Rabbibrian's Blog

A Voice for Justice and Peace in Israel/Palestine

Jewish Identity and Zionism: Young Jewish Leaders at Northeastern speak up

Posted by rabbibrian on March 18, 2014

The Forward just published a brilliant article by two young Jewish leaders about the suspension of the Students for Justice in Palestine chapter at Northeastern University.   I encourage you to read it and to support the struggle against the censorship of voices that challenge Israeli policy on campus.  

I also encourage you to write a comment in support of these young leaders.  Here is a copy of my comment:

Bravo! As a rabbi, I felt a surge of hope for the Jewish future when I finished this article. I particularly appreciate the courage of these two young Jewish leaders in challenging the injustice and daily human rights violations that are committed by the State of Israel, with the full support of mainstream American Jewish organizations, in our name. They are part of a new generation of Jews who, in increasing numbers, want to make a clear distinction between Judaism/Jewish identity and Zionism. There are many deeply committed Jews with a range of Jewish identities who are not Zionists. There are increasing numbers of liberal Jewish rabbis such as myself who are not Zionists. As they write: “Calling actions critical of the State of Israel “anti-Semitic” also essentializes what it means to be a Jew. It simplifies complex Jewish identities — drawn from religion, culture and history — into singular support for a nation-state.” Because support for justice for the Palestinians, makes some Jews uncomfortable, is no reason for banning those who work to end the human rights violations against the Palestinians, such as home demolition, that they highlighted brilliantly with the distribution of eviction notices on campus. Jewish students who are uncomfortable will be better served by support from Jewish organizations, teachers and leaders for exploring their discomfort rather than accusing those who support justice, freedom and dignity for the Palestinians, of “anti-Semitism.” Again as they write: “If telling history from a Palestinian point of view makes pro-Israel students feel uncomfortable, that’s not anti-Semitic on our part. It’s denial on theirs.”
What an important article. I hope many Jews, young and old, take it to heart.
Yishar Kochachem/May you be blessed with strength!
Rabbi Brian Walt

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Israel and Apartheid: South African Jews Differ

Posted by rabbibrian on February 5, 2014

Hirsh Goodman, an Israeli journalist who grew up in South Africa, wrote an op-ed, “Losing the Propaganda War,”   in the Review section of the New York Times on Sunday.  His piece was included to “balance” the groundbreaking inclusion of an article by Omar Barghouti, a leader of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

There are many South African Jews who made aliya to Israel who claim that Israeli policy in no way resembles Apartheid.  Yet, like Goodman, they acknowledge that the moment the two state solution is no longer an option – when will that be? – it will immediately become a situation of apartheid!

On the other hand, I encounter countless Jewish South Africans – especially those who were active against apartheid – who on visiting the the West Bank feel apartheid in their very bones.  I am in this category and felt compelled to write a response to Goodman.

Please share this piece with others.  I am especially interested in hearing from other South Africans who have actually spent time in Palestinian villages and towns on the West Bank.

Israel and Apartheid: A Response to Hirsh Goodman

 In a recent New York Times opinion piece, Hirsh Goodman wrote:

After decades of arguing that Israel is not an apartheid state and that it’s a calumny and a lie to say so, I sense that we may be well down the road to being seen as one.

Goodman, an Israeli journalist, who like me, grew up in South Africa under Apartheid, went on to argue that

in this day and age, brands are more powerful than truth and, inexplicably, blindly, Israel is letting itself be branded an apartheid state — and even encouraging it. (“Losing the Propaganda War,” New York Times, Feb. 2, 2014)

Goodman’s choice of words is telling since, in fact, Israel and the leaders of the American Jewish community are currently investing millions of dollars and countless hours in the “Branding of Israel.”

But of course, Goodman misses the point: the issue is not about “branding,” nor about “inexplicable” actions by Israel.  Quite the opposite, the painful truth lies at the core of Zionism itself: a systemic privileging of Jews over non-Jews and an ongoing structural injustice that Israel inflicts on the Palestinian people.

It is this painful truth of very explicable – albeit unjust – policies of Israel, so similar to those of apartheid South Africa that has led so many to view Israel as an apartheid state.

The confiscation of vast tracts of Palestinian land, discriminatory zoning practices that restrict Palestinian housing while towns with thousands of homes are built for Jews, the creation of huge exclusive Jewish settlements on the West Bank, intense restrictions on freedom of movement, imprisonment without trial, the arrest of children in the middle of the night – these are only some of the discriminatory policies reminiscent of the injustices that Goodman and I witnessed as young people growing up in South Africa.

