In a harsh assessment of the Brooklyn Syrian Jews published in The New York Times’ Sunday Magazine in October 2007, Zev Chafets painted a malignant picture of a community whose moral values had been warped by a vulgar materialism and a culture of greed.

Rather than seeing itself as others saw it, the community rejected the veracity of Chafets’ report and continued to laud itself as a sterling example of a charitable and supportive Jewish enclave.

With last week’s troubling allegations of criminal misconduct on the part of prominent rabbis in the community, the continued attempt to disregard critical views of the community has been disastrous.

Apart from the ongoing revelations about the nature of the corruption and how deeply embedded it actually was in the community, we would do well to more carefully examine the cultural erosion of the Syrian Jewish tradition; a phenomenon that has become common to many Sephardic communities who have been unable to effect a cultural continuity allowing a perpetuation of their traditions to coming generations.

In the case of the Syrian Jewish community, the story goes back to the tumultuous upheaval of the immigrant years. Lacking a firm institutional base from which to reconstruct its traditional culture, the Syrian Jews were caught between two variant leadership models.

On the one side there was the rabbinical leadership cadre led by Hakham Matloub Abadi which extolled the traditional Sephardic Rabbinic Humanism of the Andalusian tradition. Abadi insisted that provisions be made for the community’s youth to learn the Sephardic heritage in an authentic manner.

On the other side of the equation was the vision of a wealthy businessman named Isaac Shalom who had a very different model of pedagogy and sense of cultural continuity. Shalom’s aim was to create a cadre of quiescent religious leaders who would follow his dictates rather than the ideals of the older tradition. Under the rubric of continuity, Shalom eviscerated the old system, viewed henceforth as antiquated and irrelevant to “modern” concerns, and in its place installed a form of Ashkenazi Orthodoxy that immediately transformed the climate of religiosity in the community.

The critical aspect for the current controversy is the way in which community leadership devolved from the rabbinical cadre to the lay cadre. Henceforth decisions vital to the community would not be decided in the rabbinical court, but in the private offices of the businessmen of the community.

Taking Hakham Matloub Abadi and what he represented out of the equation proved to be a disaster that the community has still not recovered from.

Putting unlimited power into the hands of laypeople meant that the religious institutions of the community would be administered along different standards than had previously been in place.

Matloub Abadi was effectively removed from public service and lived out his life as a businessman rather than a minister and rabbinical leader in the community. The current leadership is heir to the dominance of Isaac Shalom and his hand-picked protégé, Rabbi Jacob Kassin.

In effect, the new arrangement permitted the creation of oligarchic pockets in the community which could function as private fiefdoms dispensing largesse to their supporters.

An “in-group”/”out-group” mentality began to permeate the community. Those inside the leadership held sway over the decision-making process of the community which ceased to be monitored by an independent rabbinate. The lay-leaders and leading rabbis worked hand-in-glove to promote their own vested interests and were not limited by any outside interference. Strict canons of conformity permeated the leadership circles and deviation from their dictates resulted in social rejection.

Intellectuals and independent religious figures were closed out of the new system if they elected to remain critical of the system and its massive financial perquisites. No critical mechanism was made available to monitor the community’s public institutions.

The new model was enabled by the ongoing evisceration of the traditional Sephardic pedagogy. In its place, Shalom and his peers brought to their religious and social institutions the Ashkenazi Orthodox paradigm which had hitherto been marginal to community concerns. With the inclusion of this model the community was left without its native heritage and began to acclimate to the predominant American Jewish model, leaving it bereft of organic self-knowledge.

The new model enabled the promulgation of closed cadres of leaders who were not accountable to the community. Orthodoxy rigidly enforced specific ideational tenets that replaced the expansive culture of Arab-Jewish civilization. Intellectual attainment declined, material values burgeoned and the moral backbone of the community collapsed.

An ongoing debasement of Sephardic culture in both the secular and religious Ashkenazi-dominated Jewish world has caused an upheaval in the Sephardic community; bringing us to the point where the community is showing itself prone to the type of unethical behavior that continues to plague a number of prominent Ashkenazi groups, particularly in the Orthodox world.

