Tag Archives: Social 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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An AIDS-Free Future Requires More Than Medicine

Originally published in The Health Care Blog.

In 1985, during the height of the AIDS crisis in New York City, I was elected to the New York City Council. Time and again, I felt heartbroken as my friends and constituents lost their lives to a deadly disease without a cure. Too frequently, they suffered the effects of ignorance, fear and hate.

Now, nearly 30 years later, advances in biomedical treatment have been stunning in their power to achieve an AIDS-free future. But the truth is that prejudice and fear are as persistent as HIV. Medicine alone cannot deliver the future we seek. Even as we celebrate the scientific discoveries and treatments that dramatically reduce HIV transmission and death, we should not delude ourselves into thinking that a biomedical solution can overcome the devastating effects of bigotry. If, as the United Nations agency UNAIDS urges, we wish to get to zero—zero discrimination, zero new infections, and zero deaths—we must take an integrated approach that combines biomedical treatment and an enduring commitment to human rights.

Without a doubt, medicine is working. As of September 30, 2013, the United States’ program, PEPFAR, is currently supporting life-saving antiretroviral treatment for 6.7 million men, women, and children worldwide. This exceeds President Obama’s 2011 World AIDS Day goal of 6 million people on treatment—a four-fold increase (from 1.7 million in 2008) since he took office. But, unfortunately, the World Health Organization predicts that 50 million people will need treatment for HIV by 2030. This means we face a tremendous uphill climb and must somehow identify between $22 and $24 billion—a truly ambitious financial target.

As a frequent traveler to Africa and Asia, I meet with courageous activists supported by American Jewish World Service who are pioneering innovative approaches to stemming HIV in their communities. Over time, I’ve learned from them that eradicating the AIDS pandemic requires two additional strategies to complement treatment:

First, we must strengthen community-organizing efforts to keep HIV funding a priority not only for high-income and middle-income countries, but especially for low-income countries that often have the highest rates of infection.

Second, we must address the violations of human rights—particularly in the developing world—that exacerbate HIV transmission and severely diminish the quality of life for people who are infected or at risk.

If people are afraid to be tested or receive treatment for HIV, if they experience discrimination from healthcare providers, or if they simply don’t have access to health services, prevention efforts can’t succeed. The World Health Organization, the UN Development Program and UNAIDS have argued that increased stigma and fear of criminalization prevents people from accessing treatment and obtaining information they need to engage in safer sex practices. This has been true in the case of Botswana, a country that made commendable efforts to maximize access to HIV treatment. In the early 2000s, Botswana rolled out an ambitious plan to test and treat all Botswanans for HIV. But the number of people without access to treatment remained high. This was the result of a number of issues, including stigma. Former President Mogae said, “I’m very frustrated. Because of the stigma attached to this sexually transmitted virus, and because some religious people have said this is a curse or that those who have HIV are sinners, many are afraid to get tested.”

More recently in Uganda, efforts to slow the spread of HIV and AIDS have been obstructed by the country’s Anti-Homosexuality Law—a piece of legislation that Ugandan President Museveni signed in February 2014 to further criminalize Uganda’s LGBT community. Even before the bill was signed into law, LGBT people in Uganda faced enormous hurdles in accessing health care. Many service providers discriminated against sexual minorities, refused to treat them, or simply lacked basic information on how to provide care. Today, state-sanctioned hate against LGBT Ugandans is making it harder to stem HIV transmission and is contributing to a national public health crisis.

Bottom line: The medical treatment of HIV must not exist in a vacuum. It must be integrated with broader global health strategies and policy. Most importantly, we must ensure that our efforts to expand treatment and prevention work in tandem with our efforts to advance human rights worldwide—especially for people whose access to health services and information is severely limited. The people who need HIV and AIDS treatment most are those who are marginalized and are often difficult to reach.

When I think back to the 1980s in New York City, a time of incalculable loss and suffering, I am grateful for the medical innovations that have prolonged the lives of millions of HIV-positive people today. Yet if we wish to usher in an AIDS-free future, we need more than medicine. We must fight for the human rights of every infected person and every person at risk around the globe. Only when bigotry is vanquished will we reach a day when AIDS is a distant memory.

Ruth Messinger is president of American Jewish World Service.

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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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Nigeria: AJWS Allies Respond to Girls’ Abduction

Protesters around the world have drawn unprecedented international attention to the plight of more than 250 girls in northern Nigeria. Most of the girls, who were kidnapped by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram on April 15, remain missing.

American Jewish World Service and other human rights groups—in Nigeria and many other countries—spread the word about this horrific situation over the last week or so, using the popular hashtag #bringbackourgirls. In response to this outcry, governments ranging from China to the U.S. have offered to help Nigeria’s government track down the missing girls.

 

Much of the media coverage of this story has emphasized the roles of American celebrities and activists, while overlooking Boko Haram’s ongoing attacks in Nigeria during this time, including a bombing this week that killed hundreds of people in the northeastern town of Gamboru Ngala. Read More »

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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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Life on $3 a Day: Garment Workers and Cambodia’s Struggle for Human Rights

Monks bless the crowd at a human rights demonstration in Phnom Penh. Photo: Evan Abramson for AJWS

Monks bless the crowd at a human rights demonstration in Phnom Penh.

A month ago, I stood outside Cambodia’s National Assembly with hundreds of Buddhist monks. They chanted in Sanskrit and tossed lotus petals into a crowd of protesters, blessing them. Many of them had walked from rural villages to Phnom Penh over 10 days. They rallied at the palatial seat of the country’s parliament, to mark International Human Rights Day and hopefully draw the government’s attention to the rights Cambodia’s people have yet to fully grasp—rights related to labor, land and a fair legal system.

People passed out water bottles and wrapped towels around their heads to protect themselves from the harsh midday sun. Others held up signs (“WE ARE WOMEN WE ARE NOT SLAVES”) and loudspeakers buzzed, ready to call people to action. We were not supposed to be there; the government had prohibited marches. I searched the crowd, waiting for something to happen.

But it was peaceful.  Despite a day filled with marches and demonstrations, Phnom Penh remained relatively calm. The only government reaction: quietly relocating a dozen protesters who had camped outside the U.S. embassy.

Fast forward a few weeks, and the demonstrations have taken a dramatic and deadly turn. On Jan. 2, after escalating tension over the minimum wage, police shot AK-47s and handguns into a crowd of protesters, killing at least four and injuring more than 29. Most of them were garment workers—the very people I traveled to Cambodia to meet. Read More »

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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.

1st item video screengrab

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

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Dominicans of Haitian descent deserve full equality in the Dominican Republic

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Protesters organize outside the Dominican Republic’s Constitutional Court.

Daniela lives in a batey—a town of sugar cane workers—in the Dominican Republic. At 17 years old, she has just graduated from high school and now volunteers as a community health educator. Her dream is to go to college—but that dream was crushed last month, when the country’s Constitutional Court revoked citizenship from all Dominicans of Haitian descent born after 1929.

Daniela was born in the Dominican Republic, but the government no longer considers her a citizen—just because of her family’s Haitian heritage. The impact on Daniela and her family will be devastating. Her college dream is now shattered, and she might be deported from the only home she’s ever known. Read More »

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