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

Getting rid of the culture of the Pharaoh (on MLK and moderation)

Some thoughts that I offered this morning at the SCLC-SC annual Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Interfaith Breakfast. 

One of the two central prayers in the Jewish liturgy, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, is the declaration from Deuteronomy 6: Hear O Israel, God is our God, God is one. In its Biblical context, this is part of Moses’ long parting speech to the Israelites. After recounting the moment at Sinai, the moment of God’s revelation, Moses reminds the Israelites of their loyalty to God.IMG_1735

The Rabbis embraced this statement as a theological pledge of allegiance. I believe in the one God. However, they also told a story about how this statement, Hear O Israel, originated in a more intimate moment. At the end of Genesis, when Jacob who is also called Israel, is dying, he summons all his children to his bedside. According to the Rabbis, he is worried that they will be swayed by the blandishments of Egypt, that they will be tempted by the power and riches of the Pharaoh, that they will be seduced into the culture of oppression and idolatry. Jacobs children turn to him as one and say: “Hear O Israel, God is our God, God is one.” We will not be seduced into the culture of oppression and idolatry, despite our access to power and riches. Continue reading

A Kavanah [Intention] for the Fifth Night of Hanukah

I was asked to speak tonight at an interfaith gathering which was a memorial for the fourteen people who were killed in the San Bernardino attack, and a chance to come together as a broad and diverse community to reject Islamophobia. IMG_1564This is what I said:

One aspect of the traditional Jewish way of mourning is to recite the so-called Jewish prayer for the dead, the Kaddish. The Kaddish, however, is not actually a prayer for the dead. It is a prayer that glorifies God.

yitgadal ve-yitkadash shmay rabbah. May the name of God be glorified and sanctified. Our tradition tells us that when we say the kaddish, God mourns saying: “They are praising Me, and yet look at my ravaged world.” (Bavli Berachot 3a) God’s tears mingle with our tears. We mourn together. Tonight we mourn the fourteen beautiful souls who were killed in San Bernardino in a horrific act of terrorism. An act that blasphemed the name of God, as all acts of murder do. Unfortunately, we are coming together more and more often to mourn the consequences of terrorist mass killings in the United States. In Charleston, in Colorado, and now in San Bernardino. Continue reading

A Kavanah [intention] for the First Night of Hanukah

Tonight, we light the first Hanukah candle.

Beginnings, true beginnings, are always hard. We live in a culture in which every week or so some gadget or technological innovation is trumpeted as the beginning of something new, something that will change the way we do things forever, a disruptive technology which will undo the old and start something else. In our tradition there are few truly disruptive moments. When Abraham saw through the fog of idolatrous power and recognized that there was one God, the God of everyone, and that therefore everyone was equally worthwhile—that was truly disruptive. When the People of Israel stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and heard the voice of that God—a voice that said that cruel oppression is the opposite of the Divine way, that bearing one’s fellow’s burden is the prerequisite of accepting the Torah—that was truly disruptive.

Tonight, as we light the first Hanukah candle, we hope to take part in a truly disruptive moment. A moment where the cultures of oppression, of racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, misogyny, transphobia are overthrown. With this first light we embrace the hope of more light. “For the light of God is the soul of a person.” (Proverbs 20:27)

Muslims, Jews, Friends, Politics

I have always been terribly moved by the signs that some Israelis and Palestinians carry at nonviolent demonstrations against the occupation which read: “Israelis and Palestinians refuse to be enemies.” The power of this statement is in the recognition that there is a choice to be made. Instead of staying in the entrenched narrative, which might lead to winners or losers—at least temporarily—but will never lead to peace, they chose to change the narrative itself.

Nonviolence is about putting pressure on change points, forcing oppression out into the open, or forcing the agent of oppression (the State, the police, etc.) to choose between good and evil. Nonviolence is also about changing the narrative. Nonviolent resistance, as Martin Luther King taught us, focusses the struggle on good and evil, on right and wrong, rather than on black and white or Jew and Muslim, Israeli and Palestinian.

The Israelis and Palestinians who “refuse to be enemies” refuse the narratives that are supposed to be written into their DNA.

How does one educate to this? How does one instill in one’s children, the next generation of Jewish and Moslem young adults, that they do not have to be enemies? Continue reading

Paranoia as Policy?

This month, when a group of New York City police officers showed up for their required counter-terrorism training, they got to watch a movie. … The film is called The Third Jihad. It is 72 minutes of gruesome footage of bombing carnage, frenzied crowds, burning American flags, flaming churches, and seething mullahs. All of this is sandwiched between a collection of somber talking heads informing us that, while we were sleeping, the international Islamist Jihad that wrought these horrors has set up shop here and is quietly going about its deadly business. This is the final drive in a 1,400-year-old bid for Muslim world domination, we’re informed. And while we may think there are some perfectly reasonable Muslim leaders and organizations here in the U.S., that is just more sucker bait sent our way. (Tom Robbins, Village Voice, January 19, 2011)

The New York City police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, through a top aide, acknowledged for the first time on Tuesday that he personally cooperated with the filmmakers of “The Third Jihad” — a decision the commissioner now describes as a mistake. (Michael Powell, New York Times, January 24, 2012)

The book of Exodus famously starts with a new Pharaoh, “who did not know Joseph,” falling into a paranoid fantasy that the Israelites would constitute a fifth column, collude with the Egyptians’ enemies and, finally, leave the land, and leave Egypt in a shambles. Most of this comes true, you might say, so why call it a paranoid fantasy? The Israelites did leave the land of Egypt, and when they left, the country that formerly ruled the world was a destroyed shell of a nation—its people killed, its army drowned, its agriculture and livestock wiped out, and its personal wealth stolen. Was Pharaoh paranoid or prescient? Continue reading