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Time Has Come to Fix U.S.-Iran Policy


by: on April 6th, 2015 | 1 Comment »

President Obama speaking indoors at a podium.

Though President Obama has been roundly criticized for having a soft foreign policy, he continues to prove the value of dialogue. Credit: CreativeCommons / Gage Skidmore.

A corollary to the old saying “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” is the reverse, “If it’s broken then fix it.” Well, the U.S. and other nations’ policies of imposing sanctions alone to inhibit Iran’s nuclear ambitions and capabilities has been tried, and it has failed in its stated purpose. It has, though, succeeded in at least pressuring Iranian leaders to talk with us and some of our European allies at the negotiating table.

While the full terms of the agreement are to be drawn up by the end of June, the framework coming out of Switzerland garnered support from our chief European allies, the British and the French.


The Prison Rabbi: Impossible Passover Blues


by: Eliahu J. Klein on April 3rd, 2015 | 2 Comments »

Someone spreading peanut butter on matzo bread on a blue doily.

Every year there are Passover food shortages in prison. If Passover food isn't served though, Jewish inmates can sue California for violation of First Amendment rights. Credit: CreativeCommons / Idit Narkis Katz.

In the Department of Corrections Operations Manual it states clearly, that every religious group of inmates are allotted no more than two religious banquets a year. The State claims to cover the expenses for these religious banquets. The following is a narrative history of one of these events.

This year, all Jewish inmates of any race, creed and color residing at Happy Valley State Prison had their annual Passover Banquet without any delays, obstructions and obfuscations. All the memos were signed off by no less than twenty-six officials for a Jewish religious event situated in two separate yards (each yard housing a specific category of prisoner, such as violent or non violent; gang or non gang; general population or protected), for a total of fifty-two Jews. Everything went according to plan. I even coaxed some of my attendees to share what they were going through and they were warmly heard by the rest of the congregation; as far I could tell. There was the satisfaction of cutting through the enormous chain of command in order to celebrate a religious holy day, a day of freedom and redemption. I must be frank; the Passover banquets were much anticipated events, a sacred ritual performed on the first two nights of Passover. These Passover Banquets, the ones I performed and facilitated were performed four days into the Holiday or days before the holiday since I am a religious man and cannot travel during the actual holyday. Nevertheless, they still worked. Why? Well first off, the inmates receive a lot of extra food and free Passover food donations from Return- the National Outreach to Jews in Prisons. I watched their faces. I know it’s a big thing for these guys. An event that happens once a year for Jewish inmates. Two: Everybody relates to freedom and redemption. The entire Jewish community affirms with all their buddies how essential and endearing the story of the Exodus is to all oppressed peoples of the world. To be honest with you, I have experienced African American participants truly experience liberation and redemption in deeper ways than a lot of the Jewish inmates who do not let on what is truly going on deep in their hearts. The Black brothers, they express themselves and I hear from them that they “got” the Exodus story, the story of Passover and the function and meaning the telling of the Haggadah. My Jewish brothers definitely intellectually know a lot more than the non- Jewish participants and they show off more. On the other hand it is challenging to decipher the condition of their hearts.


A Sikh and Hindu chai chat over progressive action and social justice


by: Manpreet Teji and Murali Balaji on April 3rd, 2015 | No Comments »

A red Sikh symbol.Over the past decade, South Asian Americans of all faiths have become increasingly active in social justice causes, whether it’s been combating xenophobia and anti-Black racism, fighting for LGBT rights, religious tolerance, and for comprehensive environmental justice.

Sadly, even as the community comes together on these issues, interfaith dialogue among South Asian Americans continues to be a sore spot. As Sikh and Hindu activists, respectively, we seek a way forward in discussing how our communities – which have occasionally experienced tensions among advocacy groups – can work together to solve the problems we face together. Moreover, we need to talk about how Sikhs and Hindus – who both come from inherently progressive spiritual traditions -can present a united front in championing for social change.


The Tikkun Passover Seder Supplement


by: on April 1st, 2015 | 2 Comments »

This is meant as a supplement to the traditional Haggadah. You can use it in addition to a traditional Haggadah, introducing whichever parts you like to your Seder to provoke a lively discussion, or you can use this as the basis for an alternative Haggadah, which can then be supplemented by the traditional Haggadah.

"Passover" by Lynne Feldman (lynnefeldman.com).

A Note to Non-Jews: You are very welcome at our Seder! Jesus was a Jew, and the Last Supper was a Seder. Our supplement affirms the liberatory message that is part of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and is found in many other religious and spiritual traditions as well. You may find some of this ritual helpful if you create your own rite to celebrate the key insight of Easter or of any of the spring holidays of the world: that rebirth, renewal, and transformation are possible, and that we are not stuck in the dark, cold, and deadly energies of winter. Judaism builds on that universal experience of nature and adds another dimension: it suggests that the class structure (slavery, feudalism, capitalism, or neoliberal imperialism) can be overcome, and that we human beings, created in the image of the Transformative Power of the Universe (God), can create a world based on love, generosity, justice, and peace.

