Women’s bodies as a delivery mechanism for statements about men’s power.

I wrote the above headline as a tweet last week, just after reading about the recent stabbing death of a teenage Palestinian girl by her brother, “for allegedly shaming her family.”

Ever since writing those 72 characters, though, I can’t stop thinking about them. Because that’s it, that’s the whole story: Women’s bodies are used as a delivery mechanism for statements about men’s power. Everywhere. All the time.

Honor killings are perhaps the most obvious case (the kind of case that allows Westerners to feel that we’re off the hook on these issues) because a family’s honor is defined by how chaste the men are able to keep their women. If the women stray (or are perceived to have strayed) from a very narrow definition of proper behavior, in certain cultures and circumstances the men are not only free to kill the women, they’re expected to.

But women’s bodies are not just the delivery mechanism for statements about men’s power in Foreign Places that are Far Away. They’re used for making such statements all around the globe, every day, all day.

Rape. Sexual assault. Workplace harassment. Street harassment. Domestic violence. In each case, the attacker or harasser is making clear that his victim (and whoever else might be listening) knows who’s got power over whom. The victim’s body is a tool toward these ends.

Likewise the fight to legally prevent women from having access to the reproductive health care of our choice. When male politicians and cultural leaders declare that pregnant women are “hosts”, or that women who want access to birth control as part of their healthcare are uncontrolled sluts and/or prostitutes, or ask if women want access to abortions, why can’t men have access to rape? – they’re declaring their right to deny women physical autonomy.

When women don’t earn as much as men for the same work, and are only sporadically allowed access to the same work; when women cannot afford to better the physical conditions of their lives without the aid of a better-paid husband; when it continues to be culturally suspect if a man is supported by a woman, and culturally rewarded if a man earns enough money to “allow” his wife to not work — women’s physical productivity is a tool with which men assert or declare their power in the workplace, in society, and at home.

Polygamy; male “scoring” vs. female “sluttiness”; women as cooks but not as chefs; women as accessories but not as leads; women told to be pleasant to men who are rude; women told they’re not Real Geeks; pre-teens who can’t walk to school without hearing grown men talk about their bodies; girls and women told to shape and re-shape their bodies by an entertainment business dominated by men — all are direct examples or outgrowths of the same principle, a principle that frequently overlaps with others: Brown men may not be seen as having as much power as white men, nor poor men as much power as the rich, the cultural elite need to be protected from the unwashed, all of it in an endless cycle of social drama and jockeying for position. As is often true for oppressed populations, some women support this status quo, serving to perpetuate the very system that hurts them and their sisters — but their involvement doesn’t change the basic fact.

And that basic fact is this: At the end of the day, I cannot be sure that my body is mine. My daughter cannot be sure that her body is hers. Our bodies are free game to whatever man needs to tell the world that he is powerful. Our human right to physical autonomy is not a given.

Women’s bodies are delivery mechanisms for statements about men’s power. Everywhere. Every day.

All damn day long.

Training the world – on little girls and body image.

I maintain something of a bi-cameral approach with regard to writing about my children: I write about them, but I don’t use their names (their last name is different to mine, which helps); I write about them, but I write only happy things, or uplifting things, or things that are far in the past. Nothing that would embarrass them, nothing that is truly personal and private. I owe them that, I think. They didn’t ask to be born to me.

Today I’m going to break down that wall, though, because I believe my own daughter’s well-being actually, in a very broad way, depends on it. If you know my girl, or if you ever meet her, I’m asking you here and now: Please don’t discuss the following with her. It would, genuinely, make her sad.

The girl.

The girl.

But how am I to remain silent, when she sits in the back of my car, tears streaming down her face and wondering, in a tiny and strangled voice, if anyone will ever love her?

The girl is tall, and broad, and strong, and round. She is 10, and as she has throughout her young life, she has a belly. It’s not small – it’s a real belly. The kind of belly that many young girls have until they reach puberty, and which is usually eclipsed by the appearance of breasts. As girls grow into women, our shapes change — but they don’t usually change entirely. Mine didn’t. If you were born big and soft (9 lbs 3 oz, and she was four weeks early), you’re never going to become anything much different, unless you literally do physical damage to yourself in the effort.

