The gift of quiet self-reflection

I grew up in a mixed family (Christian and Jewish). As a child, I loved opening a gift each evening of Hanukkah, and then on Christmas morning, opening a whole bunch more. As a spoiled, middle-class brat, both holidays for me were all about the gifts, with a smattering of religious ceremony and reflection thrown in for good measure.

Nearly half a century later, when I was living in Gaza for a few months (2012-2013), many new friends asked me “What are you? A Christian? A Jew? Something else?” Labels help us make sense of each other, but my standard response to my inquisitors was not so simple.

After explaining my family traditions, I told my new friends that I don’t consider myself a member of any organized religion today, followed by their expressions of  astonishment or disgust. Then I would explain that I try to live my life by one simple (yet not so simple) rule — to treat others as I would want them to treat me. The Golden Rule in the Christian faith is also a bedrock principle in Judaism and Islam.

Last night I wished my Jewish family, friends and colleagues a quiet time of reflection on this first night of Hanukkah 2018. Here’s what I wrote on social media:

I believe tonight is the beginning of Chanukah. I was going to wish my Jewish family and friends a “Happy Chanukah” but instead will wish each of you a time of self-reflection about what it means to be a Jew after 50 years of Israel’s military occupation. How is that working for you? How does it make you feel? I hope you have quiet time to reflect.

The responses ranged from disappointment tinged with anger, to support and agreement. (I’ve copied several below without author identification.

Wow, I have reflected on your post and am saddened. We always celebrated this holiday in the spirit of hope for humanity and kindness. None of us free from association with a country that has committed acts of brutality and sometimes barbarism. As Americans, we can point to any number of atrocities. To use the actions of a government to issue such a wish to a people, such as the Jews, is inappropriate.

And then this —

I absolutely agree [with the previous comment]. This is like asking those who observe Christmas how they feel about celebrating a holiday associated with a religon that committed the worst brutality and atrocities ever in the name of furthering its creed.

Writer #1 offered further —

We do not succeed in changing people’s hearts and minds through insulting them. I have worked on many campaigns, invested time, money, and effort to influence policies toward justice. I feel it is dangerous to say that Jews who are citizens of other countries are responsible for the Israeli government’s atrocities. The occupation needs to end, but we will not build a coalition by this approach.

And then a third writer chimed in —

I was going to wish my white American family and friends a “Merry Christmas” but instead will wish each of you a time of self-reflection about what it means to be white American, with access to all of America’s privileges, after a century of U.S. imperialism from death squads in Latin America to Vietnam to drones, the NSA, and support for Saudi Arabia. How is that working for you? How does it make you feel? I hope you have quiet time to reflect.

How does that sound to you Lora? It sounds very condescending and patronizing to me. To say that, I would be setting myself above the people I’m talking to, saying “*I* have reflected on these issues and obviously you haven’t so I’m asking you to do so”.

What you said is worse because, while Americans do have some responsibility for America (to the extent that our democracy works, which is not very well), you are assigning to all Jews responsibility for Israel. I do think it’s especially important for us as American Jews to oppose what Israel is doing, because the position of American Jews plays at least some role in American policy toward Israel (though again, in practice, there is not much democratic power). But that doesn’t mean we are responsible for Israel’s actions simply because we are Jews.

hanuka1Others felt I was conflating Jews with Zionists, which I’m clearly not.  Surprisingly, no one has called me an anti-Semite, usually the default position for many who disagree with my words.

A time of reflection is what I wish — and I hope the reflection is focused on Israel’s half-century brutal and dehumanizing military occupation of the Palestinians.

Why should American Jews reflect on Israel’s actions?

  • Because Israel’s government officials have declared ad nauseum that they represent Jews worldwide, and have even invited Jews living anywhere on Planet Earth to come make their home in Israel. (That will certainly help with the “demographic threat.”)
  • Because the U.S. government has aided and abetted this 50 year occupation with the largest financial aid appropriations made to any country (most recently $38 Billion over the next 10 years). The U.S. consistently shields the State of Israel from being held accountable at the United Nations. The U.S. Congress gives Israel’s leader standing ovations when he speaks at the U.S. Capitol, and it is certainly clear that the vast majority of Congressmembers are at the beck and call of AIPAC, Israel’s lobbying organization in the U.S.
  • Because Israel’s three military campaigns against the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, its 12+ years of economic, political and cultural siege on Gaza, and its deliberate killing of men, women, children, paramedics, and journalists at the #GreatReturnMarch at the fence between Israel and Gaza since March 2018, has occurred without any reprecussions, and no Israeli leaders have been held accountable. The killings will surely continue.
  • Because American Jews can and are playing a very important role in educating Congress that “Israel doesn’t speak for us” and younger American Jews are distancing themselves from Israel by greater numbers every year. Some personal reflection must have helped move these particular Jews to speak up and against the occupation.
  • Because when an American Jewish constitutent has an opinion to share about Israel with their member of Congress, I believe it carries much greater weight than my opinion (no matter how informed or eloquent I may sound.)

