Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Solidarity Not Charity! (A Response to Hazon)

December 3, 2008

Dear Judith,

I appreciate your quick response on behalf of Hazon, and the additional information you provided about food justice content at the 2008 Hazon Food Conference.

However, you ignored my critique of the absence of discussion and accountability regarding white privilege within the Conference program.

Until the reality of white privilege is directly addressed by Jewish social justice organizations, they will remain crippled in their abilities to reach out and build strong relationships with communities of color. Until that happens, Jewish social justice activism will continue to be functionally ineffectual, because it will not challenge the root causes of injustice in our society or empower the relationships necessary to change them.

Related to this is the distinction between charity and solidarity, which your response indicates you do not understand.

Charity alleviates the symptoms caused by an unjust system but does not challenge the root problems, and it often puts those providing the charity in a position of power OVER those who it 'helps'.

Solidarity, on the other hand, implies that our struggles are intertwined. Solidarity can challenge the current systems of injustice while still providing essential service work.

So for example: we can feed the homeless (which is important) or we challenge the economic, political, and social systems that cause homelessness through real education, real jobs or real job training, and decent housing, or we can do both at the same time.

Charity and solidarity are NOT mutually exclusive concepts. It really comes down to your analysis and how you administer your programs. For example, in the 1960's churches had fed people for years, but when the Black Panther Party, the Young Lords, or the Brown Berets began similar programs combined with their analysis and actions that challenged the dominant systems, the service work became deeper in solidarity with those who were historically marginalized in our society.

Another example: Food Not Bombs groups are primarily engaged with sharing (not "serving") food with poor and homeless people. They do not typically take action to challenge the root causes of homelessness and poverty, so their work might be regarded as charity. Yet their analysis (explicit in the name Food Not Bombs) establishes the link between militarism and hunger, and their tactic of generally using food that would otherwise be thrown away intervenes directly in a capitalist/consumerist system rife with waste. This brings Food Not Bombs more into the realm of solidarity.

Charity alone is a relief valve for guilt from not having to challenge oppression. Solidarity says we must challenge this system and provide for people so we can make the world a better place for all.

So, yes, it is good that Hazon has a "Challah for Hunger" program that has donated more than $55,000 to non-profit service organizations since 2004.

And it's very good that Hazon has encouraged people to make donations to support the exploited Agriprocessors workers.

However, these steps alone do nothing to challenge the root causes of hunger, or to change the underlying conditions in the kosher meat industry that led to the exploitation of Agriprocessors workers. (I understand that Rabbi Morris Allen's Hekhsher Tzedek initiative to certify ethically produced kosher meat has the potential to do this, and it's great that he is a speaker at the Conference.)

Instead of merely putting out a statement (which is easy to do; even I can do that!) and opening a mailbox for donations to the workers, solidarity involves non-hierarchical COMMUNICATION with oppressed people and long-term engagement to fully hear, understand, and provide specific forms of requested support to meet their expressed needs. Has Hazon done this?

Finally, the location of your Conference says a lot about Hazon's priorities. When you admit that you run "on a fairly tight budget," yet you chose anyway to hold your event at an expensive upscale resort like Asilomar, it should be no surprise that you'll be stretched to provide access to low-income people. On the other hand, if you had chosen to hold the event at a venue with lower costs (which does not necessarily imply sacrificing the quality of the event) then not only would it be easier for Hazon to finance it, but it would also be more accessible to a diverse range of people.

In conclusion, I am disappointed that Hazon thinks it can brush away the issues I raised with a hasty letter that fails to even acknowledge much of the substance of my critique of the contours of the "New Jewish Food Movement" which you are facilitating.

It will take a lot more than that for Hazon to prove that you are a serious advocate for food justice and a responsible partner to communities of color.

I don't expect the changes that are needed to happen overnight, but I would like to see evidence that Hazon is committed to making them.

Ethan Genauer

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