Justice Roberts surprised everybody yesterday by joining and writing the opinion for the majority in this week’s Supreme Court decision to uphold most of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). I want to suggest that his decision is to be appreciated by the progressive community not only for upholding the act but also for shifting the legal conversation.
The decision was a major step forward toward creating a more perfect union, toward helping to forge a society in which we all share obligations toward those who cannot fend for themselves, toward a vision of a just society which honors each and every person as being created in the tzelem elohim/the image of God. This experiment in democracy—in which we have given our trust and loyalty, and by way of which we have pledged to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor—has taken a major stride forward in affording tens of millions of people the ability to have health insurance and thereby health care. At bottom, upholding the constitutionality of the ACA saved lives. People who otherwise might have died, will not die because they will have access to doctors, medicines and life saving treatments.
However, the Roberts decision in my opinion also set the legal conversation about civil and human rights on a firmer moral ground. Roberts sided with the conservative wing of the court to say that the ACA was not constitutional under the commerce clause. The commerce clause, is the clause in “the Constitution [which] authorizes Congress to ‘regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.’ (Article I, sec. 8, cl. 3)” Further, and more importantly “[o]ur precedents read that to mean that Congress may regulate ‘the channels of interstate commerce,’ ‘persons or things in interstate commerce,’ and ‘those activities that substantially affect interstate commerce.’” (quoting from Justice Roberts’ opinion p. 4) Roberts upheld the ACA based on Congress’s power to “lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States.” (U. S. Const., Art. I, sect. 8, cl. 1) Roberts interprets this straightforwardly that: “Put simply, Congress may tax and spend.” (Roberts’ opinion p. 5)
I’m not going to rehash the history of Jews in the labor movement, or point out the irony of right wing Jews trying to distance themselves from Occupy in light of that history. May Day demands that we remove ourselves from the daily practice of exploiting of ourselves.s. We won’t work, we won’t use the bank, we won’t go to school, or at least, we won’t do these things in the way we normally do them, and we’re asking everyone to take the streets, instead of asking others to do what we would not. We’ll gather together in public space, celebrating the possibility of a different world, while refusing to participate, for at least today, in the one that’s broken. Sound familiar?
I am very happy to announce that my book Justice in the City: An Argument from the Sources of Rabbinic Judaism is out and available at Academic Studies Press and Amazon.com.
You can now download and read the introduction of the book here (just click on the cover image).
I hope that this will whet your appetite or stimulate your curiosity or at least disturb in a productive way, and hopefully you will buy the book and incorporate it in your discussions about how to make our part of the world a more just place.
This is a guest post by Oren Hirsch, an urban planner currently living and working in Jerusalem. He is the creator of the unofficial Jerusalem Bus Map.
Anyone who visited Jerusalem in the past few years probably has a vivid memory of Jaffa Road, the historic main thoroughfare through the center of Jerusalem, entirely torn up by construction equipment for the “soon to open” light rail. In addition, for eight months after the last construction barricades were removed from Jaffa Road, the trains ran without passengers while they were tested. People here would often say, somewhat seriously, that they never expected to ever be able to ride the train, and perhaps if their grandkids were lucky, they would get to ride the first train. Now that the Jerusalem Light Rail is actually open, they complain that the trains are too crowded and that too many people are riding it. More »
Two summers ago many of us were gathered not far from here at a memorial gathering for 15 farm workers who had died in the fields because of a lack of shade or water or breaks, but mainly because of a failure to recognize that every single person is created in the image of God. It is two years later and we are finally on the verge of taking a large step forward towards rectifying all the wrongs that result from not recognizing that the workers who toil in the fields and pick our food are created in the image of God.
When the greatest of all Jewish philosophers, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, called Maimonides, needed to answer the question: What is the greatest perfection of all? He said it is knowing God. What, he continued, does it mean to know God? Does it mean to know that God is one? Does it mean to know that God is of a completely different nature from people? No, he said. Knowing God means understanding that God’s purpose is to create justice on this earth. The one who truly knows God, therefore, is the one who works to create a just society. Justice comes from recognizing that every other human being is created in the image of God and therefore I have an obligation to hear their cries when they are vulnerable, and to work to allow them the means to live in dignity; to support themselves from hard work; to organize to better themselves; to treat them as people created in the image of God—because that is what they are.