My Hanukkah wish casts no blame on Jews as a group or as individuals, despite what some writers above might have felt. That’s perhaps the biggest reason why my Jewish family, friends and colleagues should spend some time this Hanukkah in self-reflection on the issue I’ve raised. They may be carrying the weight of Israel’s horrific human rights abuses but they shouldn’t.  Quiet reflection may do the soul some good.

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Filed under Spiritual - Religion, Uncategorized, United Nations, US Policy

Eloquent truth-telling at the United Nations

International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People Special Meeting at UN Headquarters November 28, 2018

Professor Marc Lamont Hill at the United Nations calls for “Free Palestine from the River to the Sea” to chorus of applause.  This 20-minute video says all that needs to be said about Israel’s long-term, illegal occupation of Palestine, about human rights, about the facts on the ground today in the West Bank and Gaza.  CNN fired Professor Hill the day after he spoke the hard truth at the UN.

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Filed under People, Uncategorized, United Nations, Video

US Mimics Israel at US-Mexico Border

No More War

My social media Facebook feed is overwhelmed with photos and messages of horror about the current actions of the U.S. military at the US-Mexico border.  Check out the story here, if you haven’t seen it.

We (I use that pronoun deliberately) have closed the border and we are now violently throwing tear gas canisters and shooting rubber bullets at men, women and children migrants.

Here are several videos of the migrants being attacked at the US-Mexico border.

I’m not shocked by Trump’s aggressive and violent response at the border, and neither should any American be shocked. We’ve been watching the same actions occurring at the fence (not border) separating Israel and the Gaza Strip since March of this year.

Israel, our best friend and ally in the Middle East, has deployed its military to the perimeter fence line shared with Gaza to shoot tear gas canisters, rubber bullets, and live bullets at Palestinian men, women and children participating peacefully in the Great Return March. 

Palestinians have paid a great price for their call for life with dignity during mass protests held along Gaza’s boundary with Israel over the past eight months.

Some 180 Palestinians have been shot dead by Israeli occupation forces and nearly 6,000 others injured by live fire during the Great March of Return.


Altogether, a staggering 24,000 Palestinians have been injured during the Great March of Return protests – more than one percent of the territory’s population.

See Maureen Clare Murphy’s full article here.

Neither Trump nor the U.S. Congress has stood up to Israeli leaders and told them to stop this barbarity.  Trump probably thinks he has the tacit support of Congress for his deployment to the US-Mexico border.  The US and Israel are playing by the same playbook now. Americans shouldn’t be surprised.

I, for one, fully expect snipers to be deployed at the US-Mexico border. And I won’t be surprised when the U.S. military is deployed against Americans inside our country. This action today against the migrants in the South is only a precursor to future, more aggressive actions to support our nascent Fascist government.

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Filed under Gaza, Israel Defense Forces, People, Uncategorized, US Policy, Video

My Letter to Senator Rand Paul

November 24, 2018

Dear Senator Paul,

Although I don’t agree with you on many issues, I applaud your decision to place a hold on the U.S.-Israel Security Assistance Authorization Act of 2018, which cements in the $38 billion weapons deal over the next 10 years that former President Obama struck with Netanyahu.  I suppose the proponents of this deal want it sealed into law (rather than merely an executive MOU) so that it won’t be subject to a change of heart in the future.  After all, $38 billion IS a lot of money and could pay for some big ticket items at home — healthcare, pre-K education, failing infrastructure, for example.

If American taxpayers only knew how our contributions to the U.S. Treasury are subsidizing the human rights violations and instability in the Middle East.

