In the video of his arrest outside Philadelphia’s ICE office on Friday that subsequently went viral, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, 84, is seen being arrested by a police officer while seated in a wheelchair. His cane is momentarily removed to fasten his handcuffs and he is then helped to his feet and slowly taken toward a waiting police van.
Waskow, a founder of the Jewish Renewal movement and a longtime political activist, was part of a group of senior citizens protesting U.S. President Donald Trump’s controversial family separation policy. Many in the newly formed Elders and Friends Standing With Immigrant Children and their Parents – Waskow included – have been protesting for social causes since the 1960s, dating back to the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War. He also founded and still directs The Shalom Center.
Friday marked Waskow’s 25th arrest at a demonstration.
In an interview with Haaretz on Sunday, he compared the news of recent weeks – of migrant children, babies and toddlers among them, being held in government detention centers far from their families – to a flash of lightning.
“The thing about lightning flashes is they can illuminate dark places, but only for a moment. And I think our job, and the reason we were arrested, was to keep that light on,” Waskow said from his home in Philadelphia. “Lightning flashes happen in human history. The question is what you do with it.”
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For Waskow, a fixture in the progressive Jewish community who has previously demonstrated against the Vietnam War and the wars in Iraq, the current immigration policy is a physical manifestation of what the Trump administration stands for.
“This is like a crystallization and embodiment of what has been there this whole 18 months or so. It has been there, semi-hidden and cloaked words. The words were not visible in their impact until this moment,” he says.
The rabbi also sees a cautionary tale spelled out in Jewish and Christian biblical stories. He cites Pharaoh’s decree to slay the first-born sons of Hebrew families as recounted in the Passover story, and the Gospels’ retelling of the “Massacre of the Innocents,” in which King Herod ordered all male infants under the age of 2 in Bethlehem to be killed.
“Whether factual history or archetypical legend, it’s indicative that attacking kids is a step where a tyrant turns into a monster. And the question is, Why do it?” he asks.
Waskow charges that the policy was a way to dehumanize Latin American migrants, “to assert that the people you are against are not really human, so it’s OK to attack their children.”
He says that while he is heartened to see Jewish and other groups tapping biblical injunctions – like Deuteronomy’s “Love ye therefore the stranger; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt” – he sees another biblical passage as even more relevant, showing how the United States should ethically treat migrants seeking asylum.
It is Deuteronomy 23:16-17, which reads: “Thou shalt not deliver unto his master a bondman that is escaped from his master unto thee; he shall dwell with thee, in the midst of thee, in the place which he shall choose within one of thy gates, where it liketh him best; thou shalt not wrong him.”
“If you were to put this directly on the front page of a newspaper, it would directly apply to the situation today,” argues Waskow.
Long history of social activism
As the Elders and Friends group embarked on their plan to protest on the grounds of ICE in Philadelphia, Waskow admits that he was feeling slightly nervous. He was ready to be arrested – like on those 24 previous occasions for participating in demonstrations. The first time was in 1963, for a “walk-in” to integrate an all-white amusement park in Baltimore, Maryland.
This time, though, the protesters would be demonstrating on federal property and there was concern that they might be arrested and charged with breaking federal law, which could carry a harsher penalty. In the end, though, it was Philadelphia police officers who arrested them. Waskow says he and the others were treated gently and with respect. They were cited for disturbing the peace and released after about an hour.
Waskow has written 24 books, among them “The First Freedom Seder – 1969,” a Passover story that marked the first anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s death in 1968. It was the first ever, he says, to celebrate not only the Jewish story of exodus from Pharaoh’s Egypt, but also the liberation of other peoples, with a focus on the Black struggle against racism in the United States.
Waskow says he has been encouraged by how many Jewish organizations and communities have mobilized to fight back against the White House policies on immigration, including the so-called Muslim travel ban.
“The photographs of the Confederate flag and swastikas side by side in Charlottesville [last August] did a lot to wake up the Jewish community to the bubbling-up hatred fermented by this administration,” he says.
Noting that many of the protests against government policies are being held on Shabbat, Waskow held up the model of holding Shabbat services before rallies and protests like the one held in Washington last month during the Poor People’s Campaign event.
It’s a way of saying “that we will not just melt in the crowd, as if being Jewish does not matter,” he explains, adding, “We will affirm and celebrate Shabbat and celebrate the Jewish passion for justice.”
He admits that the recent cycle of news, including Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s decision to retire this year, took their toll last week.
“I was feeling the weight getting heavier and heavier. But Friday revitalized me ... I think the cure for political depression is political action,” the veteran activist says.
Especially, he notes, action that is joyful and inclusive, and provides a sense of community: “This is how I feel you build a real resistance and the way that ultimately we will clean out this cruelty from ruining – and ruling – American society."