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A Voice for Justice and Peace in Israel/Palestine

Beyond Victimhood: Jews, Power and Privilege A sermon in memory of my aunt, Ethel Walt

Posted by rabbibrian on September 24, 2010

On Rosh Hashana, I gave a sermon on Jews, Power and Privilege in honor of my aunt, Ethel Walt, an activist in the Black Sash in South Africa, who died as a result of a tragic car accident in May of this year.  Below is an excerpt from the sermon followed by the complete text.

We, American Jews, are blessed to live in one of the safest places Jews have ever lived. We live in one of the richest countries in the world and we are one of the most prosperous communities in this country. In the context of the world as a whole, our material blessings and privileges are staggering.  We also have the freedom to advocate for the needs of our community and have significant power in the American political system.

In the other major center of Jewish life, Israel, Jews have one of the most powerful armies in the world and exercise control over the lives of millions of Palestinians.

Neither in America nor in Israel, nor in many countries of the world, are Jews oppressed or victims.  Anti-Semitism is on the decline.  We do face the challenges of being a minority in every country (except Israel). But in most countries, we enjoy the blessing of safety and privilege.

We have privilege and power, yet we see ourselves often as victims and our tradition speaks of our people as victims.  We sometimes use our status as victims in the past to justify the oppression of others.  This is particularly true in Israel where the Holocaust is often used to justify the the oppression of the Palestinians.

The spiritual question we face is not how we free ourselves from our oppressors, but how we use our power and privilege ethically. What we need are religious teachings that speak to the ethical use of power and the ethical response to privilege.


From an early age growing up in Apartheid South Africa, I had a sense of the injustice of my society  and a feeling of guilt and responsibility.  In my Jewish school I was learning about our people, the Jewish people, as slaves, and as victims of oppression. Yet my life was one of privilege. How come I lived in a comfortable house with everything I need, while other kids lived in substandard housing and were begging for money on the street?  How come my family and my friends’ families had much more than we needed while others suffered from malnutrition, or in some cases starved to death?

And I looked around to see the responses of adults to this human cruelty.  My parents both conveyed to me that Apartheid was unjust and they taught me to be kind, (in a paternalistic way) to the domestic worker in our home and to all people.  But there was only one person in my circle of friends and family who acted publicly to challenge the inequity and injustice of Apartheid and that was my Auntie Ethel, my father’s sister-in-law.

Black Sash

My aunt, Ethel Walt, was beloved to me in so many ways.  After my dad died, she and my uncle Alec assumed a parental role, guiding me and my siblings through a very painful transition in our lives.  Ethel was as privileged as we were: she lived in a beautiful house overlooking the ocean. Yet she was active in the Black Sash, an organization of white women who would stand in public spaces wearing a  black ribbon to protest the denial of rights to Black South Africans.  The Black Sash provided legal aid to Blacks facing pass law offenses for being in a “white area” without a pass. They would protest when black townships were demolished or when other shocking actions were taken against Black citizens.

Danger

It was dangerous to protest Apartheid.  Other whites would call you a traitor and we were living in a brutal police state with very few, if any, restrictions on its power.  I was so proud of my aunt and inspired by her courage and the courage of her comrades.

When I think about my aunt I think of a wonderful rabbinic midrash/interpretation of the account in the Torah of Moses killing the Egyptian taskmaster.

The Torah tells us:

“Some time after that, when Moses had grown up (in Pharoah’s palace), he went out to his kinsfolk and witnessed their labors.  He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen.  He turned this way and that and he saw that there wasn’t anyone, and he struck down the Egyptian and buried him in the sand.” (Exodus 2:8-12)

Moses was privileged, he was raised in Pharoah’s palace and he was shocked by what he saw as he ventured out of the palace and witnessed the brutal reality of the Israelite slaves with his own eyes.

Why does the text say, “And then he turned this way and that”?

On one level it seems that Moses wanted to check if there was anyone who would see him killing the Egyptian.

The rabbis interpret it differently.

Vayar’ ki eyn ish

He looked this way and that, vayar’ ki eyn ish, and he saw there was no human being, not an official, nor anyone with basic human decency, who would act to stop this systemic injustice.

