Code Pink Activist Rae Abileah addresses members of the Network of Spiritual Progressives at Beyt Tikkun High Holiday services Sept. 29, 2011
Shana tova! I am so moved to be here in prayer with this vibrant, strong, brilliant community, and to be standing here on the bima in front of you all is something I could never have dreamed of.
I feel I am in the company of friends, of family, speaking with you all, as I know that a central tenant of this community is a dedication to tikkun olam, to the practice of repairing and healing the world and ourselves. The common ground we walk on is the commitment to creating a more just and joyous world. And this morning I want to share my story with you – the abbreviated version – I promise! – and besides folks I haven’t lived that long yet… — and I want to share my process of t’shuvah with you.
I was born and raised in the rocking era of the 1980s in a land not very far, far away from here – but with an intimate reverence for a land very far away – the country of Israel. Even in the small coastal town of Half Moon Bay where I grew up, there was some occasional anti-Jewish teasing on the playground. So the idea of a Jewish state fortified by an army to protect the Jews from future annihilation felt comforting. And the concept, as it was explained to me, of “a land without a people for a people without a land” seemed to make sense.
On the wall of my synagogue classroom was a map of Israel surrounded by Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt. To my memory, there was no mention of the West Bank, Palestine or even Palestinians in this classroom. I remember being taught that Arabs were free to go live wherever they wanted to in the Middle East; so why did they need this little piece of land?
When I became a Bat Mitzvah, my Reform Jewish community began explicit instruction in Israeli history–we were presented with a gleaming portrait of the land of milk and honey, which provided Freedom from persecution for our people. Eretz Yisrael was a land full of trees planted by our tzedakah money, a land with burgeoning technology, where the Shechina, the holy one, seemed to whistle by on the wind and flow in through the breath, where bright discotheques blended with deeply mystic spirituality, where Bamba and hummus were the snacking norm, all surrounded by some of the world’s most scenic seas – the Mediterranean to the west, the Red Sea to the south, the Kinneret and the Dead Sea to the east and the snaking Jordan River sewing them together. Hearing all this, I deeply believed that Israel and its promised peace flowed through my veins as my own prized birthright.
I first visited Israel in 1998 on a five-week trip with my Hebrew school confirmation class, similar to a Birthright trip and I fell in love with the land as soon as I stepped off the plane. I knelt on the tarmac and kissed the ground of what I immediately felt to be my homeland. I was in college in New York City in 2001 when the Second Intifada broke out and though I was barely aware of this Palestinian uprising, I was painfully aware of the polarization on campus where at flag-waving rallies students representing the two sides of the conflict would shout at one another and get in each others faces.
Fast forward to December, 2008, nearly three years ago – when Israel started bombing Gaza: In its 22-day assault, Israel’s Operation Cast Lead left in its wake over 1,400 Palestinians dead, including some 300 children. The attack razed hospitals, schools and thousands of homes. The destruction was so intense, it could not have possibly been an act of “self-defense”. We watched as news channels displayed images of grieving mothers covered in the blood of their own children and grown men sobbing among the ruins of their destroyed homes and families – you may remember seeing these images. I could no longer turn away from the massacre and violation of human rights.
By this time I had been working with CODEPINK (www.codepink.org) for several years organizing to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and from our office in San Francisco I helped organize several delegations to Gaza that delivered pink baskets of toiletries to women, built pink playgrounds, danced and broke bread with women. The disarming, creative, life-affirming tactics of CODEPINK captivated my heart, showing me that taking affirmative action for peace in the Middle East could be done stripped of the usual name-calling or finger-pointing.
I returned to Israel in the summer of 2009 with a CODEPINK delegation that attempted to break the siege of Gaza yet again. My partner, who grew up Ultra-Orthodox and who had been ordained as a rabbi and trained as an IDF soldier, joined me for the trip. During our first days in Israel we bounced between lavish breakfasts on the Tel Aviv beach and walking among the rubble of demolished Palestinian villages in the Galilee, some hidden purposefully by trees planted by the Jewish National Fund, maybe with my tzedakah money; from basking in the warmth of Jerusalem’s Old City blushing in the light of sunrise to standing beside Israel’s cold towering separation wall. This juxtaposition ripped our hearts and eyes wide open. For three day our delegation stood at the border to Gaza with our valid passports, pleading with the heads of security to let us in But even one delegate, the famous Dr. Patch Adams, with his team of clowns, must have seemed too threatening, and we weren’t allowed in. In the end, we tied little notes with messages to the children of Gaza to the barbed wire fence, and flew kites over the wall. When I finally made it to Gaza, I was astonished to see firsthand people still living in tents a year after the bombing, cut off from regular access to electricity, medical supplies, and building materials. I also witnessed the enormity of refugee camps in the West Bank, the lack of access to move freely (for ex. takes students hours to travel to school in the same distance that it took me minutes to travel growing up), the suppression of speech, and the constant feeling of being occupied. I came to see that this sacred ground was not “a land without a people for a people without a land” but was in fact a land which has a vibrant thriving culture that has been (and continues to be) systematically banished, repressed and denied their basic rights.
