Category Archives: Jewish Justice

Chanukah 5775: Rededicating Ourselves to Helping Others, By Congressman Eliot Engel

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Chanukah 5775: Rededicating Ourselves to Helping Others
By Congressman Eliot Engel

Chanukah is one of the Jewish people’s most beloved holidays. We light the menorah, sing songs and eat delicious food. It’s a celebration of life and Jewish survival. And, like most holidays that commemorate a struggle against oppression, it is also a time of collective and personal reflection. When I reflect on the story of Chanukah there are two intertwined themes that mean the most to me: shining light in dark places and dedication.

Referred to as the “festival of lights,” Chanukah recounts the tale of the Maccabees freeing themselves from Greek oppression and the miracle that followed the liberation of the desecrated Holy Temple. The Temple was host to an eternal flame, but following its desecration, only enough oil remained to produce light for one day. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days and nights. Of the many things that this has come to symbolize, one is that the miracle of light banished the darkness that had befallen the Temple, the Maccabees and the Jewish people.

The word Chanukah translates to “dedication,” which is commonly connected to the rededication of the desecrated Temple. But one could also interpret the holiday’s name as referring to the Jews being a people dedicated to freedom and the struggle against injustice.

Chanukah should serve as a reminder that we, as a people, must be dedicated to shining light in places where there is none and helping people overcome the obstacles in front of them. As a Jew and as Ranking Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the U.S. House of Representatives, I have been dedicated to, among other things, the pursuit of better global health. I believe that we are all responsible for shining light on public health issues, especially in the developing world.

The current Ebola outbreak is a clear reminder of the significant danger of health-related emergencies and the need to re-prioritize good public health and health care access. To date, this outbreak has cost almost 5,500 people their lives, and that number is expected to dramatically increase before this epidemic is fully contained. Beyond the loss of life, we see ripple effects spreading across the affected areas. The World Bank Group released a report on October 7th that found the annual GDP growth in Guinea may contract from 4.5 to 2.4 percent, in Liberia from 5.9 percent to 2.5 percent, and in Sierra Leone from 11.3 percent to 8 percent—as a direct result of the Ebola epidemic. Even with work underway to rapidly scale up efforts to contain the disease, the total loss in GDP for the West Africa sub-region could be as high as $2.2 billion in 2014 and $1.6 billion in 2015 under the best case scenario, which is far from assured. Ebola isn’t just killing the people it infects; it’s creating an unexpected global financial burden that will hurt all of us.

Sub-Saharan Africa is home to 24.7 million people living with HIV, which represents more than two thirds of all people who are infected. In 2013, there were an estimated 1.5 million new infections in the region, and an estimated 1.1 million adults and children died of AIDS. These are more than startling statistics; they are mothers and fathers, daughters and sons. And prior to U.S. intervention, HIV/AIDS threatened to eliminate an entire generation in Africa. Like Ebola, HIV/AIDS has threatened to destroy economies and destabilize nations.

No one has done more than the United States to battle these problems. The U.S. has already contributed more than $600 million to the Ebola response efforts. Furthermore, President Obama has requested $6.18 billion in supplemental funding from Congress to fight the disease. We’ve put medical professionals on the ground, working around the clock to contain and halt the spread of the outbreak. On the HIV/AIDS front, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) program remains the largest commitment by any nation to combat a single disease internationally. Over 6.7 million people are receiving life-sustaining antiretroviral treatment; more than 12.8 million pregnant women received HIV testing and counseling last year; and as a result of treatment, the one-millionth baby was born HIV-free last year. PEPFAR has also provided care and support to nearly 17 million people. But, these developments should not belie the fact that it is not enough. Not even close.

We also need to remember that governments alone can’t solve these problems. The international community includes NGOs, multilateral organizations, faith communities, the private sector and concerned and dedicated individuals.

American Jewish World Service is a shining example of how regular people can make an enormous difference. The organization has already raised more than one million dollars for the Ebola response. It is working with its partners on the ground in Africa to distribute essential sanitation materials and to inform areas with high illiteracy rates of the most recent developments. It has also been working on HIV/AIDS education programs in Africa for years. Their efforts have proven to be invaluable and their leadership courageous.

Jewish identity is closely associated with assisting the sick and the poor. It is not only a good deed but a duty, a mitzvah. On this Chanukah, re-dedicate yourself to helping those less fortunate. Get active, get informed, and be there for those who need our help. During the holiday, as the Chanukah menorah shines light on darkness, think of how you can become involved with organizations that understand our responsibilities to shine light on issues that need more attention. The health of our world depends on it.

