Archive for the ‘Haiti’ category

Hints of a Post-Partisan Universe

February 11, 2010

Partisanism (if that is indeed a word) has become the bane of contemporary American life.  More and more it seems that people are taking sides, one against the other.  If one side says that something is white, the other side immediately claims it is actually black.  And so it goes on and on and on.  More than people are concerned about the issues we must confront, we tend to be more concerned about our maintaining ongoing conflicts with the “other side.”

Of course on the contemporary scene, one need look no further than our own government to witness the devastating effects of such partisan thinking and behavior.  In Congress, practically every issue is addressed according to party lines.  If the Democrats want to do X, the Republicans are lined up to  diametrically oppose X, and uniformly support Y; which, of course the Democrats unanimously reject out of hand.  Rare is the politician who thinks for him or her self.  They all toe the party line.  None of them really judge the matters in front of them purely on their merit, in light of their personal opinion of what would best serve the American people.  Is it no wonder that in spite of the fact that for all too many years, the American people have been clamoring for such significant changes as health care reform and election finance reform, yet in spite of the expressed will of the people, absolutely nothing has been accomplished, nor probably will be accomplished given to current state of affairs.  To watch the State of the Union address on TV – any State of the Union address during these past many years – is to witness a physical manifestation of such partisanship.  Regardless of whatever party the current President happens to belong, you can watch as the members of his party applaud those key moments in his speech while the members of the opposition party sit with their hands folded across their chest; that is unless their party leaders give them the signal that it is permissible at some points to applaud.  For it matters not what the President says.  It only matters to which political party the President belongs.  It is all very sad, and infantile, and it cannot help but leave all cognizant and concerned Americans with a profound sense of hopelessness.  Ultimately, no matter who the President happens to be, the State of the Union remains clearly the same:  deadlocked and immobilized.

What is true for the realm of American politics unfortuately is just as true in the realm of American religion.  Here, too, we have drawn our battlelines.  Yet these battlelines are not necessarily determined by what would seem to be the obvious; the major divisions of faith – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Unitarian, Hindu, Buddhist, etc.  Rather, our battlelines have been drawn according to whether one identifies as a religious conservative or as a religious liberal; as a fundamentalist or as a progressive.  Once those lines have been drawn, we tend to be as dismissive of the other, as the Democrats are of the Republicans and visa versa.  If the religious conservatives stand on one side of an issue, you can be sure that the religious liberals stand on the other.  One’s black is the other’s white, and neither will even consider the possibility of the existence of shades of gray.  And just like the political parties, very few among us feel any urgent desire to talk to the “others” in hopes of finding some resolution to our differences and perhaps even some common ground.

As a rabbi who has found value in connecting with Christian conservatives when it comes to addressing issues involving Israel, I have experienced this partisanship up close and personal, with much of its ugliness.  Through our local Jewish Federation, I have worked hand-in-hand with an organization of Christian conservatives named CUFI – Christians United For Israel.  This group is populated by many of the very same people with whom I have crossed swords on a number of social issues, such as women’s reproductive choice, separation of church and state, and same-sex marriage.  Yet when it comes to Israel, we share a common view of the importance of the continued existence of that nation and the protection of her right to exist, as well as her citizens’ rights to live without the threat of terrorism.

Yet my work with CUFI has not been without its speed bumps.  Right off the bat, I had to endure the challenges put to me by my mainstream Protestant friends; my dearest and closest allies on so many social issues.  “How can you, in all good conscience, work with those people?” they would ask.  Even more painfully, the very fact the these conservative Christians support Israel has driven so many of these liberal friends to stand against her.  If the “Religious Right” claims that the actions of Israel are justified, then the “Religious Left” feels a near sacred duty to denounce Israel’s actions as grossly unjust.  The circumstances are of no concern to them.  As Mark Twain once put it, “My mind is made up.  Don’t confuse me with the facts!”  All that seems to matter is that it is inconceivable for them as liberals to share any common ground with the conservatives.