Because of our deep bonds to the culture and people of Israel, it is so hard for liberal Israelis, such as Goodman, and American Jews such as myself, to acknowledge this painful reality.

It has taken me years to acknowledge this truth and years to overcome the fear of saying it out loud – a fear that still inhibits me.  Decades of activism as a progressive Zionist gave me the opportunity to see realities that most Israelis such as Goodman never see, except as soldiers.

My life changed forever the day I walked down Shuhada Street in Hebron, a street that is restricted to Jews, where the Palestinian residents are forbidden to even walk on the road on which they live. I wept that day, knowing that I could no longer be silent when people warned me not to mention Apartheid when talking about Israel.

I have passed through checkpoints on the West Bank and have seen Palestinians, herded like animals, waiting for hours for their identity cards to be checked.  I have stood on the ruins of demolished Palestinian homes where one can see vast new Jewish neighborhoods that are within a short distance.  I am grateful to my Israeli human rights activist friends who allowed me to see these realities with my own eyes.  And I am grateful to the Palestinians who welcomed me into their homes and villages to share their lives with me.

As a person who grew up in South Africa it is impossible to see such realities not to feel the similarity with Apartheid in your very bones. South African anti-Apartheid leaders who have visited the West Bank immediately see the parallel.  It is impossible not to.

This is not to say that the situation in Israel and apartheid South Africa are identical.  There are important differences.  Jews have a profound long time connection with the land of Israel.  Israel saved the lives of many Jews at a time when our people were among the most desperate people on earth.  In many ways Israel represents a miracle of rebirth for Jews.

Yet our attachment to Israel and what it represents can never justify the dispossession of 700,000 Palestinians in 1948 and the creation of Jewish villages, kibbutzim and towns on the ruins of destroyed Palestinian villages.  Nor can it justify the continuation of this policy of dispossession on the West Bank that has made even a two-state solution a near impossibility.

Israel is not losing a “propaganda war” – rather, the Jewish people and Israel are in danger of losing our very soul. The most precious elements of our heritage and historical experience have been threatened.   This is a spiritual emergency for Jews in Israel and around the world – an emergency that cannot be solved by mere “branding” or by accusing those involved in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement of anti-Semitism.

Many Israelis and American Jews support some form of BDS as a strategy to end Israeli oppression.  Some advocate boycotting settlement products, others support wider boycotts, divestment initiatives and government sanctions.  All those involved in BDS view it as a nonviolent strategy to end the systemic injustice and discrimination that Israel inflicts on Palestinians.

I am part of a growing group of American rabbis, members of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council who support BDS.  While we have differences between us on what initiatives we may support, we all participate in some form of BDS because we believe that Israel and everything we hold dear about our Jewish legacy is threatened by the policies of Israel.

We also see our support for BDS as an expression of the Jewish commitment to stand in solidarity with the oppressed. The overwhelming majority of Palestinian civil society organizations have called for worldwide BDS campaigns, much as the African National Congress called for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against South Africa,

As a South African, I experienced the effects of the boycott against South Africa. I was disappointed when international rugby games in Cape Town or favorite concerts were cancelled because of the boycott.   Yet, as a South African opposed to Apartheid I welcomed the activism of those outside the country engaged in this struggle for justice.

Like South Africa, Israel has outlawed support for the boycott in any form.  Thankfully, there are some courageous Israelis – however small in number – who are prepared to defy the law.

Now that Israel has the most right wing government in its history that is unlikely to take even minimal steps towards peace, Hirsh Goodman fears the boycott and the comparisons to South Africa.   By portraying those who support the boycott as anti-Semitic, he is no different from the the Israeli government and American Jewish institutions that wish to intimidate and silence those who stand in solidarity with the Palestinian demand for equal rights and human dignity.

At the end of his article, Goodman wrote, As anyone who has bought a “Gucci” bag in a Bangkok market can tell you, it’s all in the label.”

Unfortunately, this issue is not about anything as trivial as a “Gucci” bag, or a brand name. It is about ending systemic discrimination and oppression and about the struggle for dignity and human rights for all.

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Scarlett Johansson: Profit over Principle

Posted by rabbibrian on February 4, 2014

As a rabbi and a long-time Oxfam supporter, I find Johansson’s decision to support a company exploiting Palestinian workers living under decades of occupation, expropriating Palestinian land at favorable tax rates, and setting back the prospects of a just resolution to the conflict to be.profoundly disturbing. 

