Standing by our values

This week, though, as I observe the American government putting children into special toddler-prisons at the American border, these sentiments took perhaps the darkest turn yet.

US PRESIDENT Donald Trump (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Since Trump took office, it has been difficult for me to be an American-Israeli. Watching fellow Israelis and American-Israelis cheer for a man who has no moral compass or capacity for empathy has been chilling. Moreover, the realization that so many members of my tribe care more about soulless buildings – like, say, an embassy – than they do about real people’s lives has been crushing.
This week, though, as I observe the American government putting children into special toddler-prisons at the American border, these sentiments took perhaps the darkest turn yet. I realized, listening to all the rhetoric surrounding this cruel and inhumane treatment of families, that it’s quite possible that the Trump administration is taking notes from the Netanyahu administration.
Specifically, when US Homeland Security Department Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was asked last week about the policy at the National Sheriffs Association annual conference in New Orleans, she said, “We will not apologize.”
Sound familiar? “Never apologize” was the campaign slogan of Education Minister Naftali Bennett. His party did extremely well thanks to that slogan. After all, what a relief, you know, to be able to live life without ever having to apologize. Do what you want to whomever you want and never look back. What power! It worked for Bennett and now the Americans are trying it out.
This unyielding, detached, heartless bravado that the Israeli government has perfected and that the Americans are currently employing with children at the border has been echoed throughout this catastrophe.
Not caring about other people is the actual policy. For instance, Anne Chandler, who runs the Children’s Border Project, was asked about this by Texas Monthly: “So I make sure I understand: the parents come in and say, ‘We’re persecuted’, and then their child or children are taken away and they’re in lockup for at least six weeks away from the kids and often don’t know where the kids are. Is that what’s happening under zero tolerance?” She responded unequivocally, “We don’t care why you’re afraid.
We don’t care if it’s religion, political, gangs, anything. For all asylum seekers, you are going to be put in jail, in a detention center, and you’re going to have your children taken away from you. That’s the policy.”
The policy of “we don’t care why you’re afraid” is directly connected to “we will not apologize.” It is a process of giving oneself permission to shut off care and compassion for another human being. It is very convenient, and it allows for “policies” that are divorced from people’s real lives. It allows decision-makers to officially dehumanize and thus delegitimize the other, and instead to stand behind cold, calculated “policy.”
Jews should be particularly concerned about this. Even though it seems that at least one Jew is directly at the center of the creation of this policy – the violently anti-immigrant member of the tribe Stephen Miller who, along with Jeff Sessions, crafted the April 8, 2018 memo that created the current “zero tolerance” policy – that doesn’t mean that this is the Jewish way.
Despite the Bennetts and Millers of the world who make Judaism seem like a callous, heartless culture, Jews actually have deep historical, religious, and ethical reasons to protest these terrible actions.
These ideas and practices violate our history. Jews know all too well about immigration, asylum-seeking, and the trauma of families being separated.
It may sound extreme, but comparisons between Trump and Hitler abound. Sue Fendrick, whose mother survived the Holocaust after being separated from her parents – like so many others – wrote on Facebook that, “I am here, my cousins are here, and my mother is alive, because people with far fewer resources and education than I have, said, ‘Hell no, these people are not going to die on my watch,’” adding, that “Do not tell me that Trump is not Hitler – the most pathetic damning with faint praise, or faint defense, imaginable.
Don’t not tell me that the people in his circle are not actual Nazis (some of them actually are).”
The Trump policy of separating out and incarcerating children violates our Jewish collective memory.
The protest against dehumanization is also engraved into our religion.
We are told 36 times in the Torah to be kind to strangers because we were strangers in Egypt. This is how our religion was founded – on the idea that even the most marginalized members of the human race deserve to live life with dignity and freedom. We were there, and the Torah tells us to remember that.
It is more than our own religion, though. Compassion is at the core of all religions, according to Professor Karen Armstrong. The idea that we are all human and all equally deserve to be treated with basic respect is what Prof Armstrong calls “the golden rule”, and she says that if you look deeply, all religions have this at their base. Except, perhaps, whatever religion Trump is currently practicing – which, by all calculations, may be none.
It has been tormenting to watch as Jews fawn all over Trump as if he is the Messiah. It is heartbreaking that so many of my landsmen and landswomen act as if the embassy location is more important than anything else – more important than how human beings are treated, more important than how the most vulnerable children in the world are being treated.
Jews and Israelis need to protest with all our might against the incarceration of innocent children and against the dehumanization of all or any human beings. And we need to push back with full force against the encroaching idea that we are allowed to never apologize and we are allowed to not care why other people are afraid. We need to do this not only to alleviate the suffering of others, but also to ensure that we don’t completely lose our own humanity.
The author is the vice chair of Media and Policy of Democrats Abroad-Israel and a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College.