typically four or five things happening at any given time. I chose the sessions which were most compelling to me. (Had I attended the other sessions, you would have gotten a different glimpse of the conversations happening at the conference.)

Throughout the conference, Joshua Bloom was recording videos of participants talking about why we are rabbis for human rights. I meant to go and speak briefly on camera about why I'm a rabbinic student for human rights, but I didn't manage to; the last session I attended ran long, and I had to leave before the very end in order to catch my train home. But here's what I would have liked to have said:

I'm becoming a rabbi because I want to serve God and because I want to serve my community. Torah teaches that we are all created b'tzelem Elohim, in the divine image; each of us is a facet of God, each of us contains a spark of divinity within us. I support the work of Rabbis for Human Rights because when anyone anywhere is denied their basic human rights, then that spark of divinity isn't able to shine.

I believe that my community is best served -- and that the community of the world is best served -- and that God is best served -- when each of us is able to live up to our own unique potential, freely and without discrimination. When there is oppression against any of God's children (those who are in "my tribe" and those who are following other paths to holiness), then there is work to be done. I'm grateful that Rabbis for Human Rights is living out Judaism's prophetic call.

I'm incredibly glad that this organization exists and that I'm able to be a part of it. Thanks for a great conference, y'all! See you in two years.

RHR2010: Israel, Exceptionalism, Human Rights and the Road Ahead, Part 1

I'm blogging from Human Rights Under Fire: A Jewish Call to Action, Rabbis for Human Rights - North America's third conference on Judaism and human rights.

The final session of the conference is a plenary session: Israel, Exceptionalism, Human Rights and the Road Ahead. The session has two parts. In Part 1, our speakers are Peter Beinart, Author; Rabbi Ellen Lippmann, RHR-NA Co-Chair; and Jane Eisner, The Forward.

"It's a great honor to be here," says Peter Beinart. After his piece in the New York Review of Books (The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment) came out, someone asked "have there been a lot of angry words, ad hominem attacks, that kind of thing?" and his response was, "you mean, outside of my own family?" The room laughs.

He tells a story about watching a video of a Palestinian man being arrested for trying to connect his village with a water source at a nearby settlements. Settlements often have swimming pools and lush irrigation; studies show that water use among Palestinians is dangerously low, and many Palestinian villages are not connected to any water system. This man later told Ha'aretz that in his village there was not enough water for the Palestinian children to brush their teeth. In the video, women and children were screaming and crying; a boy was trying, through the thicket of adults, to reach his father who was being taken away. The boy was yelling to his father, "Baba, baba!" And that, it turns out, is the word that Beinart's own son uses for him, so it hit home.

Beinart was hanging out at that time with his four-year-old son, a budding Zionist who has an Israeli flag in his room and "has become very anti-Egyptian as a result of the Pesach story." When, Beinart, is it appropriate for him to share stories like this one with his son?

Evidently the IDF had been thinking too about how to explain the story of the man being taken away in chains; so they put out a story saying that the family of the man had put him up to it, and had put the son up to it, so that it would garner international attention. What that says, Beinart tells us, is "this person is not like you. Divorce yourself from the emotional power of this scene; you can't relate to these people in any way." That is what the American Jewish establishment has been trying to do with young American Jews for a while now. We have tried to desensitize our children to the realities of what Occupation means. And this effort, Beinart says, has failed -- not only because of our moral obligations to the Palestinians, but it has also failed to produce among young American Jews a strain of liberal Zionism.

The leaders of the American Jewish establishment feared that if they exposed young American Jews to the reality of the Occupation, it would extinguish the shimmers of Zionism emerging in their lives... but I think that [pretending the Occupasion isn't there] has failed to produce young Zionists. And it has failed at...teaching my son to celebrate the principles of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, and...[i]t has failed to create people who are passionately committed to those principles.

Continue reading "RHR2010: Israel, Exceptionalism, Human Rights and the Road Ahead, Part 1" »

RHR2010: The Most Pressing Human Rights Issues In Israel

I'm blogging from Human Rights Under Fire: A Jewish Call to Action, Rabbis for Human Rights - North America's third conference on Judaism and human rights.