The Congressional Research Service’s report “U.S. Foreign Aid to Israel,” written by Jeremy M. Sharp, Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs, dated April 10, 2018, provides the following:

According to the report, the United States gave Israel $3.1 billion for Fiscal Year 2018 in direct bilateral military aid (also referred to as Foreign Military Financing or FMF). Congress also authorized $705.8 million for “joint” U.S.-Israel missile defense programs (designed to protect Israeli territory from potential outside threats), bringing total military aid to Israel to more than $3.8 billion per year.

Put another way, American taxpayers give Israel over $10.5 million per day. Over the last 20 years, the U.S. has slowly phased out economic aid to Israel and gradually replacing it with increased military aid. In September 2016, the United States and Israeli governments signed a new ten-year Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) where the U.S. pledged to give Israel $38 billion in military aid ($33 billion in FMF grants plus $5 billion in missile defense) over the course of 10 years (FY2019 to FY2028). This new MOU replaces the current $30 billion 10-year agreement signed by the Bush Administration that will expire in 2018.

Israel is by far the largest recipient of U.S. foreign military aid (see how other nations compare). According to the CRS report, the President’s request for Israel for FY 2017 will encompass approximately 54% of total U.S. foreign military financing worldwide. The report continues, ” Annual FMF grants to Israel represent approximately 18.5% of the overall Israeli defense budget. Israel’s defense expenditure as a percentage of its Gross Domestic Product (5.4% in 2015) is one of the highest percentages in the world.”

Contrary to ordinary U.S. policy, Israel has been and continues to be allowed to use approximately 26% of U.S. military aid to purchase equipment from Israeli manufacturers. According to CRS, “no other recipient of U.S. military assistance has been granted this benefit.”

Thanks in part to this indirect U.S. subsidy, Israel’s arms industry has become one of the strongest in the world. Between 2001 and 2008, Israel was the 7th largest arms supplier to the world, selling $9.9 billion worth of equipment. And it continues to grow stronger. In 2015, Israel sold $5.7 billion in military goodsto other countries.

The former assistant Secretary of Defense from 2007 to 2009 asked, “How inexplicable is it that we are competing against the Israelis in the Indian defense procurement market at the same time we are subsidizing the Israeli defense industry?”

A U.S. government source estimates that Israel is using approximately $1.2 billion each year (38.7% of the aid it receives from the U.S.) to “directly support its domestic budget rather than to build on its arsenal of advanced US equipment.”

By all accounts the United States has given more money to Israel than to any other country. The Congressional Research Service’s conservative estimate of total cumulative US aid to Israel from 1949 through 2015 is $127.4 billion (not adjusted for inflation).

Please hold firm on your decision to oppose the  U.S.-Israel Security Assistance Authorization Act of 2018.

Sincerely,

Lora A. Lucero

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Filed under Israel, People, Politics, US Policy, Video

Movement

I’m reminded in so many ways that movement is a human right that many of us take for granted. And the politicization of movement is abhorrent.

Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts that:

  • citizen of a state in which that citizen is present has the liberty to travel, reside in, and/or work in any part of the state where one pleases within the limits of respect for the liberty and rights of others,
  • and that a citizen also has the right to leave any country, including his or her own, and to return to his or her country at any time.

Consider the following:

President Trump has sent 5,000 troops to the US-Mexico border to erect concertina wire in an effort to thwart immigrants traveling in a caravan from Central America. The first are arriving in Tijuana this week.

A Palestinian friend from Gaza has recently been granted asylum in the UK (“Liberation from the Israeli occupation & oppression and freedom from social and cultural restrictions”) and he now has a UK travel document (“Reclaimed my freedom of movement”).

Another Palestinian friend sits with me at an outdoor cafe in Cairo and looks up into the sky. He points to the commercial airplane flying overhead and tells me “We never see such planes in the skies over Gaza; only Israeli military jets and drones.”

A Jewish American lawyer has been working with refugees in Greece for several years in their applications for asylum. She has recently come under attack with death threats by Nazis who want to scare her away.

The-Erez-crossing-between-007

The Erez Crossing between Israel and Gaza. http://www.guardian.co.uk

A DHL employee in Cairo tells me that DHL can’t ship a box of books to Gaza for me, only envelopes. He says Israel has returned boxes with no explanation.

I want to speak with my US Embassy in Cairo about getting permission to travel across the Sinai to Gaza. The earliest available appointment is December 10, in one month. Are they really THAT busy?

