Texts: Isaiah 11: 1-6
Matthew 18: 1-7
No Way to Treat a Child
One of the pleasures of the Advent Season is that it provides opportunities to reflect upon some of the most familiar characters that populate the pages of the Bible, whether shepherds or struggling parents, inn keepers or aged church goers, homicidal rulers or traveling sages. We return to these characters not merely from sentimental habit, but because each of the characters in the Advent and Christmas saga is symbolic of some important dimension of the human experience. I’ll be concentrating on several of those characters, and our relationship to each of them, in the coming weeks.
Today, I’d like to focus on the character of the nameless child written about in Isaiah’s prophecy, a child who is ever and always to come. In the passage we heard earlier, Isaiah describes a future moment of peace, in which the wolf will lie down with the lamb. The most salient part of Isaiah’s vision is found in the phrase, “and a little child shall lead them.” For generations, that image has been superimposed upon the birth narrative of Jesus found in Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels, and rightly so. We do believe that something life and world altering took place in that birth.
But you’ll note that Isaiah’s passage isn’t specific. It doesn’t provide us with names. That lack of specificity gestures toward what the Harvard psychologist Robert Coles described as “the moral life of children.” Often, children possess greater moral and ethical clarity than their adult counterparts. It was Robert Coles who first reported the story of Ruby Bridges, a story I shared with you earlier this fall. As a six year old girl, Ruby helped an entire nation to understand just how terrible the system of Jim Crow segregation was. It took the quiet dignity and vulnerability of a child to shake adults out of their slumber, helping our country to inch just a little closer to the vision we read and reread every Advent season. And behold, a child shall lead them.
Today I’d like to share with you yet another way that Isaiah’s vision continues to unfold in our time. I’d like to speak about another instance when the quiet dignity and vulnerability of children might lead us closer to Isaiah’s dream. It involves the work of our congregation, the work of our denomination, and ultimately, the work of each and every one of us. Today I’d like to share how the vulnerability of children in Palestine might lead us to take bold steps toward enacting the kind of world we want to bequeath to our children, and our children’s children.
Many of you know that last January, I took my daughter Sabina with me on our Tree of Life journey to Palestine. It was the third time I had been to Palestine in as many years, but experiencing it with a 9 year old felt like a wholly different experience. I felt more vulnerable than I had in the past, because I was traveling with someone who was precious to me, and who needed my care. But it also had the effect of rendering me a good deal more vulnerable to all we saw and experienced on our journey. Sabina’s presence drew children into our orbit in a way that I hadn’t fully tracked before, and suddenly I sensed how precarious life could be for an 8 year old, a 10 year old, a 14 year old. At one point, we walked down a steep hill into the village of Silwan, just outside the old city of Jerusalem. It’s a village designated for particular abuse, because settlers wish to claim it as the ancient City of David, and so residents are harassed with depressing frequency. While we were there, we heard stories from parents whose children had been arrested or detained, interrogated or tortured. Those stories, and others just like it, of Palestinian children singled out and abused for the crime simply of being filled me with incredible sadness, and I wound up hugging Sabina all the harder at the end of each day. Being with Sabina on that journey made me extraordinarily aware of just how much anxiety must come from raising a child in the West Bank, or in East Jerusalem.
That’s why a number of clergy and laypeople within our denomination are working to pass a resolution concerning the treatment of children in Palestine. It so happens that our congregation has an important part to play. Last month, our deacons voted to endorse the resolution, making us one of the first communities in the country to adopt it. Since that time, we’ve been asked to become the lead congregation in presenting that resolution to the General Synod, a recognition of the leadership Old Lyme has offered on this issue for more than 15 years.
Let me say briefly a word or two about what’s in the resolution. It calls upon the state of Israel to guarantee due process to all children and to refrain from abusive practices like nighttime arrests of a child within their home, physical and verbal abuse, strip searches, solitary confinement, coerced confessions written in Hebrew, and separation of children from their parents and legal counselors. These are all tactics used by the Israeli military as a means of intimidating and subduing Palestinians, in effect, using children as leverage to insure that Palestinian communities remain docile. These are tactics that have been well documented by international human rights agencies. Our resolution asks the General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ to communicate with the Prime Minister of Israel and the Israeli Ambassador to the United States, requesting that those practices be eliminated. But more than that, it calls upon the United States to withhold all military aid from the State of Israel due to its treatment of Palestinian children. That would actually bring the United States into compliance with its own laws, in this case something called the US Foreign Assistance Act. And finally, our resolution calls upon the United States to join with 194 other nations that have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, a way of insisting that we in the US have a vested interest in upholding the basic humanity of children, both here and abroad. These are real and demonstrable ways of being led by the dignity and vulnerability of children to enact a future worth inhabiting.