This is not charity. This is not a gift. This is my obligation, our obligation as people who want to do justice, who want to live in a just society, who want to hear the word of God.
The Bible tells us:
20 You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
21 You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan.
22 If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me,
23 and My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword, and your own wives shall become widows and your children orphans.
In the thirteenth century Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman commented on this:
[God] says “you shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him” and think that he has no one to save him from your hands, for you know that you were strangers in the land of Egypt and I saw the manner in which the Egyptians oppressed you and I wreaked vengeance upon them, for I see “the tears of the oppressed with none to comfort them; and the power of their oppressors—with none to comfort them.” (Ecclesiastes 4:1) I, however, save all people from those stronger than them (cf. Psalms 35:10). So, too, “you shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan,” (Exodus 22:21) for I will hear their cries, for all these people do not have faith in themselves, but they can have faith in Me.
Rabbi Aryeh Cohen speaking at the end of the march.
The Pharaohs always think that their strength and power, their profits and political contributions will win in the end. We are here today to say that, in the end, righteousness will win, justice will win. If we don’t fulfill our obligations towards these workers and towards all workers, salvation might come from another quarter but we run the risk of ending up as the detritus strewn on the side of the road towards redemption.
Governor Brown, sign the FAIR TREATMENT FOR FARM WORKERS ACT.
To sign the petition asking Gov. Brown to sign the act go here.
The Jewish Women’s Archive has a nifty little series going on now: the top 10 Jewish women in labor history, with profiles of a bunch of asskicking hellcats and firebrands being added over the next few weeks in honor of Women’s History Month. Lots of great nuggets, like how “bread and roses” became a labor catchphrase (that would be Rose Schneiderman, pictured, commenting that basic needs weren’t enough for our laborers–they needed quality of life as well.)
Here’s the introductory post, and here’s the link to the series. Or, natch, just follow the JWA blog to get ‘em as the come.
Guestpost by Amanda, comedian, occasional blogger, and paper bag puppeteer.
While writing cover letters to try and end my five-month long spell of unemployment, I was also reading a book that discussed Depression-era unemployment protests, which were apparently pretty kickin’ and often involved singing. Since I enjoy writing rhyming songs, I thought it would be fun to sing songs about unemployment rates, my belief that we need more government investment to create jobs, and extending unemployment benefits.
On Sunday December 5th, I am gathering with other people who enjoy singing and hate high unemployment rates on the sidewalk in front of the White House (Pennsylvania Avenue between East and West Executive Avenues) between 3 and 4pm (and rehearsing at 2) to sing about our desire for more employment. I hope you will join us in a singing protest of unemployment rates, unemployment insurance, and the needs for increased government investment –all to the tunes of Christmas and Hannukah songs. If you are interested in joining me in trying to increase awareness of unemployment and have a hopefully very fun protest, please RSVP.
And to get you excited (or not, depending on how much you enjoy hard to parse lyrics), here are two sample songs:
“They placed profits over safety repeatedly,” said Tonya L. Hatfield, a lawyer in the coal-mining town of Gilbert, W.Va., who has sued Massey in cases over a 2006 fire at the Aracoma mine, where 12 miners were trapped and two died. In that case the company agreed to pay $2.5 million in criminal fines. The fine, when combined with $1.5 million in civil penalties, was apparently the largest ever imposed in a coal-mining death case.…
An Oct. 19, 2005, company memo obtained in Aracoma litigation indicates that before the Aracoma fire, all of the company’s deep mine superintendents — including at Upper Big Branch — were put on notice by Massey Chief Executive Don Blankenship that coal production trumped any other concerns.
The safety of our members has been and will continue to be our top priority every day. Media reports suggesting that the UBB tragedy was the result of a willful disregard for safety regulations are completely unfounded. Our lost-time incident rate has been better than the industry average for 17 of the past 19 years, improving significantly in recent years. These improvements have been achieved through concerted effort and significant investment.
