Each year, many Reform Movement congregations observe Martin Luther King Day by participating in Shabbat Tzedek: Celebrate Civil Rights and Social Justice. This year, Martin Luther King Day falls on January 20, and Shabbat Tzedek falls on January 17 and 18. Shabbat Tzedek honors the life and work of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—and more broadly, honors the civil rights movement.
Residents of Washington, D.C. fulfill all of the responsibilities of citizenship but have long been denied many of the rights that come with it. But as the calendar turned to 2014, D.C. took a small but potentially important step in rectifying the issue, as the District’s Budget Autonomy Referendum went into effect.
Last April, D.C. residents—83% of them—overwhelmingly approved a budget referendum that would separate out the District’s local budget from the Congressional appropriations process. By amending the District’s Home Rule Charter, the D.C. government no longer needs to wait for a Congressional appropriations bill to spend local tax dollars; instead, budget bills passed by the D.C. Council will be subject to a 30-day Congressional review, like other Council-passed bills, a process unique to D.C. Still, as of two days ago, Congressional gridlock can no longer prevent the D.C. government from providing local services, sparing the local government from federal shutdowns and other lapses in funding.
On November 11, 1620, 41 men aboard the Mayflower signed their names to the Mayflower Compact, setting the stage for modern democracy in the United States. As the Pilgrims prepared to settle at Plymouth, these signers of the Compact pledged to “combine ourselves together into a civil body politic; for our better ordering, and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony; unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.”
The language is long-winded but the concepts are incredibly important. This idea of a “body politic” coming together in order to pass laws for the good of all is heavily echoed in the Preamble of the Constitution, written a century and a half later. The United States is founded on this understanding that in coming together and passing laws for the good of all, we “form a more perfect union.” Read more…
The right to vote is fundamental to our constitutional democracy. While the right to vote was initially restricted to white, property-owning males, the hard work of brave civil rights activists has allowed this inalienable right to extend to (almost) all Americans. These rights have been achieved, in part, through legislative means, particularly through the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, which has been renewed four times (most recently in 2006).
On June 25, the Supreme Court ruled in Shelby v. Holder to invalidate parts of the Voting Rights Act. Parts of the Act were drafted in our conference room here at the RAC, and we strongly opposed the Court’s decision in Shelby. The Court struck down Section 4(b), which contained a “formula” requiring certain jurisdictions with a history of disenfranchisement problems to seek approval, or “preclearance,” from the Department of Justice when making any changes to election procedures. Read more…
On the occasion of Rosh Hashanah, the RAC’s blog and social media will be dark until next week. Shanah tovah!
Avinu malkeinu, chadeish aleinu shanah tovah
Shana tovah u’metukah (a good and sweet new year) from all of us here at the Religious Action Center! As we prepare to leave 5773 behind us and welcome in 5774, we pause to reflect on the closing year, and look to the next with hope and with solemnity. In the coming days, Jews across the world will join together in synagogues, around dinner tables, in communities large and small. As we think on all we hope to achieve and learn as the new Eisendrath Legislative Assistants, we reflect on this phrase from Avinu Malkeinu found in our High Holiday machzor, Gates of Repentance: “Avinu malkeinu, chadeish aleinu shanah tovah,” May the new year be a good year for us.
Though we have each said these words for many years, this year they have a new resonance. As the new LAs at the RAC, ready to take on all the year has in store for us, we pause in gratitude and excitement to ask that we have a good year. One filled with success, with growth, with humility, and camaraderie, all with the pursuit of social justice driving our actions and our thoughts.
Today the five Eisendrath Legislative Assistants say goodbye after an amazing year representing the Union for Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C. We have worked on nearly 70 different legislative issues, represented the RAC in countless coalitions, seen some bills signed into law and others tragically defeated, said goodbye to one Congress and welcomed the next. All in all it has been an incredible year.
Now, there are some who will say that the role of clergy should be to take care of the spiritual needs of congregants and not to become involved in politics. However, what has happened in North Carolina in just a few short months is appalling and has really hurt people; especially the most vulnerable in our society, the poor and the children.
To ignore this situation one would have to reject the teachings of the prophet Isaiah who taught (58:6): “No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness and untie the cords of the yoke; To let the oppressed go free; To break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; When you see the naked, to clothe him and not to ignore your own kin.” Read more…
The Talmud teaches us that the character of a generation’s leaders is determined by the people that charge him with leadership (Arachin 17a). This teaches us that a community with an opportunity to choose its leaders makes a significant statement about its character. Because the stakes of elections are so high, not just because of the importance of good public policy but also in determining the very nature of society, it is absolutely essential to protect the right of everyone to make their voices heard in elections. In Exodus 30, the entire Israelite community is required to donate a half shekel to the Mishkan, underscoring the Jewish value that all members of society, no matter race, ethnicity or socio-economic background must have the opportunity to contribute to creating our society (Exodus 30:15).
On Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee met to discuss the need to reform Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, recently ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court for relying too much on out of date information on voting districts that were reported to have used discriminatory practices in voting procedures. Representative John Lewis of Georgia, a leader in the Civil Rights movement, testified about the egregious discrimination and violence African Americans experienced before Civil Rights as they tried to vote. Before the Voting Rights Act, poll volunteers subjected potential voters to “literacy tests,” forced them to guess the number of jelly beans in a jar, and turned a blind eye as members of the Ku Klux Klan murdered people registering African Americans to vote. Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee who shepherded the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act in 2006, testified to the need to not slide backwards on this key civil right, as he emphasized that the Voting Rights Act is not a partisan issue.
The panel of expert witnesses testified that the need for the preclearance protections in Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is absolutely essential. Section 2, which prohibits voting discrimination, does not provide enough protection, because election discrimination is different from workplace discrimination. Results of elections are time-sensitive matters, and people still get elected and gain the advantages of incumbency, even if elections are tainted by discrimination. Preclearance is absolutely vital to ensure discrimination is proactively stopped before it can have an effect on elections, to help ensure that the cost of litigation of these cases is not prohibitive and to give small and rural communities the legal recourse to protect its citizens from voting discrimination. The panel stressed that voting discrimination is not a relic of the past, but a sinister practice that still persists in very recent elections. Studies of the 2012 election show that African Americans and Latinos on average waited twice as long as whites to vote. Moreover the voting precincts with predominately minority populations had far fewer resources to ensure a smooth and speedy voting process. Stories of overt discrimination also abound. In 2004, people in Bayou La Batre, Alabama engaged in voter intimidation to deter Asian Americans from voting. In 2002, Harris County, Texas was in violation of the Voting Rights Act for failing to provide ballots in Vietnamese for people who needed them. In 2003, Ville Platte, Louisiana tried to redistrict its city’s district boundaries to reduce African American influence in one district to prevent those people from electing a candidate of choice. Preclearance is essential in preventing these kinds of practices, so we hope our Jewish values of protecting everyone’s right to vote will be adhered to by our Congress as they attempt to fix Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act.
Image courtesy of John Lewis.