Johansson’s decision to serve as the brand face for SodaStream, a company based in an illegal Israeli settlement, is shocking.  How could a global ambassador for Oxfam, a celebrity who has shed light on suffering and poverty around the world, be the face of a product created in an illegal Israeli settlement?  How can she justify being the face for a company that profits from the brutal Israeli occupation?

Not only did Johansson agree to a contract with Soda Stream, but she also recently defended her decision by claiming that SodaStream is a company that is “building a bridge to peace between Israel and Palestine, supporting neighbors working alongside each other.”  Although this is SodaStream’s official claim, nothing could be further from the truth. 

This is an excerpt from the beginning of an opinion piece that has been published by Alternet.  You can read the complete piece here. 

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Ariel Sharon, Sabra Shatila and Kishinev: “a replica, except far more brutal and vicious”

Posted by rabbibrian on January 15, 2014

Over the past week I have heard and read a lot  about Ariel Sharon – much of it either minimizing, avoiding, or ignoring the war crimes he committed.   One piece that presented an honest and very informative appraisal of Sharon’s life is an interview by Amy Goodman of Rhashid Khalidi, Palestinian scholar; Avi Shlaim, Israeli historian; and Noam Chomsky on Democracy Now.  I recommend listening to the whole interview.

I was particularly struck by Professor Chomsky’s comment that the Kishinev pogrom in Russia in 1903, a very painful and significant event in Jewish history, was a replica of the  massacre at Sabra and Shatila.

Here is what Professor Chomsky said:

Well, the Kahan Commission did condemn Sharon for what they called “indirect responsibility” for Sabra-Shatila massacre.  The Kahan Commission, I think, was really a whitewash. It tried to give as soft as possible an interpretation of what was in fact a horrifying massacre, actually one that should resonate with people who are familiar with Jewish history. It was almost a replica of the Kishinev massacre in pre-First World War Russia, one of the worst atrocities in Israeli memory, led to a famous nationalist poem by the main Israeli poet, Chaim Nahman Bialik, “City of Killing.” The tsar’s army had surrounded this town and allowed the people within it to rampage, killing Jews for three days. They killed 45 people. That was—that’s pretty much what happened in Sabra-Shatila: Israeli army surrounded it, sent in the Phalangist forces, who were obviously bent on murder.

AMY GOODMAN: These were the Lebanese Christian forces.

NOAM CHOMSKY: Lebanese Christian terrorist force, allied with Israel. The soldiers watched as they illuminated it. They helped them enter. They watched for several days while they murdered, not 45 people, but somewhere—Israel claims 800, other analyses go up to several thousand. That’s the Sabra-Shatila massacre. The idea that Sharon had indirect—the tsar, incidentally, was bitterly condemned internationally for direct responsibility. That’s, in fact, one of the events that set off the huge flow of refugees from Eastern Europe, including my father, among others. But—so this was a kind of a replica, except far more brutal and vicious.  And Sharon escaped more than a mild censure. It’s true that he was removed as defense minister, but it wasn’t long before he came back. And that’s one of a number of extremely shocking incidents in his career.

You can listen to Professor Chomsky’s comments here starting with some comments by Professor Shlaim at 30:00 minutes.

As Professor Chomsky points out the Kishinev pogrom had a very significant impact on Jewish history.  It  set off a huge flow of refugees, among them his father, who came to the United States.   Bialik’s famous poem that rails against the passivity of the Jews in response to the violence led to the formation of Jewish self-defense groups, strengthened Zionist activity and significantly increased emigration to Israel.  Bialik actually got it wrong.  The Jews in the town did resist physically but were overpowered by a force much stronger than them.

The shame that Jews felt in response to reports of Jewish passivity in the face of anti-Semitic violence is an important theme in Zionism.   Sharon embodied the Zionist response to this shame: the reliance on Jewish military strength to protect Jews, to create a Jewish state on the land of Palestine, imposing their will on the native inhabitants.

Sabra and Shatila was not the only massacre for which Sharon bears responsibility.   In 1953 he was the commander of a special force, Unit 101, that massacred sixty-nine Palestinian residents of Qibya.  (A little more than a year ago,  I met some residents of Qibya at a gathering in Budrus of residents of Palestinian villages engaged in nonviolent resistance to the confiscation of their land.)  Both massacres were based on his belief, rooted deeply in Zionist ideology, that the only way to ensure the survival of Israel is by brute force.  This belief that was challenged by Judah Magnes and some others in the Zionist movement who understood that the only way to peace was through negotiation and shared agreement between Jews and Palestinians.  Unfortunately, their view was rejected and it is the worldview represented by Sharon, with all its brutality, that drives the policies and actions of Israel.   It is nothing less than tragic that Jews end up creating “replicas” of our past: doing to others exactly what was done to us.