At Massey, safety is everyone’s concern.
And most importantly
We are currently working on plans to mitigate the lost production at UBB by increasing production at other mines.
The certification of kosher restaurants upholding the rights of their workers continues to spread across the country…
Chicago native Shmuly Yanklowitz wants to encourage kosher restaurant owners to think about another dimension to the way they make and serve food. Yanklowitz and the organization he co-founded, Uri L’Tzedek (“awaken to justice” in Hebrew), have full confidence in kashrut boards that examine a restaurant’s compliance with Jewish dietary laws. His main concern is workers’ rights in kosher establishments. The cooks and servers who make the kosher food deserve to have their rights protected, said Yanklowitz, a rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in New York. These rights―fair pay, fair time and a safe work environment―are at the center of the Tav HaYosher (“ethical seal”) program Yanklowitz helped develop.
“Kashrut boards do a phenomenal job making sure that standards are met,” said Rabbi Ari Weiss, Uri L’Tzedek’s executive director. “Our idea is to have a second conversation with restaurant owners—one that focuses on workers’ rights and work conditions. It’s a way to add another dimension to the production of a service we enjoy.”
Thirty restaurants signed on that is. Thirty kosher business owners who have stepped up, allowed for us to ensure that they are treating their workers according to basic ethical to ethical standards, and been awarded the Tav. Ethical kashrut is real folks. Uri L’Tzedek has gone from having 7 businesses in Manhattan when we launched less than a year ago to 30 across the nation today. This is real grassroots change happening in the Jewish community. If you’re in New York, come support and celebrate with author and Rabbi Joseph Teluskin, Dyonna Ginsburg of B’Maaglei Tzedek in Israel, and assorted other rockstars.
Wednesday March 10th
At Cafe 76 – the JCC
(76th & Amsterdam – 1st floor).
Dinner and suggested donation is $18.
On Friday, during the slush of a winter storm and while I was running around getting ready for Shabbos guests, David Sax was complaining about tipping.
Normally, I might write this off as some fool who wields the written word well, log in to the Judy Miller Times, add to a comment stream, and be done with it, but this is a guy, like me, who loves the Jewish delicatessen. This is a guy who was able to take his love and passion and, perhaps wiser than me, parlay it into a career. Or if not a career, certainly something where he gets to travel across the continent, eat tasty Jewish vittles, and presumably get paid to sign books and speak at events in shuls and community centers across North America. As the JM Times article notes that he lives in Park Slope, one could venture a guess that he’s doing pretty well at something I’d call “living the dream.”
So, a good part of your present occupation is getting paid to eat, write about, and talk about Jewish Delis. You do well enough at that, and probably some other things too, that you’re able to live in one of the most expensive neighborhoods in Brooklyn. And by Brooklyn, I also mean the US. And THIS is how you repay the folks that bring you your food? By writing an article about tipping that included gems like this one? More »
Cautious embrace of some social justice goals by the institutions of the Conservative and (to a much smaller extent) the Orthodox movements: Spurred on by the exposure of the unjust treatment of workers and the abuse of animals at the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here -this is not an exhaustive list- for various JS posts on this never ending source of nausea) in Postville, Iowa, the Conservative movement launched the so-called heksher tzedek. This is a kosher seal of approval which guaranteed that the product under supervision was manufactured ethically—that workers’ rights were being respected and that animals were not being abused. An Orthodox group called Uri L’tzedek (“Awaken to Justice”) organized shortly afterwards to the same end. Also during this time, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly approved a decision (a “responsa”) authored by Rabbi Jill Jacobs (by then having moved to the Jewish Funds for Justice as their Rabbi in Residence) requiring synagogues to pay their employees living wages. There is also a concurring responsa by Rabbi Elliot Dorff.
Finally, the latest Rabbinical seminary on the block, the Modern Orthodox Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCC) has a social justice track which culminates in doing a social project (Canfei Nesharim was started by students at YCC).
Add it all up: the old split between the Jews who are interested in ritual practice and Jews who are interested in ethical practice is finally being eroded. The practice of social justice as a Jewish textual and ritual and political practice got a solid footing in the past decade. Keep it up.
