Just Thought is a series of essays from AJWS applying Jewish wisdom to the pursuit of tikkun olam today. Drawing upon Jewish history, Torah sources and the latest headlines, we plumb pressing questions about human rights and global justice from a Jewish perspective through monthly essays by noted scholars, activists and AJWS staff.
“We’re worried about you,” they said. “We’re praying for you,” they said. “What are you going to do?” they asked.
I was traveling with 14 rabbis and a cantor as part of American Jewish World Service’s Global Justice Fellowship to the Dominican Republic. We were in a country that is home to the largest stateless population in the Western Hemisphere, yet we were shocked to discover that the activists and organizers we met were concerned about us.
It was the week before Donald Trump’s inauguration and we were learning how the Dominican court had stripped citizenship from some 200,000 people in 2013—the Dominican-born children and grandchildren of immigrants from Haiti. As the group made connections between this crisis born of anti-immigrant mistrust in the Dominican Republic and President Trump’s campaign promise to end birthright citizenship for the children of immigrants, the fragility of citizenship dawned on us: “This could happen to us too.” Our fears were confirmed several weeks later when Trump banned all refugees from entering the U.S. for 120 days and strictly curtailed immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries.
As the grandchild of Syrian immigrants, I expected to empathize with what my Dominican hosts were going through. But I never expected them to express solidarity with us. These were fierce human rights advocates used to dealing with a government that curtails their rights. We had come to stand with them, not the other way around.
They were women like Ana Maria Belique, an activist of Haitian descent whose own citizenship was stripped by the ruling. She explained how her society sees her as an “outsider,” because of her darker skin and Haitian ancestry, even though she is a Dominican citizen who has lived there her whole life. Ana Maria said with or without documents, those of darker skin, like herself, are usually the ones targeted at military checkpoints. Although most Dominicans do not need to carry their papers within the country, Dominicans of Haitian descent are often stopped and questioned, no matter their citizenship status. When Ana Maria expressed concern for how we were weathering the impending change in our country,” I thought, “you are worried about us?”
Ana Maria was concerned about herself, as well. She worried that a new US ambassador to the DR appointed by President Trump would not take seriously the importance of human rights, and would endanger her quest to reinstitute citizenship for Dominicans of Haitian decent.
The looming threat of Trump’s policies created a sense that we were all in this together.
Usually, on trips like this, we must work hard to avoid the kind of paternalism that can occur when donors or activists from wealthier countries head to the developing world to provide help, assistance or support. This time, although we still felt an imbalance of money and privilege, we also related to and internalized each other’s struggles in a way that felt truly reciprocal. While empathy is the first step to solidarity, true solidarity requires recognition of the truth that we are all connected and our liberation depends on each other.
Dominican activists and American rabbis asked each other, “What can we do to keep moving forward? What kind of strategies can we each employ to address unfair and oppressive rule in both of our countries?”
As an activist myself, I’ve learned how much my white skin privilege and class privilege protect me from the deprivations that affect so many Americans. My community is not struggling under the weight of the legacy of slavery and mass incarceration that affects many black Americans. I’m not the first in my family to go to college, and I have never doubted that I’d have food to eat or a roof over my head. It was only in this moment, when Trump’s impending inauguration coincided with my trip to the Dominican Republic, that I was able to truly take in what it might mean to live under that kind of oppression. If our government continues to foment inequality and injustice, even those of us who have long enjoyed privilege may not be safe.
In the weeks since I returned to New York, I’ve been thinking about this experience as I’ve marched for women’s rights and protested the refugee ban. I was inspired to see other Jews coming out in support of women, of immigrants, and of refugees. For many white Jews, the refugee rallies became an act of solidarity and identification. Jewish marchers carried signs that tied our people’s story to the stories of today’s refugees and immigrants. Jewish signs spoke of the biblical imperative to welcome the stranger. They highlighted the histories of anti-Semitism and the biographies of relatives who came to these shores. “Never Forget,” “Remember the St. Louis,” “This is the ‘never again’ I learned about in Hebrew school.”
By applying the lessons of the Holocaust—our own people’s deepest suffering—to the plight of non-Jewish immigrants and refugees, these protesters were offering a profound counter-point to an executive order that marked immigrants and refugees as “other”—as threats. We were saying “no, these people are our own—they are being turned away as we were; their lives are at risk as ours were.”
There is some generosity in sharing the Jewish historical narrative with others. In a political climate of division and self-protection, this empathic leap of moral imagination is crucial because it pushes against our basic inclination to protect ourselves above all others.1 It is only by overcoming this instinct that we can include those who are different from us within our circle of care.
This is solidarity in action.
How we can sustain this powerful solidarity, after the trips and marches are over and we return to our separate lives? How do we come together, not just in brief moments of crisis, but in ongoing action based on the real knowledge that injustice threatens us all? How do we continue to be in solidarity as the turbulence of these first few weeks of the new administration fades into the simple reality of life in the new America?
As I strive to maintain this solidarity, I will carry with me the mutual care and empathy I saw between the AJWS Global Justice Fellows and the Dominican activists we met. I will carry my own family’s story of immigration to this country from Syria. These connections inspire me to always include others in my circle of care, and to remember that I can be included in theirs.
That’s the power of solidarity.
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