In Yiddish, the word mentsh means “human being” and it also refers to a decent, compassionate person.   And Moshe saw there was no mentch, no one like the Egyptian midwives who instinctively refused to obey Pharoah’s order to kill the Hebrew children.  What drove Moses to commit murder was not just the injustice, but the fact that there was no one around who acted against the injustice. The Torah’s ambivalence about this murder is reflected in Moses spending 40 years hiding before he emerges as a liberator of the Israelites.

As a child in South Africa, when I looked this way and that it was my Aunt Ethel who I found and she has been a great source of inspiration to me.   And when my aunt looked, she found women of conscience with whom she acted.  Many here tonight have done the same.  I have already been so inspired by the stories of several members of this temple in standing up to oppose racism, economic inequality, militarism.  The passion for justice that impels us to act is sacred; it is our way of becoming God’s partner.

In May of this year, my aunt, was run over by a truck as she got out of her car. She died a few weeks later.  A few days earlier she had delivered a beautiful eulogy in memory of Sheena Duncan,  the leader of the Black Sash, and attended a memorial service for Sheena in Soweto.

We, like my aunt, live with a great deal of privilege and we face the same challenge: Will we step out beyond the comfort of our privilege to act for justice for all?  What does our tradition teach about privilege and responsibility.

Privilege, Victimhood and the Teachings of our Tradition.

As a child, I was always struck by the contrast between my life of privilege and the experience of the Jewish people as victims.  Jewish tradition looks at the world from the point of view of the victim, of the vulnerable and the powerless. For example, the entire Torah is written from the perspective of the younger child because, in the Ancient Near East, the firstborn was privileged. (Isaac, Jacob and Joseph are the younger children who overcome the privilege of the older child.)

And the story of the Exodus is a story of slaves, the underclass.  It is this story, more than any other, that defines Jewish spirituality and ethics.   “Remember you were slaves in Egypt” is mentioned no less than 36 times in the Torah.  From this experience, our tradition teaches us to be especially sensitive to the vulnerable, to the widow, the orphan, to the one who is a stranger, to the “other.”   “And you shall love the stranger because you know the heart of the stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Jewish ethics asserts that a society is to be judged, not by its economic success, but rather by the way it treats those who are most vulnerable.  For us, this is at the heart of what it means to be Jewish.

Our holiday cycle reflects this: Purim is about Haman wanting to kill the Jews; Pesach about Pharoah; Hanukkah about Ahasueras; Tisha B’Av about the Romans.

This experience of our people as victims is best summed up in the words of the Haggadah:

“It is not only Pharoah alone who rose up to kill us, but in every single generation, people rise up to kill us,  but the Holy One Blessed be He, saves us from their hands.”

This idea of Jews as victims is understandably amplified by the suffering inflicted on our people at different times in our history — especially, in our time by the catastrophe of the Holocaust.

While we all treasure the concern for the “other” that we learn from the experience of suffering, this vision of Jews as perpetual victims, is not true of all our history and it definitely is not an accurate reflection of our current reality.  Today, thankfully, Jews prosper in many countries and have significant security and power.

American Jews

We, American Jews, are blessed to live in one of the safest places Jews have ever lived. We live in one of the richest countries in the world and we are one of the most prosperous communities in this country. In the context of the world as a whole, our material blessings and privileges are staggering.  We also have the freedom to advocate for the needs of our community and have significant power in the American political system.

In the other major center of Jewish life, Israel, Jews have one of the most powerful armies in the world and exercise control over the lives of millions of Palestinians.

Neither in America nor in Israel, nor in many countries of the world, are Jews oppressed or victims.  Anti-Semitism is on the decline.  We do face the challenges of being a minority in every country (except Israel). But in most countries, we enjoy the blessing of safety and privilege.

We have privilege and power, yet we see ourselves often as victims and our tradition speaks of our people as victims.  We sometimes use our status as victims in the past to justify the oppression of others.  This is particularly true in Israel where the Holocaust is often used to justify the the oppression of the Palestinians.

The spiritual question we face is not how we free ourselves from our oppressors, but how we use our power and privilege ethically. What we need are religious teachings that speak to the ethical use of power and the ethical response to privilege.  I want to explore a few of those teachings.

Teachings about Privilege and Responsibility

In addition to the powerful stories of the midwives, Moses, and other people of privilege who had the courage to stand up for justice for all, the Torah itself expresses great anxiety about what will happen to us when we become prosperous.