We understand God in part as the Transformative Power of the Universe – the force that makes possible the transformation from that which is to that which ought to be, the force that makes it possible to transcend the tendency of human beings to pass on to others the hurt and pain that has been done to us, the force that permeates every ounce of Being and unites all in one transcendent and imminent reality. In short, we understand God in part as the ultimate Unity of All with All, of whom we are always a part, even if we are not always conscious of the part of God we are, or the part of God that everyone and everything is. And you are welcome at our Seder even if you think all of this makes no sense and there is no God.


Can Religious Groups Help to Prevent Violent Conflict?


by: Laura Payne on March 31st, 2015 | No Comments »

Two men sitting under a tropical tree in the Solomon Islands.

When peace and violence are examined through a faith-based lens, a different set of factors come to the foreground. Above, young men at the Melanesian Brotherhood in the Solomon Islands, a religious order working for peace in the region. Credit: Laura Payne.

A glance at the daily news confirms that religion is regularly complicit in violence. In early January of 2015, Boko Haram killed up to two thousand people in Baga, Northern Nigeria. As this massacre unfolded, two men stormed into the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris and murdered 12 people. Hijacking a car, they told the driver “If the media ask you anything, tell them it’s al-Qaeda in Yemen.” Both before and after these events the so-called Islamic State (IS) drip-fed films showing the beheadings of civilians and hostages in territory it controls.

We are all too familiar with the idea of violence in the name of religion, and not just Islam. Other faiths have been complicit in violence throughout history, from the Crusades in the Middle Ages through to the recent brutalities of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Central Africa. In July 2014, Israel’s massacre in Gaza killed nearly 2,200 people, virtually all of them Palestinian Muslims.

But to recognize that violence often involves religion is not the same as saying that religion is the driving force of violence. Conflicts normally have their causal factors firmly embedded in the material world. Politicians and armed groups use religion to divide neighbour from neighbour, call people to arms, and raise the stakes in their pursuit of power. Religious identity and ideology matter, but they tell us more about how conflicts are set in motion than about their causes.


Can the Prison System Be Transformed? Shaka Senghor and #Cut50


by: Molly Rowan Leach on March 31st, 2015 | No Comments »


A black man named Shaka leaning against a colorful graffiti wall.

Shaka Senghor, a former felon who faced plenty of discrimination upon his release from prison, is the face of of #Cut50, a new initiative that aims to transform the justice system by cutting the U.S. prison population in half by 2025. Credit: http://www.ecotrust.org.

Shaka Senghor spent seven out of his 19 years in prison in solitary confinement, known to other inmates as the hole’ or ‘administrative segregation’ in the official language of the U.S. prison system — a term eerily designed to reduce the impact of its reality.

Convicted of the murder of a fellow drug dealer, Senghor was incarcerated in a bare six-foot by eight-foot excuse for human habitation. A concrete slab juts out of the wall, threatening impalement instead of offering sleep. The hole in the wall that’s intended for bodily functions gapes back at him as if to say, I will swallow you. The lockdowns run 23 hours a day on weekdays, and 24 hours on weekends.

Human contact, if it ever happens, is administered as if an animal is being handled, replete with leashes and five-point chains. The environment is steeped at a pitch of insanity — cell blocks rife with shouts and screams and the flinging of human feces. The walls seem to speak: ‘you cannot escape the incessant reminder that what you did is now who you are.’

Even after his release in 2010, Senghor, like most other former prison inmates, faced systematic discrimination as he attempted to step out of one bizarre reality into another that seemed intent on recycling his original punishment. A job and a supportive community are top priorities for those leaving prison if they are to avoid recidivism. But on employment applications, a box must be checked if the applicant has served time. In implicit and explicit ways, former prisoners are reminded of — and invisibly shackled by — their crime, long after their discharge.


Admissions: A Peace-Oriented Film About Israel/Palestine


by: John Viscount on March 30th, 2015 | 7 Comments »

A poster for the movie "Admissions."

After the devastating events of 9/11, it became tragically clear that war was once again on the horizon. As a personal response, I wrote the script for Admissions, a film about the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. My intention was to put forth a more forgiving interpretation of life’s events so people could find a pathway to peace no matter how crazy things got.

In 2011, the script was given to Academy Award nominee and peace activist, James Cromwell, and he graciously agreed to play the lead role. When the film was finished, Admissions began its festival run where it has won 26 international awards, been translated into Hebrew, Arabic, Farsi, and Spanish, and broadcast to 80 million people worldwide.