Walking around the pyramids at Giza, my Palestinian companion is stopped twice by different security forces who take him aside. They want to see his travel documents, and pat him down. I step closer to him and when they see that we’re traveling together, they wave us both through.

Movement is power. If you can move freely, you have power. If you can prevent another from moving, you have power.

Movement is essential for accessing any other rights or freedoms. No movement = no health.  No movement = no education.  No movement = no dignity.

border

Israel’s separation barrier

While the U.S. and Israel spend their bloated military budgets ostensibly on security, but practically on thwarting the basic right of freedom of movement, the world grows ever more dangerous and deadly for many more people.

What would happen if we redirected our military budget into a global humanitarian budget, while welcoming refugees with open arms?

 

 

 

 

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UNRWA AND PALESTINE REFUGEE RIGHTS – New Assaults, New Challenges

By Francesca P. Albanese (Published in Institute for Palestine Studies, November 2018)

Francesca_Albanese

Francesca Albanese

Although most Americans may not be aware of President Trump’s assault on the U.N. agency responsible for the Palestinian refugees, United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) — those of us who keep our attention focused on Israel & Palestine have been watching his Administration’s pronouncements this year with a mixture of alarm, disgust and disdain.

In her monograph (available here) Francesca P. Albanese has clearly summarized Trump’s actions vis-a-vis UNRWA and the Palestinians, spelled out how his actions are contrary to historical facts and international law, and concluded with a commonsense recommendation: if the U.N. General Assembly believes that UNRWA needs to be reformed, then bring it up for discussion within the framework of UN rules and procedures. The United States and Donald have no authority (much less competence) to unilaterally reform any U.N. agency.

It’s very unlikely that anyone in the current U.S. Administration will take the time to read or digest Albanese’s points, but I’m going to forward it to members of Congress (especially the new ones taking office in January) because their staff needs to have this information in their arsenal. It might come in very handy when drafting speeches or arguments against Donald’s destructive notions of reforming UNRWA.

Access and read her full monograph here.

And today is always a good day to make a tax-deductible donation to UNRWA-USA to help provide critical mental health services to Palestinian refugees in Gaza.  Check out my fundraising page here. Thank you.

Francesca Albanese is a human rights lawyer (LL.M, SOAS) who spent 12 years working in the field of human rights, including with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and more recently with the UN Agency for Relief and Work of Palestine Refugees in the Near East. Her legal expertise includes research, policy advice and capacity building on various human rights issues -mainly in Asia and the MENA region. This includes the protection of refugees and migrants,  interaction with the international human rights system, the establishment of national human rights institutions and mechanisms for the prevention of torture.

 

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Malaysia Welcomes Me!

Malaysia was as mysterious to me as Gaza is probably mysterious to many others.

I knew nothing about its history, geography, politics and people until I accepted an invitation to speak at the Freedom Film Festival. After a month in Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Borneo in East Malaysia, I have a new appreciation for the value of travel. FFF

“Naila and the Uprising” was the perfect opportunity for me to prick the public’s conscience about the plight of the Palestinians. Naila and the Uprising (here’s a list of future screenings in the U.S.) is a true story about the role of women, and one woman in particular, who leads her people under very difficult circumstances with strength and moral courage.

My host – Viva Palestina Malaysia – arranged an interview with Juliet Jacobs on BFM Radio’s Feminist Fridays. What a treat that was! Juliet had obviously done her homework before I entered her studio. Our conversation about Gaza, the Freedom Film Festival and my interests in social justice advocacy flew by quickly.  Here’s the link to the interview.

The power of filmmaking to spur social change must not be underestimated. I didn’t fully appreciate that fact until I heard Joakim Demmer, an internationally-acclaimed documentary filmmaker, speak about how to bring a local story to an international audience. His most recent film “Dead Donkeys Fear No Hyenas” is about the new green gold, the massive global commercial rush for farmland, in this case in Ethiopia. My conscience was pricked.

“Hoping for export revenues, the Ethiopian government leases millions of hectares of allegedly unused land to foreign investors. But the dream of prosperity has a dark side – the most massive forced evictions in modern history, lost livelihoods of small farmers, harsh repression and a vicious spiral of violence. Contributing to this disaster are the EU, the World Bank and DFID, providing billions of dollars in development money.”