“When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage ……. and you say to yourself, my own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.”  (Deuteronomy 8:12)

Trajectory of Comfort and Wealth

The Torah points to the inevitable trajectory of comfort and wealth.  When one is more prosperous and comfortable, one is liable to forget the times of hardship, one is likely to have a greater stake in preserving the status quo even if it is unjust. One is likely to live in isolation from people who are suffering,  and one is likely to have a sense of entitlement — my power and the might of my hand have won this wealth for me.

And one is likely to forget God and the the spiritual teaching that everything belongs to God, that we are all interdependent and and have covenantal obligations to one another.

It is out of concern for the possibility that when the Israelites are comfortable they will forget their past that the Torah prescribes a prayer formula to be said by the farmer on the very first harvest in the land of Canaan. (For the purposes of our discussion today I am not going to deal with the profoundly problematic notion of the Promised Land)

The prayer formula is as follows:

“My father was a fugitive Aramean.  He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but he became a great and populous nation.  The Egyptians dealt harshly with us….we cried to God….God freed us from Egypt and he brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.  Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which you, God, have given me.”

The farmer then gives the first fruit to the Levites and the passage ends: “and you shall enjoy, together with the Levite and the stranger in your midst, all the bounty that God has bestowed upon you and your household.”

It is striking that at the very moment of that first harvest, the time when the farmer finally knows that he has a successful crop, she is not allowed to eat from it but must take a portion of the first fruit to Jerusalem to give to the Levites and the poor.

The farmer must recite this formula as a conscious reminder of our history: He must not regard his bounty as a right, but rather as a blessing and a responsibility. No one acquires wealth on his or her own. We are all interdependent and all responsible one for the other and those who are blessed with more have a sacred responsibility to make sure that there is justice for all.

This idea challenges a dominant ethic in America of the self-made person.

There is much more to say about the Jewish teachings about economic justice, the idea of a cyclical redistribution of wealth in the idea of the Sabbatical and Jubilee year, the teachings about our responsibilities to the poor.  We will elaborate and study these at another time.  For now, I want to briefly consider our response to the reality of our privilege.

Buying our way out

The tradition’s anxiety about the effects of prosperity captures much of our reality.  As the Jewish community in America has become more prosperous, we have become more conservative.

How should we respond?  Here are some ideas that occur to me, but I hope more will emerge in a conversation among us.

First, we should understand and acknowledge our privilege and learn about racial and economic privilege. We need to talk with one another about the ways our privilege has benefited us and the ways in which we have suffered from it.

Second, we must regard our privilege not as a right or entitlement but as a responsibility — to advocate justice for all.  We need to break our isolation and ally ourselves with people and groups who are the victims of injustice to challenge their oppression.

Third, we should examine whether there are ways for us to use our privilege for the benefit of all.  This may involve giving of our time, resources, skills to fight for justice.  It may also involve considering giving up some of our privileges in order to create justice for all.

I think these are questions we should address both personally and communally.  We all make choices every day about the use of our resources, skills, material possessions, and those choices have consequences for others.  We make choices about where we live, how we invest our money, how much tzedaka we give, how much support we give to social change organizations.  We need to look at our choices and examine their effect on others. Maybe this Rosh Hashana is a time for each of us to make a new commitment to social justice.

My aunt, like so many others, made such a choice.  I want to end my sermon as I began, with her.  I was unable to go to her funeral but wrote a letter to her to be read at the shiva minyan and I want to share a section of it:

As a child growing up in Apartheid South Africa, there were very few, if any people in our immediate circle who challenged the racism of Apartheid.  In our extended family, you were the exception, the only to do so.  As a child deeply troubled by what was happening around me, it was such a gift to have an aunt whom I loved dearly who provided an alternative model of how to act. It is a gift that was invaluable to me then, and it remains so today.

Over the years, even though sometimes you didn’t always agree with political positions I took — especially in relation to Israeli policy — you always lovingly supported me.  Just a year ago, when you were particularly troubled by my support for Judge Richard Goldstone and other positions in regard to Israel, you clearly and lovingly shared your concerns.  You could have chosen to remain silent for the sake of shlom bayit.  Not only did you challenge me clearly, but what emerged was an important email dialogue.  I learned a lot from you and I felt you listened to me.