The current scandals that have just unfolded reinforce the fact that a breakdown in cultural continuity can often lead to the failure of communal authority and morality. Given the ongoing prejudices against Sephardic culture in Israel and the West, it is not at all certain that the current status quo will have the ability to reform itself. Within the Syrian Jewish community there is a moral collapse that has come from a cultural breakdown of monumental proportions. This has been reinforced by a Jewish world dominated by Ashkenazi interests which is often oblivious to the Sephardic minority.

Because of this cultural system, Sephardim such as the Brooklyn Syrians have come to comport themselves in a way that resembles the way in which business is often done in other sectors of the religious Jewish world.

Regardless of how the current corruption charges are adjudicated, until the older models of Sephardic Jewish leadership and critical self-examination are restored, it is highly unlikely that the current scandals will be addressed with the proper gravitas needed for true moral reform.

From One Rachel to Another

24 Jul 2009 In: Arts and Culture, Film, Gaza, Israeli Occupation, Palestine

An open letter to Rachel Corrie as the screening of the film that bears her name, honors her life, and condemns her death faces shameless criticism and censorship.

Dear Rachel,

The day you were crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza, was a stormy day in Tel Aviv.

March 16, 2003 — to be exact.

I was seated at my computer editing a collection of reports by Amira Hass filed from Ramallah (reporting from ramallah). It was the first compilation of writings by this Jewish Israeli Ha’aretz journalist to be published since she left Gaza for the West Bank. Come afternoon, I was to head from Tel Aviv to Ramallah, where I intended to meet up with my friend and colleague, filmmaker Simone Bitton. Simone was working on a series of daily video diaries (Ramallah DailY). It was raining so hard, I wondered if I had it in me to schlep across Qalandia checkpoint. It never dawned upon me whether I had it in me to face a D9 house-demolishing bulldozer in Rafah.

I went online to check the forecast, to see if the storm was going to let up, and I saw the newsflash announcing your crushing; anonymous, faceless, nameless. I remember the words American, peace-activist, female. I didn’t know yet that, like me, your name was Rachel. Nor did I know that you too were a “Greener.” I just knew that some folks in the states might mistakenly worry at first glance that the said woman was me. I dropped my mother a line to assure her I was fine. And off to Ramallah I went.

Simone was in a production frenzy but I remember we exchanged a few words about it: “Did you hear?” “I heard.” Finally the rain subsided, and posters bearing your likeness sprang up like mushrooms. Ramallah was covered in them: a blond, blue-eyed, “girl-next-door,” sweatshirt-wearing martyr. People were deeply moved. Someone other than they, someone who “didn’t really have to,” had put their life on the line. And since we all know that in the deranged Western economy of imagined human worth one blond, blue-eyed, sweatshirt-wearing life is worth 100 if not 1,000 brown-haired, brown-eyed, not sweatshirt-wearing lives, your death was like a massacre.

Two months later I found myself, coincidentally, at Evergreen College, in your hometown of Olympia, WA, where I had not set foot since I graduated 10 years prior. I was 33 and you were 23. Although a decade apart, we both chose Israel/Palestine as the site for our independent study (I during the first Intifada, you during the second Intifada). As it turns out, we shared some teachers too. When they invited me to screen my film 500 Dunam on the Moon, about the occupation and depopulation of a Palestinian village and its transformation into a Jewish artists’ colony, I dedicated the screening to you and added Simone Bitton’s film The Bombing (which addresses the common, yes common, mourning of Palestinian suicide-bombers’ families and Israeli victims’ families) to the bill in honor of your parents, who were in the audience. In the discussion that followed, I was asked the usual question: “What hope do you have and/or solution do you see, for the situation in the Middle East?” (as if the “Middle East” were the situation). “To be honest,” I said, “right now, I have none and/or see none.” Not my usual answer, and an utterly useless one at that. Cindy Corrie got up, practically from sitting shiva so to speak, and proceeded to rock the house with her optimism. I was impressed, but also ashamed. Who was I to feel hopeless, when your mourning mother didn’t? One might have thought, the Corries need to give your death meaning right now, otherwise, how could they possibly live with it? But six years later, Cindy Corrie is still willing to rock the house. That is, if the house will let her.