That is not to say that the CUFI conservatives do not also demonstrate such blind partisanship, for they most certainly can, and sometimes do.  I have found myself criticized for having offered prayers at CUFI “Night to Honor Israel” events in which I have stated that God loves all people, regardless of what faiths they profess, or that God exists in a special and unique relationship with each and every religion.  To some of these folks, God can only have a special relationship with Christians, and especially those who profess their brand of Christianity, with God having provided the Jewish people with a singular exemption to policy.  I have had to challenge some CUFI speakers for speaking derrogatorially of the Roman Catholic Church, and especially the Pope.  Just last year, there were a number of conservative pastors and congregations which withdrew from the “Night to Honor Israel” event because of my having officiated at a same-sex marriage, regardless of the fact that the “Night to Honor Israel” is completely separate and distinct from all the other issues which may divide us.

The bottom line is that on the landscape of the American religious scene, there is more than enough partisanism to go around.

However, within the last few weeks, we have been afforded a small glimpse of the possibility of a post-partisan world, at least within the universe of American religious groups.

Soon after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, the Quad Cities Progressive Clergy group held one of its regular monthly meetings.  At that meeting, we discussed the possibility of putting together some unified faith community program of support for the earthquake’s victims.  Since each of our national and international faith umbrella organizations had set up their own programs of response, we agreed that whatever we did, we should be encouraging congregations to support their own denominational relief efforts.  In the end, we decided that our best course of action was to pool not dollars but figures; to compile and make public a record of all those congregations that have been active in promoting Haitian relief, and how much money had been collected through the various faith communities in this cause.  In so doing, our goal was to place before the public a message of how universally caring faith communities are, and how significant an impact they can have in making this world a better place for all people.  What we wanted to show our fellow Quad Citians was an image of the world of religion at its best, rather than at its bickering worst.

As I write this, the congregational responses are still coming in.  As of now, we have some 30 congregations and faith organizations which have reported to us, with the funds raised totally over $116,000.00.

As I review the list of participating congregations, I cannot help but feel a certain uplift in reading the names of conservatives congregations right there beside liberal ones.  Names that would never appear next to each other on so many other lists, stand side by side on this list; on the list of those whose hearts have gone out to the people of Haiti; on the list of those who wish to do something to ease the plight of their suffering fellow human beings.

I read that list and I am filled with hope; hope that someday we may actually achieve a post partisan world.  I read that list and I see in it a remarkable testimony to the fact that no matter how sharp we choose to draw the lines which divide us, there are still those things – those very important things – which unite us; those significant values which we share in common.  As much as we, in our blinding partisan perspectives, resist facing that truth, it is there and it is undeniable.  Perhaps someday – and I pray that someday will come soon – we will open our eyes, and more importantly our hearts, to acknowledge such truth.  Having acknowledged it, we might even summon up the courage to act upon it by reaching out to each other in hopes of building a relationship based upon the foundations of that which we share rather than fueling our animosity with that which keeps us apart.

My mother of blessed memory was fond of saying, “You can disagree without being disagreeable.”  Whether it has been in the realm of American politics or the realm of American religion, we have yet to learn that lesson.  But perhaps one day…

Commenting on the NY Times Article: For Israelis, Mixed Feelings on Aid Effort

January 22, 2010

Below is a New York Times article about the reactions of Israelis to Israel’s efforts to aid the suffering people of Haiti.  Following the article is a letter which I sent to Ethan Bronner, the author of the article.

January 22, 2010
FOR ISRAELIS, MIXED FEELING ON AID EFFORT

JERUSALEM — The editorial cartoon in Thursday’s mass-circulation Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot showed American soldiers digging among the ruins of Haiti. From within the rubble, a voice calls out, “Would you mind checking to see if the Israelis are available?”

A week ago, ahead of most countries, Israel sent scores of doctors and other professionals to Haiti. Years of dealing with terrorist attacks combined with an advanced medical technology sector have made Israel one of the most nimble countries in disaster relief — a factor that Western television news correspondents have highlighted.

But Israelis have been watching with a range of emotions, as if the Haitian relief effort were a Rorschach test through which the nation examines itself. The left has complained that there is no reason to travel thousands of miles to help those in need — Gaza is an hour away. The right has argued that those who accuse Israel of inhumanity should take note of its selfless efforts and achievements in Haiti.

The government has been trying to figure out how to make the most of the relatively rare positive news coverage, especially after the severe criticism it has faced over its Gaza offensive a year ago.

“Israelis are caught in a great confusion over themselves,” noted Uri Dromi, a commentator who used to be a government spokesman. “There is such a gap between what we can do in so many fields and the failure we feel trapped in with the Palestinians. There’s nostalgia for the time when we were the darlings of the world, and the Haiti relief effort allows us to remember that feeling and say, you see we are not as bad as you think.”

