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

One thought on “What is citizenship? (Things I said at the #NoMuslimBanEver rally)

  1. Missing from the review of Jewish historical experience was the saga of the SS St. Louis and the racist immigration law of 1924 that condemned untold thousands of Eastern European Jews to remain in the path of the Nazi extermination machine.

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