Palestinians escalate hunger-strike in Israel jails


Hundreds of Palestinians on hunger strike in Israeli jails said on Friday they would shun vitamin supplements and prison clinics in an escalation of their mass protest against detention conditions.

“We swear we will not retreat. We are potential martyrs. Either we live in dignity or die,” prisoner organizers said in a letter announcing the move and which was read out by Ismail Haniyeh, head of the Islamist Hamas government in the Gaza Strip, during a demonstration.

An estimated 1,600 inmates out of 4,800 launched the hunger strike on April 17 to demand improved conditions in Israeli custody, such as an end to solitary confinement and more family visits. They have also challenged Israel’s policy of indefinite detention without charge of suspected Palestinian militants.

The fate of the hunger strikers has touched a raw nerve among Palestinians, with daily support rallies in the West Bank and Gaza, and political leaders warning that Israel could face new violence should any prisoner die.

Dozens of Palestinians, including militants and politicians who had served terms in Israeli jails in the past, have gone on hunger strikes in tents put up in solidarity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which witnessed daily heavy attendance by residents and visitors from Arab and foreign countries.

The prisoners include Islamists from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which reject peace with the Jewish state, as well as members of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s secular and Western-backed Fatah movement.

Israel says all prisoners receive adequate medical attention, including in civilian hospitals if required.

A Prisons Service spokeswoman said there was no immediate sign of the hunger strike being stepped up.

“As of now, I know that those who should be receiving extra care are receiving it,” the spokeswoman, Sivan Weizman, said.

Defending its so-called “administrative detention” policy, Israel says some cases cannot immediately be brought to open court for fear of exposing Palestinian intelligence sources that have cooperated with Israeli security organs against militants.

Two inmates who helped launch the hunger strike, Bilal Diab and Thaer Halahla of Islamic Jihad, were in the 74th day of their fast on Friday.

Anat Litvin of Physicians for Human Rights in Israel quoted Halahleh’s doctor as saying his death could be imminent.

“What is very worrisome is the fact that he said that he doesn’t want to be saved if something happens to him and he loses consciousness,” Litvin said, adding that the Prisons Service’s medical facilities might prove inadequate.

“They don’t have the equipment, they don’t have the expertise; constant follow-up that is very much needed is not available,” she told Reuters Television in Tel Aviv.

Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Folk Singer Observes a Pensive ‘Holiday’


Some years ago, folk diva Chava Alberstein discovered therundown immigrant neighborhood around the south Tel Aviv central bus station.For the Israeli superstar, the area became a refuge, a place to stroll or sipcoffee unmolested by fans. The residents were foreign workers from countriessuch as China, Thailand, Nigeria and Romania.

But as their numbers swelled to replace Palestinians afterthe intifada, Alberstein — considered Israel’s Joan Baez — saw conditionsdeteriorating.

“These people are brought to Israel, their passports areconfiscated so they can’t go anywhere and they’re forced to live in the worstsituations,” she said. “You see people crawling out of the most unbelievablehovels. It’s bothered me for a long time.”

So Alberstein, 56, did what one would expect of Baez: Shepoured her indignation into an album. Her new CD, “End of the Holiday” (RounderRecords), due in stores Jan. 13,  provides heartbreaking glimpses into thelives of Israel’s estimated 200,000 foreign workers. In her song “FridayNight,” homesick Romanian men sit at dingy snack bars listening to Gypsy music.In “Real Estate,” laundromats and garbage bins are transformed into workers’lodgings in cramped south Tel Aviv. In “Black Video,” an African house cleanertapes tourist sites, rather than his shabby room, to send home with all hissavings.

Speaking from her Tel Aviv home, Alberstein said she isespecially moved by the foreigners’ plight because she, too, immigrated to Israel.

“It’s important to me that the Jews, who were temporaryresidents of so many countries, should be able to welcome the stranger,” shesaid. “I would love to give other people the chance to make Israel their home,as I’ve made this country my home.”

Alberstein, the daughter of Polish Holocaust survivors,arrived in Israel around 1950 at the age of 4. Her father, a piano teacher, wastoo poor to purchase a piano, so he bought an accordion and made Chava hisfirst pupil. At age 12, Alberstein was riveted by a Pete Seeger concert andbegged her father for a guitar; he procured for her a used one from a sailor inHaifa. Several years later, she was inspired by American folk musicians whodrew on their ethnic roots to put out her debut album in Yiddish. It wasconsidered a bold, even controversial move in the Hebrew-dominated state.

