9 Sh’vat 5777 / Feb. 6, 2017
In Selma, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, of blessed memory, “felt as if my legs were praying.” Last Sunday at LAX, I felt as if my legs were buckling.
Shortly before lighting candles the previous Shabbat, I learned that President Trump had issued an executive order barring all refugees from coming to the United States for 90 days, barring all travellers from 7 states associated with terrorism from coming, or coming back, to the United States, with the proviso that said travellers with valid visas would be admitted on a “case by case basis,” and indefinitely barred Syrian refugees, the largest group among a record 65 million of them, from entering the United States. Future admissions would give preference to “religious minorities.” Trump made it clear in his comments that by “religioous minorities” he did not mean Sunnis in Iraq or Alawites from Syria, but rather Christians. Some 60,000 to 100,000 valid visa holders had their visas revoked – even Green Card holders who had lived among us for decades, and the former Prime Minister of Norway – until the federal courts forced the State Dept. to reverse its decision. This order was issued, with tragic irony, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, on which a White House recognition of that day deliberately did not mention Jews, the majority and prime target of Hitler’s infamous “final solution.”
We wish each other Shabbat Shalom, or “Sabbath Peace,” but my soul was restless and tormented. I gave a fiery denunciation of the order at shul that day while our community celebrated the Bar Mitzvah of a Jewish refugee’s grandson, which I also am. I fully planned on going somewhere – anywhere – to actively protest this shameful and illegal order, and as soon as Shabbat ended, I opened up my Facebook feed and found the opportunity. A major protest was going to take place at the Bradley International Terminal at LAX, and I clicked “going,” as did my daughter. I rushed to CVS and bought poster board and multi-colored Sharpies. My daughter penned “Refugees welcome, Racists get out” on her board. I wanted my message to be more prayerful and positive, reflecting the unique role clergy play at often-angry protests: “Love the Stranger as Yourself – Lev. 19:34” with hearts replacing the O’s.
My daughter, two of her friends, and I drove to LAX, parked, and took a long walk to the terminal. There, 10,000 protesters awaited us, along with about 10 supporters of the ban encircled by a protective layer of police. The march was entirely peaceful, which is to say non-violent. But we could barely move and we could barely breathe. The chaotic scene featured a kaleidoscope of people, including quite a few wearing hijabs and yarmulkahs. I ran into a few of my rabbinic colleagues as well. Among the hostile and astounded messages on a thousand signs, I was heartened to see 3 of them sporting the exact same quote from Leviticus: “The stranger that sojourns with you shall be unto you as the home-borne among you; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; I, the Lord am your God.”
Practically all of us stood and screamed for many hours. Hundreds of us then sat in just outside the Customs and Border Protection office, where valid visa holders were being detained. Among them was a 5 year old boy in handcuffs. We prayed. We screamed “Let them in!” The energy was exhilarating and inspiring.
But, Lord, it did not feel prayerful. We did not exhibit the optimism of King and Heschel walking arm in arm across the Pettis Bridge. Rather, we exhibited the rightous rage of the prophets who spoke a fiery truth to power, lambasting a wayward society for swaying from its covenantal ideals. After a while, I was exhausted and had to sit down. But my spirit was ignited. Even though I could feel the fatigue in my knees, I felt as if I could, like Elijah the prophet, walk for 40 days without food and water.
A week after these protests, I am so proud to be a Jew, and so proud to be an American. I watch with pride as all the major religious movement in Judaism lambasted the executive order; as my normally apolitical colleagues fell hard off their fence of neutrality to exhort our fellow Jews to resist the temptation to slam the golden door behind us. Not too long ago, it was us Jews who were denied entry because America suspected us of being German agents and Communists (and in fact, we were disproportionately represented among the latter). Millions of us died because Lady Liberty’s torch was snuffed out, incluing 80% of my own family.
I watched with pride as our glorious system of checks and balances gets a new, hard look by the federal courts whose mission is to referee the competing and legitimate concerns of security and liberty. The courts have not always gotten it right (cf. Dred Scott, Plessy v. Furguson and Korematsu) but have also dropped unshakable anchors of democracy (cf. Brown v. Board of Education and Marbury v. Madison).
A Bush appointee has issued a stay of pretty much the entire executive order, and so far, the 9th Circuit has refused to reverse it. This week that court will issue its ruling, and it is guaranteed that whatever decision it reaches will be appealed to the Supreme Court. We don’t know whether this order will ultimately be allowed to stand, but we should be proud that a civil debate is taking place in courtrooms, where it belongs.
Debate also belongs among us. We have a duty to support policies that make us safer, and we also have a duty to deliberate whether this particular order makes us safer. My own thinking reflects that of Rabbi Benjamin Franklin, who said, “those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.” For America is more than a flag and a protected entity within borders. America is the sum of its ideals – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And when we sacrifice these ideals, the greatest country in history ceases to be worth defending.
Not a single refugee from the 7 countries affected by the executive order has committed terrorist violence on our soil over the last 40 years. We are more likely to be struck by lightning than to be killed by one of them. But on Septemer 11, 2001, 3,000 fellow Americans were felled by visa holders from countries not affected by the ban, and, thanks to President Obama, anyone from those 7 countries has had to obtain a visa in order to travel to our country for 90 days or less. Until this year, our government has done an admirable job keeping us safe since 9-11. We cannot reasonably expect no violence, but we have succeeded in minimizing it through sensible security measures along with a remarkable ability to integrate our newcomers.
We need to hold fast to this faith in our ideals, which have only strengthened us and made us a beacon of liberty throughout the world. I fear that these ideals are being undermined by too many deaf ears to the Torah’s clarion call to love the stranger. Anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim crimes are spiking, and we and our Muslim fellow Americans are feeling quite vulnerable and questioning of whether we plan to once again snuff out Lady Liberty’s torch. I for one plan to fight against this attenuation of our ideas until my legs buckle. Shavua Tov.