“Now They Love Us,” was the headline Wednesday on the column of Eitan Haber, a close aide to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in the 1990s and a Yediot columnist. “In another month or two, nobody will remember the good deeds” of Israeli soldiers, he wrote. “The very same countries and very same leaders who are currently lauding the State of Israel will order their representatives to vote against it at the United Nations, proceed to condemn I.D.F. operations in Gaza, and again slam its foreign minister.”

Israeli journalists flew into Haiti with relief teams. And while the contours of the catastrophe have been well described, inherent in the coverage is the question of what Israel’s performance says about it and its place in the world.

Much noted has been the absence of rich and powerful Persian Gulf countries in the relief effort, a point made here when the 2004 tsunami hit large parts of Asia and Israeli relief teams swung into action there as well.

Many commentators argued that the work in Haiti was a reflection of a central Jewish value. Michael Freund, a columnist in The Jerusalem Post, wrote on Thursday, “Though a vast gulf separates Israel from Haiti, with more than 10,500 kilometers of ocean lying between us, the Jewish people demonstrated that their extended hand can bridge any gap and traverse any chasm when it comes to saving lives.”

But on the same page, another commentator, Larry Derfner, argued that while Israel’s field hospital in Haiti is a reflection of something deep in the nation’s character, “so is everything that’s summed up in the name of ‘Gaza.’ ” He wrote: “It’s the Haiti side of Israel that makes the Gaza side so inexpressibly tragic. And more and more, the Haiti part of the national character has been dwarfed by the Gaza part.”

Early in the week, Akiva Eldar, a leftist commentator and reporter with the newspaper Haaretz, made a similar point: “The remarkable identification with the victims of the terrible tragedy in distant Haiti only underscores the indifference to the ongoing suffering of the people of Gaza.”

MY LETTER TO ETHAN BRONNER

Your article about the mixed feeling of the Israelis on the Haitian aid effort was indeed disturbing on several levels.

First of all, from my “liberal” perspective, it presented a disorienting turn around in that the right wingers endorse this relief effort, and it is the left that criticizes it.  For me, when the right supports humanitarian actions and the left opposes them, I feel I have either entered the Twilight Zone or some alternative universe.

Secondly, I simply cannot understand why those on the left have chosen to frame this as an “either-or” situation.  Why should they, who have compassion for the people of Gaza, choose to demonstrate that compassion by refusing to have compassion for the people of Haiti?  Would it not make more sense – and be far more consistent – to point to the efforts in Haiti with great pride and then say something like, “We need to show similar humanitarian zeal for the suffering people of Gaza”?  Is it just because I am an American Jewish liberal that I see it that way?

Thirdly, I do not understand how the Israeli left can fail to make an important distinction between the people of Haiti and the people of Gaza, that distinction being that the people of Haiti have not been firing rockets and mortal shells at Israeli communities and have not followed leaders who adamantly insist upon the total destruction of the State of Israel.  Yes, the people of Gaza are suffering, and suffering greatly – though still, their suffering cannot be compared with what the Haitians are going through at this time.  However, Gaza is still ruled by Hamas, and Hamas has continued to wage war on Israeli civilian centers and continues to refuse to consider a negotiated peaceful solution to its conflict with Israel.  As for the people of Gaza, we have only witnessed demonstrations of their support of the Hamas terrorism; never their opposition to it.  I know that they themselves can be terrorized by Hamas, but still, no one from Gaza speaks out about peace.  No one from Gaza proposes that there can be a better way to resolve their differences with Israel.  There is a strong argument that silence equals assent.  The bottom line here is that Gaza is at war with Israel.  Haiti is not.  How can you compare the two when it comes to Israel’s responses?

Does this mean that I do not support the idea of Israel providing humanitarian aid to Gaza.  ABSOLUTELY NOT.  I do support it and support it vigorously.  I support it on two levels.

