If Not Now, When?
Our sage, Rabbi Hillel, asks, "If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?" (Ethics of the Fathers 1:14)
This month's U.S. legislative agenda will give Americans with disabilities and their supporters (including we Jews) the opportunity to respond fully to the last two of Hillel's three questions. We can respond positively – if we choose to take part in the current Senate debate regarding the ratification of the UN Disability Treaty.
What seems like yesterday to some of us and a world ago to others, the ADA became the law of the land. Prior to that, we people with disabilities were treated as second class citizens.
Americans with disabilities and our friends were "for ourselves" when we wrote letters, made phone calls, marched, protested, sat-in, or climbed out of our wheelchairs and dragged ourselves, hand over hand, up the steps of the U.S. Capitol. We did all this to be heard and did not rest until we were given the full rights we U.S. citizens deserved.
No one was "for us" had we not been "for ourselves." How dare we now sit back and be "only for ourselves," enjoying our public accommodations or basking in our lawful, if not fully implemented, access to opportunity without looking outside of ourselves, beyond our borders.
We need not look far to see that many in this modern era still live in the dark ages. Worldwide, not only are basic rights denied to people with disabilities but punishment is incurred simply for being born with or acquiring a disability.
In our 21st century world it is incredible that 90% of children with disabilities in developing countries cannot attend school. It is alarming that in many countries people with intellectual disabilities or emotional disorders are chained to beds or confined to cages. It is stunning that even in many industrialized nations people with disabilities are relegated to lives of isolation simply because the public sphere outside their door is not accessible in many basic ways. It is tragic that throughout the world people with disabilities are denied fundamental rights.
Drafted in 2006, the UN Disability Treaty officially called "The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities" or "CRPD" addresses this worldwide concern. The UN Disability Treaty gives international affirmation to the rights of people with disabilities to equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living and economic self-sufficiency.
Directed by President Obama in 2009, our UN Ambassador signed the UN Disability Treaty on behalf of the U.S. It now must be ratified by the U.S. legislature. By U.S. law that means it takes a two-thirds majority senate vote.
This was attempted last year and it was a true travesty. During the Senate vote a number of Republican senators reached out to greet former Senator Bob Dole, sitting in his wheelchair, as they proceeded to vote against the ratification of the UN Convention – the very issue he was there to support.
Now the Disability Treaty is to be considered for ratification once again by the U.S. Senate. Therefore, we must define Hillel's "what we are" by once again speaking out loudly - this time for those other than ourselves.
We must get organized, write letters, make calls or actually visit senators and tell them, "You must vote YES to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities!"
We must especially urge Republicans to vote "yes" and we must communicate our support of the "yes" leanings of Democrats.
We have many Americans who are "for us" now - Americans with and without disabilities. Let us take their hands. Lead them to do what's right.
The Disability Treaty is based on U.S. law. The United States needs to continue to lead this effort on a global scale. According to UN procedure, the U.S. cannot formally have a leadership place at the table if we do not ratify it.
Those forces that oppose the Convention are small but mighty. Senators are receiving 100 "anti" letters to one "pro" letter. Many use unfounded religious reasons for opposition so we need to use our religious voices when we urge our senators to vote "Yes."
We must help our senators understand that as Jews, we are taught that every human is created b'tselem elohim, in God's image.
Last year, in the failed ratification vote, the Senate showed us they do not all believe that we are, all of us, created in the divine image. They sent a message to the world that the rights of some are greater than the rights of others.
We Jews should be additionally inspired to action by this season of Tishah B'Av. In the words of the prophet, Isaiah, we fast in order:
"To unlock the fetters of wickedness and untie the cords of the yoke/To let the oppressed go free..."
As we hunger on Tishah B'Av, please let us all work hard to make our senators hunger for justice.
And we must all ask ourselves, "If not now, when?" Send a "Support the CRPD" letter to your senator!
Rabbi Lynne Landsberg is the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism's senior adviser on disability issues, co-chair of the Jewish Disability Network, and co-chair of the Committee on Disability Awareness and Inclusion of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.