On Humanity and the Rule of Law

On Tuesday, twenty three faith leaders were arrested on Spring St. in Downtown Los Angeles. They were sitting in a line in the street stretching from the former federal court house where the Attorney General has an office, to the Hall of Justice which houses the District Attorney and the Sheriff of the County of Los Angeles. As the sun rose high over the Hall of Justice and began baking the streets, officers with the Los Angeles Police Department began the process of putting zip ties on the hands of the faithful and transporting them to Parker Center. I was among those faith leaders.

We were disrupting morning traffic during rush hour because Jeff Sessions was disrupting, or rather, destroying the lives of thousands of refugee families seeking asylum in our country—families who fled violence and oppression in their own countries and ended up in a nightmare in ours. Children taken from their parents. Parents not knowing where their children were anymore. The Attorney General had come to Los Angeles to go to court to reinforce the separation and incarceration (by having the court overturn the Flores decision) and we had had enough. Twenty three clergy sat down to say, at a time when Jeff Sessions claims that it is lawful to incarcerate children, we too should be incarcerated.

But this is not a story about one demonstration and the civil disobedience that followed it.

Last week Thursday, there was a demonstration outside of the headquarters of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Shocked and appalled by the stories that were being reported about children at the border being forcibly removed from their parents, some literally being torn from their mothers’ breasts, more than one hundred Christians, Jews, and Muslims gathered to pray and decry this inhuman treatment of other humans. A chalice was lit, a shofar was blown, the Qur’an was cited, a Psalm was recited, priests, pastors, rabbis, and imams spoke of the horrors that characterize this age and the hopes that we have for this country. Tears were shed and anger was expressed. I was one of the angry and the hopeful.

But this is not a story about a multifaith action in protest of the separation of families.

A week ago Tuesday I put an order in to our printer for signs that said “All Immigrants Welcome Here,” black letters for the first two words, then white, on a blue background, thirteen inches by nineteen inches double-sided on #24 stock paper. We, at Bend the Arc, had run out of the signs. That is to say, that at the many previous rallies and demonstrations demand by the urgency of this moment we had given out the all signs we had. So I ordered two hundred more. I was hoping that they might be ready for the Thursday prayer demonstration, however, since that action was called for 9am, I was not counting on it.

In the event, the posters were ready Thursday afternoon. I picked them up Friday morning at the shop in East Los Angeles. Mitchell Publishing is a print shop that is well known in liberal and progressive circles, and the poster examples on the wall, and the printed bags in neat piles, bear this out. When I walked into the shop I was presented not only with the two hundred posters, but with a large banner of the same design as the poster, thrown in for free.

Jullian Velasco who owns the business told me that he had found out about the rally the day before and had wanted to attend. He came downtown but could not find parking. (He was not the only one. One of the organizers despaired of finding parking and drove away.) However, Jullian drove past the rally and was impressed by the size of the gathering, and in true Los Angeles fashion beeped his horn in support—and also printed a banner for us to use, to amplify the message.

Jullian is Salvadoran. He told me that his family had come to the States to escape the civil war in the eighties. He had become succesful and tries to support the struggles of his community. (Among other projects, he installed an antenna tower on the roof of his shop to provide free internet access to the neighborhood.) He would rather stay behind the scenes, helping out this campaign or that, throwing in a banner, making sure there were enough bags to convey an organization’s message. Others would stand in front. Jullian was gratified that the Jewish community was taking up the cause of refugees seeking asylum.

This is not the story, however, of a really nice guy who is a really good printer.

Jullian told me the story of José Castellanos Contreras, a person I had never heard of. Contreras was a Salvadoran army colonel and a diplomat. According to the Yad Vashem database of the “Righteous Among the Nations,”

in 1941 Castellanos became Salvadoran consul in Geneva. During this time Castellanos decided to deviate from his [government’s] instructions and [the Salvadoran] consulate provided citizenship certificates to thousands of Jews in occupied Europe in an effort to protect them from deportation. The citizenship papers were given to Jews who had no connection whatsoever to El Salvador and who didn’t even speak a word of Spanish. Such documents, issued by neutral countries, provided a certain protection and were therefore life-saving. This rescue operation was a joint effort of Castellanos and George Mandel, a Hungarian Jewish businessman, who had assumed a Spanish-sounding version of his last name, “Mantello”. Mandel-Mantello had met José Arturo Castellanos in the years leading up to World War II, and after Castellanos was named El Salvador’s Consul-General in Geneva, he appointed Mantello, to serve as the Consulate’s first secretary. With the consent of Castellanos, George Mantello issued documents identifying thousands of European Jews as citizens of El Salvador. The papers were sent to Jews in France and other occupied countries, and starting in 1944 to Jews in Hungary. In May 1944 El Salvador’s government changed and the new president aligned himself with other western countries that were active in rescuing the Jews in Hungary. From that point on Castellanos received his country’s support for his rescue activity.