*Amy Goodman’s interview also includes a very moving report by Ellen Siegel, a Jewish nurse who was working in hospital in Sabra refugee camp at the time of the massacre.

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Goldstone on Mandela and some comments

Posted by rabbibrian on December 6, 2013

Judge Richard Goldstone has written a moving reflection on Nelson Mandela’s relationship to the Jews of South Africa.  You can read it here.

I want to highlight that while Madiba had a close relationship with the activist Jews who were such an important part of the anti-Apartheid struggle, the overwhelming majority of South African Jews and our communal institutions were shamefully silent about Apartheid. We benefited from the privileges we enjoyed as whites and implicitly supported the brutality of Apartheid by our silence.  This is a deeply troubling aspect of the history of the Jews in South Africa that must be acknowledged along with the recognition of the profound role individual Jews – for the most part disconnected from mainstream Jewish institutions – played in the struggle against Apartheid.

Mandela was deeply grateful to everyone who supported the A.N.C. in its struggle, including Yasser Arafat and the P.L.O.  When Western countries expressed their displeasure with his relationship to Arafat, he steadfastly expressed  his deep gratitude to Arafat and all those who supported the anti – Apartheid movement.   Another important piece of this puzzle is that in the 1970′s and 80′s Israel became the main supplier of arms and military training to the South African military as they brutally suppressed the struggle of the black majority for justice, equality and human rights.  This is another profoundly shameful and troubling aspect of the relationship of Jews to Apartheid.

It is in the face of the implicit support of Apartheid by the overwhelming majority of South African Jews and Jewish institutions and the massive Israeli military assistance to the Apartheid regime, that we highlight the courage and moral vision of those individual Jews who supported Mandela and the struggle.

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In honor of Nelson Mandela

Posted by rabbibrian on December 5, 2013

In June this year, when Nelson Mandela was critically ill, my daughter and son-in-law, Chana and Lincoln, named their second child, Micah Mandela Ritter.  I am reminded today of how moved I was my grandson’s covenant ceremony when they announced his name.  On Yom Kippur this year, in honor of Mandela I gave a sermon in part addressed to my grandson, Micah Mandela, on what we could learn from the great man whose name he bears about justice and moral vision, compassion and forgiveness, and about hope, community and social transformation.

On this sad day of his passing, I offer these words in memory of a great man who so profoundly changed our lives and inspired us.

Yom Kippur sermon 5774

Micah Mandela

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; they 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 till 2008 and kept the A.NC. 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 A.N.C., 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.

Micah Mandela

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.

Moral Hero

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.

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 ghettoes.

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.”

Freedom Charter

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.”

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.

Shana Tova tikateyvu v’teychateymu

And today I add, his memory will always be a blessing to us.  May his soul be bound in the bond of life and may he rest in peace.

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Letter from Civil and Human Rights Leaders to Morgan Freeman

Posted by rabbibrian on May 3, 2013

The Dorothy Cotton Institute Civil and Human Rights delegation to the West Bank have just sent a letter to Morgan Freeman urging him to decline an award from the Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University.  Below you can read the letter and I urge you to join 8,000 others who have signed a letter organized by the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation.    You can sign here.
Your letter will be received instantly and also delivered directly to Mr. Freeman.

A letter to Morgan Freeman
from the Dorothy Cotton Institute 2012 Civil And Human Rights Delegation to the West Bank.

Dear Mr. Freeman,

We are writing to you as members of a historic delegation of twenty three leaders from the nonviolent  U.S.  Civil  Rights  movement  of  the  1950’s  and  1960’s,  younger  civil  rights  and  human   rights leaders, peace advocates and educators, who traveled to East Jerusalem and the West Bank in October last year, to meet with leaders of the Palestinian nonviolent resistance movement and their Israeli allies. During our trip, we witnessed for ourselves the injustice and violence of the Israeli occupation, and the suffering inflicted on the Palestinians, in violation of international law and UN resolutions. For many of us, the systemic discrimination on the West Bank reminded us of the Jim Crow South.

