March 28, 2020

Going Where Justice Calls

Every day since Donald Trump rescinded the Dream Act, one hundred twenty dreamers have lost their DACA protections. This means that they can be deported at any time from the only country they know (and love) to a country that they were born in, but do not recognize in any meaningful way.

Last week, a group of justice seekers decided to speak up.

I was part of a multi-generational gathering of Jews and their allies, of all affiliations and no affiliations. More than one hundred folks milled about at the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Sepulveda, listening to Hebrew songs and protest songs, listening to speeches, chanting, clapping, and shmoozing. This was a gathering that would have pleased any program director of any Federation. These hundred plus folks were not, however, at a Federation fundraiser, or a hip synagogue social held outside on the street. This was a political demonstration outside the offices of Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

The point of the gathering was clear: No vote for a Continuing Resolution (CR) without the passage of the Dream Act. Feinstein voted against the last CR, and we were there to thank her and to strengthen her resolve, the resolve of the Democratic caucus in general to once again demand a clean Dream Act. A Dream Act that does not hold the fates of 800,000 young people hostage to a wall, or an extreme right wing immigration agenda.

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 the accident of birth? The granting 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 point of the gathering was clear: No vote for a Continuing Resolution (CR) without the passage of the Dream Act.

The Jewish tradition teaches us that it is, rather, the commitment 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 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. So-called upstanding citizens with the right papers and the right blood and the right race, let this happen.

We will not let this happen again.

The sting of disappointment in the evening was that though the Jews were there, (gathered by Bend the Arc: Jewish Action, together with IKAR and Reform CA) the Federations were not. The “leadership” of the Jewish community need not consult the latest Pew research poll to find out where the Jews, young and old, are. They are on the corner of Santa Monica and Sepulveda, and similar street corners in dozens of other cities and in our nation’s capital. They are where justice calls.

Rabbi Aryeh Cohen is the Rabbi-in-Residence for Bend the Arc: Jewish Action in Southern California.