Nevertheless, the singer-songwriter went on to record almost50 albums and become one of Israel’s most celebrated folk icons, along withartists such as Shlomo Artzi and Yehoram Gaon. “She is the same age as hercountry, and she has captured its growing pangs in her music,” said SimonRutberg of Hatikvah Music in Los Angeles.

Indeed, Alberstein’s dusky alto has often served as a voiceof conscience for the Jewish state: Her “Chad Gadya,” a scathing riff on thePassover tune, admonished Israel for perpetuating the cycle of violence duringthe first intifada. The 1989 song was virtually banned from the radio and ledto canceled concerts and threatening phone calls to Alberstein.

More recently, the folk artist returned to her immigrantroots by writing songs based on Yiddish poems and recording them with theKlezmatics. The resulting CD, 1999’s “The Well,” drew critical praise in theUnited States, as did Alberstein’s cabaret-flavored “Foreign Letters,” recordedin Yiddish, Hebrew and English.

She wasn’t intending to begin a new album two years ago,when her husband, filmmaker Nadav Levitan, showed her poems he had writtenabout foreign workers.

“I thought I was resting,” she said. But then Albersteinread his work, which included “Vera From Bucharest,” about a caretaker strandedwhen her elderly charge dies. “I cried when I read the poems, and I knew I hadto set them to music,” she said.

Alberstein infused the songs with melodies she had heard onthe streets of south Tel Aviv: Romanian strains for “Vera,” for example, andAfrican rhythms for “Black Video.” But while the album is melancholy, she said,it is not about despair.

“It’s about people who are desperate, and who findthemselves in a bad place, but who are struggling to make their lives better,”she said.

The album has been well received in Israel, according toAlberstein.

“It’s accepted with enthusiasm, especially by young peoplewho realize there are so many issues we don’t deal with as we tend to obsessonly about war and peace,” she said. “Because of the political situation … weoften forget there are other people with other problems in the world. Andsometimes they are just around the corner.”

For more information about Alberstein, visit www.aviv2.com/chava.

Europe’s Harms to China’s Arms


Just when it seems that all the World War II and Holocaust stories have been told, a little-known tale from a far corner of the world comes along to add another dimension to the saga of the Shoah.

The powerful documentary film, "Shanghai Ghetto," is one such story — a fascinating look at what might have been simply a footnote to history had not a daughter of one who lived the story come forward to tell it.

Filmmaker Dana Janklowicz-Mann’s father, Harold, was 8 years old when he left Germany with his divorced mother following Kristallnacht, just steps ahead of the Holocaust. They sailed on a strange surrealistic cruise on a Japanese luxury liner through the Suez Canal around India to China, where they disembarked in Shanghai. Together with some 20,000 other German and Austrian Jews, China was to be their home throughout the war years and beyond.

Now, Jacklowicz-Mann who grew up shuttling between Israel and the United States with her partner and husband, Amir Mann, a sabra who attended NYU Film School, have vividly and powerfully filmed the story as a documentary about the formation of a small Jewish community of exiles in an exotic land. Using their life savings and borrowing heavily, the couple managed to come up with the cash to shoot the documentary on a shoestring budget.

For German Jews trapped in a land that didn’t want them and was about to kill millions of them, Shanghai offered a window of escape, but one that would surely close — and soon. "Jewish men were being picked up and put into concentration camps," Janklowicz-Mann explained. "They were told you have ‘X’ amount of time to leave — two weeks, a month — if you can find a country that will take you. Outside, their wives and friends were struggling to get a passport, a visa, anything to help them get them out. But embassies were closing their doors all over, and countries, including the United States, were closing their borders."

And then suddenly a sliver of hope appeared.

"It started as a rumor in Vienna," Mann said. "’There’s a place you can go where you don’t need a visa. They have free entry.’ It just spread like fire and whoever could went for it."

It wasn’t that the Chinese deliberately set out to help the Jews of Europe, it was simply that among the warring colonial factions who ran Shanghai — the French, the British, the Japanese — no one wanted to control the passport department because no one wanted to take ultimate responsibility for the chaotic province. And in chaos lay an escape route for the Jews.

Upon arrival, these citizens of Europe’s finest Western cities found incredibly crowded conditions — 10 to a room, little food, sanitation or employment.

"Can you imagine how shocking it was for someone from what was then the height of European culture to land in Shanghai," Mann said. "We show the culture shock in the documentary. And, you know, even today when we were filming in China, there’s something about the scenery, the plants, the people — you feel like you’re in a very foreign place. It’s very, very different."