Our experience on the West Bank compels us to join with so many others who have urged you to decline the Key of Knowledge Award from the Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University for your work  in  “combating  segregation  and  prejudice,  and  promoting  knowledge  and  education   throughout the world.” We honor your work in combating segregation and prejudice and it is precisely because of this work that we urge you to decline this award. By accepting the award you will implicitly legitimate Israel’s  continued  policies  of  oppression  and  discrimination  on  the  West   Bank.

During our trip we met countless courageous Palestinian nonviolent activists and their Israeli allies who are putting their very lives on the line in the struggle for basic human rights. These folk welcomed us into their homes and villages and shared their story with us. They inspired us and they asked us to do all we can to bring pressure to bear on Israel to end their policies.

By declining the award you would be adding your voice to those of Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu who have consistently stood in solidarity with the struggle of the Palestinians for justice and human rights. You would also be joining Stevie Wonder who declined to sing at a fundraising gala for the Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces last year.

Dr Martin Luther King Jr. said, “our  lives  begin  to  end  the  day  we  become  silent about things that matter.”    An end to Israel’s  45-year occupation of the West Bank matters. Equality, security and human rights for everyone matters. The future of the children of Israel and Palestine matters.

By declining this award you have the opportunity to say that all this matters.

We trust that you will carefully consider this request and we hope that you will decide not to be silent. We who have seen with our own eyes cannot be silent, and we hope that you will use this opportunity to make your own statement in support of justice and dignity.


The Dorothy Cotton Institute 2012 Civil and Human Rights Delegation:

  •   Donnie I. Betts, Filmmaker, Denver, CO
  •   Rabbi Joseph Berman, Chair, Boston Chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, Boston, MA
  •   Laura Ward Branca, Senior Fellow, Dorothy Cotton Institute, Ithaca, NY
  •   Prof. Clayborne Carson, Director, Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute,Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA
  •   Dorothy Cotton, Associate and colleague of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a member of hisexecutive staff, and Education Director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

    Distinguished Fellow, Dorothy Cotton Institute, Ithaca, NY

  •   The Rev. Richard L. Deats, Ph.D. Editor Emeritus, FELLOWSHIP magazine, Nyack, NY
  •   Kirby Edmonds, Coordinator, Dorothy Cotton Institute, Ithaca, NY
  •   Jeff Furman, National Advisor, Dorothy Cotton Institute, Ithaca, NY
  •   Prof. Alan Gilbert, University of Denver, Denver, CO
  •   Dr. Vincent Harding, Historian, Activist, Friend and Colleague of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,Denver, CO
  •   Prof. Robert. L. Harris, Jr., Cornell University, Ithaca, NY
  •   Sara Hess, Ithaca, NY
  •   Margo H. Hittleman, Senior Fellow, Dorothy Cotton Institute, Ithaca, NY
  •   Rev. Lucas Johnson, Fellowship of Reconciliation, Atlanta, GA
  •   Aljosie A. Knight, Activist, Ackworth, GA
  •   The Rev. Carolyn McKinstry,  Civil  Rights  activist  and  author  of  “While  the  World  Watched:A Birmingham Bombing Survivor Comes of Age during the Civil Rights  Movement”

    Birmingham, AL

  •   Dr.  Marne  O’Shae, Ithaca, NY
  •   The Rev. Dr. Allie Perry, Board Member, Interfaith Peace-Builders, New Haven, CT
  •   Dr. Paula M. Rayman, University of Massachusetts, Lowell, Watertown, MA
  •   Dr. Alice Rothchild, American Jews for a Just Peace, Cambridge, MA
  •   The Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, Freeman Fellow, Fellowship of Reconciliation, Boston, MA
  •   Dr. James Turner, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY
  •   Rabbi Brian Walt, Palestinian/Israeli Nonviolence Project Fellow, Dorothy Cotton Institute,Ithaca, NY

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Civil Rights Delegation to Obama: We cannot be silent, and neither can you.

Posted by rabbibrian on November 20, 2012

Members of the Dorothy Cotton Institute Delegation to the West Bank that I led in October have just issued the following statement on Gaza.  It is an appeal to President Obama to end the violence and secure a just peace.   Please share widely.



“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.”

                                                                           Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


An immediate end to Israel’s assault on Gaza, “Operation Pillar of Defense,”matters. An immediate end to the violence—the onslaught of missiles, rockets, drones, killing, and targeted assassination—matters. An end to Israel’s ongoing blockade of Gaza matters.  An end to Israeli’s 45-year occupation of Palestine matters. A resolution of the issue of Palestinian refugees expelled from their homes in 1948, many of whom live in Gaza matters.  Equality, security, and human rights for everyone matters.