First, this is what Jews do and have always done.  When we see others who suffer, we feel commanded to intervene to help relieve their suffering, and we act on that feeling.  We act quickly.  We act compassionately.  We act generously.  As we have so acted in Haiti, I believe we need to so act in Gaza, even though we continue to be engaged in an armed struggle with Hamas.  Along those lines, there is a famous midrash (rabbinic story) that states that after the Red Sea closed in and drowned the Egyptian army, while the Children of Israel were singing and dancing on the redemptive shores, the angels in heaven joined the Israelites in their celebration.  Witnessing this, God rebuked the angels, crying, “How dare you dance and sing while my children are drowning!”  Even though the Palestinians of Gaza are our adversaries in this armed conflict, we cannot forget that they, too, are God’s children, and as such, worthy of our compassion.

Second, from a purely political perspective, I believe that the State of Israel would make more progress down the road to peace by treating the Palestinian people with humanity and kindness than they ever will through force of arms.  Sometimes the military option is unavoidable, as it was in both the Gaza War and the Lebanon War, for a nation cannot stand by passively when others are raining missiles on their citizens.  But the military option is only a last resort and it is rarely, if ever, a complete answer in and of itself.  The most effective path to peace is by transforming your enemy into your friend.  In the case of the Palestinians, this needs to be done by helping to lift this people up out of their poverty and degradation.  The more Israel works to bring the Palestinian people into a higher and finer quality of life, the closer they draw to a time of true Shalom – peace complete and pure.

Helping Haitians

January 21, 2010

Here is an article which I am publishing in our congregational newsletter.

We all know about the terrible tragedy which has occurred in Haiti.  The estimates of those killed by this earthquake continues not only to climb, but to soar.  At first, they estimatied the death toll at between 45,000 and 50,000.  The latest estimates exceed 200,000, which are higher than those killed by the Tsunami.  When you consider the fact that the size of Haiti, and its total population, is so much smaller than that of Indonesia, that very proportion only serves to dramatically increase to dimensions of this disaster.
If over 200,000 have been killed, how many hundreds of thousands, if not millions, have been injured, or have found themselves without food, water, clothing, and shelter?  Those numbers are still to be calculated, but we know that whatever they are, in Haiti we are witnessing a human tragedy of the greatest degree.
In times like these, Jews always have stepped up to the plate of social conscience and social justice.  The Torah commands us: “Do not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds.” Whether we have been Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, or non-religious Jews; whether we have lived in North America, South America, Europe, Australia, Asia, or Israel, we all have agreed that this is one commandment that every Jew MUST obey.  How much the more so when we consider our own history; a history which contains more than our fair share of suffering.  Yes, in the past, we have suffered and far too often there were far too many who watched us suffer, stood by, and did nothing.  We surely know what it is to be abandoned in our suffering.  Yet it has been out of those experiences that we have been strengthened in our resolve, not to imitate the apathy of those who had abandoned us, but rather to extend our hand of friendship, comfort, and support to all those who suffer in the world.
So it is not surprising that we Jews are expected to do more than our fair share when it comes to offering aid and succor to the anguished victims of this earthquake in Haiti.  As Jews living in relative comfort, luxury and freedom, it is our duty.  Our duty before God and all of our ancestors who lived lives of suffering and misery.  It is also our privilege: our profound privilege.
With that in mind, I most urgently call upon you to support our congregation’s efforts to raise funds for Haitian relief.  At its last meeting, the Temple Board voted to join with many other congregations in our community – people of various faiths – in raising funds to support the relief efforts being organized by our various national and international faith bodies.  For us that means raising supporting the Haitian relief efforts being organized by the Union for Reform Judaism.  It should be noted – and this is very important – that the URJ has made a commitment NOT to take from these funds any money for administrative expenses.  That means that 100% of the dollars we raise will actually be used for direct relief work.  Anyone who is familiar with the fund raising knows that this is rarely the case.  Fund raising organizations can, and do, withhold various amounts in order to cover these expenses.
Here is what we are asking of you: We would like to see every household in our congregation contribute something toward this effort.  It would be nice if their contributions were made in denominations of 18, for in Jewish tradition, the number 18 symbolizes “Life.”  You could contribute $18, $36, $54, or even more.  When making a contribution, please make your check payable to the UNION FOR REFORM JUDAISM, with a memo that it is for the Haiti Relief Fund.  Do not make it payable to the Temple.  Send or bring your check to the Temple (1115 MIssissippi Avenue, Davenport, Iowa 52803) and we will then forward it on to the URJ.
In this dark hour for the people of Haiti let us demonstrate that we Jews of the Quad Cities – we Reform Jews of Temple Emanuel – can be, and are, bearers of great light and compassion!