This is where our paths diverge, yet nevertheless cross. I am a Berkeley girl, born and raised. As far back as I can remember, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival was a place that year in and year out fed the Jew in me, the leftist in me, and the filmmaker in me. It is where I had the honor of screening my first two documentaries, 500 Dunam on the Moon and Ashkenaz, where Simone Bitton screened political films in the past (Mahmoud Darwish: As the Land is the Language and Wall) and where countless other American and Israeli Jewish filmmakers have taken the State of Israel to task, at least cinematically. And herein lies the problem, I fear. Had you been Rachel Koret, rather than Rachel Corrie, things would look quite different. You would have had the proverbial “right,” in mainstream Jewish eyes, to criticize, to protest, even to die. And your mother’s campaign against Caterpillar, i.e. her activist kaddish, would be tolerated if not sanctioned. But you were not Rachel Koret or Korn or Cohen. Just Corrie. A shayna punim shiksa who had no business telling D9 bulldozers, even if they are “Made in the USA,” what to do. Certainly not bulldozers nicknamed “Dubi” which is Hebrew for teddy-bear.

[This is where I’d like to go on a tangent praising the Jewish ISMers who traveled to Palestine at the expense of “Birthright Israel,” but I won’t…]

And while the SFJFF is standing by you, or at least the film bearing your name, as well as its maker Simone Bitton, and your mother (your maker) Cindy Corrie — large and powerful segments of the Jewish community apparently aren’t. And all I can think is: how dare they. Like me, they never stood up to a house-demolishing bulldozer. Unlike me, they probably never even sat down in front of this film.

The day the film RACHEL will screen at the SFJFF, will be a stormy day in San Francisco.

July 25, 2009 — to be exact.

I am still seated at my computer in Tel Aviv. I can no longer say that it never dawned upon me whether I have it in me to face a D9 house-demolishing bulldozer in Rafah, or anywhere else. I believe I don’t. I believe most of us don’t. Love Israel/Palestine or leave it, like Simone Bitton’s politics or not, the film RACHEL deserves to be seen and Cindy Corrie deserves to be heard because, if nothing else, Rachel was an exceptional “girl-next-door.” Chances are, had an occupying army come to bulldoze your home, she’d have defended it too.

Yours,
Rachel Leah Jones

Rachel Leah Jones is a director/producer born in Berkeley, California and raised in Tel Aviv, Israel.

This Saturday, July 25th, the movie RACHEL, directed by Simone Bitton will premiere at its first-ever Jewish film festival in San Francisco, California. Simone was born in 1955 in Rabat, Morocco. A Moroccan-Israeli-French Jewish documentary filmmaker, she’s directed a number of films, including Mahmoud Darwich (1998), Citizen Bishara (2001), and Mur (Wall) (2004). Her films have been nominated for and/or won the César Award, the Marseille Festival of Documentary Film Award, and the Sundance Film Festival, Special Jury Prize for Mur.

RACHEL is a film about Rachel Corrie’s work as an American peace activist with the International Solidarity Movement. In 2003, at the age of 23, Rachel was crushed to death by a U.S. made Israeli military bulldozer in Gaza while trying to prevent the demolition of the home of local Palestinian pharmacist Samir Nasrallah.

Peter Stein, Executive Director of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival wrote of the film:

Bitton’s quietly persistent questioning manages to accomplish what the inadequate legal proceedings and the overheated press coverage did not: an unflinching examination that refuses to exculpate or equivocate. But Bitton’s nonfiction essay is hardly a bloodless tract—in fact, even as it raises troubling questions about the Israeli military’s candor, it also manages to paint a complex portrait of a young, perhaps naive, idealist and the high price some pay in the name of committed activism.

I caught up with Simone to ask her a few questions before the screening this Saturday. [To be clear: I haven't seen the film yet, so the questions are geared towards giving readers an opportunity to hear directly from Simone.]

AV: What inspired you to direct RACHEL?

SB: There were contradictory versions about Rachel’s death and no independent investigation was ever made. I felt I might achieve something valuable on the investigative ground, that’s my job as a documentarist, and it’s my first motivation. It was a professional challenge.

On a more personal level, I have been making films about the situation in Palestine/Israel for 25 years. My work is giving tools for a better comprehension of this situation, but it is also an emotional chronicle of the turning points in what this situation does to Palestinians and Israelis.

I am obsessed with it. I keep documenting the conflict, but each time I choose another angle, another cinematic style, and my films are usually very personal. I don’t do films out of a political tactic, for convincing the audience or conveying messages, but as a way to share my feelings, my fears and sometimes my hopes.

