Bereaved Parents Wage Peace

Yesterday afternoon, I had the great privilege of being part of a group that hosted the Parents Circle Families Forum during which 3 Israeli and Palestinian bereaved parents gave a moving presentation about the personal losses of their children and how that motivated them to fight for a just and peaceful resolution of the longstanding conflict between their peoples. My role was as Chair of J Street Madison and President of Congregation Shaarei Shamayim, both of which served as co-sponsors along with other churches and peace groups.

The presentation started with a moving video, Taking Steps (click here to watch). Then Israeli Rami Elhanan described his own background: his grandparents died in the Holocaust, his father escaped the Holocaust and immigrated to Israel and Rami fought in the Yom Kippur war.

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Then, one day, in 1997, everything changed. His 14 year old daughter, Smadar, was murdered by a Palestinian suicide bomber in Jerusalem. While he could have succumbed to anger and hatred, he made a very different and profound decision to use the power of his pain to bring light and hope to others seeking peace in his troubled nation. Rami stated quite eloquently that despite his personal tragedy and the tragedy of so many other families who have been scarred by losing an innocent child to senseless violence, he insists that,

We are not doomed.

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Israeli father Rami Elhanan speaking with Najwa and George Sa’adeh in the background

Rami used the separation wall between Israel and the Palestinian territory in the occupied West Bank as a metaphor as he believes that the Parents Circle helps to create cracks in the wall and through those cracks, each side can see each other and begin to break down the wall and create peace. As he put it, “our blood is the same color, our tears are made of the same salt water.” As Rami introduced the next speaker, Palestinian George Sa’adeh, he called him his brother.

George’s great-grandfather was the Mayor of Bethlehem in 1860 and his family has resided in Bethlehem for many generations. His dream was to work in the aerospace industry, but since Israeli security will not allow Palestinians to work in that field, George studied aerospace engineering at UCLA. However, when he returned to Bethlehem, he was only permitted to work as a mechanical engineer.

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Palestinian father George Sa’adeh

One tragic day in 2003, his family was driving in Bethlehem. George noticed the streets were empty, except for Israeli army jeeps, though he did not know why. All of a sudden, Israeli soldiers opened fire, shooting approximately 300 bullets into his vehicle, striking George, his wife Najwa and both of his daughters. His 14 year old daughter Christine was killed in the gunfire. George, Najwa and their other daughter survived after surgery and hospitalization.

Approximately 50,000 people attended Christine’s funeral, the biggest ever in Bethlehem, but like Rami, after all those giving condolences were gone, George had to decide what to do with his grief. Like Rami, he chose the path of peace. He believes the region needs strong leaders who will work for peace, justice and human rights, instead of waging war against each other with hundreds of innocent victims. Profoundly, George stated that he and his wife forgive the soldiers who shot them and killed their daughter, as they have no hatred, because, “hatred will kill us.

The Parents Circle is a unique group as it is probably the only membership group that wants no more members. Rather, they have decided that,

from our pain, we make peace.

Finally, Najwa Sa’adeh spoke of her love for her daughter, Christine, who spoke of her  impending death during the year before she died, which puzzled her parents as she was a happy child who only wanted to help others. In fact, she told her parents that when she died, she believed she would be famous. So, now Najwa and George share her story so others can, “feel with us.”

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Najwa Sa’adeh

In addition to sharing their stories and demonstrating that despite the greatest loss, they can work side by side for peace, the Parents Circle does a lot to bring Israelis and Palestinians together, from summer camps to professional interest groups. They had received funding from the USAID and the European Union, but that dried up after the most recent so-called knife intifada. In fact, President Obama mentioned the Parents Circle in his speech to the Egyptian people in Cairo, as the only group that gave hope for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

When they took questions, someone asked about whether they support a particular territorial solution. Rami made it quite clear that the number of states is irrelevant. As he said, “nothing is sacred about a state. The key is respect.”

Rami closed with the following profound and moving statements:

We must work together, not alone.

We are  working for the security of our children.

You cannot clap with one hand (an Arabic saying).

You cannot make peace with yourself

We demand that you work for peace and justice.

It is people like these who will overcome power hungry leaders and bring peace to their peoples. After their talk, I let Rami, George & Najwa know that my son was returning to Israel that day to begin his sophomore year at the Technion (Israel’s Institute of Technology), and that he does what he can to meet those working for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. All 3 of them let me know that my son is welcome in their homes and when we visit him next year, we are also welcome. I look forward to visiting them in Bethlehem and Jerusalem and continuing to help them break down barriers and work for peace and justice.

If you want to contribute to their work, you can go to this link.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

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Change Agents

Given that my business is Systems Change Consulting, it caught my attention when Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis) asserted that both he and Donald Trump were change agents during his recent debate with former Sen. Russ Feingold who is seeking his former seat back from Johnson. His claim reminded me of the time when someone from the Tea Party contacted me with an offer to improve my website. Needless to say, I did not accept his offer, but his offer gave me pause. What I realized then, and Johnson’s debate claim confirmed, is that those who desire systems change come from both sides of the political spectrum.

