Witness as Transformation

Just Thought is a series of essays from AJWS applying Jewish wisdom to the pursuit of tikkun olam today. Drawing upon Jewish history, Torah sources and the latest headlines, we plumb pressing questions about human rights and global justice from a Jewish perspective through monthly essays by noted scholars, activists and AJWS staff.

The treatment of children on our southern border has many Americans asking—“Why?” Why are so many children being separated from their families, kept in detention and treated like criminals? How could 8-year-old Felipe Gomez Alonzo and 7-year-old Jakelin Caal, both from Guatemala, have died in our custody? On our watch?

I have been to the southern border and to shelters in Mexico to witness the human suffering and the injustice done to vulnerable people fleeing in search of a better life. And I recently went to Guatemala with American Jewish World Service to understand what people are running from in the first place. I went because my tradition calls me to respond to suffering, and my history calls me to respond to the cries of the stranger.

The people of Guatemala and their children are no longer strangers to me.

As we arrived, I witnessed activists demanding a better future for Guatemala. Thousands were protesting in the streets against their president, Jimmy Morales, who is known to have sided with those responsible for the genocide and 36-year internal armed conflict that claimed 200,000 lives between 1960 and 1996. Morales had kicked out the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a U.N.-supported international watchdog group that was having great success holding corrupt leaders accountable for their crimes.

At the same time, two devastating bills were being introduced. One would free those who have been imprisoned for rape and murder during the Guatemalan genocide. The other would limit social change organizations from receiving financial support from outside human-rights groups. Both would add to the suffering of the people and, in turn, increase the flow of migration to our borders.

I also witnessed indigenous people struggling to defend their land from a government that frequently displaces the poor to make room for lucrative development. I witnessed pregnant women living in fear that they would die in childbirth, because there are no hospitals nearby that serve the rural poor.

And I witnessed the repercussions of the egregious role our own government has played in Guatemala’s struggles: In the 1950s the U.S. backed a coup against the democratically elected government that led to decades of repression and instability; In the 1980s, America armed the Guatemalan military as it conducted a genocide against its own people; and today, the Trump administration has voiced its support for Jimmy Morales even as he continues to oppress his citizens and suppress dissent.

All this witnessing and learning deepened my understanding of the roots of their poverty and the desperation that has led to the migration we see at our border today. It also reminded me of the blessing Jews traditionally say upon seeing something awe-inspiring—both beautiful like a rainbow or catastrophic like an earthquake or storm”1. As I traveled around Guatemala, viewing and hearing about its poverty and injustice, I silently said, “Blessed is the One whose strength and might fill the world…. Blessed is the One who made creation.”

This is an example of passive witnessing, like a camera lens that sees and records. We mark the beauty or the suffering so it doesn’t go unnoticed—so it isn’t invisible.

Later on in the trip, I began to yearn for a more active way of witnessing: to be part of transformation, to bring the world toward justice. According to the Mishnah in Sanhedrin”2, the act of observing something and testifying is central to Jewish law. The Mishnah reminds witnesses in capital cases that one who witnesses injustice but does not testify, bears the responsibility for that crime. This kind of witnessing changes the course of the world. By speaking about what you saw, you can bring justice into being.

In the Book of Deuteronomy, God calls upon all of creation to bear witness to the choices we all make. “I call as witness upon you this day heaven and earth, life and the death have I set before you, the blessing and the curse, and [I urge you to] choose the life, so that you live, you and your seed3.” This verse demands of us that we actively witness both the blessings and the curses in the world, and choose to pursue blessing. This will result in life—not just for us, but for generations to come.

It was this model of witnessing that I had in mind with me as our trip shifted from seeing the problems (curses), to learning about remarkable people who are implementing solutions (blessings).

One of these many extraordinary heroes traveled with us. I’ll call him Nelson, to protect his identity, since he risks his life every day to defend human rights in the country. Nelson is AJWS’s “country consultant” in Guatemala, and his job is to support the grantees as they fight for justice in the courts, lift people out of poverty with education, and support hundreds of indigenous midwives who take care of mothers and babies when the state will not provide health care for them.

Nelson himself was born into the 36-year armed conflict that devastated the country between 1960 and 1996, and saw his mother killed before his eyes. His family fled to Mexico, but he returned to work for justice for the indigenous people. He is bright and articulate and, like so many others we met, is the future of a Guatemala free from the debilitating corruption, machismo and racism that currently rule.

Another activist “blessing” was a young Mayan woman named Anna, who traveled 27 hours to meet with us. Anna changed the culture of valuing educated women in her family in just one generation. When she initially pursued advanced education, her family was reluctant. Now, in light of Anna’s bravery, all of her sisters are receiving an education.

While some of these extraordinary activists are committed to remaining in their country to change it from within, others are compelled to leave. Anna asked me what I thought of migration. I told her that America has been made great by people like her; and that I would welcome her with all my heart. But the situation on our southern border make it as dangerous for her to come to America as it is to stay in Guatemala.

Shame on us. We can do better. At the very least, we can put pressure on our representatives to reinstate the UN investigation on corruption in Guatemala—CICIG—and hold the present government accountable if they want our foreign aid.

I’ve thought a lot about witnessing. It’s easier just to see and not be changed. To go back to what was. But this fails to honor Nelson, Anna and all of those whose lives, whose suffering, whose stories of moral courage—both personal and political—we now hold.

What I saw changed me and now drives me to take action. I’ll be speaking out about what’s happening in Guatemala when I visit our representatives in Congress with AJWS this month. I pray that the change in me and in others will bring transformation and, God willing, healing to the broken heart of the world.

Susan TalveRabbi Susan Talve is the founding rabbi of Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis, MO. When other congregations were leaving the city for the suburbs, she and a small group came together to keep a vibrant presence in the city and to be on the front lines of fighting the racism and poverty plaguing the urban center. Rabbi Talve continues to lead her congregation, now a large diverse community, in promoting radical inclusivity by developing ongoing relationships with African-American and Muslim congregations and by fostering civil liberties for the LGBTQ community. Rabbi Talve attributes her success to the relationships she has built by showing up—on street corners where violent crime has taken lives; at rallies for worker’s rights, gun control and access to health care; and at the bedsides of the suffering, regardless of religion or membership in her community.

1 Mishnah Berachot 9:2

2 Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5

3 Deuteronomy 30:19

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