The Unforgivable Government

(This was delivered at a HIAS event in DC on September 24, 2019. The event was co-sponsored by several congregations, including the one I serve, Machar.)

I’d like to ask you this question: What can we do when our government does something unforgivable?

We are here to support refugees in 5780 — and in all years. Many of us are here because our families were once refugees. Without the protections this country used to give to those fleeing persecution, without the chance to prosper the United States once gave the oppressed and downtrodden, many of us would not be here. I know I would likely not be here: my great-grandfather would probably have been dragged into the Czar’s army, consumed like so many other young men by war, revolution, or starvation.

Rousing the rabble at the DuPont Circle fountain

But today, our government rejects the very best of the American character, enacting upon others the very worst of its treatment of the oppressed, rejecting them and consigning them to lives of despair because of who they are.

And so I ask you to think about the question: What are we to do when our government, with little more than the stroke of a pen, commits acts of callousness, cruelty, and discrimination? When it does so in our names? What forgiveness can there be for the suffering of millions imposed in our names?

Jewish tradition tells us that when our people transgress, even if we ourselves have not committed the same offense, we are responsible. The Al Cheit that many will recite during the High Holidays says, over and over, al cheit she-chatanu — for the sin we have sinned — even if no one in the room has committed the listed sins. The Vidui — the confessional recited by many on Yom Kippur — has each member of the community take upon themselves the misdeeds of others. The Vidui reminds us v’hirshanu — we have caused others to do evil.

Turning red errors to white hopes

We may not be guilty, but we are all responsible.

We do not have the luxury of saying “not in my name” or even “not my president.” The High Holidays remind us: say what you must. Disapprove of what you will. It matters not, for our country’s cruelty is upon all our heads. Fixing what we can is upon all our shoulders.

What can we do when our government commits unforgivable acts of cruelty?

What can we do?

Millennia-old Jewish wisdom’s answer is simple: we own this. We may not be guilty, but we are responsible. We must treat our government’s transgressions as our own and do what we can to atone — even if there can be no forgiveness.

We must take action to bring love where there has been cruelty. We must shout, pitchu li shaarei tzedek — open up the gates of righteousness for me — to make it clear to all our representatives that we, as a country, must. Do. Better. For refugees, this means fighting to keep our country’s doors open. Win or lose that fight, opening the gates of righteousness means supporting refugees in our communities. It means showing true love of the stranger in our land so that they are strangers no longer, but are truly our own.

Whether we have transgressed, these transgressions are ours. And so, I ask that you resolve this with me, in the spirit of tochekha, of loving rebuke:

In 5780, may we act to correct our society and our government. May we speak out against the cruelty of 5779. May we act to open the doors to refugees. May we act to make refugees truly our own people. May we act to straighten our path and our nation’s path. And may we thus atone — even if we might not be forgiven — so that justice and kindness light our path forward and guide our future.

And let us say together, Amen.

Say It: They Are Concentration Camps

The Jewish Community Relations Council of New York has published an open letter to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, taking her to task for referring to the detention facilities the Trump administration is using to hold undocumented persons as concentration camps. The JCRC’s letter claims that “concentration camps” and “never again” are terms connected with and that should only be used with reference to Nazi crimes, and using it with reference to asylum seekers and others “diminishes the evil intent of the Nazis” to eradicate all Jews.

Here’s their tweet, with a scan of the letter attached to it.

The JCRC of New York is, simply put, wrong.

Concentration camps predated the Nazis. The British used them in South Africa during what is sometimes called the Anglo-Boer War or simply the Boer War. Concentration camps are simply that: camps in which persons are segregated from the general population of an area and kept concentrated in a single place, usually for ethnic, racial, or political reasons.

DHS and (soon) Defense Department detention facilities satisfy that definition.

As a Jew, I refuse to limit the application of “never again” to only genocide. Mass displacement and mass political detention of a specific ethnic group, or of a number of people, carried out for political reasons are enough reason to apply the label.

A crime against humanity is enough.

Nothing else is credible in the presence of burning children, to follow Yitz Greenberg’s dictum.

The NY JCRC is wrong. You can tell your friends that this rabbi said so.

On the Bladensburg Peace Cross #HonorThemAll

(I delivered this text as a speech in front of the steps of the US Supreme Court on February 27, 2019.)

Video recording of the speech on February 27, 2019, in front of the US Supreme Court building in Washington, DC

I’m Jeremy Kridel. I’m the rabbi at Machar, The Washington Congregation for Secular Humanistic Judaism, and I’m here representing the Society for Humanistic Judaism.

A friend of mine told me that when she first came to Maryland, nearly forty years ago, she saw the Bladensburg Peace Cross. And she thought, “Wow, these folks must be really religious around here.”

That says an awful lot about this case, doesn’t it?

The Peace Cross sits on public land, looming forty feet tall, in the middle of the road. Its backers claim that it’s just a generic symbol, neutral, non-religious.

As secular humanistic Jews, we beg to differ.

When we see a forty-foot cross standing in the center of town, as secular Jews, we know from our ancestors’ lives what that cross means. It sends a crystal-clear message: we are Christians here. And if you know what’s good for you, you’ll be a Christian, too.

Does that sound inclusive to you?

But we are just supposed to forget all of that. Otherwise, they’ll call us names. Only last Friday, George Will called us “cranky, persnickety, hair-splitting secularists.”

