Thursday, July 07, 2016

Speaking at a Rally for Palestine

On July 2, I spoke at a rally for Palestine. This time, I was speaking strictly for myself, and not on behalf of any organization. Although it was organized to recognize the controversial Al Quds Day (an observance for Palestine originally started in Iran), I was very impressed that most of the speakers were saying that this was a day to recognize all of the oppressed and occupied peoples of the world, including our own First Nations. While I was specifically asked to speak about BDS and the situation involving access to water in the West Bank, I also acknowledged that I disagree with violence on either side of the conflict in Israel/Palestine. It was a peaceful and respectful gathering, and while I was at first conflicted about speaking there, I was glad afterwards that I did. Below is my speech and a video from the event.
My name is Paula and I am not speaking on behalf of any organization: I am simply speaking as a Jewish citizen who believes that the occupation of Palestine must end. Judaism and Zionism are not the same thing. Despite the efforts of organizations like B'nai B'rith and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs that claim to speak on behalf of the entire Jewish community, there is growing concern among Jewish people in Canada and beyond about the actions of the Israeli government and its human rights atrocities aimed at the Palestinians. I say: not in my name!

An end to the occupation is needed for a just and sustainable peace in the Middle East. The occupation, besides being illegal and immoral, does not allow either the Palestinians or the Israelis to live in peace and risks continued escalations of violence against both peoples – not to mention the horrific human rights abuses that the Palestinian people must face every day.

Boycotts, Divestments, and Sanctions, better known as BDS, is one tactic to protest the occupation. BDS targets companies and products produced in Israel, particularly in the Occupied Territories. The BDS movement has come under fire this year by the Canadian government, which passed a motion in Parliament to condemn those who support BDS and reject it. As a peace activist, I fear that such a motion is a slippery slope to delegitimize people and organizations for their political beliefs. BDS is a peaceful, non-violent means of protest – it is, in fact, simply a conscious act of refraining from something - that takes both a political and moral stand. For the government to condemn people for their beliefs is overstepping boundaries in a way that has no place in a democratic society.

As a Jewish person, my spiritual practise includes tikkun 'olam, which means healing or repairing the world. Our faith and history teach us that we must stand up in the face of injustice. When it comes to the plight of the Palestinian people, the word “injustice” barely begins to cover it. The latest outrage concerns allegations that the main supply of water to Palestinian towns and cities such as Jenin, several Nablus villages, and surrounding areas was manipulated during the holy month of Ramadan. The executive director of a Palestinian NGO focused on water and sanitation issues reported to Al Jazeera that some areas had not received water for more than 40 days, with families having to live on two, three, or 10 litres per capita per day.

Water is a basic human right. According to the UN, 7.5 litres per person, per day is the minimum requirement for most people, but areas of Palestine reach more than 35 degrees Celcius in temperature, so much more is needed. As also reported on Al Jazeera, Israelis, including settlers, consume five times more water than Palestinians in the West Bank: 350 litres per person per day in Israel compared with 60 litres per day in the West Bank. According to Amnesty International, almost 200,00 Palestinians in the West Bank do not have access to running water, and require permission before collecting it themselves.

Getting back to my stance as a Jewish person of conscience, I have been accused of being a “self-hating Jew” and someone even once asked me why I hate Israel. For the record, I don't hate Israel – I have never said that in any discourse, publicly or otherwise. For the record, any senseless deaths of anyone saddens me, and I don't believe that acts of violence accomplish anything except beget more violence. Ending the occupation will save lives, both Israeli and Palestinian, and is the only path leading to a just and lasting peace.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Weeping for the Land: Jewish Spiritual Solutions to Healing the Environment

I was privileged to be asked to speak at the Edmonton Interfaith Centre for Education and Action's one-day symposium "Weeping for the Land: Spiritual Perspectives on and Strategies for Healing an Ailing Planet" on May 12. My topic was Judaism and spiritual solutions to healing the planet. Below is the text of my talk, and the video from it.

Environmental Justice is a Jewish value.

First of all, I want to clarify that I am speaking as an individual. I am not a rabbi and I am certainly not a scientist. I am an activist, and much of what I will present is from that perspective.

Jewish tradition teaches that God created the world, and as such as ownership of the land, and it is our job, as stewards of the land, to protect and preserve it. This is a value that is common to other faiths, particularly Abrahamic ones, but there are some specific Jewish teachings that deal with Judaism and the environment. I am going to examine just a few of these that are based in the Torah and Talmud.