“Do you think I’ll ever be skinny?” she asked in that same car ride.

No, honey, no. I do not think you will ever be skinny. “Skinny” (like “fat”) has no real value, it tells us nothing about the worth or even the health of the person, it’s a descriptor. It’s like “tall” or “blue” or “left handed” – it describes something, it doesn’t tell you that thing’s worth. Or, worse yet, we’ve made “skinny” (and “fat”) into a weapon, a weapon we use to wound people.

These are almost exactly the words I used with her in the car, words very similar to words she’s heard her whole life — or, at least, since the first time she was called “fat” and understood it to be intended as a cruelty, when she was 4. When she was 9, she could already use the phrase “objectification of women” correctly.

And the other day, in that car, tears streaming down her face, she finally said “I know, but you’re training me. You’re not training the whole world.”

My daughter is exactly as God and her genes intended her to be: She is funny and lights up a room and won’t take no for an answer. She is very smart and loves being very smart and can sit in a corner and read for two hours at a stretch. She will spontaneously dance to just about anything, and will run around the playground with her friends all afternoon if time and homework allow. She is a person of healthy appetites, in all senses: She would like a bigger bite of the world, please, and also some more ice cream, while you’re up. She thoroughly enjoys her food, except when she doesn’t, at which point she can’t be bothered to have another bite. She knows that too much ice cream isn’t always good for her body, and she is learning that sometimes “no” is the best answer — but she’s always heard “no” from time to time, and always had that “no” acted upon. Her diet is healthy, and she knows that, too, and likes it. She is also, if I may, beautiful. Gorgeous, in fact, with milky-peachy skin and deep brown eyes and hair that falls in waves all around her beautiful smile.

But the girl lives in the world that her father and I cannot reach, she doesn’t live within our arms. She lives in a world where 10 year old girls are already so bone-deep aware of how we treat women who do not fit a certain, very narrow, paradigm that they worry they will never be loved. She worries — a lot — what strangers think of her when they see her from a distance; she worries that the people who know her are kind only because they know her.

She is 10. She is healthy. She is strong. She is wicked smart. And she sat in my car, weeping about her body.

There is only so much her father and I can do, only so much real science we can bring to bear on the lies and misapprehensions peddled by the diet industry and swallowed whole by those around us. There is only so much we can do about the fact that every adult woman she comes in contact with is steeped in the same lies and misapprehensions, the vast majority of them openly bemoaning their sacred bodies and bonding over self-loathing. “I’m getting fat!” one of the girl’s friends said at school the other day, a friend who is so slight she might blow away on the next strong wing.

There’s only so much I can do. It’s already in her. And even though I never say it out loud, it’s in me too. I hate it, but there it is, telling me how little I’m worth because I refuse to punish my only body for being something other than that which I am told it should be. I cannot tell you how much it hurts me, how furious it makes me, to know that this is what she feels and what she faces. I’m weeping as I type. And there’s almost nothing I can do. I cannot train the world.

But maybe, maybe – if we all work together, maybe if we’re kinder to ourselves and each other, more loving toward these fabulous machines that move us through our lives, less willing to accept shaming that cloaks itself as wisdom – maybe together, we adults can make the world in which our little girls are growing into wonderful women a better place. Maybe.

Please help me. We’re the adults. My daughter, and probably yours, needs our help.  They need our love.

***************************************************

UPDATE: My Twitter friend Kris Lindbeck sent me the lovliest essay I may have ever read about human bodies — all of them. Please click through to read. “I’ll tell you what people look like, really: they look like flames. Or like the stars, on a clear night in the wilderness.”

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UPDATE 10/6/13: All of a sudden this post is getting a ton of love from Facebook, and I’m very grateful — and Facebook is not the easiest thing to search, so I honestly don’t have any idea why today, or what the source(s) is (are). If it’s you – thank you!

Killed, halfway home.