Beth Miller has been working on these issues for some time now with Defense of Children International – Palestine. DCI is an organization that we meet with nearly every time we visit Palestine, and they do powerful work in documenting exactly what the effects of the occupation are among children. Beth comes from a Jewish background, which helps underscore that this is an issue that can and should unite people of all faiths, and people with no particular faith tradition as well. We’re privileged to have Beth with us this morning, and I hope you’ll welcome her warmly.
Good morning. Thank you all for inviting me to be here. I’m honored to join you, especially today, as we are bringing children into our thoughts.
I work for an organization called Defense for Children International – Palestine. We’re a local, independent, Palestinian non-profit. Almost all of my colleagues are Palestinian legal aid attorneys and human rights monitors, living in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, or Gaza. My job is to be here. Speaking to communities like yours across the U.S.
I’m here today to speak with you about an issue we’ve been working on for decades, but one that is becoming increasingly urgent: Israeli military detention of Palestinian children.
Israel has a dubious distinction: it is the only country in the world that systematically arrests, detains, and prosecutes around 700 Palestinian children in the Israeli military court system every year. Three out of four of these children are subject to physical violence – ill-treatment and sometimes torture – at the hands of Israeli soldiers at some point following their arrest.
How can this take place? Why does this happen? I hope you’ll bear with me as I take a moment to explain the legal framework that exists in the West Bank to help give us an understanding of the context in which this practice occurs. Palestinians in the West Bank have been living under Israeli military law since 1967. There are over 1700 individual military orders that make up the law that governs live for Palestinians. And one of those gives Israeli soldiers the right to arrest Palestinian children without a warrant, and without any legal oversight.
Effectively, if you are a Palestinian child in the West Bank, you can be arrested at any time, for any reason, if an Israel soldier wants to arrest you.
I say the West Bank is under military law. Actually, there are two systems of law that operate in the West Bank. One for Palestinians and one for Israeli settlers. So there is one territory, with two legal systems, and the only thing that determines if you fall under military or civilian law – one with less rights and one with more – is if you are Palestinian or Israeli.
For Palestinian children, the most common charge against them is throwing stones. This is an act that is explicitly criminalized under Israeli military law. It’s important for us to think about this. If I were to go outside today and throw a stone at someone, I might be charged with assault. I wouldn’t be charged with the act of ‘throwing a stone’. Throwing a stone is not the crime. In the West Bank, for Palestinian children, the act of throwing the stone is, itself, criminalized.
Many children are arrested at night – between midnight and 5:00am. They are taken from their homes without their parents being told why they are being taken or where they’re being taken. They are blindfolded, their hands are painfully bound behind their backs, and they are put into the back of a military jeep and taken to a nearby Israeli police detention center. There, they will be interrogated – without a lawyer or parent – by Israeli soldiers and police officers.
In the decades we’ve been doing this work, we’ve found that ill-treatment of Palestinian children is widespread, it’s systematic, and it’s institutionalized. This is important to emphasize because we’re not talking about a few bad apples, or a rogue soldier who crosses a line. We’re talking about a system that operates exactly as it was intended.
Every stage of the process is designed to coerce a confession from the child. We see verbal threats and abuse to the child and their family – confess to throwing stones or I’ll arrest your brother, confess to throwing stones or I’ll revoke your father’s work permit in Jerusalem – and we see physical violence including slapping, punching, kicking, position abuse, and sometimes worse, including solitary confinement for extended periods of time.
Over the last year, we’ve seen rapidly escalating violence on the ground. And when this happens, it is always Palestinian children who bear the brunt of this violence. It is always Palestinian children who bear the greatest weight of the military occupation.
The number of Palestinian children in Israeli military detention has skyrocketed. We normally see an average of 200 Palestinian children held in Israeli prisons each month. At the end of February of last year, there were 440 Palestinian children in Israeli prisons. That is more than double the usual average, and it is the highest number we’ve seen since data first became available to us in 2008. This is unprecedented.
Another disturbing development over the last year is that Israeli authorities have renewed their use of administrative detention against Palestinian children for the first time in four years. Administrative detention is a process whereby a child is detained without charge or trial, renewable indefinitely. Since October 2015, administrative detention has been used against at least 20 Palestinian children.