So I made a film about Rachel because her killing was an emotional turning point in my emotional perception of solidarity. It was the first time a foreigner was killed while trying to protect Palestinians. A red line had been crossed, and I felt this line was crossed also in my own heart.

I am 53 years old. It’s an age when one starts mourning one’s youth and evaluating one’s own present and past commitments. I have a deep feeling that my generation has failed in protecting the Palestinians, which for me means also protecting the Israelis. I am deeply convinced that by oppressing the Palestinians, we are destroying ourselves as Jews and as human beings. More »

The Audacity of Post-Racism

23 Jul 2009 In: Race, Racism

Below are two excerpts from “The Audacity of Post-Racism,” a piece I published earlier today on TheRoot.com.

I delve into the race politics that marked my adolescence (and hip-hop’s) because the manner in which their sharpness has blurred is the backdrop for “Toward A More Perfect Union.” Hip-hop is now America’s dominant youth culture. It still dislocates whiteness, but in a way far less conducive to personal growth or rigorous assessment of injustice. White hip-hoppers of my era constructed elaborate rhetorical structures intended to accommodate paradox, to acknowledge the devilishness of white supremacy without condemning ourselves. Today, white youth are confounded by a different paradox: the divergence of cultural capital and hard capital in American life.

Largely because of hip-hop, American coolness is coded and commodified more than ever as American blackness. White kids all over the country believe, based on the signifiers flashing on their TV screens, that blackness equals flashy wealth, supreme masculinity, and ultra-sexualized femininity – interrupted occasionally by bursts of glamorous violence, and situated in a thrilling ghetto that is both dangerous and host to a constant party. They feel locked out of the possibility of attaining that lifestyle, because of the color of their skin. They don’t know where to find a workable identity, unless they embrace the “I’m a fucking redneck” ethos of Levi Johnston, Sarah Palin’s future son-in-law. All this strikes them as oppressive, and their resentment is compounded by the fact that they possess no language with which to discuss it.

Were any of this utterable, one could present them with reams of evidence demonstrating that in all the important ways, white people in America are anything but marginal. Traditional markers of prosperity – the inheritance of wealth, the rates of home-ownership, the comparative levels of education and income and incarceration – reveal just how privileged whites remain relative to blacks. A recent study conducted at Princeton University revealed that a white felon stands an equal chance of being granted a job interview as a black applicant with no criminal record, and there are dozens of other studies that each speak volumes.

Nonetheless, confusion persists even among the kind of coast-dwelling, liberally-raised, relatively well-educated white kid I once was about the basic facts of racism today – to say nothing of everyone to their ideological right. They want to know if the playing field is level; they can’t tell, and they’ve got their fingers crossed that it is because if it’s not they’ve got to confront things no one has prepared them to face. Many of them would rather believe, and in fact suspect, that it is slanted in black people’s favor.

At the very least, they’re eager for a kind of moral compromise, one with an air of the fairness so appealing to young minds: racism cuts in both directions. Anyone can be its victim, just as anyone can refuse to perpetrate it.

This is what Barack Obama provided on March 20th in Philadelphia. After a succinct but powerful summary of institutional racism’s history and its practical and psychic effects on black people, he added that:

“a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race… as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything…. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African-American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time… to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns – this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.”

Obama’s insights about white anger are salient, but to characterize ire at affirmative action and at the thought that others might think them prejudiced as ‘similar’ to the frustration felt by the victims of entrenched structural racism is disingenuous, and even irresponsible. I don’t dispute that white resentments should be addressed, if only because white people will refuse to grapple with race unless they are allowed to centralize themselves. But to begin such a discussion – the mythic National Dialogue on Race – without acknowledging that structural racism ­is a cancer metastasizing through every aspect of American life is impossible. Call it, to borrow a catchphrase from the foreign policy side of the election, a precondition.

***********************

On the other hand, the pressure on Obama to denounce Minister Farrakhan – which directly preceded the pressure to denounce Reverend Wright – offered the candidate a chance to speak a difficult truth to a valuable constituency and play a role in genuine healing. Certainly, Obama’s rhetoric spoke to such a desire:

“What I want to do is rebuild what I consider to be a historic relationship between the African-American community and the Jewish community. I would not be sitting here were it not for a whole host of Jewish Americans who supported the civil rights movement and helped to ensure that justice was served in the South. And that coalition has frayed over time around a whole host of issues, and part of my task… is making sure that those lines of communication and understanding are reopened.