But they also discovered a Jewish community that had come to Shanghai long before they had, and who would become their support. A wealthy Baghdadi Jewish community that had been in China since the 1870s following the Opium Wars, and the Russians that came in 1917 fleeing the revolution.

"Shanghai was a cheaper place to survive but the refugees were often living on 5 cents a day," Janklowicz-Mann said. "The Baghdadis opened up communal kitchens, hospitals and homes for them."

Just when the newcomers were adjusting to the harshness of their new lives, things got worse: The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, allied with the Germans and confined the Jews to a ghetto from where it became virtually impossible to travel to work or find food.

The film captures the full poignancy of the story by going back to a virtually unchanged Shanghai with two survivors of the original migration, and through interviews with others now living in the United States and Israel.

Sequestered in their ghetto, the Jews of Shanghai had no idea of the horrors being perpetrated in the countries they had left. Most of the families left behind had been completely wiped out. "They had concentrated on the misery of life in Shanghai and, lo and behold, after the war they found out they were living in paradise compared to what had happened to their brethren in Europe," one historian says in the film.

Why has this fascinating story taken so long to tell?

"I think for quite a few years after the war there was some survival guilt," Janklowicz-Mann said, "because they had lost their entire families and they were still here."

Mann agreed. "They didn’t tell the stories. They went on with their lives," he said.

Sukkot and Our Duty to Alleviate Poverty


This Friday marks the end of the celebration of Sukkot. The word Sukkot, of course, means “booths,” and refers to the temporary dwellings that we spent the past week eating, singing and even sleeping in. We remember the wandering of the Jews in the desert and celebrate the fall harvest season. As we spent the past week in the sukkah — with its fragile walls and a ceiling made of leaves and branches — we reflected on the fragility of our lives and our possessions and, perhaps, we thought about those who are not as fortunate.

Although our harvest is bountiful indeed, not all Americans share in it: 5.4 million American families live in unsafe or unhealthy housing conditions. That number pales next to the 31 million Americans today who are hungry, or at immediate risk of hunger. Even those who receive government assistance remain in need: 58 percent of employed former welfare recipients have incomes below the poverty line.

Just as the rhythms of our Jewish calendar have us thinking about our many blessings and those who remain mired in poverty, the congressional calendar is now turning to consideration of the most important federal anti-poverty program. Last week, more than half of the members of the Senate signed a letter asking Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) to bring welfare reform reauthorization to the floor of the Senate chamber for a vote before the end of the 107th Congress. The bill, titled, the “Work, Opportunity and Responsibility for Kids Act of 2002” (WORK), has bipartisan support. The Senate bill is a strong improvement over the current welfare system and a strong improvement over the welfare reform bill passed by the House of Representatives in May. The House bill would increase the number of hours per week of work required of welfare recipients, while limiting the availability of education and training and other services required to make employment viable and attainable. At the same time, the meager increase in funding for childcare falls way below the $4.5 billion that is needed just to maintain current childcare services, which are provided to only one-seventh of families who are in need.

The WORK bill would maintain the current work week for welfare recipients, increase childcare funding by $5.5 billion, give states the option to restore welfare benefits to legal immigrants, encourage more education and training and make it easier for individuals to receive substance abuse treatment and mental health counseling. While significantly better than the House bill, this bill would leave many millions without child care. Currently, only about 2 million of the 15 million eligible for child-care services actually receive help. The Senate bill would provide child-care assistance for only an estimated 100,000 more low-income children than the current program. No parent should be forced to choose between losing benefits because they are not working and leaving their children alone because the parent has to work.

The Torah and the Jewish tradition teach us that providing for the poor is not a matter of charity but an obligation. “If … there is a needy person among you … do not harden your heart and shut your hand…. Rather, you must open your hand and lend whatever is sufficient” (Deuteronomy 15:7-11).

As Jews and Americans, we should require nothing less from our government today. In a land where one in three children will be poor at some point during their childhood, we can and must do better.

As Sukkot comes to an end, so too does the 107th Congress. The circumstances could not be more urgent. It is crucial that comprehensive welfare legislation pass this year, since budget constraints will make it even more difficult to pass legislation that would positively affect families next year. With the lessons and experience of Sukkot fresh in our minds, let us remember those who do not share in our prosperity. Let us help spread a sukat shalom, a shelter of peace and healing, over those who most need our help. And let us join with them to encourage the Senate to pass just and humane welfare reform during this session.

Rabbi David Saperstein is the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Rachel Wainer is the legislative assistant at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism focusing on economic justice issues.

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