Vaguely interested in Jewish innovation but not committed enough to read an entire blog post each day? Have no fear, Jewschoolers, we’re reading Dan Sieradski’s 31 Days, 31 Ideas blog so you don’t have to! Missed our first two summaries? Start here and continue here. Today, I bring you our final round-up. More »
Nathaniel Popper writes in the Forward that the Conservative Movement does not seem to be living up to their push for better wages for workers. I’m not entirely sure what the point of the article is; is it to point out that some congregations (and not just Conservative ones) underpay their workers? Is it say that the whole Magen Tzedek enterprise is hypocritical because not everyone in the movement lives up to it already?
If it’s the first, he’s a little behind – we already knew that; if the second, again, he’s a little behind the curve; I certainly have not backed off from critiquing the Conservative movement in the past – it certainly has plenty to critique, but I’ll have to say, I disagree. I don’t disagree because it’s not true, but because I think he’s missing the point.
As Rabbi Jill Jacobs says in the article, “It’s always easier to look slightly outside yourself rather than to look inside… There certainly hasn’t been any large-scale change.”
That’s true – but it’s a little premature to write off the whole project becasue it hasn’t been perfectly realised prior to beginning. Having Magen Tzedek has spurred some shuls to reexamine their own policies towards their own workers; Rabbi Jacobs is part of a movement of many people who turned to rabbinical school not necessarily because they loved to give sermons, but because they were driven to repair the world, and thought that a uniquely Jewish vision could help to do so. Rabbi Jacob’s tshuva is not the end; although it has gotten less press than Magen Tzedek, over time, I think both will be understood as the fulcrum for major change in the Jewish community as a whole.
Of course, there are still people like those quoted in the Forward citing the same tired arguments for why we shouldn’t do the right thing (they could work somewhere else; we’re doing important work that couldn’t get done if we paid our employees more; another variant of the “businesses might have to close and pay nothing at all if you made them provide benefits”…), but having Rabbi Jacob’s tshuva and the Magen Tzedek will help rabbis do their job better – and that job is to teach – to help people become knowledgeable, practicing Jews, and to have a relationship with God – which we achieve through mitzvot which include paying the matzah bakers enough to eat, and the people who clean the shul enough to not have to work two jobs or go on welfare. If we haven’t achieved it yet, well, even Moses couldn’t get Israel to quit worshiping idols. It’s a start and Baruch haShem it’s starting rather than not!
This summer, I attended my first National Havurah Committee Summer Institute. Part of each day at the Institute is devoted to workshops, one-hour sessions created by anyone attending who wants to share something they care about with the other attendees. I was strongly encouraged to offer a workshop or two… the workshop coordinator happened to be sleeping on my couch while putting together the schedule. I flippantly offered to offer a workshop on the subject about which I know the most: showtunes. And because I’m a wise-ass, I said, “Let’s call it ‘Social Justice Showtunes.’” I imagined the Institute crowd would eat that shit up.
Turns out, I was right. Not only did people flock to the workshop, my Facebook friends were also interested in hearing more. So, over the next several weeks, I will be presenting here a series on Social Justice Showtunes, featuring songs from the musical stage, written by Jews, about social justice issues.
(Performed here by Rose Marie Jun, from the 25th Anniversary Recording.)
Today is Labor Day in the United States of America. Apparently, in Canada, Bermuda. and elsewhere, today is Labour Day. While Labor Day may be no more a Jewish holiday than, say, Yom Yerushalayim, both holidays are alike in their origins, growing out of political movements spearheaded by secular Jews.
(Yes, it’s an oversimplification to call the Labor Movement a political movement spearheaded by secular Jews. However, the Jewish Labor Committee has an extensive bibliography about the history of Jews in the Labor Movement if you’d like to learn more.)
At any rate, I certainly learned about the Jewish involvement in the labor movement and union organizing way back when in my synagogue’safternoon Hebrew School. By the time of my Bar Mitzvah, I knew more about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire than I did about anything that happened in the Tanakh between Sampson and King David.
