Justice, justice: a P.S. to Guatemala posts

I have been home now from my AJWS global fellowship trip to Guatemala for almost two weeks, and every day I am still thinking about what I saw and learned there, inspired by those we met who continue the struggle for justice despite the odds.

I was delighted to share my experience in person with my dear friend and college roommate, Julie, who was visiting this past week while in the Berkshires to play at Tanglewood (she is a violinist). Julie had travelled to Guatemala during the civil war when the army presence was quite apparent and when the poverty was much worse than what I witnessed.

A number of years ago, sensing the injustice of classical music only being affordable for the monied, Julie  started a non-profit called Shelter Music Boston, which brings classical concerts to the homeless shelters of Boston. She has touched lives, possibly saved lives, brought dignity to the downtrodden, and received awards and accolades for her innovative work.

Yesterday I was on the pulpit officiating at Shabbat services for Parashat Shoftim. I offered a text study during the service based on a teaching from Ruth Messinger, president of AJWS, about Deuteronomy 21:1-9, a section about an unidentified corpse and no known killer. Who is responsible? The townspeople who live closest, according to a mishna in Sotah, had the communal duty to protect that passer-by against real and potential dangers. By not noticing his presence in the first place, they had failed in their obligation to him. We therefore all have an obligation to see and to notice, not just to do.

After the service, in our more extended Torah study, we looked at the verses from the same Torah portion,  Deuteronomy 16:19-20, “You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue” and studied both Jewish and non-Jewish sources on what justice is. Thanks to my sister global justice fellow Rabbi Marla Feldman (executive director of Women of Reform Judaism), I learned (sort of) how to use a computer program called Publisher to create a Talmud-like page of commentary (see below).

talmud page

Here are some highlights of the texts about justice that I included:

“At his best, man is the noblest of all animals; separated from law and justice, he is the worst.” (Aristotle)

“If you want peace, work for justice.” (Pope Paul VI)

“Equal rights, fair play justice, are all like air: we all have it or none of us have it.” (Maya Angelou)

“Until the great mass of the people shall be filled with the sense of responsibility for each other’s welfare, social justice can never be attained.” (Helen Keller)

And this wonderful poem by Eleanor Wilner:


When they removed the bandages
from Justice’s eyes, she had long since
gone blind. She had been too many days
in the dark, too long alone with
the scale in her numb hands; she could
no longer tell the true from the false.
She had stood so many years in the cold
outside the courts, as the law rushed
past, clinging to the sleeve
of power – until the chill
had turned her veins to marble,
her eyes to opalescent stone.
Yet those who tore the veil away
could swear they were being watched,
and though it must have been a bit of glass
that caught a ray of sun, it was not unlike
a bright, appraising eye. Whatever it was,
they felt caught out, ashamed,
and late at night, at home, they locked
their windows tight and slipped into the room
where the children slept, and looking down
on them – for what they couldn’t say – they wept.

I love that poem, and I feel the shame that it bespeaks. What am I meant to do to alleviate that shame I carry for my privilege, my complacency and relative inaction, my yet-unfulfilled longing to make a lasting impact on the very real problems in our broken world? That is what I am trying to discern.

The poem reminds me of the lack of justice in Guatemala, nearly twenty years after the end of its civil war, with 200,000 of its people dead or disappeared.

Last night I viewed the documentary Granito: How to Nail a Dictator, by documentarian Pamela Yates. In 1982, at the height of the Guatemalan civil war, she made a different documentary entitled When the Mountains Tremble (you can see it here on YouTube), which brought international attention to the massacres of the Mayans. Featuring Rigoberta Menchu, it is possible that Menchu’s receiving the Nobel Peace Prize was due to the international exposure that that film offered her (in addition to the testimonial biography I, Rigoberta Menchu which was essential pre-reading for my trip, helping me understand Mayan culture and the history of the war).

But that film also had interviews with Guatemalan president/dictator and army general Efrain Rios Montt himself. Therefore some of the outtakes from When the Mountains Tremble contained important footage that was later used to bring Rios Montt to trial for genocide. Granito follows the story of how that first documentary film was used to bring a conviction, in addition to wonderful interviews with Mayan and human rights activists, as well as with the forensic anthropologist Fredy Peccerelli who digs up mass graves to help bring closure for the families of the disappeared. He is also featured in a TED talk from January 2015, “Fredy Peccerelli: A forensic anthropologist who brings closure for the disappeared,” the only TED talk that comes up when you search under “Guatemala.”

I cited in a previous post that Rios Montt was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity on May 10, 2013, but the conviction was overturned only 10 days later. According to a story (“Guatemalan Ex-Dictator Rios Montt Found Mentally Unfit for Genocide Retrial”) featuring Pamela Yates on NPR’s All Things Considered on July 8, 2015, he was declared unfit for the genocide re-trial that was supposed to be taking place now. I also mentioned previously that his daughter is running for president of Guatemala in the election to take place on September 6.

Granito makes clear how important justice would be for the healing of Guatemala. I do a lot of forgiveness work with my clients — it is clear that people who feel wronged often cannot move on without justice — whether in the form of true repentance and remorse from the perpetrator or in the form of legal action against the perpetrator. What happened in Guatemala can not be forgotten or forgiven without some sort of justice and accountability. The stories, the testimonies, the memories are sitting there under the surface, and only now are the children learning about this painful history of their country. As Pope Paul VI said, there can be no peace without justice. And Guatemala deserves both.

Having been there, having seen, I, too, am responsible. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “where terrible wrongs exist, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”

And his student, Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer said:

Is it sheer stupidity to bother yourself for another’s well-being? Isn’t it much wiser to not become involved in your neighbor’s misery? Why should one take trouble to listen to the moans and groans of others? For one very good reason. Because life without sensitivity and responsibility is an ode to narcissism, a cacophony of egocentrism, to say nothing of the fact that your silence is acquiescence, and in the ultimate analysis, culpability.

I am in a place of discernment. What is my role as a global citizen? How to I take my experience as an AJWS global justice fellow to the next level? I am listening for the call.


P.S. For those interested in further reading on Guatemala, here are a few more interesting links, one about labor/union rights in Guatemala concerning Coca Cola (and a case brought against Coca Cola in the U.S.), another about Guatemalan activist Helen Mack and the ongoing efforts to try human rights cases in Guatemala, and a third about the ugly effects, both human and environmental, by the palm oil industry in Guatemala.


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