first published in Mondoweiss January 24, 2018
I am fully aware that religion has the capacity to inspire wisdom, kindness, and a sense of belonging and order to chaotic and confusing lives that are often filled with more suffering than joy. At the same time I must confess that I gave up on god decades ago despite my Orthodox Babbe and Zadie and years of Conservative Hebrew School and enlightened parents who found a Havurah that filled their intellectual and spiritual needs. And I gave up on the religion of Judaism the more I studied history and traveled to Palestine and grew to understand how organized religions (of all types) have repeatedly been tribalized and weaponized to inflict pain, control, and devastation.
But I never gave up on being a Jewish person, that is after all the lens that has shaped my history and I struggle with the question of living an ethical life without the trappings and user manual of organized religion. Thus it is not surprising that this week I found myself at a Seattle Reconstructionist Jewish community called Kadima celebrating Tikkum Olam – Repairing the World, which is a very Jewish thing to do.
To put this in context, Kadima is the community that worked with IfNotNow, Jewish Voice for Peace, and Jews Undoing Institutional Racism to oppose the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle awarding the Seattle Police Department the 2017 Tikkun Olam Award for Public Service. At that same time the Police Department was under a US Justice Department order and federal court supervision because of a history of excessive use of force and mistreatment, especially towards people of color. In fact, the previous week officers had killed Charleena Lyles, a deeply troubled, pregnant African-American woman who had called 911 to report a burglary. Not your typical synagogue.
As the evening unfolded, the guacamole and fajitas (chicken, beef, vege and vegan) were authentic Mexican, a celebration of our immigrant communities, (we are/were mostly all once them) and not your typical kosher over-cooked salmon. Again, not your typical…
The keynote speaker, Kirsten Harris-Talley, an inspirational community educator, focused on issues that empower communities of color, women, and youth. She is active in movements like #BlocktheBunker and #NoNewYouthJail. She emphasized the important questions: How Do We Survive the Era of Trump and How Do We Explain to Our Children What He Is Doing and How We are Going to Stop Him. She talked of the stages of grief on which we are all tossing, like rowers on a very stormy sea, and the importance of Resistance, Resilience, and Reliance as a community response.
The Tikkun Olam award was given to the Northwest Detention Center Resistance/Resistencia al NWDC, a grassroots, undocumented-led movement that works to end the detention of immigrants and all deportations, with their focus on the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. Tacoma, where one of the largest immigration prisons in the country is located with a capacity of 1575. Up to 200 people primarily women, many seeking asylum, are transferred there from the US-Mexican border each month.
We are not talking some far off CIA black hole.
So here are some of the conditions reported at the Detention Center:
• Few legal protections, civil detainees are not entitled to an attorney at government expense
• Center operated by GEO group, the second largest private prison company in the US, of note GEO Group ran the Migrant Operations Center at Guantanamo Bay from 2006 to 2012
• Abusive treatment by guards
• Immigrants paid $1/day to maintain the facility
• Inadequate food in quantity and nutrition
• Inadequate access to quality medical care
• Prohibitive costs in commissary and for telephone calls
• Lack of soap and clothing
• Retaliatory solitary confinement
• Hunger strikes
• Threats of force feeding (internationally defined as torture)
• Some immigrants have lived in the US for decades, deportation can happen after weeks to years
The speaker (I do not have permission to use her name) spoke of shackled inmates. She called the place a concentration camp. She appealed to us as Jews who know the history of Hitler and the Nazi extermination camps to become abolitionists to this modern day slavery. She used the word fascism to describe the US government, ICE, and the military/industrial/prison complex.
I am struck by the parallels in the prisons of Israel where Palestinians face inhumane conditions, administrative detentions for months to years, children suffer in solitary confinement, there are hunger strikes, threats of force feeding. The heavily militarized occupying force is now training our police forces. The prison systems and rampant dehumanization are international.
In an alternative Trumpian universe, this week, shortly after creating (within the Department of Health and Human Services) the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division, President T declared January 22 “National Sanctity of Human Life Day.”
Resistance, Resilience, Reliance, I think.
So how do we in this universe, honor the sanctity of human life? For starters we would fight the dehumanization of immigrants (documented and undocumented) who have been finding their way here, fleeing poverty, torture, gangs. They are building multicultural, vibrant communities who are strong because their families are strong and stronger when supported by those of us who got here a generation or two earlier. We would oppose the imprisonment of people who are productive members of society, who are raising families and going to church and picking lettuce and working in factories and organizing their communities and attending universities, and making mistakes and picking themselves up, and daring to dream.
The sanctity of human life. Let’s redefine that language. Support free and accessible contraception and abortion services so that women (who do have human lives) control their own bodies and every pregnancy is a planned and wanted baby. And if we want to make America strong, then guarantee and fund paid parental leave so that parents (who do have human lives) can take the best care of their blessed children (who are quite human in their extra-uterine existence).
And remembering that life exists beyond conception, how about free and accessible childcare and preschools so that parents (humans) can work to support their children (humans) and children can have the most safe, loving, and educational experiences during the critical time of early childhood.
Of course a strong democracy is grounded in an educated populace: High quality public education that includes paying teachers’ (who do have human lives) salaries that compete with other skilled highly trained professionals so that they can fulfill their promise as educators and their students can fulfill their promise as human beings and the future of our country.
And if we are really going for the big picture: End the practice of older mostly white men (who presumably have consciences and may profess to religious affiliations) sending young men, women, and trans people to fight bloody wars against the youth of other countries, which is the greatest challenge to the sanctity of human life we face today.
If you are a religious person, then we are all created in the image of God. If you are a free thinker, then every person is a treasure that needs to be revered and nurtured. That is what respecting the sanctity of human life could mean. And so much more…