I live in a lovely, upper-middle-class suburb of Chicago known for its trees, its schools, and its diversity. We’re also known for the safety of our streets, but we live at the edge of chaos, on the literal border of one of the city’s poorest, roughest neighborhoods. Literally: On one side of my town’s eastern border you’ll find our tony little arugula enclave; on the other, abandoned buildings and schools with no libraries.

We are safe here, but occasionally the chaos leaks out and across the street. Over the course of 15 years, I can think of five murders that took place within a few blocks of my home or my regular haunts, all of them Chicago’s violence spread west. These events don’t frighten me, because they don’t belong to me. Someone ran, someone followed. They’re not my story, however heartbreaking they may be.

But last night the chaos leaked out and took the life of a 14 year old boy.

Damani Henard’s family had moved from that rougher, tougher neighborhood to my town, so that he could go to high school here. He had ridden his bike into the city to visit friends and was, according to the Chicago Tribune, “about halfway home” when he was shot in the head and killed, apparently instantly.

That family lives blocks from my home. That boy was enrolled in our high school, would have ridden his bike down the same streets that my boy will walk come fall. His family had done what they could to make him safe, and they probably figured that a 15 minute bike ride down a well-lit, major thoroughfare was safe, too.

But they were wrong. Someone else — also a teenager, a 19 year old young woman named Ashley Hardmon — was shot and killed less than an hour earlier, not far from where Damani was killed. His mom figures her boy was collateral damage. “He coincidentally had on black,” she told reporters — as if, in a functional world, that would in any way consign a boy to death. But the world we live in is not functional.

This is not my story. This was Chicago’s violence. It spilled over again, through the tiny hole of a woman and a family trying to get away. Damani Henard was not my son.

But this is my story. This is my violence. That woman ran to my town to keep her boy alive, and the world in which we both live reached out and snatched him from her. Damani was my boy, just as much as every child in the streets of Chicago and across this grieving nation are my children, the children of all the adults who fail them again and again, unto death. This is what a nation awash with guns looks like: Dead children.

I’ve written before that white privilege is sending your son out into the world without the fear that he will not return — at the time I was referring to state-mandated violence, but race lies deep within the heart of this story, too. Who are Chicago’s poor? What neighborhoods go under-protected by Chicago’s police? What color are the families doing the fleeing? My black neighbors — the upper middle class ones, the professional ones, the ones who dress like me and talk like me and who send their boys to private schools because our high school, the school to which Damani was coming for shelter, doesn’t always serve its black boys well — they know far better than me that class and geography don’t always suffice. Their boys don’t have to be poor, don’t have to be surrounded by gangs, to be in danger. They just have to live inside their skins.

I made my son a cheese sandwich for lunch today. I held him as tight as I could without making him suspicious, without weeping. Damani’s mother will never hold him again.

In memory of Trayvon Martin & all American boys killed for being black: What is white privilege.

Trayvon Martin was killed a year ago today [February 26, 2013 ]. In his memory and in the memory of all the African Americans killed simply for having the wrong skin in the wrong place, I’m re-upping the following, written in the wake of Trayvon’s murder. May he rest in peace, may his family find some measure of justice and peace, and may we take upon ourselves the burden of making this country a better place. Stories like this give me hope.

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Trayvon MartinWhen my husband and I came to Chicago from Israel so that I could go to graduate school, we had no intention of staying here permanently.

But then the second Palestinian intifada happened, and the Israeli government’s entirely irresponsible and deadly response to same, and we came to a conclusion: We no longer wanted to raise children in Israel.

At the time, we only had the one child, a round-cheeked toddler boy, but the fact of his boy-ness sharpened the point. Our choice came mostly out of a desire to educate him differently, to not sacrifice his up-bringing and our values on the altar of occupation and settlement, but there was an unavoidable sense of having also snatched our son from the jaws of war — because in Israel, of course, every 18 year old boy is drafted into the military. Girls go, too, but they don’t see combat. They don’t die.

I bring this up now because I’ve been thinking a lot about all the parents of African American boys who are holding their sons a little closer today in the wake of the horrible, heartbreaking Trayvon Martin case.

