Gleaning Inspiration from the "I-Witness Awards"

From left to right: Fred Kramer, JWW Executive Director; Ambassador Verveer; Pat Mitchell, CEO and President of the Paley Center for Media; and Allison Lee, Los Angeles Regional Director of American Jewish World Service.

On January 11, 2012, American Jewish World Service was pleased to co-sponsor the I-Witness Awards presented by Jewish World Watch at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. I was among the standing-room only crowd gathered to honor Melanne Verveer, Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues for her incredible work to address grave injustices faced by women and girls in conflict zones.

In 2009, the Obama administration created the post of U.S. Ambassador-at-large for Global Women’s Issues, finally giving this issue a diplomatic face within our own government. Obama brilliantly chose Melanne Verveer to fill the role. As Hillary Clinton’s chief-of -staff, the founder and CEO of Vital Voices, and in her current position, Ambassador Verveer has consistently recognized and muscled forward the inclusion of women leaders in key decision-making bodies. She has also shined a spotlight on gender-based violence and the paucity of women in global politics—issues that demand serious attention.

Ambassador Verveer’s Office of Global Women’s Issues recently released its National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security, recognizing that the economic and political empowerment of women worldwide is essential to achieving peace and critical for our own national security. The Action Plan is in line with Ambassador Verveer’s long history of highlighting not only the vulnerabilities of women but also their strength, perseverance and critical potential. The plan recognizes the simple truth that “where women are equal partners in the decision-making, peace-building and conflict prevention, when their lives are protected, their experiences considered, and their voices heard” hope for peace and security prevails.

Last Wednesday evening, Ambassador Verveer recognized AJWS’s grantee and Nobel Peace Prize Winner Leymah Gbowee, as an example of what can be achieved when women become meaningful participants in peace-building.

At a time when so many donors and activists are struggling with compassion fatigue, and when gender-based violence persists in Darfur, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti and elsewhere around the globe, it felt great to recharge my batteries with a dynamic and likeminded group of people. In presenting Ambassador Verveer’s award, Rabbi Harold Schulweis, co-founder of Jewish World Watch, offered eloquent and inspirational words for us to take to heart as we deepen our commitments to social change:

“What draws us together, what binds the sacred work of the Women for Women International and the American Jewish World Service and the Jewish World Watch? What gives us the theme that embraces our collaborative vision this evening? Witness. The mandate to “Witness” stems from the ancient prophetic imperative found in the prophesy of Isaiah: “Atem aydai, neum adonai, v’ani elohim.”

“You are my witness, says the Lord, and I am God.”

What relationship have these two together? What has the human witness to do with the affirmation of the presence of God? The sages explain that God said, “When you bear witness, I am as God. But when you do not bear witness, I am as it were no God.”

Without the testimony of humankind, the divine is driven from the earth. If in the presence of evil we bite our lips to keep silence, if in the presence of evil we shrug our shoulders in despair, we lock God in Heaven behind an iron wall. When we act deaf, dumb and blind, God is segregated – the divine is exiled, Godliness is rendered impotent, and we are cut off.

But, the Psalmist sang, “The heavens are the heavens of the Lord; but the earth has He given to humankind.”

This is our earth. This is our moment. This is our family, our children, our wives, our sisters, our mothers, our grandmothers.

This is our witness: We have seen the bloody machete of the predator, heard the shrieks of the frightened children, smelled the putrefaction of abandoned bodies. To see, hear and smell the human tragedy is to know. But not as reporters, or statisticians, or observers, or onlookers, or bystanders, but as witnesses. Statistics do not bleed.  Numbers do not cry. Photos are not tortured. But these are human beings, and we are human witnesses. To be witness is not simply to know how to count, but how to respond, how to act, how to intervene.

Cover her nakedness, bind her lacerations, salve her burns, staunch her hemorrhage, feed her starvation.

There is an existential logic in witnessing. I am witness, therefore, I am. I am witness, therefore you are. We are witness, therefore civilization need not die.

For it is not only against genocide that we struggle. We struggle against suicide, against the killing of conscience. Raising others from death and dying, we raise ourselves up on the elbows of hope and faith.

There are whispers of fatigue and cool winds of exhaustion and disillusionment. Have we grown bored of this manmade barrenness? Has genocide lost for us its novelty?    Have we learned to yawn at human tragedy?

We have come together to elevate our energies, to remember that the universe has a heart, that there is depth of human goodness found in sifting through the ashes of hate.

Tonight we are joined together in recognition of goodness, of the work, life and aspiration of Ambassador Melanne Verveer. You, dear friend, have brought us together. You have given voice to the strangled sound of the voiceless. You have taught us universal truths embedded in our traditions:

  • First, that there was, is and always will be an alternative to passive compliance with tyranny.
  • Second, that silence in the midst of the noise of hatred, violence and terror is a complicit lethal response.
  • Third, that ours is to awaken the slumbering angels of the better selves of human beings.

Ambassador, the shofar – the symbolic presentation we offer you – is the oldest surviving type of wind instrument mentioned in the bible. It is sounded at the year of jubilee – on the 50th year proclaiming emancipation from all forms of slavery and from life-long poverty.

There are many voices in the shofar: “Tekiah,” awake. Let not habit dull your minds, nor comfort harden your hearts. Arouse yourself from self-satisfaction, from callousness and self-righteousness.

“Shevarim-teruah,” the broken refrain. The staccato cry, the echoes of sighing and weeping from the deprived, the neglected, the enslaved, the bruised, the broken.  Open our ears to the cries of the abandoned.

“Teruah,” the call to battle. The struggle against evil and suffering. Give bread to those who hunger. Give strength to those who stumble. Give time to the forsaken. Heal the wounded. Comfort the bereaved.

“Tekiah g’dolah,” For a new age, a new tomorrow.

We who hear the sobbing of broken women and trembling children – ours, the repair of the broken vessels, Ours the mending of the torn fabric of our planet.

We are witnesses, and you dear friend, you are a blessing to the families of the earth.

Do you live in the Los Angeles area? Want to learn more about AJWS’s work to empower women and girls in the developing world? Join us at the Skirball Cultural Center on January 22nd.

Allison Lee is the Los Angeles Regional Director of American Jewish World Service.