More than thirty years have passed since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s (MLK) birthday became a national holiday, and only after decades of campaigning for Dr. King’s civil rights legacy to be immortalized. In 1968, Congress was presented with a petition signed by more than three million people supporting a holiday. It was not until President Reagan, after facing considerable pressure, declared the third Monday of every January Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983. This was the first national holiday in commemoration of a black American in history.
Even so, certain states refused to accept it as a holiday, giving it different names and replacing it with other holidays. In 2000, South Carolina became the last state to officially accept it as a paid holiday.
This past MLK Day, 182 community members came together for PJ Library’s 3rd annual MLK Day of Service for preschoolers and their families. Families enjoyed stories and music, created blankets and brought socks and gloves to donate to Congregation Beth Israel’s Mitzvah House (emergency family shelter at CBI), decorated placemats for Meals on Wheels, created tzedakah boxes and swapped PJ Library books. It was a wonderful event that families look forward to every year.
Every day we seem to wait for the next news report, sound bite or tweet from our political leaders. Last week, President Trump was reported to have made harsh comments about immigrants and immigration to America. Regardless of your views on what was said, we should all heed the words of Dr. King, “We may all have come on different ships, but we're in the same boat now.” The question for us all is how we bridge our divides and move forward?
Issues of race relations, immigration, and refugees not only impact us in America, but these issues are also challenging Israel today. The Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), the national umbrella organization for Jewish Community Relations Councils across the country, sent a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu requesting that the government suspend its plan to deport Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers.
There are approximately 35,000 - 40,000 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers living in Israel, most of whom fled from Eritrea and Sudan between 2007 and 2012 to escape genocide and other mass atrocities in their home countries. To respond to the influx of asylum-seekers, Israel secured its international borders in 2012, which has effectively stopped the flow of refugees, trafficking victims, and other irregular migrants.
Currently, the Government of Israel does not have any formal policy for non-Jewish immigrants. Over the past seven years, many have been held in detention centers and few have been provided with services or stable employment opportunities. In 2011, asylum-seekers were given the opportunity to submit asylum claims, but of the approximately 40,000 African asylum-seekers in Israel, less than 15,000 did so for fear of deportation. To date, the Israeli government has reviewed less than 1/3 of the applications and only recognized 10 asylum-seekers as refugees. Although a small number of asylum-seekers have obtained temporary residency status in Israel, most possess only a two-month renewable visa and have difficulty finding work or receiving social services.
Recently, the Government of Israel announced that it has negotiated agreements with several African governments, including Uganda and Rwanda to accept these asylum-seekers, and there are plans underway to deport them to these countries. Experts, however, have expressed grave concerns about Israel’s ability to ensure the asylum-seekers’ safety. According to Israeli researchers in Rwanda and Uganda, these countries did not provide status or protection to the African migrants previously relocated. Instead, many fell prey to trafficking, kidnapping, and torture.
The JCPA issued this statement, which I hope you will read.
The Jewish community has always played a leading role in the civil rights movement. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a scholar at the Jewish Theological Seminary, represented the Jewish community at the National Conference of Religion and Race in Chicago in 1963 and marched with Dr. King from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.
“We pray when we live our values with the totality of ourselves.” Such was Abraham Joshua Heschel’s commitment to racial equality and social justice. As a rabbinic luminary, he understood the power of the library and the synagogue. But as a force for goodness, Rabbi Heschel also knew when it was time to leave the library and take to the streets for the causes you believe in. Marching for civil rights was for him a form of prayer.
Rabbi Heschel famously said, “For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. When I marched in Selma, I felt my legs were praying.”
On Wednesday, some 100 Jewish activists, many of them clergy, followed Heschel’s example by protesting on Capitol Hill on behalf of the Dream Act, a bipartisan bill that would grant permanent residence status and provide a path to citizenship for Dreamers who graduate from U.S. high schools and attend college, enter the workforce, or enlist in the military. Dreamers are undocumented immigrant youth brought to the United States as young children. Twenty-five national organizations, including the JCPA, the American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League, and HIAS, have signed a letter to members of Congress in support of this legislation. The full text of the letter is available here.
The City of Portland certainly has its history of racial discrimination and resistance. There is much written and you can see an excellent exhibit on Discrimination and Resistance at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, as well as a new exhibit at the Oregon Historical Society called, Racing to Change: Oregon’s Civil Rights Years. We must expose discrimination for what it is and we have the obligation to speak up and speak out.
As Dr. King said in is I Have a Dream speech in 1963, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”