My aunt is one of those moms — white as me, but mom to a black man who was once young, a young black man who was stopped for jogging in his own neighborhood, a young black man for whom she would tremble a little whenever he went into the city.

Like every other parent of a young black man, my aunt knew that my cousin could be frisked, arrested, and even killed for little but his youth, gender, and skin.

Like Trayvon Martin.

Like Travares McGill.

Like Sean Bell.

Like Timothy Stansbury, Jr.

Like Amadou Diallo.

Like Oscar Grant.

Like Orlando Barlow.

Like Aaron Campbell.

Like Steven Eugene Washington.

Like Kiwane Carrington.

Kiwane Carrington was 15 when he was killed. Steven Eugene Washington was autistic. Orlando Barlow “was surrendering and on his knees.”

All were killed by people charged with protecting them, whether as law enforcement or law enforcement support of one kind or another. None were armed.

When I look at my boy — on the cusp of adolescence, at the brink of a teenager’s certainty and stupidity, about to try on the world in the guise of a boy-man — I can imagine what might have been: We might have sent him to the Israeli military, he might have worn that uniform, we might have sat by the phone and trembled in fear.

But we removed him and ourselves from those might-haves. We stayed in a place where just being a young man did not by definition mean offering yourself up to die.

For Trayvon Martin, Travares McGill, Sean Bell, Timothy Stansbury, Jr., Amadou Diallo, Oscar Grant, Orlando Barlow, Aaron Campbell, Steven Eugene Washington, Kiwane Carrington, and countless others, however, there was never a choice.

These days, Americans spent a lot of time arguing about “white privilege” — if it exists, what it means, what its consequences might be.

But I think I know what white privilege is.

White privilege is never being frightened for my son’s life, simply because of the color of his skin.

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Please also see: 

What is white privilege, pt II - “If you watch the following and realize that you have never needed to share any of these tips with anyone you love, you’re living with a very particular kind of privilege.”

Rape tolerance and actual facts.

Trigger warning: Please take care of yourself and be aware of your own limitations whenever you read anything about rape.

I had a bit of a thing the other night when I discovered this article: “Rape flier causes outrage; Arizona sex assault victim speaks out.”

The flier, posted in a men’s bathroom at Ohio’s Miami University, read in part: “Top Ten Ways to Get Away with Rape: 1) Put drugs in the woman’s drink, therefore she wont remember you… 6) Sex with an unconscious body does count, so don’t back down if shes sleeping; 7) Practice makes perfect, the more you rape, the better you get at it….”

Seeing this in the very week in which we have been assailed (yet again) with a new rash of rape apologism was just too much. My blood started to pound, I was suddenly crying, and I was filled with a powerful sense of emotional nausea (if that makes sense), reactions that are all overcoming me again, even as I type.

Women live with this every day of our lives, it’s in our leader’s mouths, it’s in the jokes we hear, it’s in the very air we breathe — and then we’re told that rape is our fault. To put an aspirin between our knees. To prove that we didn’t like the rape. To bear the rapist’s child. And to drown in shame.

I’ve been feeling all day that I really should write about it all, but I just can’t. I’m too exhausted by it, too worn down, too emotionally nauseated. But luckily, someone with a slightly bigger soapbox has written a piece filled with both righteous fury, and reams and reams of data. I’m cutting and pasting some of it below, but really, please: Click through and read the whole thing: “50 Actual Facts About Rape,” by Soraya Chemaly.

And men of good will? Please, please share this with your friends, your brothers, your uncles, your father. Please.

Remember facts? Remember facts about rape? Because it turns out that a whole lot of people know less than nothing about the subject. Indeed what they think they know is a whole lot of something that is wrong and dangerous to our heath, safety and well-being.

… For months now we’ve been subjected to surreal revelation when it comes to what people think and understand about rape, god and women’s magical bodies. Here is some real, fact-checked information from a list originally published last week in RHRealityCheck…..