The mere fact that someone works to change the system does not mean that they want to make the system in question work better for the vast majority of people. Nor, does the fact that someone is a change agent equate to accomplishing change that will improve the lives of those who are most challenged by the status quo.

My firm, Systems Change Consulting, works on solving problems for those in greatest need so I focus

on making progressive systems change in the areas of civil rights, disability rights, general and special education, and combating abuse and neglect of vulnerable populations.

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In Sen. Johnson’s case, apparently he believes that being a change agent includes:

  • causing dysfunction in the U.S. Supreme Court by failing to hold hearings and vote on President Obama’s nomination for the now 7 month old vacancy on the court;
  • prohibiting all federal funding for abortion services;
  • insisting on a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution regardless of the economic consequences to our nation;
  • supporting prayer in our public schools;
  • refusing to believe the clear scientific evidence that humans contribute to global warming and voted to oppose the EPA from regulating greenhouse gasses;
  • voting against protecting ocean and Great Lakes ecosystems;
  • voting against banning high capacity (10 or more bullets) gun magazines;
  • claiming that the Affordable Care Act is the single greatest assault on American freedom;
  • opposing granting amnesty for any undocumented immigrants; and
  • claiming that Social Security is a giant ponzi scheme.

Indeed, if Sen. Johnson prevailed in every instance, he could properly be called a change agent. However, it would not be the type of change which would help most people or the people who need the most help.

My view of systems change is quite different. While many public and private systems could use a healthy dose of change, that change should be focused on providing the greatest good for those in greatest need. This includes:

  • improving public education for children with disabilities and other populations groups experiencing significant disparities in achievement;
  • providing food, shelter and affordable housing for those without these basic life needs;
  • protecting the civil rights of people with disabilities, people of color, women and other disenfranchised populations so that they can enjoy equal access to housing, employment, and all that life has to offer;
  • removing those who abuse vulnerable people in schools, healthcare settings and in the criminal justice system and compensating those who suffer from such abuse; and
  • making sure that high quality healthcare is available to everyone.

Of course, the list goes on as there are an infinite number of ways in which systems, large and small, public and private, can be changed to improve the lives of those with the greatest need. People like Sen. Johnson and Donald Trump, who work to change the system to the advantage of a small minority of wealthy people who are already enjoying the advantages of their wealth, are not the types of change agents who will benefit our nation.

Political Blunder-Judicial Crisis

While the U.S. Presidential race gets most of the media attention, one of the biggest political blunders of 2016, and perhaps one of the most historic mistakes ever made by the U.S. Senate appears to have fallen off the radar. Earlier this week U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) returned to her hometown to give a talk to the American Constitution Society’s kick-off event for its new Madison Chapter, in which she presented her concerns about the Senate Republican majority’s decision to refuse to fulfill its Constitutional duty to give advice and consent on President Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to fill the now 7 month old vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced before President Obama nominated Judge Garland that the Senate would neither hold hearings nor vote on any nomination made by the President to fill the vacant seat. His excuse was premised on the argument that the next President should choose the next Supreme Court Justice. Beyond the abdication of the Senate’s Constitutional duty under Article II to provide advice and consent to judicial nominations, McConnell’s blunder was apparently based on the likely mistaken assumption that a Republican would win the Presidential election and the Senate majority would remain with the Republicans. However, it was McConnell’s very blunder that exacerbated the likelihood that neither plan would come to fruition and that the next Supreme Court Justice will likely be nominated by Hillary Clinton and confirmed by a Democratic Senate majority. If that scenario comes true, while the Republicans could have declared a small victory with President Obama’s nomination of the very moderate Judge Garland, Hillary Clinton will be free to nominate a far more progressive Supreme Court justice instead.

It is important to note that McConnell’s political blunder would never have been sanctioned by our founding fathers. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in The Federalist Papers No. 76, by vesting the appointment power in the President, rather than Congress, the founders sought to avoid having appointments determined by,

the private and party likings and dislikes, partialities and antipathies, attachments and animosities, which are felt by those who compose the assembly.

He went on to say that in assigning the Senate the more limited role of advice and consent to presidential nominations, the founders believed that it was,

not likely that [the Senate’s] sanction would often be refused, where there were not special and strong reasons for the refusal. [Those] special and strong reasons [included] the appointment of unfit characters from State prejudice, from family connection, from personal attachment or from a view to popularity.

Of course, none of these reasons apply to the highly respected Judge Garland, and it is worth noting that Sen. McConnell made clear that it did not matter whom President Obama nominated. The Republican obstruction would be total and complete regardless of the merits of the nomination.

