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Why we invited Rasmea Odeh to our conference

(RNS) As a Jew, a rabbi and deputy director at Jewish Voice for Peace, I want to be part of creating cultures and societies centered on justice. That's why I stand behind the invitation of a Palestinian convicted of bombings in Israel to our conference this weekend.

Palestinian activist Rasmea Odeh leaves the federal courthouse with supporters after her sentencing in Detroit on March 12, 2015. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Rebecca Cook
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-WISE-OPED, originally transmitted on March 28, 2017.

(RNS) Palestinians have a saying: When your occupier is your judge and your jury, where do you go for justice?

To understand this, look no further than the story of Rasmea Odeh.

Odeh was convicted of participating in two bombings in Israel after a confession she says was made under torture and sexual abuse, including in front of her father.

For me it is simple: I believe her.

I believe a trusted and beloved community leader, not an Israeli military court — especially given the 99.74 percent conviction rate that Israeli military courts in the occupied Palestinian territories are reported to have.

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But the energy with which my organization, Jewish Voice for Peace, is being attacked for inviting her to speak at our national membership meeting this weekend (March 31-April 2) in Chicago is truly alarming.

I shouldn’t be surprised by this harassment and demonization of a Palestinian elder who has faithfully served her community for decades. The attacks on Odeh come in the context of long-standing anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab and anti-Muslim policies both in Israel and in the U.S. These policies are intensifying under the Trump administration.

And Jews are not immune from participating, and at times initiating and fueling, Islamophobia.

I am not proud to admit it, but I believe it is important that I do so: The Jewish community that educated me also taught me to hate. I recently found a note I wrote my parents from my Jewish summer camp when I was 11 years old. I wrote to them “Camp is great. We played Arab-Israeli war today. I had to be an Arab (frowny face) but luckily I got ‘killed’ and we lost.”

When I wrote that note I had not ever met, spoken with or known a single Arab.

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Now that I am a mother, I could not be prouder that my kids are being raised in a Jewish environment that prioritizes listening to and partnering with those harmed by systems of oppression. I am proud that next weekend my family will join me at JVP’s national convention to hear from leaders from the Movement for Black Lives, the Women’s March, Standing Rock, Muslim communities, immigrant communities and, of course, Palestinians.

I don’t take lightly the enormity of the loss to the victims of the bombing that took place in 1969 that Odeh is alleged to have been involved in. I hear and feel their grief. I do this work out of a deep reverence for all life. At Jewish Voice for Peace we condemn all forms of violence against civilians.

Demonstrators in New York City demand a new trial for Rasmea Odeh, a 67-year-old Chicago resident and former Palestinian political prisoner, appealing a conviction on June 10, 2016. Odeh was convicted for failing to disclose her prior capture and imprisonment by Israeli occupation forces on a U.S. immigration form. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/Joe Catron

Torture has no place here in the U.S. or in Israel or the occupied Palestinian territories. Neither do the coerced confessions that torture produces.

The way Odeh is being targeted and harassed is deeply Islamophobic. It plays into the “war on terror” rhetoric that defines all Muslims as terrorists. The kind of continuing persecution she faces is both a reminder and a warning of the tactics used by the U.S. and Israel. We stand for the victims of torture and against the torturers.

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As a Jew, a rabbi and deputy director at Jewish Voice for Peace, I take seriously that we must be part of creating cultures and societies centered on justice. The work I do is inspired by the Jewish education I got from my Jewish day school and summer camps, and of course my rabbinical training. It is because of the strong ethical imperatives woven into every element of living a Jewish life: how we pray, how we mourn, how we forgive, how we eat, how we engage with text and history.

We are proud to be a Jewish organization that is rooted in love for people and love for community. That is who we are, why we do this work and how we have become one of the fastest-growing Jewish organizations in the United States.

For the past 18 years I have been organizing for justice for Palestinians, and I have had that time to reflect on the question: When your occupier is your judge and jury, where do you go for justice? And I have an answer. We go to communities of conscience and integrity. We go to each other.

(Rabbi Alissa Wise is deputy director at Jewish Voice for Peace)

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