1. Low estimate of the number of women, according to the Department of Justice, raped every year: 300,000
2. High estimate of the number of women raped, according to the CDC: 1.3 million
3. Percentage of rapes not reported: 54 percent
4. A woman’s chance of being raped in the U.S.: 1 in 5
5. Chances that a raped woman conceives compared to one engaging in consensual sex: at least two times as likely
6. Number of women in the US impregnated against their will each year in the U.S. as a result of rape: 32,000
7. Number of states in which rapists can sue for custody and visitation: 31
8. Chances that a woman’s body “shuts that whole thing down”: 0 in 3.2 billion

Had enough? Me, too. And, believe me, this is the Cliff Notes version. Some people are offended by frank conversation about violence, especially sexualized violence. I’m offended by tolerance for these assaults, scientific denialism, entertainment at the expense of people’s safety and bodily integrity, and shame-infused legislation that hurts children and women and is based on the belief that all men are animals at heart.

Rape happens everywhere . All over the world rape acceptance, rape tolerance, rape denial and rape ignorance at best are used to restrict women’s reproductive rights and impede women’s equality. At worse, rape is used strategically and with violence and malevolence as a weapon in war and as a tool of active oppression. Keeping the reality of rape in the shadows has obviously done us a massive disservice and provided cover for rapists and their apologists. So, even though it’s not easy information to digest, it’s important. Maybe information is part of god’s divine plan.

…Akin, Mourdock, Ryan, et al are the distortions. If men like Mitt Romney really doesn’t agree with them then he should grow some ovaries, so to speak, and stop playing in the same political sand box….  All of this goes hand-in-hand with Facebook rape pages, Daniel Tosh rape jokesReddit rapist threadsmusic, videos, movies, ad infinitum. This recent political display of religiously convoluted rape “reasoning” in legislation is a national shame with deadly consequences for women here and abroad.

To read the rest of “50 Actual Facts About Rape,” please click here.

Dear GOP: You do know how pregnancy works, right? (I think they weren’t listening the first time).

I first ran the following back in May; at the time it went kind of crazy viral, but the evidence of the past few days suggests that the leadership of the Republican Party was not among my readers. And so I offer it again…. Please feel free to share broadly — last time, the little post that could got FB-ed more than 10,000 times, and garnered more than 400 comments. O_O! 

*****

I have been pregnant four times.

These pregnancies led to the following four results, in this order: abortion, baby, miscarriage, baby.

These pregnancies occurred over a span of many years, across two continents, and in three different homes. There were at least seven different health care professionals involved, my hair styles varied widely, as did my levels of nausea. The only constant, in all four cases, other than me, was the presence of a penis.

It happened to be the penis I eventually married, but regardless, that is how pregnancy works. No matter who you are, no matter your sexuality, ability to reproduce, or family make-up, if there are children in your life, at some point along the way, there was a penis involved.

I mention this only because it seems the GOP may have forgotten.

Because as we trundle along, shaming women for having any kind of sex, ever, that is not entirely focused on producing babies — even if we are married, even if it wasn’t so much “sex” as “rape,” even if having a baby would threaten our health and thus the well-being of the children we already have — we are completely and utterly ignoring the fact that the single, solitary way for humans to reproduce is for sperm to meet egg. And sperm, you may recall, come from penises.

Which are attached to men.

If women are having too much sex, so are men. If women are producing babies, so are men. If women are making irresponsible reproductive choices with which they want to burden “the American people” — so.are.men.

Birth control, abortions, prenatal care, postpartum care, child care — whatever we may think, whatever we may have been told — are not women’s issues. THEY ARE HUMAN ISSUES.

There is a purely incandescent rage that comes over me now on a nearly daily basis over the blatant dehumanization of women that is currently sweeping the nation. It is exhausting. It is heart breaking. It is spirit crushing. And there’s nothing to be done but to continue to feel it, because I refuse to stop fighting for my right, my daughter’s right, my mother’s right, my sister’s right — the inalienable right of all women everywhere — to human dignity.

But every once and a while, a particularly galling aspect of the GOP’s War on Women floats to the top of the filth, and I am gobsmacked anew. And today it is as simple as this: Women do not reproduce on their own.

If the Republican Party is so anxious to control women’s sexuality (and it clearly is), it had better start shaming men, too.