Sen. Baldwin pointed out that the Republican obstruction of President Obama’s judicial appointments goes much further than one crucial nomination to the Supreme Court. Close to home, she pointed out that President Obama’s nomination of Don Schott to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has also been obstructed despite being vacant since January 2010. As of now, 77 of 673 U.S. District Court judgeships (11%) are vacant, twice as many as under President George W. Bush at this point in his presidency and 50% more than under President Clinton and President George H.W. Bush at the same point in their presidencies.

As this chart points out, the  Senate Republican obstruction of President Obama’s appointments is extreme and unprecedented.

Number of Judicial Confirmations During Final 2 Years in Office

  • President Ronald Reagan: 85
  • President George H.W. Bush: 122
  • President Bill Clinton: 73
  • President George W. Bush: 68
  • President Brach Obama: 20

In Chief Justice Roberts 2010 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary, he made clear that,

a persistent problem has developed in the process of filling judicial vacancies…This has created acute difficulties for some judicial districts. Sitting judges in those districts have been burdened with extraordinary caseloads….[There is] an urgent need for the political branches to find a long-term solution to this recurring problem.

A tie vote on the Supreme Court means the lower court decision is upheld and is a monumental waste of time and money for the parties attorneys and Supreme Court justices. Important issues such as public unions and immigration have been stalled due to tie votes due the Senate Republican refusal to fill the empty seat and more ties may occur in the current October session of the Supreme Court.

History will be the ultimate judge, but thus far, it appears that Senator McConnell and his Republican Senate colleagues may have made one of the biggest political blunders in history, and in the mean time denied justice to thousands of Americans waiting for their day in court.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

My Rabbi’s Granola Bars

Earlier this week, Jews all around the world celebrated Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which begins the 10 day period known as the Days of Awe or Days of Repentance. During this period, Jews consider how they can improve their lives and the lives of those around them in the year to come.

As the High Holy Days are typically the time when Jews attend synagogue in higher numbers than at any other time of the year, rabbis often take extra time and effort to send inspirational guidance to their congregations through their sermons. At my synagogue, Shaarei Shamayim (Gates of Heaven), which my wife and I helped to start nearly 30 years ago, and where I currently serve as President, Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman gave a very personal and compelling sermon on Rosh Hashanah that struck a chord with many.

Rabbi Laurie described a very personal moment that virtually everyone in Madison experiences. Over the past few months, many people who are homeless have taken to seeking donations by holding cardboard signs at concrete median strips at major intersections that say things like, “Homeless: Any Assistance Appreciated.”

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Madison’s Mayor, Paul Soglin, who has repeatedly attempted to criminalize and demonize those who are homeless, has sought to make such solicitation, or even standing on those medians, illegal. Thus far, his efforts to criminalize this type of panhandling have been rebuffed by Madison’s City Council. Sadly, rather than trying to provide needed services and housing to Madison’s homeless, Mayor Soglin continues to try to criminalize harmless behavior such as sleeping outdoors and keeping their possessions outdoors, even while Madison fails to have a much needed homeless day resource center to store their possessions and provide employment, health care, and housing services.

Many of us are unsure what to do when confronted with a homeless panhandler. We may not want to confront the problem. We may worry that any contribution will be spent on alcohol or illicit drugs. We may be concerned that the panhandlers are not truly homeless and are just operating a scam.

Rabbi Laurie pointed out that Jewish teaching about tzedakah (charity) admonishes that it is better to help one impoverished beggar even if 99 out of 100 are not truly needy, than to fail to help any of those in need, rather than allow that single hungry person to starve. She described the Jewish attitude towards poverty as rooted in two key biblical concepts:

  • b’tzelem elohim which means that humans are made in the image of god and therefore all humans must be treated as we would treat god; and
  • achicha which means your brother and Jewish teaching admonishes us to treat everyone as if he was your brother (or sister).

As I have written before, when I have the time and opportunity, I will ask panhandlers if I can buy them a meal, and I have been able to do this a number of times. But, that is generally impossible in a moving traffic situation.

Rabbi Laurie realized that she simply did not want to explain the possible moral complexities of which homeless people may or may not deserve charity to her two young daughters who are often in the car with her while driving around Madison. So, she made a simple, helpful, and incredibly powerful decision. She now carries a box of granola bars in her car and offers them to anyone who is seeking assistance. While she acknowledges that her granola bars alone will not solve Madison’s growing homelessness problem, they will provide a little nutrition to those who receive them from her. Perhaps equally important, they will make each of them feel more human through Rabbi Laurie’s acknowledgement of their need.

As I was contemplating writing this post, it just so happened that as I was driving home from a meeting, my car was stopped at a light where someone who was homeless had a cardboard sign saying, “Homeless: any assistance appreciated.” Mindful of Rabbi’s Laurie’s sermon, I reached into my briefcase, pulled out a granola bar and offered it to the gentlemen, who gratefully accepted it.

On my next trip to the grocery store, I will buy extra granola bars and keep a stash in my car so I can continue doing my small part to help my brothers and sisters who are made in the image of god be a little less hungry and a little more dignified.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.