The Most Pressing Human Rights Issues In Israel with Rabbi Paul (Shaul) Feinberg, RHR Israel.

"It's clear what's wrong," says Rabbi Shaul Feinberg; "I want to talk about what's right." He calls back to what Naomi Chazan said on the first night; the issue is the Occupation, of course, and he will have things to say about that. Reconciliation, he agrees with Chazan, is necessary.

The head of Israeli military intelligence in the 1970s and 80s (whose name I didn't catch) was the first to publish the Palestinian national covenant -- and we all remember some of the egregious parts of that document, Feinberg quips -- and yet even that man advocated for a Palestinian state! That man said, "I do not do that as a lover of Arabs -- I don't love Arabs -- I happen to be a Jew living in the land of Israel, and this is our vested interest."

Feinberg speaks out against the "egregious" crime against Naomi Chazan. (You can see the hateful advertisement in English here.) "She is president of the New Israel Fund; there was demonization of her with the worst kind of antisemitic canard, where she was pictured with horns -- and we know how words can lead to actions, even murderous ones, and not enough was done by the authorities; we should have learned a lesson with the assassination of Rabin!" But, he says, the papers do still hold contrary opinions (meaning, I think, that at least there is still some disagreement and the whole nation isn't in lockstep.) He hopes that his anecotal observations will be useful in carrying the conversation forward.

He speaks with us about using traditional texts to inspire Israeli children to tackle questions about water rights in the desert. He alludes to the trafficking in women, the abuse of foreign workers; these, he agrees, are crises. (We learned about these yesterday.) Atzum is fighting a campaign against the trafficking of women, and as a result, the government is more aware and alert and more is being done, says Feinberg. What's painful now is that women who made aliyah out of Ethiopia and Russia are still being oppressed in these ways -- "the crisis has not been eradicated; this is still a pressing crime."

"The picture," he says "is not all black and all white." There are now 300,000 Israelis living in Judea and Samaria. "Many of them arrived there with the support not only of Likkud governments but of Labor governments. Labor was responsible for settling in Hebron." This is a heartland, he says, and whatever the political and social aberrations of the people living there, particularly in relationship to their minority Arab community (Christians and Muslims), there are Jews living there, and this is their home. "If we talk about compromise... we will have to compromise not only with the Palesitnians, but with the Jewish men and women who are living in these areas, from those living on mountaintops to those living in larger cities." He does not anticipate a wholescale evacuation as happened in Gaza; no one has the political capital to do that. "Much will have to be given up, and this is part of our pressing human rights conversation."

Continue reading "RHR2010: The Most Pressing Human Rights Issues In Israel" »

RHR2010: From the Frontlines - Perspectives on RHR’s Work in the West Bank

I'm blogging from Human Rights Under Fire: A Jewish Call to Action, Rabbis for Human Rights - North America's third conference on Judaism and human rights.

Breakout session: From the Frontlines: Perspectives on RHR’s Work in the West Bank, featuring Rabbi Yehiel Greinimann, RHR Israel.

Rabbi Yehiel Greinimann begins with a word of Torah from Perek ha-Shalom, a text which tells us that the world stands on three things: on din (law/judgement), emet, truth, and shalom, peace. Another voice argues that justice, truth and peace -- they're all one thing. If justice is done, truth is done, then we have created peace. The prophet Zechariah adds, "in all places where there is justice, there is peace -- and wherever there is peace, there is justice."

Grienimann is the field director for RHR in Israel, and manages both American volunteers and Israelis who come from all walks of life. "We don't fool ourselves that we can end the Occupation or create change in a big way," he says. "In a big way the solution has to be political. But we're trying to educate by action, by engaging people in meeting Palestinians, in trying to redress wrongs, trying to affect the Israeli public." "The underlying assumption, which you hear from Palestinians all the time, is that if there's going to be peace, you have to have justice." Of course, figuring out what justice is -- that's the hard part.

