Administrative Detention is Not Judaism

by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

You will know that your father did not tolerate injustice and submission, and that he would never accept insult and compromise, and that he is going through a hunger strike to protest against the Jewish state that wants to turn us into humiliated slaves without any rights or patriotic dignity.

As I read this letter from a Palestinian man on his 75th day of hunger strike (written to his one-month-old daughter, Lamar), my heart roils with conflicting emotions. Sorrow at the thought of this man who does not know, may not live to know, his daughter (and the daughter who may lose her father; how capricious that will seem to her when she is old enough to understand.) Horror at the prospect of seventy-five days without food. Reluctant admiration for anyone who could choose that kind of suffering as a mode of nonviolent protest against injustice. And bristling defensiveness at seeing the word “Jewish” in this context, at the reminder that to this man and so many others “Jew” means oppressor, imprisoner.

Judaism is my tradition and my spiritual path. It is my way of connecting with God. It links me with endless generations. It is the source of some of my life’s most beautiful and transcendent moments. It is the ground of my spiritual being, it is the spiritual soil in which I flourish. It is Torah and Talmud and Hasidut and mussar, it is prayer and compassion and love. Judaism is contemplative practice, sacred chant, thousands of years of poetry written for and about God. Judaism is the injunction to “love the stranger, for [we] were strangers in the land of Mitzrayim.” Judaism is the commandment to provide for the widow and the orphan. Judaism is daily and weekly and monthly and annual and lifelong cycles of teshuvah, repentance / return, orienting ourselves toward God again and again and again.

And to this man, and the one thousand, five hundred Palestinians on hunger strike in Israeli prisons — demanding an end to administrative detention, a.k.a detention without trial, a practice which allows Israel to hold individuals for six months at a time without formally charging them or revealing evidence against them (and the six-month term can be renewed indefinitely, so some are held without charge for years) — none of that is relevant. None of it matters.

When I read anything which speaks ill of Israel and of Judaism, my heart aches. I do not want to hear these things about my coreligionists. But the answer is not to silence or ignore those who are speaking out. The answer is for my fellow Jews to live up to what is best in our tradition. Detaining people without trial, without informing them or their lawyers of the charges against them, is wrong. When the only Jewish government in the world makes those choices, we are all diminished.

My God and God of my ancestors: help us find a different path through the minefield of this long conflict. Help us create the openings through which transformation can unfold. Help us to build a world in which the dream of a home for Jews does not mean the mistreatment of Palestinians. Help us to live out our highest values and ideals, to turn and return to You. And help, please, the Palestinians who are suffering under Israeli control. Sustain them in their nonviolent struggle. God, grant both sides the willingness to forgive and the ability to move forward into a new paradigm of compassion and coexistence instead of terror and fear. Please, God. Speedily and soon.

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