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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On Palestinian Hunger Strikers and “Sacred Decisiveness”

by Rabbi Alissa Wise

I participate in a mussar group, in which each week we focus on a different middah (ethical trait) and evaluate how we do or do not engage with that trait in our daily lives.  Inevitably, that particular middah shows up everywhere we look: i.e. in the way we evaluate interactions with our co-workers, what we see as we walk down the street, or how we read the newspaper.

This week we are working on decisiveness — making a decision and acting without hesitating. And this week, my eyes are glued to Israeli prisons where some two thousand Palestinians are on hunger strike; a few are on their 77th day—truly just a few moments from death.

What a powerful demonstration of decisiveness!  I can not even begin to fathom the pain, the discomfort, the anguish of starving yourself to protest injustice. Their decision to take up this action surely was not taken up lightly, and neither, I imagine, is their decision each and every day to continue with the fast.

To try to understand a bit deeper this level of decisiveness, I read a letter from one of the hunger strikers, Thaer Halaleh who is as of today on his 77th day of the strike. The letter is written to his daughter Lamar, who was born one month after his arrest:

My Beloved Lamar, forgive me because the occupation took me away from you, and took away from me the pleasure of witnessing my firstborn child that I have always prayed to God to see, to kiss, to be happy with. It is not your fault; this is our destiny as Palestinian people to have our lives and the lives of our children taken away from us, to be apart from each other and to have a miserable life. Nothing is complete in our lives because of this unjust occupation that is lurking on every corner of our lives turning it into eeriness, a continuous pursuit and torture.

Despite the fact that I was deprived from holding you and hearing your voice, from watching you grow up and move around in the house and in your bed, and that I was deprived of my role as a human and a father with my daughter, your existence has given me all the power and hope, and when I saw your picture with your mother in the sit-in tent, you were so calm staring in wonder at people, as if you were looking for your father, looking at my pictures that are hung inside the tent asking in silence why is my father not coming back. I felt that you are with me, in my sentiment and inside my mind, as if you are a part of my heartbeats, steadfast and the blood that flows in my veins, opening all doors for me spreading clear skies around me, and unleashing your free childish voice after this long silence.

Lamar my love: I know that you are not to be blamed and that you don’t yet understand why your father is going through this battle of hunger strike for the 75th day, but when you grow up you will understand that the battle of freedom is the battle of going back to you, so that I can never be taken away from you again or to be deprived of your smile or seeing you, so that the occupier will never kidnap me again from you.

When you grow up you will understand how injustice was brought upon your father and upon thousands of Palestinians whom the occupation has put in prisons and jail cells, shattering their lives and future for no reason other then their pursuit of freedom, dignity and independence. 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.

My beloved Lamar keep your head up always and be proud of your father, and thank everyone who supported me, who supported the prisoners in their struggle, and don’t be afraid for God is with us always, and God never lets down people who have faith and patience. We are righteous, and right will always prevail against injustice and wrong doers.

Lamar my love: that day will come, and I will make it up to you for everything, and tell you the whole story, and your days that will follow will be more beautiful, so let your days pass now and wear your prettiest clothes, run and then run again in the gardens of your long life, go forward and forward for nothing is behind you but the past, and this is your voice I hear all the time as a melody of freedom.

From Thaer I learn powerful lessons for my mussar practice: the power of conviction and purpose, the commitment to beauty and love, and just how incredibly complicated and imperfect is every ethical decision we make.

I pray for Thaer and all the hunger strikers, that their demands be met swiftly, their non-violent struggle for dignity be supported worldwide in whatever ways we can, and that Lamar, and all other children, grow up not just without losing their fathers but with in a world made more whole by the powerful and horrible non-violent actions of those that came before.

Please consider signing Jewish Voice for Peace’s petition in solidarity with Palestinian Hunger Strikers.

Sell the Torah, Put the Kid in School

by Rabbi Alissa Wise

When I entered rabbinical school, I had a secret agenda – to finally find a Jewish practice to strengthen and sustain my social justice work and commitments that went beyond Biblical quotes imploring us to treat the worker fairly, but that would hold a practice of reflection, honesty, integrity and accountability. I found that practice in mussar.

Mussar, more or less, means ethics. It comes from Proverbs 1:2 where the meaning is about instruction, discipline, or conduct. Mussar is the ethical thread in Judaism — we can find it in Torah, Gemara, halakhah (Jewish law), Jewish literature, and the long history of Jewish labor and social justice activism.  It was also, more formally, an ethical, spiritual, and cultural movement founded in the 19th century in Eastern Europe by Rabbi Israel Salanter.

I relate to Rabbi Salanter in part because he, like me was a rabbi and an organizer. He traveled around from shtetl, to village, to town supporting communities of mussar practitioners—Jews devoted to ethical living.

There is a story of Rabbi Salanter visiting one of the mussar towns he was organizing, and, to his great surprise, finds a school-age boy sitting on the street in the middle of the day.

He asks him, “Boy, why are you not in school?”

The boy replies “My parents don’t have enough money to pay the tuition, so I can not go to school.”

This enrages Rabbi Salanter—what kind of mussar town can have a young boy not in school?

Rabbi Salanter promptly takes the boy and heads to the school. He demands from the headmaster “Why is this boy not in school?”

The headmaster replies “His family can’t pay the tuition, and we can’t have him in school if he doesn’t pay the tuition.”

At this point Salanter is fuming. He rushes into the the House of Prayer, opens the ark and finds in it a big, beautiful Torah scroll. He turns to the headmaster and demands—”sell the Torah, put the kid in school.”

As we ended our JVP West Coast Regional Leadership Development Institute outside Portland, Oregon last weekend, this story was the only one I could use to describe my feeling of who we are and what we are doing at JVP.  We at JVP strive for this – a sense of radical responsibility in the world, of obligation to community, not just to self, and above all else a readiness and ability to refocus.