Originally published on the blog of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
On the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, I’ve been reflecting a great deal on the power and possibility of social change. The climactic moment on August 28, 1963 came when Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his quintessential “I Have a Dream” speech, which crystalized decades of tireless activism and ignited decades more. But a lesser-known speech delivered by Rabbi Yoachim Prinz—the President of the American Jewish Congress, who took the podium immediately before King—was stirring in a different way.
Prinz understood the plight of African Americans and other disenfranchised groups in the context of his own experience as the rabbi of a Jewish community in Berlin during Hitler’s regime. He devoted much of his life in the United States to the civil rights movement. And, in his speech at the March on Washington, he articulated a message that has always resonated with me: “Bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.”
One of the things I find most inspiring about studying Torah is that the biblical characters are human. They may be our valorized, mythical ancestors, but they also consistently make mistakes, leaving a record of paradigmatic human foibles from which we can learn. There is one biblical failure, however, that I have always struggled to understand as a useful example. It occurs for the first time in this week’s parashah, as Avram goes to Egypt to avoid the famine in Canaan:
As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. If the Egyptians see you, and think, ‘She is his wife,’ they will kill me and let you live. Please say that you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may remain alive thanks to you.” Read More
Left to Right: AJWS President Ruth Messinger, Liberian activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee and American Jewish feminist writer Letty Cottin Pogrebin
An intergenerational group of American Jews recently traveled with AJWS to Liberia to learn how Liberian women are effecting social change. Melia Plotkin, an AJWS intern, caught up with AJWS President Ruth Messinger to learn about the trip:
Melia: This was your first trip to Liberia. What was it like to travel to a country where AJWS’s work is well-established?
Ruth: Much of our work in Liberia supports human rights for women, adolescent girls and people with disabilities—issues I care about deeply. Some of the Liberian women we met were leaders in the peace and reconciliation efforts to end Liberia’s civil war. I was enormously inspired to see that these women have remained leaders in their communities and are teaching young people about the importance of human rights and education. One woman was asked how an AJWS grantee had benefited her. She answered: “I can now write down my phone number and give it to someone else.” It was a staggeringly simple comment that reminded me why our work matters.
Charles Taylor, Former President of Liberia
Last week, former President Charles Taylor of Liberia was sentenced by an international tribunal to 50 years in prison for his role in instigating murder, mutilation, rape, sexual slavery and the use of child soldiers in Sierra Leone.
This ruling against a former head of state is a major win for international justice since the Nuremberg trials in 1946. It exemplifies the principle that no one, be they powerful politicians or warlords, is above the law. The sentencing did come with a big price tag: $50 million and nine years since the initial indictment. The people of Sierra Leone, and all peoples, deserve a quicker turnaround in trying cases of perpetrators of violence.
When there is a problem to solve, the women of Liberia know what to do: they put on their t-shirts that say “WIPNET,” (Women in Peacebuilding Network—under the umbrella of West Africa Network for Women in Peacebuilding Liberia, an AJWS grantee of nine years) and they gather. “They call us silent rebels,” says Cecilia T. M. Danuweli of the network. “As soon as [people in the streets] see the women in the t-shirts, they know there is a problem.” Read More
Foreign Policy Magazine recently released its list of the Top 100 Global Thinkers of 2011. We were disappointed—though not so surprised—by the paucity of women on this list. So, we’ve added six extraordinary women who deserve recognition.
Leymah Gbowee, Liberia. You’ve probably heard a lot about Leymah Gbowee, in the news and on our blog. She won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize and is the founder of AJWS’s grantee Women Peace and Security Network- Africa (WIPSEN), which is why we were so surprised that she doesn’t appear on Foreign Policy’s list. (Leymah was, however, named as one of Forbes’ 10 Most Interesting Women of 2011.) Together with activists from the Liberian women’s movement, Leymah mobilized women from all walks of life and across religious and ethnic lines to demand peace and put an end to Liberia’s devastating 14-year civil war. She also fought to ensure that women could participate in political processes and rebuild the country.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia
President of Liberia and 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, was just re-elected for a second term of office. But her victory, described as “a boon for women,” was fraught with controversy.
Sirleaf’s opponent, Winston Tubman of the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) party, boycotted the election run-off, citing alleged irregularities and systematic fraud in the first round of voting in October. At a demonstration the day before the November 8th runoff, police opened fire on CDC supporters, killing at least two Liberians in an incident that Tubman says was an assassination attempt. Read More
Liberia is in the public spotlight. Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian women’s peace activist and the director of an AJWS grantee organization, along with Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, both won the Nobel Peace Prize. We have much to celebrate. But there is still much work to be done.
On October 11th, Liberians went to the polls for their second democratic elections since the end of a devastating 14-year civil war. While enormous attention has been paid to increasing people’s participation in the elections, there has been little commentary about Liberian women’s struggle to seize this key moment and make their voices truly count. A proposed bill to increase women’s political representation has sparked unexpected controversy and languished in Liberia’s senate.
Elections continue to be an expected trigger of violence on the African continent. They led to serious disputes and deadly crimes in countries such as Kenya and recently in Cote d’Ivoire. Liberia (where AJWS will be hosting a Study Tour in March 2012—join us!), is preparing to hold its second ever presidential and legislative elections on October 11th, and the stakes are very high. The elections will be a crucial test of whether democracy is firmly entrenched in this country that fought its way out of a deadly 14-year civil war. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Liberia’s current president and Africa’s first female head of state, is reported as the election front-runner, ahead of 15 other presidential candidates. Read More