These experiences on the ground have led to me to work for justice for Israelis and Palestinians. You see, as Jewish activist Starhawk said as well, I was raised to love Israel… a dream come true, a miraculous salvation from the grief and terror of the Holocaust… But I was also raised to love justice, to pursue tikkun olam, not tyranny—no matter who the tyrants profess to be. And I came to see that without justice for the Palestinians, there can be no security or peace for Israelis.
It’s this pursuit of tikkun olam that has led me to speak up for human rights and equality for Palestinians – from writing letters to elected officials, to putting my money where my values are by refusing to buy products from the settlements such as Ahava cosmetics and SodaStream home carbonation systems, to speaking out inside of Congress.
Which brings me to the incident for which I’ve become most recently notorious. Four months ago I received a ticket to hear Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu address a joint session of Congress. When I entered the Capital building in DC on that bright and sunny morning in May I could not have predicted what was to happen.
I sat in the Congressional Gallery alongside K Street’s finest array of right-wing lobbyists, many of whom were touting AIPAC badges, and watched our elected officials give Netanyahu a hero’s welcome. During the talk, when Netanyahu was praising young people rising up for democracy in the Middle East, and I took my cue to stand up, unfurl a banner, and shout, “No More Occupation! Stop Israeli War Crimes! Equal Rights for Palestinians!”
Immediately, I was pulled, gagged and flung to the floor by other members of the audience. Police dragged me out of the Capitol, and an ambulance whisked me to the hospital, where I was treated for neck and shoulder injuries and put under arrest for disrupting Congress. After I disrupted, Netanyahu said to his Congressional audience, “You can’t have these protests in farcical governments of Tehran or Tripoli; this is real democracy.”
Is it? What kind of a democracy do we live in when free speech is met with brutality and arrest? I need to acknowledge that the brutality I experienced in Congress was a microcosm of the daily violence inflicted on nonviolent protesters in the West Bank – where marches are met with tear-gas, rubber bullets and arrests.
I want to add in a side note here – which is to say that after six months my arrest charges will be dropped and my record will be clean, while 11 Muslim students at UC Irvine who disrupted Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren have recently this past week been on trial in Orange County for their nonviolent action. They were found guilty, face fines and were sentenced to three years probation. The case of the Irvine 11 highlights the discrimination and inequality in our own legal system here in the face of swelling Islamophobia.
After speaking out in Congress, I received some criticism, and I felt like this action was my “coming out” experience in the Jewish community on this issue. In all the years that I have protested the Iraq War, I never felt I was being “un-American”. Yet when I said I wanted to see a new generation of Israelis grow up without a mandatory draft, without eighteen year-olds being obligated to defend checkpoints at gunpoint and commanded to kill innocent children with bulldozers, I was called “anti-Israel”. And when I said that I wanted Israel to be held to the same standards of International Law as the rest of the global community, I was also called “a delegitimizer”. When I said I wanted freedom of travel for fellow human beings in Palestine, to see integrated schools and shared highways, freedom to eat, pray, and love where they want to, I didn’t feel I was against Israel; I felt I was simply for human rights, and it is my love for Israel that compels me to act. This is how we must reframe the terms of the debate. There is another “side” to this conflict – the side of peace and justice.
Overall though, I received overwhelming support from people around the world who heard about my action on the news. And I was specifically moved by the amount of support I received from Jews who said thank you for saying what I believe but am often afraid to say.
You heard Rabbi Lerner mention earlier in the service how each generation redefines the fabric of Torah.