 

EliotEngelCongressman Engel is the Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a senior member of the Energy and Commerce Committee. Rep. Engel has been a leader in global health, promoting an improved reauthorization of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Assistance (PEPFAR). Within the PEPFAR bill Rep. Engel successfully included his bill, the Stop Tuberculosis Now Act. This measure provides increased U.S. support for international TB control activities and promotes research to develop new drugs, diagnostics and vaccines. Congressman Engel is also the author of the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003, and has written important laws relating to Albania and Kosova, Cyprus, and Irish affairs, among others. He is the co-author of the Harkin-Engel Protocol, which addresses the child slave labor in the cocoa fields of Africa, and is the leader in the House of Representatives on U.S. policy toward Latin American and the Caribbean. A lifelong resident of the Bronx, Congressman Engel is married to Pat Engel. They have three children.

 

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Remembering Leonard “Leibel” Fein: An AJWS Fellow Traveler on the Path to Justice

Jewish leaders, rabbis and educators reflect on their AJWS journey with Leibel

One full day after receiving the news of Leonard “Leibel” Fein’s death, I am reflecting on the loss of this dear friend: a truly brilliant and moral man, and a profound Jewish voice for social justice in the 20th and 21st centuries. Many of us literally traveled the world with Leibel, just as we also joined him on a journey toward a fuller understanding of how to create a more just and equitable world and of our role as Jews in bringing it about. Given this journey, it feels natural to be sharing memories of Leibel in a “virtual shiva” today with so many friends and colleagues at AJWS and in other corners of the Jewish social justice universe.

AJWS Rabbinical Student Delegation with Leibel Fein in El Salvador, 2004

AJWS Rabbinical Student Delegation with Leibel Fein in El Salvador, 2004

We were truly blessed that Leibel was the scholar-in-residence for AJWS’s first Rabbinical Students’ Delegation, a program that sent emerging Jewish rabbis and cantors on service-learning trips and inspired them to return to the U.S. to become vocal advocates for alleviating poverty and routing out injustice around the world. It was in January 2004 that Leibel joined 26 rabbinical students on a trip to El Salvador, and the students sought his guidance in merging their passion for Jewish text and tradition with their desire to become activists for human rights. Fein wrote emotionally about the trip in the Forward shortly after his return.

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The End of the Road

Despite global praise for Burma’s democratic reforms, the country hasn’t resolved its decades-long legacy of ethnic persecution. Burma’s refugees fear what will happen to them next. To learn more, American Jewish World Service’s Elizabeth Daube interviewed refugees living along the Thailand-Burma border.

Karen refugees on the Thailand-Burma border

Karen refugees on the Thailand-Burma border

Naw Htee Ku doesn’t want to talk about the past. She’s sitting on a concrete floor not far from the amplified music and clapping of Mae Ra Moe refugee camp’s public square, where a crowd has gathered to celebrate the birthday of Thailand’s king.

He’s not their king, of course. But it’s a Thai tradition that the Karen refugees—pronounced Kah-REN—have grown accustomed to in the camps. Over the past 30 years, hundreds of thousands of Karen and other ethnic minorities have fled from Burma* and into Thailand, for reasons Naw Htee Ku prefers not to dwell on.

“Even if we discuss it, we can no longer do anything about it,” she says, slowly chewing on a betel nut. “Things that happened to me in the past will remain in the past. If we talk about these things, we will just feel upset.”

What Naw Htee Ku wants to talk about is happening now. The Karen refugees fear a forced return to Burma—and with it, more of the oppression that pushed them into Thailand in the first place.

As we walk back to the festivities in the square, green mountains enclose us on all sides. I know there’s a way out of this place: a tedious drive past the clusters of thin bamboo houses, past the Thai border guards, climbing up and up a winding road. But it’s nowhere in sight.

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Celebrating LGBT Pride Month

What a month! Throughout the country, AJWS was buzzing with LGBT Pride to shine a spotlight on our work to fight for the human rights of LGBT communities in the developing world. One of our grantees, a leading LGBT rights activist from Kenya, traveled to the U.S. to speak about the struggles that LGBT communities face in Kenya and throughout Africa. We also organized screenings of Call Me Kuchu, an award-winning documentary about the efforts of Ugandan LGBT activists to stop the passage of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which was tragically signed into law in February, followed by a discussion with our Kenyan grantee.

Hundreds of activists and leaders marched with AJWS in exciting and colorful LGBT Pride Parades in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Chicago to demonstrate support for AJWS as the Jewish voice for LGBT rights worldwide. Here are a few visual highlights:

Photo Credit: Jeff Zorabedian

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For Eddie: I Am Keeping My Promise

Photo: Associated Press

Photo: Associated Press

Originally published in LGBTQ Nation.

Twenty-two years ago, I made a promise that has shaped my life and my work ever since. My beloved partner Eddie, a talented musician, was dying of AIDS.

At the time, we felt powerless, isolated and angry—there was no effective medical treatment, no hope for recovery and too much hate rooted in fear of a mysterious disease and its association with gay men. As his final days neared, Eddie asked me to swear to him that he would not become “just another AIDS statistic.”