That is, unless its representatives are willing to argue that men are constitutionally incapable of not sticking their junk into the nearest available lady bits, and we gals have all the power.

I, for one, have too much respect for men to buy that.

But wait, it gets better – if you’re poor, the GOP hates your baby, too.

Step one: Don’t allow health insurance to cover contraceptives (thus guaranteeing that poor women will either have to stay celibate or fall pregnant) – so say Indiana Treasurer/candidate for US Senate Richard Mourdock and Senator Rick Santorum (to name just two leading Republicans who support such legislation). 

Step twoDon’t allow any kind of abortion, ever (thus guaranteeing that poor women will either have to give up their babies for adoption or have babies they may not be able to afford) – so say Vice Presidential candidate/US Representative Paul Ryan and Indiana Treasurer/candidate for US Senate Richard Mourdock (to name just two leading Republicans who support such legislation).

Step three: If babies are born to a mother who cannot prove that said babies are the result of rape, cut back that mother’s food stamp benefits (thus guaranteeing that poor women and their babies will stay poor and quite possibly hungry) – so say Pennsylvania State Reps. RoseMarie Swanger, Mark Gillen, Keith Gillespie, Adam Harris, and Mike Tobash [+ a Democratic douchebag Blue Dog state representative named Tom Caltagirone], who, you’ll be stunned to learn, are also anti-choice (just click on the links).

I wrote earlier that the right to reproductive choice is a question of fundamental human rights and the separation of church and state, but it’s important to remember that it is wrapped up in many other things as well, not least: The right to decide who controls a woman’s sexuality.

And it ain’t the woman. And damn any babies who get in the way.

And PS: Not only do food stamps keep people from being malnourished, they’re a good governmental investment: For every dollar spent on the program, the economy sees an influx of $1.73. Clearly we wouldn’t want any of that, in this economy.

Romney/Ryan, abortion, and the humanity of women. (And church and state, too).

Yesterday I had the honor of being on a panel with Daniel Ellsberg on HuffPost Live, and the good fortune to be given the opportunity to talk about how, in fact, the little matter of which party sits in the White House is hugely important to American women, because there’s one party that treats 50% of this nation’s citizens as autonomous people, and one party that doesn’t.

Then a little later in the day, this was reported:

Defending his stance that abortion should be illegal even in the case of rape, [Indiana Treasurer/candidate for US Senate Richard] Mourdock explained that pregnancy resulting from nonconsensual sex is the will of God.

“I’ve struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize that life is that gift from God,” Mourdock said. “And even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”

And I honestly found it refreshing. Because Richard Mourdock said, out loud and for all to hear, that which so many of these anti-choice culture warriors carry in their hearts: This is God’s will, and if you abort any pregnancy, regardless of its provenance, you are acting to thwart the Almighty Himself.

This isn’t about compassion for the poor witless woman who might not know what she’s missing out on if you don’t force her to undergo state-sanctioned rape in the form of a transvaginal ultrasound; this isn’t even, really, about human life. This is about the will of God, and the belief held by a great many people that humans are required to bend to that will — and that for women, there’s a lot more will to go around:

Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man…. [A man] the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. 1 Corinthians 11:3 & 7

To be clear: There are millions upon millions of Christians who have grappled with verses like those I’ve just quoted and come to an understanding of their faith and Scripture that support women’s equality and our right to bodily autonomy. (And just to be clearer still: I believe that all modern-day monotheism, including my own, requires this kind of grappling, because none of our Scriptures are without ugliness).

But the Christians standing at the head of the American right wing are not that kind of Christian, and they’re the ones we’re facing.

God is above man, and man is above woman. If you were raped, that’s not cool (in no small part because rape is equated with sex, and a woman’s sexuality belongs to the man she married/will marry), but if that rape made you pregnant? Well, that’s what God wanted. And women who attempt to thwart God’s will are not only making God reallyreally mad, they are upsetting the natural order of things, and that cannot be allowed.

I think it’s helpful to be told flat-out that this is what we’re battling. Many anti-choice activists may honestly believe that they’re acting to protect children (though I might argue that if they really want to protect children, they might consider the needs of the fetus after it becomes a baby, but I digress), but leaders of the anti-choice movement are acting to protect what they know to be the Divine order.