The main work that Rabbis for Human Rights does in the West Bank is accompanying Palestinian farmers on their harvest and the legal stuff around access to land and dealing with settlers. (See A rabbi struggles to protect his Palestinian flock.) And we're going to talk about that. But first he wants to offer a few grounding remarks -- and then we're going to talk about a Bedouin project -- and then we'll get to the olive trees.

We always tell volunteers that we're non-confrontational and non-violent, he tells us. But he wants to be clear that "to me, human rights include the rights of the Jews as a people in addition to the rights of the Palestinians as a people....Human rights is inclusive, not exclusive." It's important not to dehumanize settlers, to dehumanize people on the right -- as well as not dehumanizing the Palestinians I'm meeting with, he says.

He talks about Gandhi's writings about ending the British Occupation of India -- the need to respond with love and compassion. Working in the field, it's easy to forget that.

But first, he wants to tell us about a project with the Bedouin. He shows us a slide of children standing under a corrugated-metal roof, labeled "Bedouin kids in Hal el Achmar summer camp, July 2010." A while back, kids came from Operation Groundswell and wanted to build something; Greinimann called the folks at ICAHD, and he learned that there was a desire in Han el Achmar to build a school.

Continue reading "RHR2010: From the Frontlines - Perspectives on RHR’s Work in the West Bank" »

RHR2010: Breakfast Briefing: Park51 + The Crisis of Islamophobia

I'm blogging from Human Rights Under Fire: A Jewish Call to Action, Rabbis for Human Rights - North America's third conference on Judaism and human rights.

I co-led shacharit this morning with Rabbi Oren Postrel (thanks, Oren!), so I arrived a bit breathless to the Breakfast Briefing: Park51 + The Crisis of Islamophobia. The session featured Rabbi Joy Levitt, The Jewish Community Center in Manhattan; Reverend Chloe Breyer, Interfaith Center of New York; Daisy Khan, American Society for Muslim Advancement; and Rabbi Gerry Serotta, Clergy Beyond Borders.

Rabbi Gerry Serotta begins by talking about the history of Jews in Cordoba (which I wrote about at some length a while ago) and reminds us that the right to gather and worship and think is not only a civil right but also a human right. He reads us excerpts from the international declaration of human rights and argues that those who are acting to prevent the Park 51 project are acting against article 30 in that declaration.

"When I came to America at the age of sixteen I landed in a Jewish neighborhood," says Daisy Khan. She lived there for seven years; she babysat neighborhood kids; she learned, she says, how to make tunafish the Jewish way and she knows a good rugelach from a bad one! (The room laughs.)

My worldview has been shaped by my childhood, where I grew up in Kashmir, India, where I was living a multireligious life. My teachers were Hindu, I was sent to Catholic school, I played with Sikh girls... and we were always told we were from the tenth lost tribe of Israel. So I am honored to have had that kind of worldview at a very young age, and this is why I am committed to interfaith dialogue and to the commonalities that all religions share.

Voices of moderation and tolerance, she tells us, have recently come under assault. "As the plans for the proposed community center sparked Islamophobia around the nation, we found ourselves squarely at the center of a heated debate," she says. "We hope that our message resonates with your own experience of struggling for justice." Many Jewish leaders have said to the Park 51 organizers, "this has happened to us; this has happened to Catholics; it is just a moment, and this too will pass." We can reclaim our vision from the detractors and help it come to fruition, she says; "we call on you, and all like-minded people, to help us to safeguard and preserve religious freedom, especially in this very precious country."

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Slavery, Trafficking and People of Faith: In Our Own Backyards and Beyond

I'm blogging from Human Rights Under Fire: A Jewish Call to Action, Rabbis for Human Rights - North America's third conference on Judaism and human rights.

Plenary: Slavery, Trafficking and People of Faith: In Our Own Backyards and Beyond

This session features Rabbi Simkha Weintraub, Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services; Ron Soodalter, Author, The Slave Next Door; Pamela Shifman, NoVo Foundation; and Nisha Varia, Human Rights Watch.