When you and Alec came to Israel on your last visit, you did, at age 80, something that so few Jews are willing to do: you went to see for yourself the reality of Palestinians under Occupation.  When (my son) Ben told me that you and Alec did this, I was just so moved.  It was so inspiring and consistent with your commitment to look and see for yourself when others preferred to turn their eyes away in Apartheid South Africa.   I hope when I am 80-something, I will have only a fraction of your courage to look and see realities that need to be seen — especially when they challenge some of my assumptions and worldview.

Last Friday I was on a bus to the center of Jerusalem with Galya and Caryn and we passed the weekly Women in Black protest against the Occupation. (The Israeli women in Black draw their inspiration from the Black Sash.) I told (my 13-year-old daughter) Galya all about the Black Sash and how important it is for people with privilege to stand up even against their own community to advocate for justice for everyone.

Yes, we were all so looking forward to seeing you and Al here on the Vineyard for Galya’s Bat Mitzvah, but that will not be possible.  What is possible is for me to share with Galya, the next generation, the teaching of your life.

The rabbis say, “In a place where there isn’t a mentsh/ a decent human being, be a mentsh.”  They say that when Moses saw the Egyptian beating the Hebrew slave, “he looked this way and that” to see if there was anyone who would challenge this act of brutality.

You looked, you saw and you understood that it was upon you to join together with others to bring kindness, decency and justice into a cruel reality.

I will miss you so much, but as long as I live I will always hold your love and life teaching in my heart and I hope that the story of your moral courage will inspire us and the next generation to do what we are called to do.

Your soul/neshama is truly bound up with the souls of the living.

May you rest in peace,

In sadness, love and gratitude,

Brian

As we enter the New Year, may we also make a commitment not to turn our eyes away, to look and see, even that which is disturbing and challenging. And  may we act each in our own way — and especially collectively as a community — to build a world of justice, kindness and compassion.

.

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8 Responses to “Beyond Victimhood: Jews, Power and Privilege A sermon in memory of my aunt, Ethel Walt”

  1. Susan said

    Though I am not Jewish I subscribe to your “blog”…finding “rabbibrian” in my “inbox” always excites me…I look forward to reading what you have shared; am never disappointed; have gained much knowledge, insight and understanding…you are a wise man…I am fortunate to have found your blog.

    Your last two sharings have arrived while I am in Cairo, I’ve spent four weeks here trying to enter Gaza to volunteer in a children’s center. Because of bureaucratic and diplomatic games between the US and Egypt I have failed in following my passion…working with the children in Gaza.

    I was always a strong supporter of Israel, her right to exist, the suffering Jews have experienced for hundreds of years—especially from the holocaust. Verbally, Israel always received my support, even when my mind was questioning what Israel was doing. I remained silent because I was fearful of being accused of being antisemitic; labeled antisemitic.I knew I wasn’t but could not have “proved” my innocence.

    When I learned the wall was being build a red flag went up in my mind and would not disappear. In 2004 I was approached with invitation to join a group of women traveling to the West Bank. My main concern was the group may be antisemitic…I wanted no part of that.I was amazed to find half of the women were Jewish. I learned there were Jewish groups opposed to Israel’s actions, especially treatment of the Palestinians.

    Since then I have become an advocate for Palestinian rights…freedom and justice. I give presentations about my trips to the West Bank and Gaza in 2009; I had looked forward to up dating it with pictures and experiences from Gaza during this trip…the one that didn’t happen. I present what I saw, heard and experienced…in addition I always present the fact that there are thousands of Jews who oppose or question Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians as well as Jewish organizations in the US, Israel and throughout the world who question and speak out about Israel’s actions and motives.

    It is difficult for me to understand and accept Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. It is especially hard given the important role Jews have played in defending civil rights. insisting on justice,v freedom and respect for all….Your religion has such a rich and active history when if comes to equal treatment…how can Israel continue committing crimes against Palestinians, humanity and do so without world outrage, Jewish outrage?

    I admire your commitment, wisdom and honesty. I’m fortunate to benefit from your writings. I wish I’d had an Aunt Edith. What more could one want from their life than to serve as example and inspiration for a child as your Aunt Edith did with you.