But rather than turning to that task, Obama proceeded to do precisely what the current, sorry state of black-Jewish relations demands. He iterated his rejection of Farrakhan’s endorsement, citing the Nation of Islam leader’s anti-Semitism, and left it at that.

For twenty-five years now, the specter of black anti-Semitism has been used as the rationale for tremendous Jewish disinvestment – practically, emotionally, financially – from the black community and the legacy of progressive work that blacks and Jews once shared. A handful of comments from civil rights-era black leaders provide most of the evidence. For many in the Jewish community, Jesse Jackson will always be the man who called New York City “Hymietown” in 1984. Al Sharpton will always be the man who inflamed a tense situation in Crown Heights in 1991, and Farrakhan will always be the man who, in 1983, called Judaism a “gutter religion.”

The fact that all three have apologized, moved on, and made amends does not seem to matter ­­– that Jackson was instrumental in restoring peace to Crown Heights, that Sharpton’s 2004 presidential run was an exemplar of inclusiveness, that Farrakhan has been meeting regularly with a group of rabbis for more than ten years now, in an effort to mend fences.

Nor does it seem to matter than none of these men speaks for the black community at large, or that Obama’s candidacy and the emergence of hip-hop generation leaders and grassroots political organizations prove that the civil rights generation is no longer in the driver’s seat. They remain central in the Jewish memory of my parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Their comments are frozen in amber, never to be forgotten or forgiven. Thus, denunciations of Farrakhan – despite the declining influence of his organization and his own outreach to the Jewish community – remain red meat for many Jewish voters.

How can this be, when the Ferraros, Imuses and Lotts of the world tiptoe back into the mainstream after a few probationary months, their best intentions unimpugned? Even Gibson, whose anti-Semitic rant was truly epic, had his incoherent, responsibility-dodging apology promptly accepted by the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish watchdog group that has never stopped vilifying Farrakhan.

The story behind the story is complex, one of changing identity in a changing country. Perhaps no two groups in America share such an intimate history as Jews and blacks; by turns it has been beautiful and tense, unified and vituperative. Both groups have been shattered and scattered, displaced and enslaved, and both have made outsized contributions to the cultural life of America. Both communities, perhaps by the nature of diaspora, have wide margins, in addition to existing on the margins of American life. By this I mean that the ratio of people who feel ambivalent, ambiguous, full of unresolved questions about their blackness or their Jewishness, is high in relation to the number of people nestled snugly in the bosoms of those communities. The pain and perspective engendered by this double marginality are important ingredients for art, and in the desire for social justice.

Jews and blacks have been united by this shared Otherness, and also pitted against one another because of it. At the root of the Jewish retreat from the coalition of which Obama speaks is the way in which Jewish assimilation has relied on the immutability of black Otherness as a foil. It has been an Other more Other than their own, and sometimes one to measure progress by their distance from.

As the Jews have been accorded more and more of the privileges of whiteness, many have decided, consciously or otherwise, that it behooves them to change their bedfellows. Fifty years ago, it was far more difficult for Jews to be complacent or hypocritical about race: they didn’t have the option to pay mere lip service to the cause because they understood that they were implicated in it, both as potential victims and potential oppressors. The benefits of whiteness were fewer for Jews, and more readily contested. Thus, the morality of allowing them to accrue was easier to address honestly, and find lacking.

Read the full piece on TheRoot.com.

Adam Mansbach is the author of several novels, including ‘The End of the Jews,’ winner of the California Book Award, and the bestselling ‘Angry Black White Boy.’

Each year at Jewish Youth for Community Action (JYCA), we choose a couple of issues to focus on to fulfill our mission: to make a very close community for Jewish high school students in the California Bay Area, while learning about and working on social issues that affect us in our communities. This year, we chose the Hotel Workers Campaign. Going into it, I didn’t really know much about the campaign, or the way workers were being treated in hotels close to me. The first exposure I had was a city council meeting I went to in Emeryville about getting workers at the Emeryville Woodfin a living wage, and getting back pay for all of the time they were not getting paid fairly. Before the city council meeting started, there was a community gathering with workers and community leaders speaking about their experience and involvement in the campaigns. This event gave me the first taste of why this campaign was so important, because I saw workers getting silenced by the hotel because they were in very vulnerable positions, and they needed the community to take a stand next to them.