Much of what I am going to discuss comes from and is written by Rabbi Lawrence Troster ("Ten Jewish Teachings on Judaism and the Environment"). What follows are either his words or my paraphrases of them:

The Torah has numerous laws, which attempt to redress the power and economic imbalances in human society and Creation. Examples are the Sabbatical year (Exodus 23:11, Leviticus 25:2-5, Deuteronomy 15:1-4) and the Jubilee (Leviticus 25:8-24). There is a whole program in the Torah for creating a balanced distribution of resources across society (Exodus 22:24-26, Leviticus 25:36-37, Deuteronomy 23:20-1, 24:6,10-13,17). This is an expression of the concept of Tzedek, which means righteousness, justice and equity. It is the value, which tries to correct the imbalances, which humans create in society and in the natural world. In the modern world globalization has strived to achieve the free movement of people, information, money, goods and services but it can also create major disruptions in local cultures and environments. While globalization has created great wealth for millions of people, many millions more have been bypassed by its benefits and it has had in some cases a negative impact upon the environment and human rights. The Jewish concept of Tzedek demands that we create a worldwide economy that is sustainable and that is equitable in the distribution of wealth and resources.

Torah: Prohibition of wasteful consumption
Deut. 20_19-20 “When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city? Only trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed; you may cut them down for constructing siege works against the city that is waging war on you, until it has been reduced.” This law was expanded into a mitzvah (commandment) of Bal Taschlit – Do Not Destroy, and includes the wanton destruction of household goods, clothes, buildings, springs, food, or wasteful consumption of anything.

“Modesty in consumption is a value that Jews have held for centuries. For example one is not supposed to be excessive in eating and drinking or in the kind of clothes that one wears (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Discernment,chapter 5). Jews are obligated to consider carefully our real needs whenever we purchase anything. We are obligated when we have a simchah (a celebration like a wedding or Bar Mitzvah) to consider whether we need to have elaborate meals and wasteful decorations. We are obligated to consider our energy use and the sources from which it comes.”

Torah: Prohibition of the Extinction of Species and Causing undue pain to non-human creatures
This is an underlying reason for certain laws pertaining to Kashruth – kosher – food, in terms of the procedure by which to kill an animal in a way that causes as little pain as possible (supposedly, although some Jewish people, like in the general population, have taken this one step further by becoming vegetarian).

“If along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother with her young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life.” (Deuteronomy 22:6-7)

Ramban (Moses ben Nachman, Nachmanides, 1194-1270) in his commentary to the Torah wrote: “This also is an explanatory commandment of the prohibition you shall not kill it [the mother] and its young both in one day (Leviticus 22:28). The reason for both [commandments] is that we should not have a cruel heart and not be compassionate, or it may be that Scripture does not permit us to destroy a species altogether, although it permits slaughter [for food] within that group. Now the person who kills the mother and the young in one day or takes them when they are free to fly, [it is regarded] as though they have destroyed that species.”

The spiritual solution for environmental issues is, like other issues of social justice:

Tikkun Olam: The perfection/fixing of the world is in our hands.

There is a midrash (Rabbinic commentary on the Bible) which Jewish environmentalists are fond of quoting:

“When God created the first human beings, God led them around the Garden of Eden and said: “Look at my works! See how beautiful they are—how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.” (Midrash Kohelet Rabbah, 1 on Ecclesiastes 7:13) In the Jewish liturgy there is a prayer called Aleinu in which we ask that the world be soon perfected under the sovereignty of God (le-takein ‘olam be-malkhut Shaddai). Tikkun olam, the perfecting or the repairing of the world, has become a major theme in modern Jewish social justice theology. It is usually expressed as an activity, which must be done by humans in partnership with God. It is an important concept in light of the task ahead in environmentalism. In our ignorance and our greed, we have damaged the world and silenced many of the voices of the choir of Creation. Now we must fix it. There is no one else to repair it but us.

My addition: Tikkun Olam is a way that many contemporary Jews express their faith, even if they are not religious or observant in the traditional sense. It is a call to action in a practical sense, with a spiritual undercurrent. But in what I just read from Rabbi Troster, I think this is a collective “us” - all of us, in our different traditions have a responsibility to protect Creation.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

World Interfaith Harmony Week 2016

World Interfaith Harmony Week is marked in Edmonton during the first week of February. It was as first proposed at the UN General Assembly on September 23, 2010 by H.M. King Abdullah II of Jordan. This year, the Edmonton Interfaith Centre for Education and Action organized its event on February 5 in City Hall. The theme this year is “Love of God, or love of the good, and love of the neighbour." I, along with EICEA Coordinator Netta Phillet, spoke on the topic from a Jewish perspective. What I said is below, and draws heavily from my talk in September at the Festival of Faiths. At the very bottom is a video of the two of us, so you can get a chance to hear what Netta had to say.


