Thursday, April 22, 2010

A Two State Solution - Matters of Perspective

I'd like to bring your attention to the blog of Professor Stephen Healey, a dean at the University of Bridgeport.  His prior position was as Associate professor of World Religions and it was due to his expertise in that field that I originally met Stephen.  We both spoke on a panel at a World Religions day at Greens Farms Academy, Westport last year, me sharing some core beliefs of Judaism and he sharing some core teachings of Buddhism.  He subsequently visited our Comparative Religion class at Merkaz, our Hebrew High School program, this year, to introduce core concepts in Buddhism to students there.

Earlier this week I spoke at the University of Bridgeport on Jewish perspectives on a two-state peace in the Middle East.  While I offered some of my own perspectives on what such a peace may look like, based on some pragmatic assessments on what Israel might or might not ever be willing to contemplate as part of a peace settlement, I also attempted to convey a range of Israeli and Jewish perspectives, covering more left and right wing points of views, secular and religious Zionist perspectives.  In doing so, my goal was to share, before an almost entirely non-Jewish audience, what the Israeli side of the issue looks like, in its diversity, and the kind of beliefs, concerns, and demands that 'the other side' needs to be aware of and understand if we are to be able to move forward toward peace.  Professor Healey was the respondent to my presentation, before we took some questions from the audience during which I was pleased to hear respectful and thoughtful critique and alternative points of views from members of the Muslim community that our Tent of Abraham program has begun to establish trusting friendships with.  The tone of the conversation was very much about being able to express and hear this variety of perspectives, without anyone feeling the need to 'win' the debate.

I look forward to being able to continue the learning and dialog in contexts such as these.

Below is Professor Healey's summary of the evening.  You can read more from his thoughtful blog, RITN: Religion in the News here:

Tonight in an event at the University of Bridgeport, I had the good pleasure to hear Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz’s views of the two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. Gurevitz serves as a rabbi at Congregation B'nai Israel in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Gurevitz began her presentation with a reflection on perspective. She argued that, depending on one’s perspective, the founding of the modern state of Israel is either a great blessing or a great catastrophe. Neither perspective, she said, is truer than the other; both are true insofar as they define the perspective from which the founding of Israel is viewed.

She expressed strong support for the two-state solution, which she described as a return to the borders of 1967, with some additional land swaps to be negotiated. For that to be possible from a Jewish perspective, she argued, security issues would need to be dealt with in a decisive fashion. There is an existential feeling of the threat of violence among Israelis. Israelis needs to be convinced that violence is contained and will not spread as a result of a return of territory. She added that religious and political ideologies make accomplishing this quite difficult. She also identified three additional issues that will make the path to peace a challenging way: that there should be no preconditions to beginning a dialogue about the two-state solution, that regional issues are interrelated with Israel-Palestine, and that from a Jewish perspective Palestinian refugees cannot be settled permanently in Israel. Tough news, but this is where real dialogue about this issue begins.

She concluded by holding out the prospect for peace, and referred to J Street, which is dedicated to finding a secure Middle East Peace. J Street also conducts polling to identify Jewish attitudes toward issues related to peace. She asked the audience to seek to identify a broad range of Jewish perspectives, and not to conclude that one view—even if it does receives most media attention—adequately represents the feelings, fears, hopes, and aspirations of the entire Jewish community.

Rabbi Gurevitz’s approach demonstrated, at least for me, that being committed to a perspective does not preclude, but may even facilitate, engagement with other points of view.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Haiti: A message from the International Medical Corps

A friend posted this youtube from the International Medical Corps on facebook.  I hope you will be moved by it - seeing the incredible work that they have been doing in Haiti.  The Union for Reform Judaism provided a very substantial grant to help them in their work, out of the over $1.2 million that was raised by them for Haiti Disaster Relief.  This video was their way of saying 'thank you.'  And to International Medical Corp, we say 'thank you' for being our hands, turning our financial aid into real, life-saving medical aid to the people of Haiti.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Words create and words destroy: Hate speech then & now

This sermon was delivered at B'nai Israel on Friday, April 9th, for the Shabbat before Yom HaShoah - Holocaust Remembrance Day.  It is printed here upon request from several congregants who heard it that evening.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Warning: You are likely to find the following words profoundly disturbing.