But as with many other subjects in the world, I’ve learned even more about the Labor Movement through showtunes than I ever did in Hebrew School. Much of that knowledge comes from my familiarity with a musical called Pins and Needles .
In the mid-1930s, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union had grown so large that the union invested in forming a Cultural Division charged with spreading the union’s values to its members through the arts. Pins and Needles was a revue, a collection of songs and scenes, that grew from this effort. It was so popular that it moved to Broadway and ran for years, even getting updated as headlines changed. This show was particularly special because all the performers in the original production were members of the ILGWU. Dressmakers, cutters, embroiderers, et al took a break from the factories to sing and dance on the Broadway stage. Harold Rome, the composer & lyricist, later reflected, “I didn’t realize that the big attraction was that the garment workers themselves were doing the show and singing to the audience, creating a rapport which is very rare in the theater.”
The song “Sing Me A Song With Social Significance,” which you can hear if you click on the icon above, was the opening number of the show. Although there had been topical revues prior to this one, this song announced a new kind of topicality. Pins and Needles wouldn’t just take pot-shots at the news and events of the day. This was a show with purpose.
In 1937, the original cast album hadn’t been invented yet. (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first musical film to issue a soundtrack album, in 1937. Oklahoma was the first original cast album in the contemporary sense, although there were earlier albums that captured songs from musicals sung by the performers who introduced them. But I digress…) A few singles from the score were recorded, but only one got any significant airplay. In the words of Rome, “‘Social Significance’ in those days was not for our airwaves.” (He wrote that in the early 1960s, when Social Significance was definitely on the airwaves. How sad that we’ve since regressed.)
Fifteen songs from the show were eventually recorded in 1962 for a twenty-fifth anniversary recording. Two singles recorded by members of the original cast were released on CD as part of a boxed set a dozen years ago (that now appears to be out of print). And Rome himself some of the songs in the 1950s. It is from one of those collections, A Touch of Rome that I draw the song I want to leave you all with for Labor Day:
It’s interesting to me the difference between songs like this and the more straightforward and earnest protest songs of the 1960s. However, RubyK tells me that this song in particular fits in with the tradition of union organizing songs from the turn of the century, which makes sense given the circumstances of the creation of this show. It’s also interesting to me how racy the song is. We tend to imagine the ’30s as a more innocent time, but this song doesn’t really mince words in describing the sex life of the sweet little sewing machine girl. It’s interesting that the version recorded for the twenty-fifth anniversary recording whitewashed some of the lyrics. Who would have thought the version from the 60s would be cleaned up, while the version from the 30s was more explicit? History and memory are funny things.
As we look at other Social Justice Showtunes in the coming weeks, it will be interesting to consider the techniques the songwriters use to get their messages across in the context of the times they were writing. Stay tuned.
Cookies, that is. Seems that the bad folks at Brynwood Partners, owners of Stella D’oro, aren’t taking the NLRB decision that they’ve screwed over the 134 workers at their Bronx factory lying down. From the JM Times:
Last week, a federal judge ordered Stella D’oro to reinstate 134 workers after a protracted 10-month strike. This week, the company invited the workers back. It also announced that it would close the factory in October.”
“The decision to close the Bronx bakery operations has not been made in haste or without significant planning,” a statement from the management said. Operations will be moved elsewhere and the products would continue, the statement said.
Ah yes. They had plenty of time to figure out how to shutter this factory and move it elsewhere, by refusing to bargain with the union for 10 months and then, easily plan their escape. This looks like a pretty standard union-busting move here: demand massive pay concessions that you know are not fair, and either you get them and break the union, or you get enough cover to plan a move elsewhere and break the union.
Also, important to note that the NLRB administrative law judge ruled the company refused to bargain fairly with the union. And there is no punishment for them leaving these 134 workers out to dry. No penalty strong enough to compel them to treat their workers with respect. This same attitude towards is workers is just another example of why we need labor law reform like the Employee Free Choice Act. If it was easier to organize around the country, this tactic would be less effective.
One thing’s for sure: Stella D’Oro joins Disney and Coke on my treyf list.