When Donald Trump asserts that Americans are pleased with his efforts to “make America safe again” by restricting Muslim travelers and barring Syrian refugees, he might be right.
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After all, Americans were pleased in 1938 at the Evian Conference, when the world wrung its hands tearfully, and still refused to help any but token numbers of Jews flee Hitler’s Europe. American voters were pleased when those countries returned the SS St. Louis to Europe and refused to increase refugee quotas. Huge majorities of Americans opposed accepting Jewish refugees, even after Kristallnacht, fearing they would import “communism” and general Semitic loathsomeness.
From the vantage point of history, we know in our bones, that this was a shameful failure of public morals that consigned hundreds of thousands of people to the machinery of death, when they might have found rescue.
In the pits of our stomachs, we feel shame that President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who believed we had “nothing to fear but fear itself,” was so afraid of American citizens of Japanese ethnicity, that he locked them in camps during World War II. In 1988, the U.S. Congress and President Reagan apologized, paying reparations to survivors and admitting that the internment camps represented nothing but “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.”
And in our bones, Americans – especially Jewish Americans – will one day feel that same shame about President Trump’s cruel, crude ban against Syrian refugees, and his mistrustful, bigoted measures against Muslims generally, especially those from Libya, Yemen, Sudan, Iran, Iraq and Somalia.
Let us admit that there are Islamic terrorists who have murdered considerable numbers of Westerners, especially in my home city, New York. Let us agree that the West should combat ISIS, the Taliban, Hizballah and all their ilk. But let us not descend into Trump’s version of the “race prejudice, war hysteria and failure of political leadership” we saw in the 1940s.
Trump proves Marx’s adage, the history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.
To stand up and reject this obnoxious farce, I was one of 19 liberal rabbis – supported by about 200 colleagues, associated with T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights – who engaged in an act of civil disobedience on Monday night, stopping traffic briefly outside the Trump International Hotel on Central Park West. We were arrested and held for five hours, by cops who were unfailingly “courteous, professional and respectful,” as the NYPD promises.
We took this demonstrative action to reaffirm that some things are so important that normal traffic must stop. Ethical citizens, in your comfort, do not accommodate yourselves to hateful bigoted policies, even those that might be popular. That’s what most Germans did in the 1930s and 1940s, and what all too many Americans, Canadians, Argentinians did as by-standers. Let us be better in 2017.
In this very small, symbolic gesture, we 19 rabbis put our bodies on the side of those who would welcome refugees from Syria’s brutal massacres. Words are good, as Jews know, but deeds are indispensable. The 19 of us were never in danger. We suffered no pain beyond sore wrists from the plastic tie handcuffs, and a few hours in the cage. But we intended by this gesture to affirm that we are willing to stand with Syrian refugees even when it hurts, as we wish Americans had stood with Jews fleeing Hitler.
A famous anecdote in the Talmud [Berakhot 61b] relates to jailed rabbis, leading to the death of Rabbi Akiva at the hands of the Romans. Now, our jailing was brief and painless, while Rabbi Akiva’s was fatal. I oppose Trump, but he is no Hadrian. So, really, there is no comparison. Nonetheless, a metaphoric parallel might be in order.
In our story Pappos bar Yehuda is an accommodator, while Rabbi Akiva is a resistor. When the Romans tell Pappos to shut up, he complies, while Rabbi Akiva teaches Torah in public, risking arrest, which of course ensues. But when Rabbi Akiva is seized, Pappos is seized as well, and thrown in the same cell. “How fortunate you are Akiva,” says Pappos, “for you are imprisoned for teaching the Torah, while woe is me, for I am imprisoned for no good purpose at all.”
That’s how it is with tyrannical governments: sooner or later everyone gets caught. My comrades and I hope we learned the lesson of Rabbi Akiva, and with one small gesture, were fortunate to be arrested for standing on the side of the Torah’s values, caring for the vulnerable, as we wish others had cared for our people 80 years earlier.
Jeremy Kalmanofsky has been a rabbi at Manhattan's Ansche Chesed since 2001. Follow him on Twitter: @RabbiJeremyK