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.

The Jewish people is an immigrant people, a refugee people, and a diasporic people. We know in our bodies the precariousness of knocking at the door of countries who did not want us to enter, and the promise of those who opened their doors. The Jewish community in the United States, after a pretty rocky start, has enjoyed the benefits of security and stability that are the result of being welcomed to this country.

We also know what happens when citizenship is narrowly defined based solely on the accident of birthplace or skin color. We know what happens because we remember that when Jews were deported from Paris during World War II, the buses wound their ways through the streets filled with Parisians who knew who the passengers were, knew what was happening to them, and where they would end up, and did not protest—because they didn’t consider the Jews citizens.

This was a scene that played itself out throughout Europe when citizenship was narrowed so as to exclude those who were unwanted—Jews and Roma and the disabled, and LGBTQ people, and political opponents. So-called upstanding citizens with the right papers and the right blood and the right race, let this happen.

As Angelinos we also know this. During World War II, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, on the background of xenophobia, racism, and antisemitism which was almost as old as the city, Japanese Americans were gathered right here, and placed on buses and interned in concentration camps—and those buses wended their way through these very streets to little or no protest.

We are standing here today to say: We will not let this happen again! Those of us who are recognized as citizens by accident of birth or the work or naturalization, must commit ourselves to the claim of care that citizenship has on us. We must commit ourselves to the proposition that we will not let this administration, or any administration divide us in order to exclude certain groups because of their race or religion. We will not be swayed by the false bromides of nationalism, by the mendacious rumors fueled by white supremacy. We will not be blinded by the false unity of exclusion, nor will we seek support from the weak reed of racial hatred.

Boundaries and borders have their places, but they must have welcoming doors and not be closed and locked to those who seek refuge or security. No Ban. No Wall. No Registry.

This week, in synagogues around the world, we started the cycle of Torah reading again, with the book of Genesis. In the creation story we read God’s pronouncement that לא טוב היות האדם לבדו, it is not good for the adam, the original human to be alone. This was not merely an analysis of a specific social drama. This was an eternal metaphysical principle. We, as creatures created in the image of God, are not intended to be alone. We live in relationship. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. taught us: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Look around you at this beautiful multifaith, multiethnic, multiracial gathering of humans. We are here to say: this is what America looks like. We are here to tell our racist and xenophobic president and his administration, who work diligently if incompetently to ban immigration from non-European countries, but cannot be bothered to voice a full-throated, unconditional, condemnation of racism or antisemitism: America does not look like you and your cabinet. This is what America looks like. We will not let you change that.

No Wall. No Registry. No Muslim Ban Ever

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

The economics of values (On Immigration)

On Sunday I hit the road with my daughter Shachar, Jonathan Klein (the Executive Director of CLUE-LA), and Gina Palencaar (Campaign Communications Director at LAANE). We drove up to San Francisco to bring a message to Senator Feinstein from the Jewish community. We were joined at the Senator’s office by Rabbi Heather Miller who had done much of the organizing and was representing Beth Chayim Chadashim representatives of the JCRC of San Francisco and Bend the Arc. We had a rally outside the office building and then met with the Senator Feinstein’s representative. Continue reading

Immigration and the scoundrels

What is it that the Jewish community brings to the discussion of immigration? What learned wisdom do we have to share?

It is true that the Jewish people is a people born and nurtured in the Diaspora, as immigrants, as strangers and sojourners on the way to or from somewhere else, making temporary or permanent homes in foreign lands. As the French Jewish Bible scholar and thinker Andre Neher points out, beginning with Abraham, the Israelites spent more time wandering and living outside of Canaan and the Land of Israel than residing in it. As soon as Abraham follows the Divine directive and leaves Haran and arrives in the Land of Canaan, there is a famine and he and Sarah and the whole household hit the road again. This story repeats itself until three generations later the Israelites settle as sojourners in Egypt for four hundred years.

The Torah itself ends with the Israelites camped in the desert across from the Land of Israel, not having crossed over the Jordan yet. The Jewish canonical Bible ends just as Cyrus authorizes the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple and resettle the land, but before they actually return. This is an important point since the final book of the Jewish Bible (the TaNaKh—Torah, Nevi’im/Prophets, Ketuvim/Writings) is not historically the last book. Chronicles ends the canon, but the books of Ezra and Nehemiah recount the return to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the walls and the rededication of the Temple. The canonical choice then is making a point—a point about the importance of the Diasporic experience. Continue reading

On Immigration and Holiness

What might it mean to be holy? One interesting definition is found in the thirteenth century commentary by the Spanish Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, often referred to as Nachmanides. In commenting on the verse from Leviticus 19: “You shall be holy, for I, God your God am holy,” Nachmanides says that this is a demand not to be a “scoundrel within the domain of the Torah.” That is, one should not abuse sacred law by justifying immoral acts which are technically legal. (One of his examples is that one should not be a glutton even if one eats only kosher foods.)

This commentary came to mind while listening to a debate on immigration recently. The advocate for a hard line on undocumented immigrants repeated over and over that “these people” had broken the law and therefore, despite their having been in the country for many years, and despite their having been productive members of society—holding jobs, raising a family, participating in their communities—they should not be allowed to acquire a driver’s license, they should not be allowed to get health insurance, they should not be allowed to work. Their lives should be made sufficiently intolerable that they leave the country. Eleven million people.

This seems to me to be the exact secular definition of a scoundrel within the domain of the Torah. Continue reading