If there is one thing I want you to take away from this talk today, it is this: this is not a justice system. This is not a system that seeks the actual truth of an incident. It is a system designed to control a population. It is the part of the legal arm of a military occupation. Think about the effects this has on each child. And on their siblings. Their parents. Their friends. Their school. Entire communities are affected.
This is a hard topic to discuss. It’s hard to talk about and it’s hard to learn about. So I want to wrap up by explaining to you why I do this work. I’m an American, born and raised in Chicago, and I’m Jewish. And to many people, that last part is surprising. That an American Jewish person has opted into working for a Palestinian human rights organization.
I think it makes perfect sense. For as long as I can remember, my religion and my Jewish community has lifted up one idea over everything: universal liberation and universal justice. We are not free until everyone is free. Until no one is oppressed. And beyond that, we are obligated to work to get there. To paraphrase a recent sermon from my childhood and current rabbi, Rabbi Brant Rosen: We cannot sit passively by and wait for the world to be the way we want. We have to actively model the world we seek.
I was also always taught that, specifically as Jews – a group of people who know oppression – we have to quicker to recognize it and fight against it whenever and wherever we see that oppression of others. No matter how hard that may be. I lived in Palestine, and there was no doubt of what I was seeing. You cannot witness things – like the process I’ve just described – and not immediately understand what’s happening and know you must fight to change it. It’s quite jarring to see the behavior of a nation state that claims to be acting in my name but so clearly represents what we have long be taught to struggle against.
Human rights and social justice work is hard. And it’s heartbreaking. It’s slow-moving. But it is so heartening to see action from communities, like yours and increasingly others around this country, that have long been part of the fight for human rights and social justice and that are willing to bravely speak out on an issue that’s not always so popular to discuss in the U.S.
So it’s really been an honor to speak with you all today. Thank you.
Steve Jungkeit – conclusion
Advent is the season of expectation and waiting, a season in which we imagine and work for a world fit for the habitation of the Christ child, and of your children and mine. In his letter from the Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King famously wrote that “injustice somewhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” And so I’d like to conclude by offering a word about how all of this affects us here at home.
Over the last several weeks, I’ve spent a lot of time visiting communities and talking to individuals who feel especially vulnerable after all the poisonous rhetoric of the Presidential campaign. And I’ve heard a good many stories about how that rhetoric has affected not only adults, but children as well. At a community meeting in East Haddam, Carleen and I heard a story from a Muslim mother, who won’t allow her young son even to suggest that he’s Muslim while at school, for fear of what his classmates might do and say to him. Fear leads her to keep him, in effect, closeted. We heard from a woman of color, who overheard children in her son’s classroom speaking about how her son would be deported. I heard this past week from a mother whose son had recently been called the “N” word over in Essex. And last night I visited with Syrian refugees in New London who are feeling jittery about their future in this country, to say nothing of their children’s future. Whether you believe all of the rhetoric of the campaign will be enacted or not, I would ask that you consider the voices of those parents here in our region who worry about their children. I believe we have a moral and spiritual obligation to pay attention to those voices, to listen and to respond to those testimonies as best we can. We have an ethical obligation to do our part to insure that ours is a world, and a region, where children can grow up without fear, without being exposed to public degradation, without intimidation or harassment as features of their lives.
That’s why we put those signs up in front of the Meetinghouse. It’s a visible way of saying to the communities we’ve named in each sign: “We understand that you feel vulnerable and exposed right now. We know that your existence feels a little more uncertain right now. And we’re with you. We’ll stand with you.” We won’t leave the signs up forever, and I know that a few of you will be glad to see them go. And we’ll have to find other ways of showing our support for those vulnerable communities, ways that go beyond mere signs. But for now, I believe it’s important to make those affirmations, and to make them publicly.
I also believe that we need to be bold in our proclamations concerning children in Palestine. We’ll need your support as we make plans to present our resolution to the UCC General Synod this summer. The convention takes place in late June, and if there are any who would like to travel to Baltimore to be a part of the process, we should talk about that. If there are any who would like to travel to Israel and Palestine this coming March to witness firsthand just what it is we’re addressing, then we should talk about that as well. But more than that, just know that having your support, your good will, and your encouragement as we attempt to model the kind of community and the kind of world that the prophet Isaiah once envisioned is incredibly valuable. It’s not always easy to model that world, and so please know that your encouragement matters.
We each have a role to play, in large and small ways, locally and beyond the local, as we attempt to make room this Advent for the child who would lead us into that hopeful future. As the words from Handel’s Messiah put it, “Unto us a child is born. Unto us a son (or daughter) is given.” God help us to be worthy of that gift.