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.

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

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

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

Wake up! (On T’shuvah/Repentance & Criminal Justice Reform)

What does it mean to wake up? Maimonides, in his Laws of Repentance (Chapter 3) writes that the function of the shofar is to wake a person up. “Those who forget the truth in the emptiness of the passing time…” should heed the blast of the ram’s horn and stir from their slumber. Nowadays, it is common in activist quarters to speak of people who have recognized certain systemic injustices as being “woke.” Maimonides and the activists are speaking to the same point. There is a crying need to step out of the familiar and often lazy thinking about our own and society’s actions. We are called to take an unvarnished look at our society, and ourselves. Continue reading

Statement from the Jerusalem Community Relations Council

“While we agree with many of Isaiah’s sentiments, and we too think that the poor, and the orphaned should be protected, we cannot abide the extreme and unfair language that Isaiah employs to describe our beloved city. Calling the city a ‘harlot’ and ‘filled with murderers’!? Why is he singling out Jerusalem? Has Isaiah looked around at other cities? Jerusalem is doing pretty well. We live in a rough neighborhood. Moreover, the calumnies that he heaps on the Temple are just unacceptable. He has no right to claim that God would say: ‘I am sated with burnt offerings of rams, …And I have no delight in lambs and he-goats. … Trample My courts no more; … Incense is offensive to Me. … Your new moons and fixed seasons fill Me with loathing; …And when you lift up your hands, I will turn My eyes away from you.’

“And this is not all. After defaming our city and our Temple, he puts forward outlandish ideas of how to run our country. Is this a sustainable defense policy? ‘They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war.’ We have tried to cooperate with Isaiah on moderate and reasonable reforms. We too feel the pain of the marginalized, and the deficiencies of the sacrificial system. Yet, after the obviously malicious and slanderous language that Isaiah uses in his so-called platform, we can longer cooperate with him.

“Signed, the The Jerusalem Community Relations Council.”

On Exodus, the Election, & the Struggles that are Going On Out of the Spotlight

Mark Rothko no-8-1952

From childhood, it seems, we are inculcated with the grand themes of Passover: freedom from slavery! Liberation! Then, in different ways, we translate those themes into usable models for our lives: just as we were liberated, so too must we work for the liberation of others. As Michael Walzer documented in his book Exodus and Revolution, the Exodus story has inspired many groups in many parts of the world to revolution, to radically change their material existence.

Sometimes however, the overwhelmingly large themes overshadow the equally important though smaller moments. Those moments are often the things that actually move the dial, make a difference in the world. There is a wonderful and very short story in the Talmud (Pesachim 115b). The story follows a detailed discussion of the intricate choreography of the seder meal, the liturgical meal that Jews celebrate on Passover eve. Food on trays is brought in and then taken out. Wine is poured and drunk, and then poured again. Foods are dipped. And so on. Continue reading

When the Police need to be Policed (on a Civilian Oversight Commission)

We, as a nation, are in the midst of a full blown crisis. While the carnivalesque debaucheries of the Trump run at the White House have taken much of the air out of the room, exposing a dangerous level of xenophobic hatred and racist violence in segments of the American electorate, there is another crisis which is not getting the attention it deserves.

This crisis is being acted out with the slow motion intensity of a car crash in Chicago, but also in Baltimore, in Texas, in Minneapolis, and here in Los Angeles. Though the details of the crisis change slightly from place to place, the bottom line is the same: as a result of a lack of transparency, a history of abuse, law enforcement agencies have lost credibility, and therefore a lack of legitimacy among the people and communities that they are supposed to be serving. Continue reading