January 27 was International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The White House’s statement for the day did not mention Jews. Rather than admit a mistake, the White House has gone on to defend this glaring omission. I agree with Professor Deborah Lipstadt (the film Denial is the true story of her court victory against a Holocaust denier) that this is “softcore denial” of the Holocaust. On this same day, the President issued an executive order to ban Muslims from seven countries deemed a threat…and that did not include the countries where the 9-11 terrorists originated.
Within hours, individuals’ lives were turned upside down. People with green cards and visas from the seven countries were mid-flight when the order went into effect.
They landed in America but many were taken into detention. Word spread and Americans rose up in great numbers. A small crowd at JFK airport surged. Many gathered at airports around the country.
Sunday morning I learned of a local rally against the immigration ban. Though the President’s order had a stay placed on it Saturday night, there was (and is) still much confusion and suffering of innocent people. I posted the information on Facebook and sent many emails inviting people to attend the rally. As a Jew and a rabbi, this executive order hit me in the gut. We were refugees. How many Jews died because they could not find safe haven during WW II? The SS St. Louis was turned away in 1939 and many people on the ship died in the Holocaust.
America is a nation of immigrants. How can we shut people out based on their religion or nationality? That is unconstitutional, illegal and un-American. As the Rev. Martin Neimoler’s poem said—-first they
came for the socialists, and I didn’t stand up because I was not a socialist… in this case, first they came for the Muslims and this rabbi said “NO.”
I made a poster to bring to the rally (We are a nation of immigrants; Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof—Justice Justice you shall pursue; My People were refugees) and went to Elizabeth Sunday afternoon where the temple was well represented by the many members who were in attendance. The crowd quickly grew to the point where, when we in the front shouted a chant the back of the crowd didn’t know we had finished. There were many speakers. A rabbi spoke. An Imam spoke. An immigration lawyer spoke. The Mayor of Maplewood, a Sanctuary town, spoke. Our friend Senator Cory Booker spoke.
This is not the America I know as the land of the free and the brave. But the chants that inspired me at the Women’s March in DC also inspired me in Elizabeth. “Tell me what democracy looks like.” “This is what democracy looks like.”
The protests are making an impact. Our voices need to be heard. We can do this in person at rallies and we can let elected officials know how we feel with letters, emails, phone calls and visits. There are rallies in Paterson on Wednesday and Saturday at Paterson Great Falls Park.
It is crucial not to let the outrageous become normal. The Acting Attorney General, Sally Yates, was fired because she interpreted the immigration ban to be an illegal executive order. I admire her courage.
As news of the travel ban unfolded, I was spending time on Saturday afternoon with the Zakkours, the Syrian refugee family TBA has been helping for several months. Saturday night I would have liked to join the protests at JFK but was attending a Syria Supper Club at the home of temple members Barbara and Marc Schwartz. These dinners are cooked by a Syrian refugee who earns some money to help her family in addition to being a guest at the meal she prepared. Together, over a delicious meal, temple members and complete strangers became friends. The guests included Jews, Christians and Muslims who all want to help. Welcoming the stranger has been one of the most Jewish acts I’ve engaged in this year.