In the next couple of months, I learned more about the campaign through JYCA and PJA (Progressive Jewish Alliance), and specifically learned about the two main hotels that were being focused on. Economic justice is very important to me, because it signifies something that should be a given for all people, but instead these employers seem to take advantage of people who are already in very vulnerable positions – so I wanted to be involved. I went to a different rally with JYCA, in which we joined hundreds of people in a rally walking to and around the hotel. Soon after that, PJA invited JYCA members to participate in a planning session for next steps, and when I got there, I got a totally new experience. Up until that point all of my experiences with the planning of making change in the progressive world had been very idealistic, but I had never participated in a truly tangible form of action. This meeting taught me a little bit of what it takes to make true change in the world. During this meeting I signed JYCA up to adopt a picket line, which means that we took responsibility for that day of picketing. Despite having a hard time getting a lot of the JYCA youth out to the picket, we got out there 10 strong and were met by many hotel workers and Local 2 union members. It was very exciting to see all of those people, and we joined in the picket line, circling around and chanting.

It’s been very important for me, as a Jew, to be doing this with the Jewish community, because it is a very important struggle, and it’s nice to see us step up for others when we have the privilege to do so. The thing that I’ve taken most from this experience is the immediate connection I have felt to everyone else who is involved in this campaign. Starting with the initial rally, and spanning to the planning meeting and final picket line, everyone has always showed me a very open and welcoming spirit. I always feel like a part of the group, and I truly believe that I make a difference, which is a success in my mind. I am really looking forward to the next event, a Banquet in the Streets in support of a fair process for workers, because it is another opportunity for me to build this community, while having a lot of fun, while also making a huge difference in the lives of these workers.

David Shor is a graduating senior at Berkeley High in Berkeley, CA. He starts at Wesleyan University in the Fall.

PJA: www.pjalliance.org
Banquet in the Streets:

Below is an excerpt from a piece I published earlier today on Mondoweiss.

I am a Jew. I am a religious Jew. I am an anti-Zionist Jew. I realize that to make this last claim is to risk that you will stop reading, as often any claim of anti-Zionism brings with it a label of traitor, anti-Semite, self-hating Jew. I hope, however, that you will give me the benefit of the doubt, at least for the few minutes that it will take you to read what I have to say.

I’ve been a Jew all my life although I was not raised with a Jewish education. In my late 40s, I began to study. I read, I joined a synagogue, I helped start a Talmud study group. I was and am drawn to the essential command, attributed to the great Rabbi Hillel, that our task as Jews is essentially to “not do to others that which is hateful to you.” I love how, in very Jewish fashion, Hillel tells us what not to do. I love and am daily challenged by how extremely difficult such a simple command can be.

I did not know much about Israel until I became more engaged as a religious Jew. The organized Jewish community teaches us that the Israeli narrative is the Jewish narrative. Support for Israel, the story goes, is synonymous with being a good Jew.

Now, some ten years and four trips to Israel/Palestine later, I invite you, if you think you can bear it, to hear why I care more about Hillel’s commandment than I do about a state.

With my partner who is also Jewish, I have just returned from 15 days of staying with friends, a family who lives in Samiramis, technically a Jerusalem neighborhood, but one that sits on the Palestine side of the Wall, less than a mile from the infamous Qalandia checkpoint.

Unlike previous years where we participated in delegations, house rebuilding, or activism related to our work with ICAHD-USA (Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions-USA), this time we frequently walked the streets of Ramallah, stopping for homemade ice cream at Baladna’s, shopping for shoes and handmade embroidery. We traveled north to Nablus and Tulkarem to visit family members and share succulent meals that left us bursting. We took one late night trip to Jericho to sit in the local park, drink cola, and talk; another to Jaffa Beach where we shared a picnic, conversation, laughter; we went to multiple weddings where men and women danced late into the night to the beat of loud, pulsing music.

We were privileged to see again what we have seen before — how rich and full and engaging life in Palestine can be, how the people here are like people everywhere, attempting to live with some degree of happiness in a culture that deeply values familial relationships, good food, education, meaningful work, laughter.