This is a story about a Salvadoran diplomat who had no reason to care about the fate of the Jews of Europe except for the fact that they were fellow human beings. That connection led to the rescue of over 10,000 Jewish souls. This is also a story about the connections that are made between humans in this amazingly diverse city, and the caring that can come from paying attention to those connections.

We distributed the signs at the demonstration on Tuesday where we disobeyed an order to disperse and were arrested as people sang “and before this movement fails, we’ll all go down to jail….” José Castellanos knew that when injustice was done under cover of law, just people must oppose those laws. He also knew that all people had a right to live. I’d like to think that we were honoring his memory.

What is citizenship? (Things I said at the #NoMuslimBanEver rally)

I was asked to speak today at the #NoMuslimBanEver rally and march, representing Bend the Arc: Jewish Action which started at the Japanese American National Museum, the place where, in December 1942, Japanese Americans were gathered and sent to concentration camps in various places in the Southwest. This is what I said:

One of the most profound questions that is facing our country today is this: What does it mean to be a citizen? Is citizenship merely the result of an accident of birth? the grant of a certificate? the culmination of a bureaucratic odyssey? Or is citizenship a commitment to certain bonds of mutual responsibility and care? Is citizenship perhaps the promise and practice of upholding the ideals of creating a more perfect union? Are the commitments of citizenship actually those commitments to supporting family and community? To working hard and creating human happiness for self and others?

The Jewish tradition teaches us that it is these latter commitments and obligations: the commitments to mutual care and supporting the weakest among us; to creating a more just and prosperous community and society which defines what a citizen is. And so it is time that we changed the conversation. It is beyond time that we recognize that the dreamers, and their families and all immigrants—documented and undocumented, who are in this city and this country to create a life, to find security or refuge, to enjoy and proliferate the benefits of justice and democracy, are already citizens. We just have to work out how to get them their papers. Continue reading

Jonah and Justice: Its Complicated

Why do we read the book of Jonah on Yom Kippur?

This is not a new question. There is a mini library of scholarship ancient and modern on this question. However, there is also a previous question to be asked, upon which there is another library of scholarship: What is the book of Jonah?

The Book of Jonah was summed up nicely by the Veggie Tales folks: Jonah was a prophet, oooh oooh/ But he never really got it, sad but true. and if you watch it you can spot it, a-doodley-doo!/ he did not get the point! 

However, this brings in its wake the further question: Why are all the human characters vegetables, and yet the animal characters are still animals?

So there is still room for us to ask the question: What is the book of Jonah? Is it a book of prophecy like Isaiah or Jeremiah? Is it a narrative like Samuel or Kings? Is it something else? Continue reading

A Conversation About Justice; The Case for Nonviolence; A Lecture on Radical T’shuvah

1. At T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, Rabbinic Convening, I sat down for a conversation with the T’ruah’s ED Rabbi Jill Jacobs, moderated by Rabbi Mark Soloway for his podcast A Dash of Drash.

2. I also published a piece at the Forward called The Case For Nonviolent Resistance: It’s Right And It Works.

The question I have been pondering is this: does this week of White Nationalist racist violence give credence to the argument of the antifa that the only logical, rational and ethical response to these people is to beat them down? Cornell West, a student of nonviolence, said that the antifa and the anarchists at the demonstration in the Park in Charlottesville saved his life, and the lives of the other clergy who were under threat of violence from the racist thugs. Continue reading

Three Thoughts about Peace

1. This past week’s Torah portion included the so-called “Priestly Blessing.” This short text, only four verses long, is one of the oldest parts of the Torah. It has gained liturgical significance through its synagogue use as the priestly blessing, and through its home use as the way parents bless their children. The blessing ends with the following verse: “May God raise God’s countenance to you and give you peace.” The last phrase might be literally translated as “place upon you peace.” Its a very odd locution. It points to the extraordinariness of peace.

Priestly blessing from the time of the First Temple.