I’ve done everything in my power to keep this promise to stop HIV-positive and LGBT people like Eddie from being forgotten. Read More »

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Our Journey to Capitol Hill

Summit Capitol StepsMore than 150 AJWS supporters gathered in Washington, D.C. this week for the 2014 AJWS Policy Summit. Yesterday, after 48 hours of inspirational programming and skills building, we headed out to Capitol Hill to urge our legislators to pass the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA), which was introduced in the Senate on May 8th.

Together we visited 100 Congressional offices all in one day—and secured new allies in our fight to end violence against women and girls worldwide!

As a result of these visits, many Representatives learned about the bill for the first time—and others committed to support it as co-sponsors. We crisscrossed the Hill from the House to the Senate and back, and felt the momentum for We Believe building.

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How Being a Third Generation Holocaust Survivor Inspired My Journey to Social Justice

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Rebecca and her grandfather Moshe, a Holocaust survivor, in Staten Island in the late 1980s.

Every day, but especially on Yom Hashoah, I think about my family’s experience in the Holocaust and how that has shaped who I am today.

As a young child, I didn’t fully grasp what being a Holocaust survivor meant. I knew that my grandfather had a big family before the Holocaust and that my great aunt had numbers tattooed on her arm. I knew that two of my great aunts were on line for the gas chambers at Auschwitz, minutes from cremation, when the camp was liberated. I knew that my mom dedicated her life to supporting the needs of Holocaust survivors—physically, emotionally and financially. But I didn’t know what all of these markers would truly mean to me.

Ten years later when I was in college, I had the opportunity to meet Paul Rusesabagina, the Rwandan hotel manager who hid and protected more than 1,200 Hutu and Tutsi refugees during the Rwandan Genocide. I heard him speak during an event with the Hillel at Binghamton University. None of the refugees that he hid in his hotel were harmed during the genocide. He spoke about the genocide in Rwanda—what it was like to live through the violence, religious persecution and political strife. It was during his speech that I had my moment of realization; the moment when I realized that being a third generation Holocaust survivor was bigger than just carrying the story of my family. For me, being a third generation survivor meant taking a stand against injustice everywhere. Read More »

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Sex Workers Can Speak for Themselves

WONETHA is a human rights-based organization and registered NGO, based in Uganda. WONETHA seeks to improve the health, social and economic wellbeing of female adult sex workers in Uganda. Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad (VAMP), India, is a collective of women in sex work against injustice who have mobilized in order to speak out about HIV and AIDS, violence against sex workers and to fight for the rights of people in sex work. 

In a CNN piece published late last year, filmmakers Jane Wells and John-Keith Wasson make sweeping conclusions about sex workers: that they are all victims and that the best way to help them is by shutting down the “evil” sex industry. Their conclusion is troubling because, in order to arrive at it, Wells and Wasson had to blatantly ignore the voices of sex workers themselves who have proposed very different solutions than Wells and Wasson. Read More »

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Fighting Anti-Gay Hate on Purim

Demonstrators in Nairobi, Kenya rally against wave of anti-gay legislation in Africa. Photo: Getty Images.

Demonstrators in Nairobi, Kenya rally against wave of anti-gay legislation in Africa. Photo: Getty Images.

The ancient rabbi Hillel famously asked: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” I feel it is important to answer the first two questions in the way Hillel hoped—that we must stand up for both ourselves and for others. (After 40 years as a legislator, my answer to the third is “as soon as we have the votes.”)

On Purim, Jews remember the oppression we faced and overcame in ancient Persia and throughout our history. With Hillel’s questions in mind, we must rededicate ourselves to combating anti-Semitism throughout the world and to combating the oppression of others.

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Human Rights in 2013: Our End-of-Year Top 10

As we get ready for the New Year, we’re also taking a moment to celebrate the joys and victories in human rights that took place in 2013—an exciting and tumultuous year for human rights around the globe. Read on for 10 human rights happenings that AJWS celebrated in 2013, listed in chronological order. Let’s celebrate the strides we’ve made together and take heart for the work still ahead of us!

10.  India: Supreme Court ruling upholds indigenous people’s rights over contested land (April 2013)

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Children from the Dongria Kondh community. Credit: Survival International

In a landmark ruling, India’s Supreme Court rejected an appeal that would have allowed a UK-based company, Vedanta Resources, to mine the Niyamgiri hills. The court recognized the indigenous community of Dongria Kondh‘s right to the land, which they make a living from and worship as part of their traditional beliefs. The ruling affirmed that people with religious and cultural rights to land must be involved in decisions about how to use it.

This marked a major win for the rights of indigenous people in India, and it shows the power of social action. Thousands of protesters rallied to protest the mining effort last December, and hundreds of Dongria pledged to stay in the Niyamgiri hills.

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Click to watch Survival International’s video story on the mine. A new window will open.

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