We also bore witness, as we do on each trip, to encroaching apartheid. As we drove deep in the West Bank along the road snaking north to Nablus from Ramallah, we could look up and see virtually every hillside topped by a Jewish settlement. In some cases, the settlement is recent, a few caravans dotting the hilltop, their electric lights strung from pole to pole, glowing bright yellow through the night, a display of dominance. More often, the settlements are permanent, neat rows of identical houses with their prototypical orange roofs, poised on the top of the hill, ready to dip down onto the Palestinian farmland below. These are announced by the row of modern streetlights on the two-lane road we are traveling, beacons proclaiming the presence of Israeli Jews on the landscape. The lights illuminate the stretches of Arab road where Jewish settlers have to drive because the infamous “bypass” roads (the Palestinians call them apartheid roads) have yet to be built, the ones that allow only Jews to travel from mainland Israel into the West Bank without encountering Palestinians.

The omnipresence of these smaller settlements on the road to Nablus is new since our last trip in 2005; a look at the latest UN map shows the Palestinian landscape dotted with them like an x-ray showing a virulent, spreading cancer.

When President Obama talks about stopping the spread of settlements most people probably have little idea of what he means. Somehow the word “settlement” invokes an image of tents, a kind of unstable, fragile community. The first settlement I ever saw had to be pointed out to me because it looked like any modern suburb in the U.S., row upon row of contemporary houses set along well paved roads. I certainly did not expect what I saw – a solidly interwoven infrastructure common to any town or city – housing, water, lights, streets, stores planted immutably on the landscape. I soon came to understand their function. The massively large ones, housing hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers, are designed to penetrate deep into the West Bank. Pisgat Ze’ev, Mod’in, Ma’eleh Adumim – each is protected by the Wall whose crooked path illegally pilfers huge swaths of Palestinian land. Each functions to divide Palestine into separate cantons making a contiguous state impossible. The newer smaller ones, the ones I see on the hilltops between Ramallah and Nablus, act like beachheads, strategically positioned to continue the slow but sure process of Israeli land grab.

Read the full article on Mondoweiss.

Sotomayor and Affirmative Action

21 Jul 2009 In: JVoices
Sotomayor

Sotomayor

It was hard to tune into the Sotomayor confirmation hearings without hearing mention of the now-infamous “wise latina” comment. Even though, as Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told her, “Unless you have a complete meltdown, you’re gonna get confirmed,” not a single day passed without continuous pestering from the Right.

But lets take that comment in context. “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.” It doesn’t take an exceptionally high IQ to see what she means. Our views and convictions are shaped by the totality of our life experiences, and one who has gone through more struggle and more obstacles is bound to have a greater understanding and appreciation for the varying experiences of others. Or, in the blunt words of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the male Justices “have never been a thirteen-year old girl.” It’s futile to argue that personal convictions, religions, and experiences do not shape judicial philosophy—of course they do! There is no one way of adjudicating, and abortion is a wedge issue not just because of the strict constructionist versus living document schism: it’s a wedge issue because of the religious and moral views of the justices. That is why, despite the phrasing of the of the Casey appeal, the court chose to uphold and strike down individual parts of the Pennsylvania law, rather than overturn Roe altogether.

Of course, the Latina comment is a valid point to question her on. But to basically devote days of hearings to the same question? We get it—you think she’s a racist and an affirmative action baby. We disagree. Let’s move on to her qualifications, okay?

More »

Quick hit:

Fatemeh Fakhraie over at Racialicious does a great job analyzing W magazine‘s big article on Persian Jews in Los Angeles. The first commenter sums it up well:

On one hand, it’s nice to see some acknowledgment that non-Ashkenazi Jews and Jews of color exist. On the other, a representation that just plays on stereotypes can be worse than no representation at all.

We, Queer members of the Bay Area Jewish Community and our allies, are deeply saddened by events surrounding the “Jews March for Pride” contingent in this year’s San Francisco Pride Parade.

We wanted to march with “Jews March for Pride” because we are proud to be Queer Jews and allies. We felt excited and privileged to have a place in the San Francisco Pride Parade to celebrate our whole selves as Jews and Queers.

However, our sense of pride in the contingent was shattered when we learned that not only would the Israeli Consulate be marching with Israeli flags, but also that “inclusion monitors” would censor anything that deviated from the narrow message of “Jews support LGBT equality.” We see this as a contradiction. Support for the Israeli government is a political position that is not synonymous with support for LGBT equality, and is not synonymous with Judaism. Because these strong Israeli symbols would be dominating the contingent, we felt we could not in good conscious march without publically repudiating those messages. And although the planners reached out to include us, we felt excluded when any disagreement we voiced was declared “off message” and inappropriate.