"If trafficking is about anything, it's about power," says Rabbi Simkha Weintraub. Trafficking is about people who lack power, being exploited by people who have power. "We sitting in this room are not powerless." (The panel begins with Ron Soodalter, which makes sense -- the panel needs to begin with an explanation of contemporary slavery before we can talk about why women are disproportionately exploited or about the uniquely awful situation many female domestic workers find themselves in -- but please, read all the way to the end of this post, because the conversation just gets more powerful.)

At the beginning of this plenary session, a handout is passed around the room which is titled "What You Can Do to End Slavery." It's from humantrafficking.change.org, and lists items under the headings of "increase awareness," "support abolition with your wallet," and "spread the conversation through social media." This handout was passed around on behalf of Ron Soodalter, who says that every time he speaks on this issue, he gets the question "what can I do?"

"Last year a man was arrested for both sex and labor trafficking. He allegedly kept two yong women prisoner in his home on threat of violence, forcing them to work without compensation and to perform sexual acts. He advertised for them on a legitimate site for au pairs, though he had no children. The police had had him on his radar for years. The man to whom I refer is not a pimp or trafficker from a dicey neighborhood; he is a 65-year-old writer from the Westchester neighborhood of Pound Ridge. His neighbors were stunned to discover that slavery exists...even in their own back yard."

"Certain things we know to be true: that the South kept slaves, an the North fought a righteous war of emancipation...that the United States has been slavery-free ever since. These are things we know, and they are not true. Meanwhile, most Americans do not know that...slavery is legal nowhere, and yet it is practiced everywhere," Soodalter says. There are roughly 27 million people in bondage worldwide -- that's twice the number who were taken in chains during the 350 years of the slave trade. "It's one of the most profitable businesses of our time," he says.

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RHR2010: Whose Rights? Where does Judaism require us to focus our efforts: Global justice, Community Organizing or Israel?

I'm blogging from Human Rights Under Fire: A Jewish Call to Action, Rabbis for Human Rights - North America's third conference on Judaism and human rights.

Breakout session: Whose Rights? Where does Judaism require us to focus our efforts: Global justice, Community Organizing or Israel?

This session was led by Rabbi Jill Jacobs; Rabbi Rachel Goldenberg, Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek; and Rabbi Brent Chaim Spodek.

We begin the session sitting in a circle, with our three leaders inside the circle, each of them with her or his back to some part of the group. When someone protests about sitting in a circle where the presenter has her back to us, the presenters note that other presenters are facing her, and I realize that the setup is symbolic: we may feel as though we have to turn our backs on one issue in order to turn toward others, but as long as some of us are facing in each direction, then communally we can be turned in all directions at once.

"Our human rights activism, our social justice work -- in Micah it says, 'What dos God require of you? Only to do justice, love goodness, and walk humbly before God,'" quotes Rabbi Rachel Goldenberg. The humility, she says, is key: to walk humbly before God, as communities of action, communities of conscience, we need to prioritize and figure out how we're going to divide our resources, our passion, and our commitments. We need to figure out who we serve, and we do that in humility because we have limitations.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs begins by explaining our topic for this afternoon: "the question of how we divide our responsibilities, how we think about our responsibilities to our community and to other commnities; to Israel, to America; to other places around the world." We grapple with these questions via studying texts. The traditional way of studying these texts is in hevruta -- paired study, or in this case study done by a trio. The three rabbis in the fishbowl in the middle of the room will have a conversation through their eyes and through the eyes of the text, and then they plan to open it up to the rest of the room so that all of us can be holy friends in learning together.

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RHR2010: The Crisis in East Jerusalem

I'm blogging from Human Rights Under Fire: A Jewish Call to Action, Rabbis for Human Rights - North America's third conference on Judaism and human rights.

Break-out session: The Crisis in East Jerusalem

This session is led by Maya Wind, Columbia University; Ruth Carmi, New Israel Fund; and Wendy Zerin, Congregation Nevei Kodesh.

Maya Wind begins by showing us a map of Jerusalem, explaining the Green Line and the various definitions of East Jerusalem and West Jerusalem. In 1967 came the unification of Jerusalem. She shows us the old city walls of Jerusalem; the Old City is east of the Green Line, which means that early on, the Israeli authorities were clear that they didn't want to leave the old city (with the Western Wall) under Palestinian control. The old city is only 1 square kilometer, but Israel wound up annexing 70 square km into the municipal border of Jerusalem.