My generation will not inherit and repeat the mistakes of our fathers; we are equipped with new tools to rise up nonviolently like our sisters and brothers did during the youth-led uprising in Egypt this past January to create a new future. As many Jewish people today know, young people aren’t participating in Jewish life the way their parents and grandparents once did. The Jewish establishment tries to solve the problem by funding expensive projects to entice us young folk with things like free trips to Israel. But the truth is, as Rabbi Brant Rosen from Chicago so articulately wrote this past week, we want a Jewish community that unconditionally values all life equally. And we want an identity that doesn’t demand that we justify taking another people’s land. What we want is the values of justice that we were taught by Judaism, but could never really embrace when it came to Israel and Palestine.
The story of the days of repentance is about collecting the broken pieces and forging a unity, through the harmony of a symphony, through living with principles. The challenge for my generation, after shattering the Israel barrier, will be to piece the shards together and create something new, sturdy, brave and whole. As Jewish tradition teaches us, an earthenware vessel that has become impure can only become pure by shattering it and reconstructing its pieces. Sometimes the old model has fallen so far from the mark, that it needs to be completely reconstructed.
I’ve had the opportunity to participate in the reconstruction of this vision by joining Young Jewish Proud, the new youth wing of Jewish Voice for Peace. I have found in this organization a place to be “out” about my views on the Occupation while being fully present in my religious and spiritual life. A group of 14 of us young Jews met in New Orleans nearly a year ago and drafted a declaration of our values. I’ll share an excerpt with you:
We exist. We are punks and students and parents and janitors and rabbis and freedom fighters. We are your children, your nieces and nephews, your grandchildren….
We commit to re-envisioning ‘homeland,’ to make room for justice. We will teach this in the schools and in our homes. We will grieve the lies we’ve swallowed.
We demand daylight for our stories, for all stories. We seek breathing room and dignity for all people. We will become mentors, elders, and radical listeners for the next generation. It is our sacred obligation. We will not stop. We are young Jews, and we get to decide what that means.
(see full declaration at www.youngjewishproud.org)
It’s been said that in writing this declaration, we have proclaimed our Jewishness in classic Jewish fashion. Like young Abraham destroying his father’s icons, we are standing up to the hypocrisy and corruption of our elders by calling out our community on its most sacred of sacred cows: namely, the unquestioning, unconditional support of the state of Israel.
So where are we in the Rosh Hashanah morning service? We have just read Avinu Malkenu – which is a prayer requesting partnership, asking God to join hands with us in the journey ahead. Traditionally we say Avinu Malkenu, our father, our king, reinforcing what we here in Berkeley lingo might refer to as the “dominant patriarchal hierarchy.”
The Beyt Tikkun translation reclaims these words as “Our parent, our pathfinder” – and in this way we choose a model, one widely discussed by author Riane Eisler, that is based on partnership and healthy guidance rather than domination and oppression.
We begin this prayer with the first step – an acknowledgement of what is: Our parent, our pathfinder, we have missed the mark!
So a man is traveling on a train through Eastern Europe. He looks out the window and remarks to himself how beautiful the scenery looks, but that it looks so different from what he expected to see. He passes one train station that is unfamiliar, then another, and then a third. A man sitting across from him asks where he is going. Prague, the bewildered traveler replies. “But sir you are going the wrong way! Prague is 7 stops in the other direction!” “Ah,” the man remarks, “but I can’t get off now, I have such a good seat!”
While this is a joke, it has a biting message – sometimes we continue down the wrong path because we just don’t want to give up our seat. We have to admit we’re going in the wrong direction before we can change course. Too often we refuse to change directions in our policies, thinking that we have a good spot of land and can somehow cling to it through occupation… May we learn to value the sanctity of human life more than the sanctity of land or houses.
My tax dollars missed the mark this year – too much of my hard-earned cash contributed to the $3 billion a year that the US gives to Israel to fund military aid, which is used to buy weapons like the white phosphorus that killed the children of my new friends in Gaza – instead of going to fund schools, libraries and hospitals for kids here in the US who are desperately in need of a brighter future.
We express our “missing of the mark” during this season through the ritual of Tashlich, of casting our sins, in the form of breadcrumbs, into the sea. And I invite you to join me on Sunday afternoon in San Francisco for a Tashlich ritual of casting away transgressions & reaffirming commitment to work for justice in Israel/Palestine, and to end Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. (Flyers at the back!) (For more on the Tashlich ritual, created by Jewish Voice for Peace, visit this link.)
Our parent, our pathfinder, send a complete healing to the sick among us.
I’ve seen firsthand how fear can violate our faith and lead to the unconscionable, how families repeat the crimes and toxic cycles of action perpetrated by their governments, and how from Iraq to Afghanistan to Israel and Palestine, our society is enraptured in an addiction to war. It is time for Israel to sober up and face the reality that their aggressive militarism won’t work any more. And (as a recent article in Adbusters stated) only America has the power to grab Israel’s car keys.
