Rabbis for Human Rights Natl Conf: Turning Dark Despair into the light of Change

Dear Friends,

On Sunday December 10, International Human Rights Day , 200 rabbis / rabbinical students gathered in the first-ever conference on Judaism and Human Rights, brought together by Rabbis for Human Rights / North America. Let me share with you a few glimpses into that meeting -- five moments:

1) Sister Dianna Ortiz, an American Catholic nun who went to Guatemala to serve the poor, was kidnapped in 1989 by a unit of the Guatemalan military commanded by a US CIA officer. She was tortured and repeatedly gang-raped. Her own hands were used by her torturers to torture a friend of hers. She survived; her friends and co-workers were tortured to death.

At the RHR meetings, for 20 minutes Sister Dianna described what had happened to her. For 20 minutes, 200 rabbis sat in silence so deep you could hear a tear drop. She described how it feels now to feel her own hands, knowing they had tortured another. (Afterwards one rabbi told me he will never again do the blessing over his own hands, netilat yadaiim, without remembering.)

She explained that to tell is itself a self-torture; that retelling the story brings on flashbacks. But she had promised her companions to tell the truth of their lives and deaths, so as to change the future. So she told.

Some of us have heard similar stories from survivors of the Holocaust – but we could take comfort in knowing it was The Enemy that did these vile deeds – not our own government.

If you look closely at a candle flame, you can see that at its heart is a dot of darkness, a seed that births its light. Sister Dianna's Telling was darkness that is birthing light.

The spark for that moment was struck in the spring of 2004, when the use of torture at Abu Ghraib became known. Till then, RHR / North America had focused its efforts on support for human-rights work in Israel and Palestine.

Six weeks after the late-April revelations, I joined with an imam, a Catholic nun, and a Protestant minister to broadcast an apology to the Arab world on behalf of Americans of religious faith. I persuaded the statement's authors to use the words "sinful" to describe torture and "systemic" to describe the US' use of it. This broadcast was the first public effort to address the US use of torture as not only an issue of policy or law but as one of profound religious concern.

Meanwhile, I asked the board of RHR to take up the use of torture by the US government as a religious, moral, and ethical question that Jews must not ignore. The Board agreed.

I must tell you that if the work of The Shalom Center during the last five years had accomplished nothing but making possible the twenty minutes of utter silence as Sister Dianna spoke, I would be satisfied.

2) Another dark seed of lighting change: Sadly, we learned that just before we gathered on the first day of the conference – on December 10, International Human Rights Day itself -- the Jerusalem municipality had just demolished the home of a Palestinian family.

The city government has refused to create a zoning system for that Palestinian neighborhood (which was already there when the Knesset annexed it into Israel) – and then claims that since nothing in the neighborhood is zoned FOR homes, all of it is zoned against them. Old houses have been tolerated. But add a room for your grandkids – bulldozer. Build anew – bulldozer. Only Palestinians, not Israeli Jews, are treated this way.

This was the second time the Dari family's house has been demolished. -- RHR in Israel, and American members of RHR/ North America, had helped rebuild it before. They had also sent hundreds of letters and phone calls protest to the Mayor of Jerusalem. All this -- no effect.

A moment of darkness that birthed a flash of light – for RHR's members responded by raising money for rebuilding within two hours, and tried to send delegations both to the Israeli consulate in NYC and to Senator Hillary Clinton to demand reversal of this policy. The consulate would not receive a delegation; Senator Clinton's office did.

3. As the staff and Board of RHR planned the conference, I urged that one major plenary session go beyond "human rights" to look at how we might create the broader political, social, and cultural context in which human rights are less likely to be violated. So I was invited to weave and to chair that plenary – the last of the conference.

Rabbi Rebecca Alpert, Rabbi David Saperstein, Peter Edelman (chair of the New Israel Fund) and I explored the question, ARE HUMAN RIGHTS ACTUALLY PROTECTED IF WE CONFINE OUR WORK TO "HUMAN RIGHTS"?

Can they be protected when power is being exercised from the top down without public accountability or challenge, and when the society – Israeli or American – is defined by the culture and institutions of permanent war? What about violations of human rights not by the state but by "private" institutions -- as in child abuse or slave labor? To protect human rights, do we need a broader vision than "human rights" alone?

For the questions I laid out, see -- http://www.theshalomcenter.org/node/1225

And I ended the session by sharing – as one broader vision -- the "Jewish Call to Heal God's World by Weaving World Community." It has now been signed by more than 100 rabbis, and is now open for signature by and donations from all members of the Jewish community.

For this Call, see: ---

4. The conference began at the UN, ceremoniously building an eight-branched Menorah honoring eight aspects of the International Declaration of Human Rights. Among us, imams chanted from Quranic passages affirming human diversity and rights. Just a few feet from us were a thousand Tibetans, chanting in Tibetan and in English for human rights in Tibet. So Tibetan, Hebrew, English, and Arabic became a planetary weave demanding justice.

5. On Monday night, RHR presented the Raphael Lemkin Award to the founders of RHR in Israel; to B'tselem (an Israeli human-rights organization); and to the Center for Constitutional Rights in the US – the lead organization in bringing to court the rights of prisoners in Guantanamo.

Who was this Lemkin? He coined the word "genocide" in 1943, and tirelessly campaigned to create the Convention Against Genocide, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1949. He died in 1959, impoverished and almost forgotten.

Like him, like the lamp-lighters of my earliest childhood moving through the streets of Baltimore as dusk fell, we move through the dark around us lighting lights of hope and change in the gloom of the world that sometimes threatens to overwhelm us.

The Shalom Center has set itself the task of striking the sparks that kindle these lights. Organizing the Olive Trees for Peace campaign in 2002 that was the first broad public appeal in America to support RHR in Israel. Defining torture as a sin. Creating the Tent of Abraham, Hagar, & Sarah. Initiating the Green Menorah Covenant to move us "beyond Oil."

We need your help to keep on striking sparks.

(Please help by clicking on the DONATE BUTTON.)

And we ask that there be blessings on your own joyful lighting of the future, this season and every season.

-- Arthur