Tag Archives: Border

Instead of Arguing over Semantics, We Must Act

Controversy took over the headlines this week – you know, not real controversy, but the type of controversy that we’ve come to expect in a 24-hour news cycle where every tweet, comment, and quote get over analyzed and twisted out of context. This week, in reference to the detention facilities that the Trump administration has set up on the US-Mexico border, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez referred to them as concentration camps. Many of her political opponents were quick to criticize her, suggesting that one cannot use Holocaust allegory to condemn the human rights violations happening right now in our country, as if we say “never again” but don’t actually mean it, like it only means never again to us.

I understand that using the term concentration camps is a trigger. I understand that doing so suggests that the actions of the Trump administration are no different than Nazi Germany. I would never say that or suggest that. But we have been so consumed over the last several days by whether or not these are concentration camps,  and ignored the half a dozen children – CHILDREN – who have died in these detention facilities for lack of care, or the babies born prematurely in these internment camps without being seen by a medical professional. We’ve debated appropriate analogies instead of highlighting the reports that a traumatic and dangerous situation is unfolding for some 250 infants, children, and teens at the border who have been locked up for 27 days without adequate food, water, or sanitation.

And it doesn’t matter that there are those historians who say that concentration camps is the appropriate term, because I am not sure it is the appropriate term. But we get consumed and distracted by those arguments, by those who are trying to prove that concentration camps is an appropriate term, or those who suggest that using such a term minimizes the actual horrors of the Holocaust. We end up ignoring the President’s promise of a modern-day Kristellnacht – yes, I too used such an analogy — reporting that he will soon be demanding that ICE begin rounding up millions – MILLIONS – of residents to arrest them, detain them, and deport them, because of their immigration status, and will question those based on how they look or the languages they speak.

The 24-hour news cycle has forced us down this narrowly-focused path where we only have tunnel vision, where we are arguing over semantics, and ignoring the actual problem, refusing to act entirely. It’s as if only certain people can say certain things, like decrying human rights violations can only be done by those who they themselves have suffered such violations, like using the term concentration camp is reserved only for survivors of the Shoah. Unfortunately, as there are fewer and fewer survivors left, it is up to those who only learned about such atrocities and thank God, didn’t live through them, to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself. Or even worse, it is up to us to make sure society doesn’t turn a blind eye, when history does repeat itself.

In Parashat Behaalotecha, we are introduced to Eldad and Meidad, two individuals who we only hear of for the very first time in Numbers 11:26. The text tells us that vatanach aleihem haRuach, that God’s divine spirit rested on them, and they offered prophecy. When a young man runs out to complain to Joshua and Moses that two random men are prophesizing and speaking truth to power, Joshua freaks out, but Moses puts him in his place. He says: It should be that all of God’s people are prophets, and that God’s spirit rests with everyone.

It is on all of us to speak up when we see the atrocities going on all around us. And maybe we are overly hyperbolic. But maybe, just maybe, such analogies are appropriate. And most definitely, such analogies bring attention to the problem – to kids locked in cages, to ICE agents raiding apartment buildings and elementary schools, to families being separated, to children being denied safety and sanitation by this supposed land of the free. We all have an obligation to be that prophetic voice – not just our leaders. And especially when one attempts to silence another for calling out such atrocities, or for the imagery they use when doing so, we must speak up and be reminded that God’s divine spirit rests on all of us. We are all prophets. We must all speak truth to power.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Stop Using the Bible to Justify Discrimination!

This past Sunday, my family asked me what I wanted to do for Father’s Day. First of all, I acknowledge that Father’s Day is a “Hallmark” holiday. In my family, it is an opportunity to simply spend the day together, something that I often don’t get to do on Sundays when I am working during the school year. So when my kids asked if I wanted breakfast in bed that morning, I responded that instead, I wanted to protest against discrimination and bigotry.

My wife and I joined hundreds at the ICE Detention Center in Elizabeth, with our daughter carrying a sign she made herself that read “Keep families together,” our preschooler on my shoulders, and our toddler in a stroller, because we couldn’t celebrate family without fighting for those whose families are being torn apart by discriminatory policies.

This past Shabbat, we read from Parashat Korach, beginning with chapter 16 of the book of Numbers. While Korach was a failed leader, his words still resonate and claims are still worthwhile. He challenged Moses:

“You have gone too far! For all the community are holy. All of them, and God is in their midst” (Num. 16:3).

OlitzkyFamilyRally1Every disturbing decision, policy, and action of this President and his administration regarding the treatment of immigrants represent the antithesis of this verse and of all that our Torah represents. We are commanded to welcome the stranger. We are commanded to love the stranger. And as we read last Shabbat, we are told that each and every member of the community is holy. Yet, the President, the Attorney General, the Secretary of Homeland Secretary, even the Press Secretary, defend these actions, and justify them by quoting the Bible.

Stop using biblical verses to justify discrimination!

I understand the irony that I am quoting the Bible to justify loving the stranger and welcoming immigrants while calling out hiding behind biblical quotes to try and justify bigotry. However, that is because one can find scriptural verses of any faith tradition if they tried hard enough that supports or opposes any opinion. You can skew anything to justify your claims. But just because you can find a specific verse and interpret it, or misinterpret it, to mean something, that does not mean that it justifies one’s bigotry.

No religion justifies separating parents from children. Children are our most vulnerable in society. Religion is focused on educating our children, caring for our children, and preparing them for adulthood to live a life full of values and to look out for their fellow human beings. Religion never justifies tearing children away from their families and locking them in cages. If you use biblical verses to justify that, then you are not practicing religion. You are desecrating God’s name, all that faith teaches, and all that faith is supposed to represent.

So I will keep quoting that the Bible tells us to protect our children and to love the stranger. Because to believe that God expects and requires anything else, anything less than that is morally corrupt.

The problem is rooted in those in charge themselves. When Korach rises up to question Moses’ leadership, he does so with many individuals. The text says that he is joined by Anshei Shem, translated as individuals of repute, literally ‘people of name.’ These were individuals whose names were known, whose names, family lineage, and thus privilege, gave them power. They stood beside Korach in demand of more power.

Rabbi Neftali Tzvi of Ropshitz taught that a person of a great name, one who is a descendant of a famous or distinguished relative, should be humble. He should think “are my deeds as great as my ancestors who have come before me?” However, these people end up being arrogant, always seeking to increase their power.

Those is positions of power can use their power for good, to build a more just society, to be God’s partner in creation. Or, they can abuse their power, weakening the most vulnerable. It is shameful that those in positions of power aren’t using their power to help those in need. They are incarcerating children, discriminating against those seeking asylum, and trying to claim that the Bible justifies these actions.

Not my Bible. Not my religion. Not my God. If you are going to pass bigoted policies, stop hiding behind scripture to mask your discrimination. Call it was it is: bigotry.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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