And so we pray: May our unhealthy behaviors – politically, militarily, and personally, be healed and transformed in the year to come.
Our parent, our pathfinder, inscribe us for a year of making powerful positive contributions to our world.
In devotion, we practice the sacred art of Tikkun Olam, weaving together what has been broken apart. We are collecting and raising the sparks of the new dawn. We are healers, mending the separateness and revealing the hidden connections.
I see Fresh Tactics and New Voices unfolding in the Movement for Justice and Freedom in the Middle East. From creative song and dance flashmobs (ask me later about this) parodying Lady Gaga songs to the use of youtube and twitter to spread messages that the mainstream media won’t cover. We have witnessed bold actions like the flotilla to Gaza. Closer to home, this past couple weeks we’ve seen the struggle to exhibit Palestinian children’s artwork at the Oakland Museum of Children’s Art, and how a determined group of activists refused to let this art be silently censored.
Starting in Tunisian and spreading to Egypt and throughout the Arab world, I have been so moved by the popular uprisings for freedom. Around the world people have pitched tents and taken to the streets with a familiar demand for honest bread.
The Arab Spring inspired the Israeli Summer for economic justice this past July – how amazing to witness the largest protest in Israeli history! And now these tent cities are beginning to pop up in the US – as I speak people are occupying Wall Street in NYC. And on October 6th people will flood Freedom Plaza in DC calling for an end to wars and an answer to desperate domestic needs.
We are living in what some are calling the ushering in of the Great Turning, a time of transformation to reverse direction and turn away from environmental destruction and warfare. But perhaps it is more of a great RE-Turning, a time of T’shuvah, when we are returning to ancestral ways of living in harmony with each other and with the land.
We say – Our parent, our pathfinder, inscribe us for a year in which we are forgiven and forgiving, transformed and compassionately contributing to the transformation of others.
The new edition of Rabbi Lerner’s book is called Embracing Israel/Palestine and in this title is a great wisdom – for it is only by seeing and accepting the full reality of what is happening in Israel and Palestine that we can embrace it. Isn’t this true in love? Who here has had a fantasy about a lover and then bumped up against jagged edges when discovering a fault in that person? To have a healthy relationship we had to see our loved one for exactly who she was, all things considered. And only from this place of embrace can a new reality transpire. Who among us knows if this reality will be one state, two states, red states, blue states? What is important is that there is equality, freedom and justice in the relationships between people and governments that ensure human rights and dignity for all.
Finally, we say:
Avinu Malkaynu chanaynu va’anaynu, ki ayn banu ma’asim.
Our parent, our pathfinder, be gracious to us and answer us, even though we are unworthy in deeds.
But the word “ma’asim,” here translated as “deeds” can also mean “stories” as it is used in the Talmud. Perhaps we are asking G-d to be gracious and to answer us, even when we only know our own limited story, and may not yet have the capacity to listen to another’s story, to the stories of those we see as enemies, to the stories of the next generations, to the stories our hearts seem hardened against.
During his trial in Israeli Court for allegations of “inciting protest” Bassem Tamimi, a Palestinian organizer from the village of Nabi Saleh, said: “Land theft and tree burning are not just. Your military laws are not legitimate. Our peaceful protest is just.” Despite the jailing of their leaders, Palestinian villagers continue their nonviolent struggle against the theft of their land and resources. But how much longer will we in the global community countenance Israel’s imprisonment of Palestinian Gandhis? Will we create breathing room and daylight for their stories too during this time of tshuvah and in the year to come?
Please, we say, let us learn to be healed, and help us heal our world.
Open our hearts, we say, so that we may live lives of justice and love, so that we may learn to listen to the stories that murmur around us, and may teach us a new path forward.
I want to thank you for listening to my story, and ask your forgiveness for any ways that my words may have imposed pain or discomfort in you on this most holy day. I hope to have a chance to hear your story, maybe over apples and honey later today.
As Rabbi Lerner wrote in an email earlier this week, I want to wish you blessings for the New Year–may it be filled with love, well-being, psychological and spiritual well-being, and joy, for you and all your family and friends, plus real steps globally toward peace, social justice, environmental sanity, and a new spirit of generosity and caring for each other.
May we continue to build community and organize for justice creatively and fiercely in the year to come. Blessings for sweetness for us all in 5772, shana tova!