Dead young men – a Rabbi’s perspective

Rabbi Arthur Ocean Waskow

Rabbi Arthur Ocean Waskow

Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia is one of the more interesting religious leaders of our time. Views from the Edge republishes this week’s “Shalom Report” with permission.

Dead Young Men: 50 Years Ago and Now

Spirals of Violence — or Nonviolence

Dear friends,

I spent several days last week in Mississippi –Mourning the murders of three young men

  • 50 years ago (and many others before and since);
  • Celebrating a Mississippi that today is very different;
  • Facing the truth that Earth and human communities –– especially, still, those of color and of poverty –- are being deeply wounded by the Carbon Pharaohs’ exploitation and oppression;
  • Talking/ working toward a future of joyful community in which Mother Earth and her human children can live in peace with each other in the embrace of One Breath.

And then, a few days later, came the news of the murders of three young men just weeks ago –- three Israeli youngsters — their bodies, like those of Mickey Schwerner, Andy Goodman, and James Earl Chaney, hidden while the search went forward for them.

But not only them. The violent deaths of young Palestinian boys/men as well, during the Israeli Army crack-down on the West Bank. Their mothers also mourning. As the New York Times reported the day before the three Israeli bodies were discovered:

“Most Israelis see the missing teenagers as innocent civilians captured on their way home from school, and the Palestinians who were killed as having provoked soldiers. Palestinians, though, see the very act of attending yeshiva in a West Bank settlement as provocation, and complain that the crackdown is collective punishment against a people under illegal occupation.”

Is there a danger of “moral relativism” in mentioning these deaths together? Is the cold-blooded murder of three hitchhiking youngsters morally equivalent to killings carried out by angry, frightened soldiers faced with a protesting mob? At the individual level, No.

But at the level of decision-making and public policy, there is also no moral equivalence between a cold-blooded military occupation and the impotent rage of the occupied.

Above all, there is no “relativism” in the tears of mothers.

Some Israelis and some Palestinians have joined their sorrow over the killings of their own children to work in the Circle of Bereaved Families for a peace that would end the killing. (See

Others –-including some Israeli cabinet ministers in the last day — have defined their deaths as the warrant for more killing.

But Mississippi did not change through threats like that. It changed because an aroused American citizenry from outside Mississippi allied itself with the oppressed community inside Mississippi to demand – through nonviolent direct action and through passing laws — that an oppressed population of black folk be freed to achieve some measure of political power.

As a result of that arousal, the deaths 50 years ago have made a visible difference. Fifty years ago, a scant few black Mississippians had been allowed to register to vote. As the “Freedom Summer + 50” gathering opened last week, thousands of black Mississippians who are devoted to the Democratic Party intervened in a Republican primary to prevent the nomination and for-sure election of a far-right Tea Party candidate.

Important change? Yes. Enough change? No.

In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, no sufficiently powerful outside energy has made the commitment to bring all its lawful, nonviolent power to bear to achieve a two-state peace. So the violence worsens in a downward spiral of injustice.

What the gathering in Mississippi showed was that even when change is still necessary, even when injustice still continues, there can be an upward spiral, growing from past transformations into future ones.

For the gathering at Tougaloo College addressed the future as much as the past. The memory of youthful deaths so many years ago –- we recited their names, we sang their songs, we welcomed their families — became the celebration of youthful courage that had led to serious change. So not only many veterans of 1964 were there, but also many many young activists, come to learn and be inspired.

So we addressed the injustices that persist, and we took up some levels of injustice that fifty years ago were not on anyone’s agenda. Even Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962, did not envision a massive disruption of the planetary climate system and the web of life it has nurtured for millions of years.

So there was a confluence of issues almost unimaginable in 1964 when Jacqueline Patterson of the NAACP staff brought together two excellent workshops on ”climate justice.” They were the first climate–action settings I have ever seen in which people of color — Black and Hispanic and Asian and Native — were at least half of those present.

Many spoke of two clear cases in their own region when the fossil-fuel Pharaohs had shattered the lives of poor communities of color even worse than they had damaged prosperous whites:

  • How Hurricane Katrina (which was greatly worsened by the oil rigs that chopped up marshy wetlands that used to absorb much of the energy of hurricanes when they hit land) had most damaged the poor folk who were living closer to the river (because houses were cheaper there).
  • And how poor folk also were the slowest and still the least served by relief and reconstruction efforts after the BP Oil blow-out in the Gulf.

