December 10, 2018

Jewish presence felt at LAX protest on Trump refugee order

Shortly before Shabbat fell on Friday, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that effectively slammed the door on refugees seeking entry to the United States – at least for now.

Shock and anger had been building in the Jewish community since a draft order was released days beforehand. On Saturday, those sentiments exploded onto Rabbi Susan Goldberg’s cellphone in concerned messages from her congregants at Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

“When Shabbat ended last night, my phone was blowing up – emails, photos,” she said Jan. 29 as a crowd milled past her at the arrivals gate at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). “For Jews, there’s a clear line that’s been crossed. People felt kind of not okay. But now, it’s different.”

Thousands gathered at LAX, where a number of travellers had been detained because of the order. Police cut off traffic through much of the airport and largely gave protesters the run of Tom Bradley International Terminal.Many protesters were Jews from congregations across the city, and even on signs held aloft by non-Jews, a certain Jewish influence could be detected in references to 1930’s Germany and proclamations of “Never again.”

“There are a lot of Jews here – a lot,” Goldberg said, her husband translating from sign language, since she’d lost her voice. Her three children joined the pair at the Jan. 29 protest.

As weary travellers emerged to boisterously chanting crowds, Adam and Noah Reich held a sign reading, “Two Jewish brothers standing with our Muslim brothers.” While they spoke with a reporter, a short woman with olive skin, a total stranger, walked up and hugged both of them. That type of thing had been going on all afternoon.“Maybe like, a dozen so far,” Noah said. “We’ve been here for a couple hours and people just come up to us.”

“The collective power of everyone here is saying, ‘You’re not alone, we’re all here for you,’” Adam said. “And I think that’s a powerful thing.”

Emerging from the crowd, Jesse Gabriel, an attorney and executive board member at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, put his hand on Noah’s shoulder.

twit3“Kol ha’kavod,” he told the pair, using a Hebrew expression for “Well done!”

Gabriel was one of dozens of attorneys swarming the terminal, many with signs reading “lawyer” and announcing their foreign language proficiencies, hoping to be of help to stranded travellers or those recently released by immigration and customs officers.“When you have individuals whose rights need to be protected, that’s when lawyers need to step in,” Gabriel said. In fact, there was little work for the attorneys at the terminal, since those detained were stranded elsewhere, in the bowels of LAX, incommunicado. The crowds were chanting, “Let them in!” but lawyers were struggling even to make contact with those stranded.

“Our understanding is that there are a number of people with legal travel documents who are being detained in customs and borders patrol, in custody,” said immigration attorney Michael Hagerty. Hagerty was serving as ad hoc media liaison to a group of attorneys at the airport (as announced by a cardboard sign reading “media liaison”). Among his charges were representatives from legal aid clinic Public Counsel and the local American Civil Liberties Union. But information about those trapped – even a basic head count – proved difficult to come by.

twit4“We don’t know who they are, we don’t know exactly what their legal status is on an individual basis, but in all likelihood they are legal permanent residents, they are refugees with legal refugee travel documents, people with student visas,” Hagerty said.As he spoke, wayfarers cut through surging crowds, pushing carts and lugging suitcases. For those just arriving, it must have presented an overwhelming scene: shouts of “USA!” from flamboyantly dressed protesters, their signs decorated with everything from the Statue of Liberty to Trump with a Hitler mustache, and outside, drums banging out an incessant beat.Marchers mobbed the sidewalk on both the upper and lower levels, along with the international terminal itself. The crowd lined the curb, waving signs at passing cars, and some took to the upper levels of facing parking garages to look down over the scene.

Yet some travellers decided to join the protest, including Zoe Lister Jones, a filmmaker who had just stepped off the plane from screening her new comedy “Band Aid” at the Sundance Film Festival.

“I’ve been witnessing the injustices occurring from Park City and I came straight from the arrivals terminal to protest,” she said. “As a Jew, I think it’s part of our bloodline to stand up to injustice and resist fascism.”

Many Jewish protesters made their religious identity abundantly clear for passersby.

Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels of Beth Shir Shalom, stood alone on the sidewalk outside the terminal, having been unable to locate his congregants in the chaos, wearing a yarmulke and prayer shawl.

“I wanted people to know that the Jewish people feel a chill up our spine because this is happening,” he said.

Senior writer Danielle Berrin contributed to this report.