We write as individuals who recently traveled to the West Bank with the Dorothy Cotton Institute’s 2012 Civil and Human Rights Delegation, organized by Interfaith Peace-Builders.  We cannot and will not be silent.  We join our voices with people around the world who are calling for an immediate cease-fire. Specifically, we implore President Barack Obama to demand that Israel withdraw its forces from Gaza’s borders; make U.S. aid to Israel conditional upon Israel’s adherence with relevant U.S. and international law; work with Israeli and Palestinian leaders to bring an end to Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories and to secure a just peace that ensures everyone’s human rights.

In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.”  As Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin declared in 1993, “Enough of blood and tears.”  Enough

We deplore the firing of rockets on civilian areas in Israel.  We also deplore and are outraged by the asymmetry, the disproportionality, of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, evidenced by the growing number of Palestinian civilian deaths and casualties.  This is not a conflict between equal powers, but between a prosperous occupying nation on one hand, armed and sanctioned by 3 billion dollars in annual U.S. military aid, and on the other, a population of 1.7 million besieged people, trapped within a strip of land only 6 miles by 26 miles, (147 square miles) in what amounts to an open-air prison.

United States military support to Israel is huge.  From 2000 to 2009, the US appropriated to Israel $24 billion in military aid, delivering more than 670 million weapons and related military equipment with this money.  During these same years, through its illegal military occupation of the Palestinian West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, Israel killed at least 2,969 Palestinians who took no part in hostilities.

During our trip to the West Bank, we witnessed for ourselves the injustice and violence of the Israeli occupation and the suffering inflicted on the Palestinians, in violation of international law and UN resolutions.

In the Palestinian village of Nabi Saleh, for just one example, we observed a weekly nonviolent protest.   The neighboring Israeli settlement of Halamish was illegally built on Nabi Saleh’s land.  This settlement has also seized control of the Nabi Saleh’s water spring, allowing villagers to access their own spring water for only 7-10 hours a week.  Demonstrators of all ages participated in the protest, including several who, in recognition of the civil rights veterans in our delegation, carried posters with quotations from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  We watched in horror as heavily armed members of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) responded to this peaceful assembly with violence, strafing the demonstrators with a barrage of tear gas canisters, rubber bullets, gas grenades, and even a round of live ammunition.

The IDF assault in response to these weekly nonviolent demonstrations can be deadly.  Rushdi Tamimi, a young adult Nabi Saleh villager, died this past week while he was protesting Israel’s attack on Gaza.  The IDF fired rubber bullets into Rushdi’s back and bullets into his gut, and slammed his head with a rifle butt.

Israel’s assault on Gaza is exponentially more violent than what we witnessed in the West Bank, but the context–the oppression of the Palestinian people—is the same.  Most of the inhabitants of Gaza are refugees or descendants of refugees expelled from their homes in Israel in 1948.   This dispossession of the Palestinians that they call the Nakba (The Catastrophe) continues on the West Bank where Israel has built extensive Jewish settlements on confiscated Palestinian land. We saw with our own eyes how this settlement expansion and the systemic discrimination has further dispossessed the Palestinian people and is creating a “silent transfer” of Palestinians who are either forced or decide to leave because of the oppression.   This injustice—Israel’s decades-long oppression of the Palestinian people—has to be addressed by honest and good-faith negotiations and a genuine agreement to share the land.  The alternative is a future of endless eruptions of aggression, senseless bloodshed, and more trauma for Palestinians and Israelis. This surely matters to all people of good will.

To President Obama, we say, use the immense power and authority United States citizens have once again entrusted to you, to exercise your courage and moral leadership to preserve lives and protect the dignity and self-determination, to which the Palestinian people and all people are entitled.   Israel relies upon the economic, military, and strategic cooperation and support of the United States.  You have the power to not only appeal to Israel to show restraint, but to require it.

Feeling ourselves deeply a part of “We the People,” sharing so much of your own tradition of organizing for justice and peace, we believe it is just, moral and in keeping with the best spirit of Dr. King to urge you to:

§  Call for an end to violence by all parties and an immediate cease-fire for the sake of all people in the region.

§  Use your power to demand that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the IDF cease the bombardment of Gaza and withdraw their armed forces immediately.

§  Join with the international community in using all diplomatic, economic, and strategic means to end Israel’s illegal, brutal siege of Gaza.

§  Insist that the United States condition aid to Israel on compliance with U.S. law (specifically the U.S. Arms Export Control Act) and with international law.