And we learned as well how on a global level the overheating of our planet was hurting and killing the poor even worse than others: How droughts in California, the US corn-belt, central Africa, and Russia had raised the price of staple foods so badly that those who were teetering on the edge in poverty fell into hunger, and those who had been hungry faced starvation. And some who were starving fought civil wars to get their hands on food.
We discussed alternatives for climate activism. Some of us talked about the model of the “Freedom Schools that emerged in 1964, teaching where the impulses to learn and teach were deeply interwoven with the impulse to heal the world. Those Freedom Schools helped give birth to the Teach-Ins against the Vietnam War that flowered in the spring of ’65.

Could we create new Freedom Schools, new Teach-Ins, to fuse the science of climate and the facts of Corporate Carbon domination with the strategies of change? Was our gathering itself a kind of Freedom School, a Teach-In, with the young and the old teaching each other?

And Freedom Summer inspired co-ops, the redirection of our money from feeding bloated corporate power to nourishing the seeds of a grass-roots economic democracy. In that spirit, I shared The Shalom Center’s campaign to Move Our Money/Protect Our Planet (MOM/POP) and handed out copies of our “Action Handbook” on specific steps for how to Move Our Money. See

All of us learned more deeply how important it is to recognize and act on the true linkage of what we might call eco-social justice.

And we learned that what happened fifty years ago in Mississippi sowed the seeds of our ability to recognize and resist new depredations of today. We saw how deeply the nonviolent movement of fifty years before had, even when some of its activists were killed, given continuing birth to nonviolent responses to make more necessary change.

I ended one of those workshops by invoking the spirit of Vincent Harding. If he had not died just a month ago, I said, he would have been deeply pleased by our intergenerational learning, and he would have brought his own deep listening and the quiet with which he surrounded his own wise words.

And most of all, he would have brought his willingness to invest his life in the effort to use nonviolence to expand democracy, to win justice for those who have been oppressed.

And now, in the wake of the news from Palestine and Israel, his ghostly, powerful presence actually reminds me of the Unity of that long effort. For just two summers ago, Brother Vincent took part in a delegation of American Jews and Blacks to visit the occupied West Bank and bring hope to Palestinians committed to nonviolence.

Brother Vincent would have wept over the deaths of the young men of both peoples. As do I.

May the tears we shed become the wellsprings of transformation, not revenge — as they did in Mississippi.

And may we teach the intertwinement of eco-social justice, learning anew from Freedom Summer’s creativity to go beyond our forebears — as they did.

Shalom, salaam, paz, peace! — Arthur

2 thoughts on “Dead young men – a Rabbi’s perspective

  1. This is very thoughtful. As I mentioned in my comment on your sermon, I read emails from Jewish Voices for Peace, so have given thought to this.

    I do have a problem in comparing the two situations. The struggle for civil rights in this country was fought almost entirely non-violently. What’s more, the origin of the struggle added to one’s assurance in supporting the cause. One could support it whole-heartedly, with no reservations.

    The rest of this is more or less an expansion of my comment on your sermon. Given how busy you are I probably shouldn’t have written it. I was trying, once more to clarify things in my own mind.

    The struggle between the Israelis and Palestinians has been prosecuted with violence on both sides. While it is true that the Israelis have killed many more than the Palestinians, it seems to me that this is only because the Palestinians lack the fire power, not that they lack the will. In addition, and on the other side to some extent, the origin of the trouble is fraught with extraordinarily difficult moral factors. Anyone who is old enough to remember the holocaust, and well-read enough to remember the many other pogroms against the Jews as a people must acknowledge that their desire for a country of their own is more than understandable, is worthy of sympathy. I don’t know how the United Nations decided where the country should be, and what its borders, but it appears certain that the people living on that land in 1948 were not consulted. So right away there is great difficulty. There was fighting almost from the beginning.

    I hope, of course, that there will be peace. But how?? I am stumped. I can’t think of any way that peace can be brought about given the ill will on both sides. The most one can do is comment on things that definitely prevent peace. Building more settlements in territory that, by the peace process, should be Palestine definitely does not help. Bulldozing whole houses, sometimes many houses of Palestinian people does not help. Shooting rockets at Israel when they do make concessions does not help. Claiming Israel doesn’t exist and speaking of driving The Jews into the sea does not help. Refusing to allow food and medical supplies to reach the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip does not help.

    Without any humor at all, I AM SO CONFUSED.


    • Carolyn, Confusion, I think, is the most appropriate response. Maybe a better word is tragedy in the sense Reinhold Niebhur used it. There is no moral high ground here. It’s a mess; it’s messy; and there is no one right thing to do. Confession is the first step for the likes of us, I suspect. Anyway, your comments are so poignant. Thank you for sharing. BTW, I’m not all that busy! -:) Just loquacious.


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