This illusion of unity, at the price of silencing some members, is a deliberate trend that is plaguing the Jewish Community. Many Jewish organizations portray a unified front of support for Israel, and allow this single message to come at the expense of the diverse needs of our Jewish Community. In fact, we have a range of views on Israel/Palestine and our commitment to Jewish and Queer communities lies far beyond this single issue. We reject the dichotomy that ‘Pro-Palestine’ is synonymous with ‘Anti-Israel,’ and encourage space for deeper conversations about the complexities of these issues. Additionally, we refuse to let discussions about Israel detract from the many other struggles for justice our communities are engaged in.

Prior to the Parade day, we were not sure that we would be allowed to march at all. We arrived holding signs such as “No Pride in Occupation,” and “Feygele for Free Palestine,” and to our surprise, we did not get kicked out. We were met with a positive reception from many participants and observers of the parade, and a few hostile reactions. But the real consequences of our action have occurred in the days and weeks following the parade. Many of us have faced social sanctions in our personal and professional lives. Those of us who work in Jewish organizations have been harshly shamed in our workplaces and our political views have become a topic of discussion amongst our peers and supervisors. We feel vulnerable in the very community that had supposedly organized to support us as Queer Jews.

Rather than retreating to safer, less public expressions of our convictions, we are asking you to join us in resisting the silencing in our communities. Let’s seize this opportunity for discussions, programming and policy change, and push to create spaces where our voices are allowed and welcomed.

Join our Facebook Group to show support, stay updated and get involved.

Picnic at an Illegal Outpost

12 Jul 2009 In: Israeli Occupation, Palestine

Yesterday, members of Ta’ayush set out to have a picnic at an illegal outpost built on Palestinian land next to the settlement of Susya in the southern West Bank. Susya is divided into three places; Palestinian Susya, Jewish settlement Susya and archeological site Susya. Often, the first construction of an illegal outpost is a synagogue which the IDF is less willing to destroy. About one year ago settlers from Susya built a synagogue on the privately owned land of a local Palestinian. The area is known as Flag Hill (Givat HaDegal). Within weeks, the settlers had laid a foundation for one house and sure enough today a house now stands on Flag Hill. The IDF actively protects the house despite there being no full time inhabitants.

We encountered problems before we even arrived at the outpost. A minibus of Ta’ayush activists was stopped at the main checkpoint separating Jerusalem and the southern West Bank. Soldiers asked for our ID cards and without a stated reason held us at the checkpoint for over an hour. Presumably, they were requesting an order from a high commander that would bar us entry to the West Bank, efficiently denying us freedom of movement because we were engaged in left wing actions. This order never came. The commander at the checkpoint wrote down our names and ID numbers while informing us that we were not allowed to enter the south West Bank and if we were found to be in a “military area” we would be detained for 48 hours. This, of course, was a lie as he had no authority to issue such a statement and it was not put in writing. He was trying to frighten us which he failed to achieve. We entered through another checkpoint and eventually made our way to the picnic.

Ta’ayush has been monitoring the expansion of Flag Hill and yesterday decided to have a peaceful picnic in protest of the Army’s active participation in maintaining this outpost. We were a group of Jewish Israelis invited by the Palestinian land owner to have a picnic on his land. We thought, by all accounts, we had every right to be there. As we walked up the hill to the outpost, five or six IDF soldiers came to greet us. Without an order from a commander, they could do nothing so we continued and set up our picnic complete with hummus, watermelon and homemade pita from the land owner. A commander arrived within minutes and pronounced the area a closed military zone ordering us to leave within five minutes or face arrest. We continued to enjoy the picnic as the Army began arresting people, going after Ezra Nawi first.

The IDF arrested three people and removed the rest of us, over 20 people, from the hilltop. We returned to the land owner’s home and waited for word from those arrested. They were driven to a checkpoint about 15 minutes away from Susya and simply dropped off. One of those arrested told me that he was saying to the soldiers, “you are showing me that you broke the law and not me. If I did something wrong arrest me! Take me to a judge. But you are unwilling because I did nothing wrong and you did”


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