The rabbis expound this extraordinary type of peace by saying things like: “Great is peace for God’s name is peace.” This is a peace which is almost not of this world. It is a Divine peace. The problem with elevating peace to this transcendent level is that it is beyond reach. A peace that can only be granted by God is not a peace that can be achieved by human effort. A peace which is the name of God, is a peace which orders the heavens, and the heavenly beings; it lets the lion and the lamb lie down next to each other and not be afraid. This is not a peace which people can hope to accomplish. There is no road map which leads from here to there, when there is hunter and prey in the animal world striking up a friendship. If peace is so far beyond us, we then have nothing to do. We might as well go on about our business, and in the fullness of time, God will flip a switch and peace will reign. Continue reading

Sacred Resistance (on this moment)

There are three moments in the first three weekly portions of Exodus which help to define our moment of sacred resistance to the Trumpian onslaught. On the Shabbat which was the day after the inauguration we began reading the book of Exodus. Exodus begins with the declaration that “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” (Exodus 1:8) As most commentators through the ages have mentioned, this cannot be taken literally. Even though Joseph was dead by this time, it is not believable that a Pharaoh could take the throne in Egypt without knowing of Joseph, the viceroy, the second most important person in the Egyptian monarchy. The “not knowing” must be metaphorical. Either the new Pharaoh spurned Joseph’s family, cutting them off from the privileges of being connected to the royal house; or the new Pharaoh intentionally cut Joseph out of the history of Egypt. Either way, of a morning, the house of Jacob was adrift with no protection.

The analogy to the current moment is all too obvious and painful. We, the liberal community in general, and the liberal Jewish community in particular, grew comfortable with access to power, with invitations to the White House, with steady though halting progress on certain social issues (despite uncomfortable lack of progress on other issues). We were not prepared for that morning when we would wake up and find that a new king had arisen who did not know Joseph. A new president who was intentionally trying to undo everything the previous president had accomplished. A new president to whom we had no access, and over whom we held no sway—even fanciful sway. No more Hanukkah parties at the White House for us. We were adrift with no protection. Worse, and more dangerous, front-line and affected communities (Latinos, Muslims, immigrants, LGBTQI, Native Americans) were without a foothold or leverage in government. Continue reading

Contra Jeff Sessions (On Justice and Righteousness)

In the summer of 1963 the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to a crowd of thousands who had come to Washington DC for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He articulated the frustrations and anger of the crowds in front of him when he said that they were carrying an overdue promissory note, a note that had been signed by the founding fathers, guaranteeing that all would be granted the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. King was speaking on the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s address at the dedication of the Gettysburg cemetery. Lincoln had radically altered the nation’s own myth of origins, saying that “four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that ‘all men are created equal.’” Four score and seven years, that is eighty seven years prior to the date of the Gettysburg address in 1863, brings us to 1776, when the United States was declared with the words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Lincoln bypassed the Constitution with its odious compromise about slavery, and declared that the origins of this country were rooted in equality. Continue reading

Achieving our Country (California Nation)

The days since the election have brought with them a torrent of self-criticism from the left, from the not so left, and from the never-was-left wings of the Democratic Party. Everybody accusing everybody else of the loss. The white working class was not given its due. There was too much attention paid to identity politics. Not enough attention was given to foreign policy concerns, or any concerns other than Trump’s vulgarity and panoply of hatreds. And on and on. In my humble opinion all of that is perhaps necessary venting but, ultimately, just so much noise.

The election posed a choice between two visions of what America is and/or could be. On the one hand was the claim that the more perfect union, which is presented as the very reason for the Constitution, is achieved by increasing and expanding the community of those who would receive the Blessings of Liberty, and be of those that the promotion of the general Welfare would impact. On this claim Justice is open to be claimed by all who reside in this country; domestic tranquility is a right of all; and the people who are being commonly defended are of every race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, immigration status, and ability. On this side of the argument, in broad terms, achieving our country means welcoming the stranger, caring for the resident, understanding that “citizens” are individuals who treat one another as bearers of the relevant kind of responsibility (as Jeffrey Stout has argued), and not only those who bear the relevant documents. Continue reading

Abraham sits by the tent (on political action in the age of Trump)

In terms of the Jewish year, which is in tune to the weekly readings of the Torah, we are now between lech lechah and vayera. The former portion, lech lechah—which literally means “go forth”—is named for God’s famous command to Abraham to do just that: “go forth from your land, from your birthplace, from your ancestral home, to the place I will show you.” Abraham was not told where he was going. God did not say: Go to Canaan. He was going to an as yet unnamed place. All the important things that happen in the book of Genesis, happen at places that are only named once the important things happen there. Only after seeing God in a dream and receiving a covenantal promise, for example, is Jacob able to name that place Bet El, the house of God. Continue reading