“As recently as 1960, our race was 90 percent of America’s population. Today, true statistics be told, we’re less than half. And we’re dropping fast, while the dark peoples multiply like rats all around us, and as more tens-of-millions of them invade our country from all over the world. Our race is drowning literally in seas of colored mongrels.
… Since 1973, our jew controlled government orchestrated the murders of 40 million helpless white babies thru legalized abortions, and replaced them with twice that many dark aliens. Meanwhile, the jewish controlled mass media (properly called the jewsmedia), promotes race-mixing, 24/7/365. 
… "He who has learned of the jew, but refuses to warn his kinsmen of the jewish menace, is an accomplice of the jews, and an accessory in the jewish enslavement and genocide of his own people"
We might imagine that these words, particularly those speaking of Jews, were written in 1930s Germany.  In fact, these are words found in America today - the words of Glenn Miller, white supremacist, taken directly from his website.  Glenn Miller is running for Missouri representative in the Senate as a ‘write-in’ candidate and has caused a furor in recent weeks because, in becoming a declared candidate, he has a federal right to run unedited political radio ads that spew hatred toward African-Americans, immigrants and Jews.
Glenn Miller is probably the most extreme example of public hate speech currently in the news.  But hate speech has been in the news a lot recently, and much of it is coming from elected officials and public figures who use their right to free speech and take absolutely no responsibility for the potential, uncontrollable consequences of their words.  TV and radio commentators, likewise, are feeding lines that will, I fear, almost inevitably lead to a radical or unbalanced individual feeling compelled to act upon them. 
Just as Billy O’Reilly’s constant references to Dr. Tiller, the doctor who legally performed late term abortions in Kansas, as ‘Tiller the Baby Killer’ and then distanced himself from any responsibility when Dr. Tiller was murdered, so others like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Ann Coulter who are listened to by millions are playing with fire with speech that is not only making targets out of political representatives, but are also fanning the flames of hatred toward minorities – African-Americans, Latinos, and Muslims.
Every year, during a unit on ethical issues, I run a discussion with our eighth grade class about hate speech and free speech.  We place the conversation in the context of Jewish ethical teachings about lashon hara – literally ‘evil speech’, which often gets summarized as ‘gossip’ but actually refers to much more than that.  Lashon hara is any kind of speech that causes harm.  It is an aspect of Jewish spiritual practice that I care deeply about, and we have rich wisdom teachings in our tradition about the power of speech to create and destroy that challenge many of the dominant and negative trends in our broader society regarding the abuse of free speech.
Whenever I teach this class, my students, who have clearly already been well-educated in the American constitutional right to free speech in middle school, have absolute clarity that free speech is a fundamental right, even when people say things that we find offensive and distasteful.  I grew up in a country where the principle of free speech was tempered somewhat by shades of gray.  A radical Muslim cleric, Sheikh Abdullah al-Faisal was jailed by British authorities in 2003 for seven years after being convicted of  inciting his followers to kill Christians, Hindus, Jews and Westerners and for encouraging them to use chemical weapons against their enemies.  One of the suicide bombers who detonated devices in London in July 2007 had attended the south London mosque where  al-Faisal was Imam, as had Richard Reid, the "shoe bomber" who attempted to blow up a trans-Atlantic flight.