"What happened to the Palestinians living there? Today there are 740,000 people in Jerusalem; 36% are Palestinians living in East Jerusalem." They have a special ID; they have a residency permit, a unique status only for East Jerusalem Palestinians. They can technically, by law, receive social services and benefits from the municipality, and can travel freely in Israel, which their counterparts in the West Bank cannot do. The map she's showing us also shows settlements; there are 200,000 settlers living in one area to which she points. There are also more disputed settlements, in an area the settlers call the "Holy Basin," a ring around the Old City. The settlers have targeted this area specifically because should Jerusalem be divided, they want to ensure that the Old City remains within Israel. This is where we find Silwan, Sheikh Jarrah, etc.

Four main issues faced by Palestinians in East Jerusalem, says Wind, are: 1) settlement expansion, in the Holy Basin and around East Jerusalem. The consequence of this expansion is displacement; settlements may be built atop the former houses of Palestinians. Also harassment. Some of the settlers are here for theological reasons, not economic ones, and they can be hostile and quite violent to Palestinians. 2) House demolitions. Much of this land is called "green land" in Israeli law; it's technically public land, which means it's difficult to get a building permit. The Israeli government has not granted zoning plans since 1967; with no zoning plan, there can be no legal house-building. So Palestinians have no ability to build legally. They build illegally without a permit, which means the Israeli municipality can demolish their homes and also fine them for the privilege. 22,000 houses in East Jerusalem are considered illegal, of which 6,000 have pending demolition orders.

The third issue faced by Palestinians in East Jerusalem is budget discrimination. They pay land tax, arnona, to the city, but receive only 7.2 percent of the budget. This means that there's a severe lack of infrastructure, facilities, schools, clinics, etc. And the fourth issue faced by Palestinians in East Jerusalem are arrests of children. There are many demonstrations going on, and "one of the results of the political unrest in the area is that Israeli forces are arresting people, including small children," Wind says, "which is against international law." This whirlwind tour we've been given is, she says, "East Jerusalem 101."

Continue reading "RHR2010: The Crisis in East Jerusalem" »

RHR2010: How Long Before Indefinite Detention Without Charge Becomes Permanent Betrayal of Our Values?

RHR-NA conference

I'm blogging from Human Rights Under Fire: A Jewish Call to Action, Rabbis for Human Rights - North America's third conference on Judaism and human rights.

The day begins with shacharit (my favorite moment: singing a snippet of our abbreviated Hallel to the tune of "Maoz Tzur" in honor of Chanukah) and breakfast. After a word of welcome from (and a brief commercial for) UJA / Federation New York, we begin our first plenary session of the day:

How Long Before Indefinite Detention Without Charge Becomes Permanent Betrayal of Our Values?

This session features Donna Lieberman, New York Civil Liberties Union; Gabor Rona, Human Rights First; Michael Ratner, Center for Constitutional Rights; and Rabbi Marla Feldman, Union of Reform Judaism.

"Indefinite detention is another form of slavery," says one of our welcomers. We read just two weeks ago about Joseph being put into Pharaoh's prison -- "that was a form of indefinite detention!" But even if some of the prisoners in Guantanamo could interpret dreams as Joseph did, that wouldn't get them out of prison.

"Nearly a decade after the horrific 9/11 attacks, we're still living very much under their shadow," says Donna Lieberman. "Of course the pain of those who lost loved ones is very fresh. But the collateral damage to our civil liberties is remarkably ongoing." Government behavior which would have once been unthinkable has become the new normal: indefinite detention, surveilance, all in the name of "national security" and the global war on terror. Many of us thought that when the Bush regime was over, the worst offenses would cease -- but we know now that this has not been the case.