But I live in a secular nation. I live in a country where the separation of church and state is written into law. I live in a place where your knowledge of the Divine order should have absolutely no legal bearing on my life.

There is one party that agrees with that notion, and one party — the vice-presidential candidate of which stands behind some of the most extreme anti-choice bills on the American scene – that does not.

One party that is working — however fitfully, however imperfectly — to protect the right of half of this country’s citizens to be legally recognized as humans with autonomy over their own bodies, and one party working to declare zygotes legal people, to require physicians to lie to patients about the established medical facts of abortion, and to allow hospitals to deny abortions to women even when their lives are in immediate danger.

This is not about the medical procedure called “abortion.” This is about the separation of church and state, and it is about allowing women to be human.

Don’t tell me the parties are the same. 

Update: Mitt Romney taped an endorsement for Mourdock on Monday, but his campaign told TPM yesterday that Mourdock’s views do not reflect Romney’s. And yet for all that, the campaign has said today that it has not asked Mourdock to pull the ad. So. There’s that. 

On African refugees and Jewish heartlessness.

Please note: I just learned that an Israeli soldier was killed this morning in a firefight that Israel’s military says was made possible by the fact that soldiers had left their post to bring water to a group of refugees. Comments at Open Zion already reflect this, but comments that absolve Israel and we Jews of these sins because of that accusation will not be allowed in this space. 

Next week, Jews around the world will gather to fast and pray. We will hear, as we do every year, the words of the prophet Isaiah:

They ask Me for the right way, they are eager for the nearness of God: “Why, when we fasted, did You not see? When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?” Because on your fast day you see to your business and oppress all your laborers!… Is such the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies?… No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him.

I wonder, as we hear these words, how many of us will bring to mind the 21 Eritrean refugees Israel recently left to languish in the summer sun—without food, without shelter, with about a gallon of water a day to be shared among all of them, until, contrary to international agreements to which Israel is a signatory, the state finally forced 18 to return to the documented cruelties of Sinai smugglers and took three (including a 14 year old boy) to prison.

I wonder how many of us will bring to mind the fact that soldiers fired live rounds into the air and tear gas at the refugees as they huddled under a scrap of fabric between two national borders, and reportedly prodded them with an iron pole, in an effort to get them to leave. Testimony from the three Eritreans who were brought to Israeli prison reveals that

None of [them] wanted to return to Egypt. They knew they were destined for torture and death. Two or three days before it all ended, five of the men, who were stronger than the rest, dragged themselves to the Egyptian fence and asked the Egyptian gunmen whether they could return; the reply was that if they did, they would be shot. But, the Egyptian gunmen added, should they attempt this, they should bring the women with them, as the gunmen wanted to rape them.

…[When the state reached its final decision], IDF gunmen cut through the fence, crossed it, pulled the two women and the boy inside, and dragged the rest of the refugees on the cloth towards the Egyptian fence. The refugees, few of whom could move at this stage, screamed and begged to be shot, telling the gunmen they preferred this to a return to Egypt…. Their fate is unknown.

I wonder how many of us will bring to mind the fact that this horrifying story—a story steeped in heartlessness and lies, from the lowliest soldier to the highest government officials—is, in fact, merely the natural outgrowth of attitudes and policies that have greeted African refugees in Israel for more than five years?

After they enter the country, usually via the Egyptian border, those who are caught are jailed without charge for an arbitrary period; when Israel needs to make way for more prisoners, the asylum seekers are dumped in south Tel Aviv and other cities.

…Once out of jail, the state either refuses to process refugees’ individual requests for asylum or arbitrarily rejects them without adequately investigating their claims [note: again, contrary to international agreements to which Israel is a signatory]. Instead, Israel gives citizens of Sudan and Eritrea group protection. So they get visas, but not work visas—forcing refugees onto the black market where they face exploitation.