    • rabbibrian said

      Susan,

      I am so honored that you are a reader of my blog posts, irregular as they are, and am delighted you find them enlightening. It must be so disappointing to plan to go to Gaza and to find it impossible to enter. The past few days I have been thinking how cruel it is to deny a whole population freedom of movement. It is such a basic right that we take for granted. It feels like making all Gazans suspects, or worse, criminals.

      We need to reclaim prophetic Judaism and having non -Jewish allies like you is so important to that process.

      I am sure your commitment to justice will have an important effect on many people just as my aunt Ethel’s actions have been so important to me.

      May God bless all your efforts to pursue justice and peace,

      Rabbi Brian

  2. Dear Brian,
    I was very moved by your story of your Aunt Edith and how her wisdom has manifested within you the Godly wisdom we all need. There are no aliens among us,only those who look, speak,eat,pray and worship different than I do. Your wisdom about the struggle that has gone on between the Palestinians and Israelis is sorely needed, if that once holy land is to be understood as truly holy, because these are all people whom God loves and has always intended that they might live together in peace and justice.

    Thank you for your courage to speak out on this crucial issue. I am a retired Presbyterian minister who has been involved for years seeking a just peace for both peoples and with each living in that land together. With God,s presence and just enough “mentsh” it can happen.

    Peace/Justice
    Jim

    • rabbibrian said

      Thanks so much Jim. It is such a blessing to work together — Jews, Christians and Muslims– for justice for the Palestinians and a secure and peaceful future for both peoples in the land they share. Amen, with God’s presence (through human beings making that presence known) and enough common human decency/menshlichkeit it can happen.

      As Isaiah said, “Zion will be redeemed in justice” and the result of justice is peace.

      In solidarity,

      Brian

  3. Claire Goldstein said

    Dear Rabbi Brian,

    I’m so sorry to hear of your aunt’s death. I remember you speaking about her at Mishkan. It’s been 9 years since we left Philadelphia for Cincinnati, Ohio, but I wanted to let you know what an indelible impression your teaching has had on Erik and me. We think of you and talk about you frequently as we try to navigate life, and as we try to teach our wonderful sons Asher (6) and Noam (3) what it means to us be Jewish, to live with the “kindness, decency and justice” your aunt embodied and inspired you to pursue. We feel privileged to have felt the ripple effect from this courageous and righteous woman. May her memory be an enduring blessing.

    Very warm wishes to you and your family for a sweet and good new year.

    B’shalom,
    Claire

    • rabbibrian said

      So wonderful to hear from you, Claire and Erik. Thanks so much for your kind note. May Noam and Asher be proud Jews who live lives of kindness, decency and justice, just like their parents.
      May you be blessed in every way,
      Rabbi Brian

  4. Clif Brown said

    Rabbi Brian:

    I was raised in a Christian family with little contact with Jews until I was a teenager. As I grew up, however, I enjoyed history and my impression, which grew stronger the more I read, was that wherever someone was in trouble, often beyond hope, there might well appear a Jew to help. Your sermon makes me realize the basis for acts that had led to my impression – a fundamental philosophy that you describe so well. No wonder a Jew might well step forward when there was nothing material to gain and the life or reputation of a person was at stake.

    In recent years my positive impression of Judaism has not weakened, but my unquestioning positive regard for all who call themselves Jewish has been tested by Israeli policies. For too long I have done nothing to aid those who, in the occupied territories, are completely at the mercy of a people I had always considered the most merciful.

    I believe that we should take as a first truth that, for good or bad, each of us is equally a human being. There is no guarantee of good behavior because we come from one group or another. The most powerful emphasis on doing right can be resolutely ignored by anyone. The Lebanese militias of the late 1970’s that called themselves Christian were no less driven by hatred and prone to violence than their adversaries.

    We all should be judged by what we do, not by any claims based on our heritage or family or wealth. May the wisdom in your sermon be widely heard. The opportunity to be a mentsh happens frequently for those who are able to see it. It’s the best kind of opportunity that can knock.

  5. Donna Krupkin Whitney said

    I just discovered this blog and these sermons today. They give me hope.

    Even if the myth of perpetual victimhood were correct, it would not justify the victimization of others. We have indeed suffered atrocities; all the more reason that we should not inflict atrocities on others.

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