In Judaism, when it comes to how to relate to those who have no faith, our scriptures are relatively silent on the matter. There are verses in the Old Testament that can be interpreted on how we should treat others in general, starting with the story of Adam and Eve, which shows that we are all connected, we all come from the same beginnings, and as thus are all equal. There are also passages in Isaiah and Proverbs that deal with how we treat people. However, these are not specifically Jewish, as other religions follow the Old Testament as well.

One of my favourite, and best known, comments on how we treat each other that has a Jewish basis is from the Talmud (oral law which was later codified in writing). It's the story of Rabbi Hillel - a rabbi who lived around the same time as Jesus. The story goes that a non-Jew came to Rabbi Hillel and said he would convert to Judaism if the rabbi could teach the man the entire Torah in the same time he could stand on one foot. Rabbi Hillel's response: "What is hateful, do not do to your fellow man. That is the whole of the Torah; the rest is commentary." (Talmud Shabbat 31a)

Jewish identity can be multi-faceted, especially in our contemporary world. There are many Jewish people who would not label themselves as religious, but follow some of our customs and traditions out of cultural, rather than religious observance, for example the dietary laws of not eating pork or shellfish, or joining together with family to celebrate the Passover seder. You can even be an atheist and still identify as Jewish in a cultural sense, or as an ethnic identity. My own Jewish spiritual practise leans heavily on the observance of tikkun olam, which means "healing" or "repairing the world". In this way, "loving the good" or "loving the neighbour" is all part and parcel with social justice and striving for a world of peace and understanding between all people.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Combatting Hate at the Festival of Faiths

On Saturday, September 19, I was part of a panel on the topic of "Combatting Hate" at the first annual Festival of Faiths. Organized by youth affiliated with the John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights, the Festival of Faiths is intended to teach others about different faiths by people who practice them through information tables, panel discussions, and performances.

The Combatting Hate panel consisted of myself speaking as a Jewish person, as well as representatives from the local Muslim and United Church of Canada communities. It was moderated by a Unitarian Universalist minister.We discussed hate crimes in Edmonton and what everyone can do to help prevent such things from happening: ways to build interfaith understanding in our diverse society.

I was not sure what format the panel would take prior to the event, so I prepared some notes in the event that I had to give some sort of introductory talk. As it turned out, the panel was a discussion led by questions from the moderator, then the audience. I did, however, refer to my notes at several times when responding to questions. Here are my notes - I was clear in making it known I was speaking as a lay person. The event was hard-pressed to find a rabbi because the event was held on the Jewish Sabbath (steps are being taken to prevent this from happening next year).

1. There are no specific Jewish teachings on hatred and racism I am aware of.
2. We can look at the Old Testament, starting with the story of Adam and Eve, which shows that we are all connected, we all come from the same beginnings, and as thus are all equal.
3. There are passages in Isaiah and Proverbs that deal with how we treat people, but again, these are not specifically Jewish (other religions follow the Old Testament also).
4. However, one of my favourite, and best known, comments on how we treat each other is actually from the Talmud (oral law which was later codified in writing). The story of Rabbi Hillel - a rabbi who lived around the same time as Jesus. The story goes that a non-Jew came to Rabbi Hillel and said he would convert to Judaism if the rabbi could teach the man the entire Torah in the same time he could stand on one foot. Rabbi Hillel's response: "What is hateful, do not do to your fellow man. That is the whole of the Torah; the rest is commentary." (Talmud Shabbat 31a)
5. So, as a Jewish person, I find a solution, or preventative measure, against hatred is for us to dialogue and learn from each other about what our faiths and cultures really mean, to recognize the true teachings from ones that only serve the purposes of political leaders or others who seek power or operate on greed and envy, who use faith to try to reach those aims.
6. As a Jewish person, I feel we each need to lead by example, and to learn from our history. We are as prone as anyone to being perpetrators of hatred and prejudice. My mother told me stories of teachers at her Yeshiva (Jewish day school) expressing anti-Arab sentiments. There are Jewish jokes about the stupidity of non-Jews, for example.
7. There is a misinterpretation as to the meaning of Jewish people being the "Chosen People." It has been used against us, and by us to be against others. It doesn't mean we are special or better - it means we were chosen to receive the Torah. So, we need to also have a good understanding of our own faith and culture.

Here is a video from the discussion - the battery in my camera died before the Q&A started:

Here is a sound file of the entire panel discussion, including the Q&A:

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Article on Women and Activism

At the end of March, an article I wrote about the challenges of being a woman involved in activism was published by FLURT, a website for and by young women. Confessions of a Female Activist was part autobiographical and part inspired by my female comrades in the struggle.