During a break at the festival, someone pressed a copy of (the just published) Sarawak Report into my hands. I couldn’t put it down! Investigative reporter, Clare Brown, uncovered massive corruption with a trail leading all the way up to Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Najib Razak, who was ousted from office just a few months before I arrived. The corruption involves the deforestation of Sarawak, Borneo on the east side of Malaysia, and a global money-laundering scheme worth USD Billions, with the U.S. now seeking extradition of an ex-Goldman banker from Malaysia.

Penang Hill view 4

From Kuala Lumpur, I took the train north to Penang Island near the border of Thailand. The Gift of Rain (2007) and The Garden of Evening Mists (2012) by Tan Twan Eng had captured my imagination and I wanted to see for myself how this area had survived the Japanese invasion in WWII.

I learned about the delicate dance between the Chinese (about 60% of the population of Penang Island) and the Malays (32%). There’s a national law giving Malays preferential treatment over the Chinese in education, jobs, etc in an attempt to equalize the perceived inequities between the two groups.  I met some serious high school students at the public library quietly studying on a Saturday morning amidst displays promoting study abroad in the USA, including at my son’s alma mater, the University of Colorado at Boulder.

The construction cranes were perched everywhere on Penang Island, a testament to the rapid growth and development occurring there. I met with representatives from Think City, a “community-focused urban regeneration organisation working closely with the local authorities, communities, institutions, private entities, and global experts to rejuvenate cities and solve contemporary urban issues with an emphasis on historic city centres.” I walked, walked, walked everywhere in the old center city of Georgetown and felt the energy of this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In addition to the amazing hawker stalls selling an extravaganza of food with names I can’t begin to pronounce, I also tasted the infamous Durian, a native fruit with such a malodorous smell that hotels, airlines and public buses warn people not to bring the Durian inside!

On my last day in Georgetown, I was invited to attend a press conference where a local environmental group (Penang Forum) was challenging the environmental impact report prepared for the new highway proposed to cross the island. Astonishingly, no alternatives to this mega-project had been analyzed even though it appeared to have already received the stamp of approval from the authorities. I expressed my dismay and shared that an EIR with no alternatives wouldn’t pass muster in the United States. Of course, as the “expert,” my opinion made it into the local paper the next day.

During my last week, I decided to visit Bario, a community of 13 – 16 villages in the Kelabit Highlands in Sarawak East Malaysia. I was drawn to Sarawak because of the book by the same title, but I was also blessed to have an introduction to a family in Bario by my hostess in Kuala Lumpur.  Bario arrivalI was routinely asked throughout my travels about my age and whether I was traveling alone, which must have struck many as very strange. I told everyone that I had angels with me everywhere I went. Flying into the remote Borneo highlands in a small plane full of men required no courage at all.

Bario farmer woman in rice field

The Kelabit are an indigenous people in the Borneo highlands whose agricultural practices and rice paddies are very much the same as they were hundreds of years ago. Their families live together in longhouses built above ground on stilts to avoid the flooding.

I learned that most Kelabit are Evangelical Christians. On Sunday I attended a long church service and sat next to an old Kelabit woman who asked me to pray for her (through an interpreter) because her husband died recently. She also asked me to send her a copy of the selfie we took. I was captivated with the youth group’s singing. Lora and friend

The next day I walked down the road to the school and asked if I could visit a classroom.  As luck would have it, many of the teachers in this secondary school were away attending a conference and I was enthusiastically welcomed to teach three classes (in English of course) that morning.  The students come from the surrounding villages and live at the school except for the holidays when they return home to their families.

I learned about their dreams and aspirations and was surprised how much they knew about the U.S. — both politics and popular culture. Some were shy, others were inquisitive, and all of them were very polite. Bario school students 2

After school, I walked to the public library near the school to donate my copy of The Sarawak Report. I was disappointed to see only children’s books on the shelves and asked the librarian why there were no adult books. She said the adults aren’t interested in the library, and only the children are patrons who come regularly with their classmates. It still seemed appropriate that The Sarawak Report should end up in the Bario public library.

Leaving Bario, I flew over Sarawak and saw the devastating impact of deforestation and introduction of palm oil plantations. It seems to me that the Kelabit have so much to teach the world about sustainable farming and living gently on the land in this era of climate chaos, but outside forces are rapidly overwhelming the landscape and the people, I fear.

Sarawak aerial view 5

The people I met, even more than the landscape and places I saw, were the highlight of my travel to Malaysia. Alhamdulillah!

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Filed under Environment, Peaceful, People, Uncategorized