As a result of the positive response to Admissions, a number of peace organizations coalesced around the film’s message and several efforts were synergized. The result was a new mission to create Ministries and Departments of Peace in governments worldwide.


How a California Gurdwara From a Century Ago Can be a Model for Interfaith Harmony


by: Murali Balaji on March 26th, 2015 | 2 Comments »

The popular narrative in media and textbooks on the South Asian American population is that they’ve only existed in the United States for a few decades.

But such a narrative misrepresents and obscures a much longer history, especially at the turn of the century, when several thousand Indians settled in regions like Northern California. It’s the largely untold story of the migration of Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims from pre-partition India from the late 19th century up until the passage of the Asian Exclusion Act (which was passed to limit Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, and Indian migration).

Even before the act was passed, migrants from India faced many obstacles, including systemic discrimination and outright violence. The 1907 “anti-Hindoo” riots in Bellingham, Washington, for example, targeted mostly Sikh laborers whom whites had accused of stealing lumber jobs. Bellingham is only about an hour north of Bothell, Washington, where a Hindu temple was recently vandalized.

Still, in their small conclaves, the immigrants of different faiths began to find ways to develop a community identity, in part because they were largely shunned by whites. At the time, about two-thirds of Indian immigrants in California at the turn of the century were Sikh, and as a result, the Pacific Coast Khalsa Diwan Society — a gurdwara — opened in Stockton in 1911.

Because Hindus and Muslims in the region were still small in number, and unable to get the approvals to build any sites of worship, the Stockton gurdwara served as a place of worship for all three religions. While Hindu-Sikh co-worship was common in northern India for centuries, a place for all three groups in the United States was created by circumstance and sustained through interfaith bonds.


The Militarists and Haters Win in Israel


by: on March 25th, 2015 | 1 Comment »

Winners:  Netanyahu, AIPAC, the U.S. Republican Party, Sheldon Adelson (the American Jewish billionaire funder of the right), Hamas, the Islamic State, and the right-wing Mullahs in Iran.

Losers: Israelis, World Jewry, the Palestinian people, the forces for peace and nonviolence everywhere, the Palestinian Authority, the people of Iran, and the people of the United States.

According to Israeli newspapers reporting on the outcome of the Israeli election on Tuesday, Likud increased its lead in the next Knesset of 120 members. It will now hold thirty Knesset seats, compared to the Zionist Union (former Labor Party) with twenty-four seats. As the frontrunner, Netanyahu will be asked to create the government coalition.

The Joint List of Palestinian Israelis, the third-largest party, gets 14 seats, followed by Yesh Atid with 11, Kulanu with 10, Habayit Hayehudi (ultra right) with eight, Shas with seven, United Torah Judaism with six, Yisrael Beiteinu (fascist right) with six, and Meretz (once the peace party) with four.

Though the Israeli president has said he will ask for a government of national unity, it will be unity around the policies that Netanyahu put out clearly in the last days of the election: no Palestinian state, no deal that would allow Iran to develop nuclear energy, no willingness to count Arab Israelis as “real Israelis” (Netanyahu went so far as to warn the Israeli public that they were in danger because Arab Israelis had formed a Joint List and might become a real force in the Knesset unless the Jewish Israelis rallied around Netanyahu’s Likud party).

How can the right wing grow to so much power in an Israel filled with mostly decent human beings, some of whom have even been influenced by Judaism’s teachings of love for the neighbor and love for “the other,” though of course most Israelis are secular?


Then You Win: What Swarthmore Means For Open Hillel


by: Evan Goldstein on March 25th, 2015 | 2 Comments »

Jewish students holding signs protesting against Israeli occupation of Palestine.

Jewish Voice for Peace is one of the many voices being silenced by Hillel International's policy of dictating what is and is not acceptable dialogue within the Jewish community. Credit: Jewish Voice for Peace.

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.

Popular sayings are often more useful as pithy evasions of analysis than as actual descriptors, but in this case it seems Hillel International is determined to enact Gandhi’s dictum. Recall October 2014, when Eric Fingerhut dismissed the Open Hillel movement as a “small group of activists.” In December 2014, Fingerhut likened us to the Biblical rebel Korach (cf. Numbers 16), and suggested our cause would not endure.

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you.

By March 2015, Hillel International apparently has no choice but to fight: Formerly known as Swarthmore Hillel, Swarthmore Kehilah was forced to drop the Hillel name, following legal threats from Hillel International. Swarthmore’s sin was to plan an event entitled, “Social Justice Then and Now: Lessons From the Civil Rights Movement,” which will feature three Jewish veterans of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Since these particular activists support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, their very presence threatens Hillel’s “name and reputation,” and therefore, apparently necessitates legal threats.