We think our government should support memorials that truly stand for all who gave their lives. Is that persnickety? Hair-splitting?

For Jews, a cross has often meant, “You’re not one of us, and we’re coming for you.” That’s what it meant in Eastern Europe, and when the KKK lit it on fire.

Is that persnickety? Is that hair-splitting?

How can a cross represent all war dead equally? More than two thousand Jewish soldiers are buried at Arlington National Cemetery, only a few miles away. Were they buried under crosses, or Stars of David?

A cross erases the bravery and sacrifice of any soldier who isn’t or wasn’t a Christian.

And the Bladensburg Peace Cross is worse. It erases non-Christian soldiers’ bravery not only symbolically, but actually. It lists 49 soldiers. It left off three who happen to be Jewish. Let’s remember the ones the Bladensburg Cross kept off — the ones the government would still leave off by leaving the cross in place.

Let’s remember Sgt. Isaac Morris, Lt. Merrill Rosenfeld, and Pvt. Zadoc Morton Katz, Jewish soldiers who died for our country and were left off the Bladensburg Peace Cross.

The Peace Cross is not an inclusive, neutral monument. It’s a monument to Christian memory. No Jews need have applied.

And so, my deepest of non-apologies to you, George Will. There’s no hairsplitting here.

A cross on public land cannot represent every soldier. That is a betrayal.

The cross is a betrayal of the memories and the sacrifices of every soldier who went to war not because of the cross, but despite it.

A cross in the middle of the road is a betrayal what they fought for: true freedom of belief.

To truly honor our soldiers’ memories, we need a symbol that speaks for them all, and that excludes none of them.

Say it so the Justices can hear it: Honor. Them. All.

Thank you.

Step Forward

Rev. David Breeden, a Unitarian Universalist minister and Humanist, recently wrote an article on Medium that included the following explanation of Humanism:

As a set of ethical principles, Humanism’s core value is that people matter more than ideas. Humanists see people as of central concern not because of our specialness as a species but because of our capacity to both heal and destroy ourselves, the planet, and all living things. Devotion to nature and life is a core value.

Since Humanists do not speculate concerning an afterlife, we focus on growing beyond systems of oppression here and now. These systems include race, gender, nation, location, class, patriarchy, and hierarchy. In other words, any boundaries that damage the human heart and mind or prevent the full expression of each individual to be fully human.

Humanist commitments are always both individual and communal because human beings can’t be fully human in isolation.

I’ve been dwelling on these three paragraphs as my congregation enters b’nei mitzvah season (we do group ceremonies that tend to be concentrated toward the end of the school year). Some of what has made it stick is that it’s just well expressed, and catches some of what I want to make sure my congregation conveys to our students.

But the greater part of its stickiness for me is connected to the daily reminders that our current political and social climate is simply an affront to human dignity, which is the bedrock of Humanism. The revelation of the U.S. government’s policies of separating, upon apprehension, undocumented immigrant parents from their children is the latest example, and is perhaps the most individually grotesque and dehumanizing of the Trump administration’s policies.

It is unquestionably cruel to knowingly adopt legislative measures that have the obvious consequence of destroying individuals’ ability to obtain health care. But in some ways, it’s exactly the sort of thing governments do all the time: it’s anonymized, almost automatic distribution or redistribution of money. It’s heartless, and it’s cruel, and it’s bad policy and bad governance from both a financial and a human perspective.

But destroying the private insurance market is orders of magnitude different from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents stripping parents of their children and planning to place those children in detention areas on military bases. This isn’t detached enactment of changes to federal taxation and expenditure provisions; this is requiring that humans tear other humans from one another.

There’s no excuse for this. Even if you (erroneously) believe that the U.S. economy cannot sustain additional immigrants, and even if you (erroneously) believe that immigrants take jobs from other Americans, we can perhaps discuss legitimate policy questions about how much immigration is appropriate. But if you believe that tearing children from their mothers and potentially warehousing them on military bases is in any way appropriate policy simply because of undocumented immigration status, or is in any way not needless trauma upon those victimized and even upon the rank-and-file ICE and CBP agents who are tasked with engaging in this behavior, we have nothing to talk about.

Tearing children from their parents because their parents are undocumented immigrants is oppression. It damages the heart and mind of each person wrapped up in the system – victim and perpetrator alike. It damages the social structure as well as individuals.

If you claim to be a Humanist, you have an obligation to speak up and to try to find ways to help.

If you are Jewish, you likewise have an obligation to speak up and to help. Our obligation as Jews is even greater, because our history is one of wandering and of children being torn from their parents. Ours is a tradition that had this pain forced upon it time and again for the better part of two millennia. If you are willing to claim that your father was a wandering Aramean – if you are going to declare that your forebears were slaves in Egypt or anywhere else – you are doubly obliged to step forward and to say “No.”

So, what can you do?

  • At the very least, you can sign this ACLU online petition
  • You can contact your Congressperson, your Senator, and executive branch agencies and demand this practice end
  • You can donate to organizations like the ACLU and its allies, who are pursuing litigation to stop the practice
  • You can donate to organizations like the American Immigration Council and the Southern Poverty Law Center, which are stepping into the breach and providing attorneys to represent detained immigrants – because there’s no right to appointed counsel in most immigration proceedings

Step up and take action. Human lives and human dignity hang in the balance.