I wonder how many of us will bring to mind the recent survey that showed that whilenearly 80% of Israelis have no African migrants living anywhere near them, fully 80% of Jewish respondents said that Israel shouldn’t have an “open-door policy” for refugees “who were persecuted in their countries of origin.” Eighty-three percent supported the violent demonstrations that broke out against the refugees in south Tel Aviv a few months ago, and 52% of Jews surveyed agreed with Member of Knesset Miri Regev who, speaking at one of those demonstrations-turned-riot, said that “unauthorized Africans living in Israel are a cancer in the body of Israel.”

I lived the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for 14 years and have written about it for nearly 20. I frequently call on Israelis to have compassion for Palestinians and Palestinians for Israelis, but I understand why they often fail to do so. It really is a war, and in war, compassion is often ground to dust.

I understand that countries have borders for a good reason. I understand that in a country struggling with enormous social inequities, the influx of tens of thousands of undocumented laborers is a genuine problem. I understand fear of the unknown.

But this is not that.

This is a level of inhumanity that frankly boggles my mind and makes me ill. No one treks 1300 miles across unforgiving ground in search of a professional advancement. No one leaves family and friends and chooses privation and possible torture in order to make life hard on someone in Tel Aviv. The refugees from Sudan, South Sudan, and Eritrea are fleeing barbarous repression, so anxious to never return that some have been known to jump off moving trucks to their deaths to avoid repatriation.

And to the extent that we in America do not call our Israeli brothers and sisters on this inhumanity, we are complicit in it.

This is the fast I desire: To share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

Strangers in a strange land.

Eritrean refugees on Israel’s border.

After a week of living beneath scraps of fabric on a scrap of land between two metal fences, hoping to be given asylum in a country established by refugees, 21 Eritrean refugees have gotten their answer from the Jewish State:

Israel has granted entry to two Eritrean women and a 14-year-old boy who were stuck on the Israel-Egypt border for eight days. The remaining 18 men were ordered to return to Egypt. The three Eritreans who were granted entry into Israel were immediately transferred to the Saharonim detention facility.

Lest we be tempted to believe that the decision to allow in three of these poor souls is an act deserving of praise, however,

Israeli experts on international law warn that stopping asylum seekers from entering the country and making their claim for asylum is a breach of binding treaties to which Israel is a signatory.

Moreover, according to William Tall, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Israel,

The most worrying thing to me is the discussion of pushing them back into Egypt, which is highly irresponsible, because if they go back to Egypt there is a high risk these people will fall in the hands of human smugglers, and it is well known, it is all documented, that many of these people have been abused, there are cases of torture or rape, and if you send them back you are sending them to a situation with a very high degree of insecurity.

Furthermore, while the refugees were awaiting this extraordinarily hard-hearted response from Israel’s authorities, those same authorities instructed the soldiers standing guard over them to provide the Eritreans with as little water as possible. The soldiers also acted to prevent human rights activists from bringing them food, and doctors from examining them. One of the women in question is reported to have miscarried over the course of the week.

Why didn’t the refugees give up and leave? Well, as my colleague Raphael Magarikwrote yesterday, refugees from Eritrea are often so desperate that

they will jump off trucks, to their deaths, rather than face repatriation….[and] Eritreans who go back report imprisonment, torture, and abuse. That’s why the United States, Canada, and Western Europe don’t deport Eritreans.

Indeed, according to +972 magazine, fully 93% of Eritreans seeking asylum elsewhere are granted official refugee status.

So, in short: Israel’s decision to ignore international treaties in order to send three people to a detention center and 18 to the gentle mercies of human traffickers and/or a government happy to whip them is hardly a grand compromise.

It’s more along the lines of a shanda—and forget fur die goyim. This is a shame for the Jews. To the extent that we identify with and support the Jewish state, to the extent that we choose to share in the collective experience of Jewish peoplehood, the treatment these human beings have received at Jewish hands should shame us to our very core.

There is simply no excuse for this. None. Not security, not the logic of borders, not the fact of laws recently passed. Nothing.

One more quote:

[The LORD] upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. Deut 10:18-19

If we can sit idly by as the Jewish State behaves in this fashion, I’m forced to ask: What, exactly, do we want the words “Jewish state” to mean?

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

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