The Global AIDS Crisis: Caring for the Sick by Standing with the Activists


The Global AIDS Crisis: Caring for the Sick by Standing with the Activists

By Julia Greenberg and Jacob Feinspan

From Rabbi Or N. Rose, Jo Ellen Green Kaiser, and Margie Klein, ed., Righteous Indignation: A Jewish Call for Justice, Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2008."

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"At one point in my life AIDS was beating me, leaving me bedridden for more than a year. I didn't have plan for the future except waiting for my death and thinking about the virus, crying every day. With the availability of free anti-retroviral treatment…I was able to get well again. But in order to maintain my health through effective ART use, I needed to earn money to support myself and my family. This motivated me to be a member of this group. Now, I don't have the time to think about the virus. I'm busy every day and surrounded by others in the same situation as me. As I am living with the community, community members are changing their attitudes towards people living with the virus."

~ Yalemzewd, 35 years old, mother of two, a client of Mekdim ("Pioneer"), which is Ethiopia's first association of people living with HIV/AIDS

In 2006, nearly 40 million people were infected by HIV; more than 25 million have died since the beginning of the crisis. In 2006, 4.3 million people were newly infected by the virus, and nearly 3 million died.

Why, in this essay, do we choose to focus on HIV/AIDS when the leading causes of death in most poor countries are still common diseases such as diarrhea and pulmonary failure, usually associated with maternal and infant health and childbirth? [1] We chose this focus because the global AIDS activist movement is a model for modern struggles to secure economic, social and cultural rights around the world. If the Jewish community is going to broaden its role supporting global social justice struggles, and it should, then a close examination of this movement is necessary not only for lessons learned, but for inspiration.

The movement began in the early 1980s when an unknown virus then called GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency) decimated the white gay community in urban centers in the United States. AIDS activists, most famously and effectively ACT-UP, organized to claim their human right to health when the Reagan administration dismissed AIDS as a gay disease not only to be ignored, but to be used to inflame hatred and homophobia. Pat Buchanan, President Reagan's Communication's Director, charmingly argued that AIDS is "nature's revenge on gay men."

President Reagan did not utter one word about the AIDS crisis until the end of his presidency, in 1987, when more than 36,000 Americans had been diagnosed with AIDS and nearly 21,000 had already died. The people most affected by HIV took to the streets with slogans like "Silence Equals Death" and "ACT-UP, Fight Back!" and wearing Pink Triangles (the symbol Nazis used to label homosexuals in the concentration camps) demanding an end to Reagan's fatal policy of inaction. These were the voices that pressured governments and international scientific and health agencies to develop the treatments that today make HIV/AIDS a manageable disease for those in first world countries who can afford them.

The authors of this essay are staff at American Jewish World Service, an organization that supports the global treatment access movement, which has spread from the streets of New York and San Francisco, to the streets of Lagos and Delhi and the dusty roads of rural Uganda and Cambodia. These partners are some of the 315 community-based organizations that American Jewish World Service supports to create social change in their communities. Our decision to approach our work addressing the AIDS crisis is informed by the true meaning of tzedakah as an act of justice and righteousness. People affected by this disease have from the very beginning, with devastating clarity, articulated and claimed their rights. There are clear Jewish obligations to care for the sick and save lives—certainly strong imperatives for a Jewish response to the AIDS crisis. But these are simply calls to action, not blueprints for change.

We believe that supporting people who are claiming the tools and resources that are rightfully theirs to care for one another represents the ultimate Jewish response to this pandemic. After all, the most powerful words in the story of the Exodus, the foundational story of the Jewish people, are "Let my people go." The true power of the Exodus is not simply that the Israelites moved from bondage to freedom, but rather that they exercised their own power in doing so. This does not mean that Jews can or should stand on the sidelines as spectators. When given the opportunity to save a life, we must do so. But we also must recognize that more lives will be saved when we stand in solidarity with those demanding their own liberation. We can't demand it for them.


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Julia Greenberg is the former director of grants at AJWS. A graduate of Wesleyan University, Julia spearheaded AJWS's HIV/AIDS program in Africa.

Jacob Feinspan is the former senior policy associate at AJWS and has coordinated nationwide grassroots advocacy on global HIV/AIDS, international debt cancellation, and Darfur.

1 Laurie Garret, The Challenge of Global Health, Foreign Affairs, February 20007.