Lieberman introduces our panelists (I'm not taking notes on their bios -- you can read about these folks if you click on the links to their names, above) and then we get rolling. Our first speaker is Rabbi Marla Feldman, who begins by laying out the Jewish foundation of our thinking on these issues and explains that after she starts with these basics she'll speak more directly to the subject of this panel. We often speak, she notes, of the notion of human beings being created in the divine image, b'tzelem Elohim. "That means that all human beings should be treated with dignity, as equals, with one another." Jewish tradition also impels us to treat the strangers in our midst as one of our own, "for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. So citizens and non-citizens were governed by the same laws" in the ancient world, she says. "Jewish tradition commands us to treat them as one and the same."

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RHR2010: Human Rights Under Fire in the Age of Obama and Netanyahu

I'm blogging from Human Rights Under Fire: A Jewish Call to Action, Rabbis for Human Rights - North America's third conference on Judaism and human rights.

I almost didn't make it here in time -- I hadn't read the conference schedule closely enough, and went to the facility where tomorrow and Tuesday's events will be taking place instead of to tonight's venue! (The doorman at the other facility told me that several lost rabbis had stopped in as I did, baffled about why no one else was there.) But here I am -- hooray. I arrived at the beautiful Bnai Jeshurun sanctuary in time for R' Shawn Zevit's beautiful opening song ("For freedom's never-ending spark / Light one candle in the dark..."), a powerful prayer on behalf of the mourners and those impacted by the horrible Carmel fires, and the lighting of Chanukah candles.

Conference Opening Plenary: Human Rights Under Fire in the Age of Obama and Netanyahu

This session features Iain Levine, Human Rights Watch; Dr. Naomi Chazan, New Israel Fund; and the Hon. Elizabeth Holtzman.

"This is an important subject," says Holtzman. "Many of us understand that there are serious issues with regard to human rights, civil rights, civil liberties in both Israel and the United States. Here, we see that some of the most serious crimes -- torture, illegal surveilance, illegal treatment of detainees, illegal war-making have been left unaccountable. In Israel we see other kinds of assaults on civil liberties."

Holtzman describes our first speaker, Dr. Naomi Chazan, as one of the great Jewish women thinkers of our times. "She [Chazan] was a pioneer in dealing with women's rights and improving the status of women in Israel," Holtzman tells us, as Chazan founded the Israel Women's Network. "Naomi's a very courageous woman; I remember sharing a sealed room with her when Sadam Hussein's scud missiles were being launched at Israel." Chazan is being demonized in her own country, Holtzman says, and that is simply appalling. The crowd applauds for her and her work.

Dr. Naomi Chazan begins her formal remarks by saying, "I'm here tonight to challenge us all."

The biggest challenge to Israel-- since 1948 and before -- is that right now, it is clear that the occupation of Palestinian territories by Israel is on the verge of bringing about two separate and equally pernicious processes. The first is the inability to resolve the conflict, and without resolution of the conflict and the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, Israel's ability to integrate into the region and to survive is going to be well-nigh impossible. And on the other hand, the continuation of the occupation is eating away at the moral fabric of Israeli society and threatening its democratic character and the values that underlie its existence. If it continues much longer, [Israel] will implode.

Continue reading "RHR2010: Human Rights Under Fire in the Age of Obama and Netanyahu" »

Looking forward to the RHR-NA conference

Rabbis for Human Rights - North America is hosting a conference on Judaism and human rights in New York City next month. (Read more: Conference on Judaism and Human Rights.) The conference will run from 12/5 through 12/7. But before it even begins, there's a student pre-conference (on Sunday, December 5, from roughly 8:30am until 2:30pm) which is for student clergy, grad students, and undergrads who are interested in questions of Judaism and human rights.

I'm on the organizing committee for that pre-conference; our flyer appears below.


The specific piece for which I've taken responsibility is morning prayer; we're going to have a 45-minute morning service which will hopefully be led by three different rabbinic students from three different seminaries. (If you might be willing to be one of those students, please let me know!) The program looks pretty wonderful, and it's a great chance to add some inter-denominational student connection to what already looks like a fabulous few days.

I'm hoping to be able to blog at least some of the 2010 conference as I did the RHR conference I attended in 2008.

Anyway: if this is your cup of tea, join us! I'd love to see you there.