§  Work with the leaders of Israel and Palestine to secure an end to Israel’s occupation and to negotiate a just peace.

As citizens of the United States, we are responsible for what our government does in our name, and so we will not be silent.  Justice, peace and truth matter.  The future of the children of Israel and Palestine matter.  We cannot be silent and neither can you.


Members of the The Dorothy Cotton Institute 2012 Civil and Human Rights Delegation:

(List in formation)

Donnie I. Betts, Filmmaker, Denver, CO

Rabbi Joseph Berman, Chair, Boston Chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, Boston, MA

Laura Ward Branca, Senior Fellow, Dorothy Cotton Institute, Ithaca, NY

Prof. Clayborne Carson  Director Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA

The Rev. Richard L. Deats, Ph.D.  Editor Emeritus, FELLOWSHIP magazine, Nyack, NY

Kirby Edmunds, Coordinator, Dorothy Cotton Institute, Ithaca, NY

Jeff Furman, National Advisor, Dorothy Cotton Institute

Prof. Alan Gilbert, University of Denver, Denver, CO

Dr. Vincent Harding, Historian, Activist, Friend and Colleague of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Denver, CO

Robert. L. Harris, Jr., Cornell University, Ithaca, NY

Sara Hess, Ithaca, NY

Rev. Lucas Johnson, Fellowship of Reconciliation, Atlanta, GA

Dr. Marne O’Shae, Ithaca, NY

The Rev. Dr. Allie Perry, Board Member, Interfaith Peace-Builders, New Haven, CT

Dr. Paula M. Rayman, University of Massachusetts, Lowell, Watertown, MA

Dr. Alice Rothchild, American Jews for a Just Peace, Cambridge, MA

Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, Freeman Fellow, Fellowship of Reconciliation, Boston, MA

Dr. James Turner, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY

Rabbi Brian Walt, Palestinian/Israeli Nonviolence Project Fellow, Dorothy Cotton Institute, Ithaca, NY  

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Please sign statement of African Americans for Justice in the Middle East

Posted by rabbibrian on November 18, 2012

African Americans for Justice in the Middle East and North Africa have just initiated  a petition regarding the Israeli attack on Gaza.  It is very powerful statement and I encourage you to sign and share with others.  Text below and link here: https://www.change.org/petitions/us-white-house-and-state-department-condemn-israeli-agression-in-gaza

African Americans for Justice in the Middle East and North Africa (AAJMENA) strongly condemns Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people in Gaza. The arguments offered by the Israeli government for its attack on Gaza are nakedly cynical in both form and content. That a truce had been negotiated, with the assistance of the Egyptian government, between Israel and Hamas only to be broken by the Israeli assassination of Hamas military commander Ahmad Jabari clearly indicates that the Netanyahu government is not interested in peace. Israel is responsible for the escalating violence and for this epic breach of human rights.

This crisis underscores a stunning power imbalance. Nuclear-armed Israel, by far the most powerful military force in the Middle East (and among the mightiest in the world), has unleashed its immense war making capacity on Gaza’s captive population, mobilizing warships and tanks and launching more than 1,000 F-16 airstrikes since the attack began. The use of such weapons on civilians is a flagrant violation of the U.S. Arms Export Control Act.

The aggression against Gaza must be understood as the latest act in the decades-long oppression of the Palestinian people at the hands of the Israeli government. Blockaded Gaza has been plunged into misery by the Israeli-U.S. effort to thwart the democratic will of the Palestinian people as demonstrated in their 2006 legislative elections. When a coup was attempted against Hamas—and failed—the Israelis sealed Gaza, spinning events to make it appear that those not interested in peace were the Palestinians. As a result, Gaza is the largest open-air prison in the world, with 1.5 million people locked into a roughly 140-square-mile strip of land. This latest humanitarian crisis has caused the disproportionate death and suffering of Palestinians, but casualties on both sides will be the consequence of Israeli aggression.

Rather than taking a stand against Israeli’s onslaught and issuing an unambiguous demand for an end to the bloodshed, the Obama administration has condemned alleged Palestinian terrorism, repeating the dishonest line that this violent attack is merely in defense of Israel (a position reinforced by the one-sided coverage of the corporate news media). This represents a massive failure on the administration’s part. For all Obama’s denunciation of the Assad regime in Syria, it appears that his administration regards the outright slaughter of civilians in Palestine as acceptable. It is crucial that we recognize the extent of U.S. complicity in the bloodshed; our tax dollars ($8.5 million a day) enable Israeli militarism at a time when those funds are desperately needed to fill gaps in services and infrastructure back home.