In recent weeks we've heard that Ann Coulter was taken to task in Canada and reminded by the vice-president of the University of Ottowa prior to the speech that she later cancelled there due to student protests, that she should review what constitutes hate speech under Canadian law.  For instance, he told her, ‘promoting hatred against any identifiable group would not only be considered inappropriate, but could in fact lead to criminal charges.’ 
So, forgive me, and please do feel free to debate me on this issue – maybe its because I grew up in a different country with a different culture - but I’m ok with someone being arrested for using blatantly hateful words that provide the inspiration for others to carry out actual hate crimes.  I’m ok with clear and unequivocal statements that denounce the use of our God-given gift of speech to lessen the status and deny basic rights and safety to groups of people based on a category of identity.  I believe that human life takes precedence over being able to say whatever you like about another group of people.
Now, I know that I am citing some of the most extreme examples to be found in recent months, but I also know that many of you are equally aware of the inflammatory statements and distortions coming from the lips of some politicians that are similarly dangerous.  Earlier this week I was speaking on a panel at Norwalk Community College reflecting on 12 years since the murder of gay teen, Matthew Shepard.  To claim no relationship between the ways that homosexuality is presented in some political and religious arenas, and the violent acts and verbal attacks perpetrated against GLBT people, is simply a lie - it is to shirk responsibility for the power and influence of words.  Jewish teachings on lashon hara demand that we take responsibility for how words have the ability to create and destroy worlds.
We Jews know this well.  While I do not wish to make false comparisons between the hate speech of radical individuals and state-sponsored hate speech and propaganda, I do believe that there is a connection.  The hate speech and propaganda of the Nazis began years before Jews in Europe found that there was no route of escape.  It was unimaginable that those words could lead to the horrors of the Holocaust.  Only words.  Likewise, it was only words on the radio, describing the tutsi as cockroaches, that contributed to the 100 day genocide by hutus against tutsis in Rwanda.  It began with 'just words'.
When we pause each year and remember the Holocaust, we remember the genocide and destruction of generations of our people, the loss of whole communities and cultures.  We remember what humanity is capable of doing.  But when we say ‘Remember; Do not forget; never again’ but think of a historical event, specific to one time and place, then we have learnt very little.
Baruch she-amar v’hayah ha-olam, baruch Hu.  From our morning liturgy – Blessed is the One who spoke and the world came into being.  And, I would add, cursed be the one who speaks and brings about hurt, murder, and destruction.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Personal story as prayer: A Yom HaShoah Reflection

Yesterday, at our religious school prayer service for 4th, 5th and 6th graders, I had planned a short service around a selection of poems and biographical extracts from witnesses and survivors of the Holocaust, in remembrance for Yom HaShoah - Holocaust Memorial Day, which we commemorate this Sunday.  I quickly changed direction after the first few minutes.  After we had lit six candles, as many Jewish communities do, to remember the approximately 6 million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust, a teacher asked to add a thought and, rightly so, brought our attention to the further 3-4 million who were not Jews, but were also murdered in the Holocaust, because of their political beliefs, or because they were gypsies or homosexuals.  It was more than just bringing awareness to the suffering of others - to show that hate has many targets.  I could tell that it was personal and, being so, there was a passion behind the teacher's sharing.

Suddenly it became clear that there were likely to be others in the room who had a personal, family story that emerged from the terrors and tragedies of the Holocaust, and that to uncover some of this was likely to be far more meaningful and powerful than even the best selection of written reflections read from a prayer book.  But when I asked who had a personal, family story that they knew of, I was quite unprepared for the number of hands that went up.  In addition to most of our teachers, I think that almost half of the hands of our 4th, 5th and 6th graders went up.  I put aside the prayer book and, instead, about 8 people, some adults and some children shared what they knew of their parent's, grandparent's, great-aunt or uncle's experiences, those who survived and those who did not.  There were amazing stories of escape, deeply sad stories of those who lost entire families, camp experiences, and much more.
When we stood for the El Male Rachamim prayer at the end, remembering these souls, that they be bound up and united with the Divine Source of All and be at peace, the deeply prayerful energy in the room was palpable.

The Holocaust deeply engages us at an emotional level in so many ways.  But yesterday, in addition to the remembrance of the horrors of the Shoah, the incredible stories of survival, the terrible tragedy of lives ended, and the remembrance of the power of hate to strip us of our humanity and cause incredible harm and destruction to others, I was also reminded of something else.  While we have such a rich tapestry of written prayer in Jewish tradition to dip into, our ultimate Source for connecting to the power of prayer, the power of community, and our yearning for a sense of the Divine Presence that accompanies us and bears witness to our lives, is our own experiences.  So often when I speak with youth about different ideas of God that we find in our tradition, again and again I come back to encouraging them to trust their own experience.  If they have experienced good people suffer, then it makes little sense to declare faith in a God that punishes with suffering.  If they have experienced love and support during difficult times in their lives, perhaps it makes sense to believe in a Presence that can add to those feelings of love and support when we need them the most.

And when we want to pray for a world where there is no place for hate, where swords are turned into ploughshares, and where each of us sees ourselves as the hands of a God that will help to make our world a better place for all people, we need to create space in our prayer rituals to get in touch with our own experiences, to draw on family history and heritage, and remember the feelings and emotions of those experiences.  Because then our prayers will be real, and meaningful, and heart-felt.  And then our prayers are truly powerful and truly have the potential to be transformative.