As African Americans and people of African descent in the U.S. from academia, activism and various social movements, we cannot remain silent. We call upon all people of good will to:

1. Endorse this statement.

2. Communicate with the White House and the U.S. Department of State to request that President Obama demand that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu and the IDF cease the bombardment of Gaza and withdraw their armed forces immediately. Insist that the U.S. condition aid to Israel on compliance with U.S. and international law.

3. Contact the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C. and demand that Israel withdraw its forces and end the blockade.

4. Send your local media outlet a “letter to the editor” expressing outrage against the provocative and murderous acts of the Israeli government.

5. Join protests against Israeli aggression.

6. Support Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (www.bdsmovement.net) and U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (www.usacbi.org), and back the efforts of labor unions and student groups to compel their employers and administrators to divest from companies that do business in Israel.

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Please read this. A young American Jew asks the President why he is afraid of Aipac

Posted by rabbibrian on November 18, 2012

The following letter is from a blog of young American Jew.

My younger brother was an early believer in you.  He worked for your Senate campaign.  At the age of 25, he ran the GOTV campaign in North Carolina, delivering an improbable victory for you in a Southern state that helped give you your first term.  This year, slightly less bright-eyed but nonetheless a believer, he was working on your campaign again when he died suddenly, a brilliant, energetic 29 year old, dead in his tracks.  You know this.  You called my parents.  Your campaign, to my greatest appreciation and respect, brought grief counselors for his coworkers, dedicated a corner of the office and much of your fundraising efforts to him, and bussed his coworkers to join the hundreds of others at his funeral.

You may not know that after his sudden passing, many of his friends quit their jobs, moved, changed their lives to continue working on your campaign in his memory.  One of these friends ran your GOTV effort in Ohio, delivering a close swing state that resulted in the race being called for you early.  My mom and I joined these efforts in Ohio, door-knocking until right before the polls closed, pounding the pavement in Alex’s memory and in hopes of your next presidency.  Despite my disappointment in some of your stances, I proudly kept my Ohio for Obama sticker on my jacket.

Until yesterday.  Mr. President, when the bombs began raining on Gaza again and you reiterated Israel’s “right to defend itself”, I took that sticker off my jacket.  Later, you called Prime Minister Netanyahu and asked him to “use restraint,” as though he were a glutton at a feast, rather than an elected official of a powerful military nation, using your own country’s weaponry to engage in a one-sided assault.  Mr. President, you are the most powerful man in the world.  You do not need to politely request anything of Mr. Netanyahu; you can stop him by ending U.S. military aid to Israel until Israel complies with international and U.S. law.  Mr. Netanyahu and his right-wing allies in the U.S. actively campaigned against your re-election, assuming that Governor Romney would be better positioned to give them carte blanche to violate Palestinian human rights and start regional wars.  It is not to them that you now need to prove your allegiance, but to we the people who knocked doors for you, who made phone calls for you, who died getting you this 4 years more of opportunity.

My brother was an early believer in you.  He knew, but disliked, that you would have to sway to right-wing Israeli interests.  We watched you walk away from your Palestinian colleagues in Chicago.  It became a painful issue in our Jewish family as we tried to support my brother all the while wondering how far you would go in continuing the charade that the American people and our interests, and not American money and its interests, really drove your Middle East policy.  Mr. President, AIPAC’s star is fading.  Not in your final term, maybe, but soon, politicians who hitch their ambitions to this tainted money will fall.  You saw this at the DNC when Mayor Villaraigosa failed to get his 2/3 vote for an AIPAC-sponsored resolution but proceeded to pretend the support was still there; it’s not.  My brother was an early American Jewish voice for Palestinians, but he was not alone and there are more of us than ever.  And there are also Arabs now in your coalition; you saw them at the DNC in their “Yalla Vote!” t-shirts.  You have a rainbow of supporters who worked to re-elect you.  We voted for you.  We fund-raised for you.  We do not want to watch you pretend like it is for us that you allow these massacres to continue with our money.

My brother would be disappointed to see your impotence in the face of continuing Israeli aggression shortly after such a sweeping re-election victory.  I am still proud of him.  I am still proud of all of the Americans that worked so hard to deliver you this re-election.  But I am so hurt and ashamed to watch you use restraint when you are the only person with the power to stop this massacre.  Mr. President, I am barely over 5 feet tall and I am not afraid of AIPAC; why are you?


A bereaved sister

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