Abigail Leibowitz – Informed Comment https://www.juancole.com Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Sun, 27 Sep 2020 05:46:22 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.15 Passover, COVID-19, and the Plight of Refugees https://www.juancole.com/2020/04/passover-plight-refugees.html Sat, 18 Apr 2020 04:01:29 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=190365 (Special to Informed Comment) – Yesterday was the last day of a peculiar Passover, celebrated under the Coronavirus pandemic. It reminded me of a famous story. Two British salesmen went down to Africa in the 1900’s to find if there was any opportunity for selling shoes. They wrote telegrams back to Manchester. One of them wrote, “Situation hopeless. They don’t wear shoes.” And the other one wrote, “Glorious opportunity. They don’t have any shoes yet.”

At first glance, the Passover story seems like the first salesman’s “hopeless situation”- where God had to inflict plagues on the Egyptians in order to free the Israelite slaves from their oppression, and civil discourse failed. However, Passover lends a glorious opportunity for a different approach- that of social justice and human rights. On the first two nights, Jews worldwide sat at their Seder tables, pointed to the matza, and chanted from the Haggadah, the text recited at the Seder, “this is the bread of poverty and persecution . . . whoever is hungry, come and eat, whoever is needy, come and join us.” We invite the poor and needy — regardless of their religion or ethnicity — into our homes to engage and celebrate with us.

Of course, this year was very different. We could not physically invite anyone into our homes because of COVID-19. Thus, I was compelled to find additional meaning to the Passover rituals.

Unable to invite the elderly or lonely neighbor to our table as we usually do, I challenged myself to think of all those separated from their families with no family feast or a place to call home. I saw in my mind the displaced of the world – the 70 million refugees surviving in tents and camps in desolate places under harsh conditions.

I considered the hundreds of separated children and families in ICE custody. They fled violence and brutality, only to be put in conditions that make them even more vulnerable to the global pandemic threatening us all.

Inspired by the concept of civil discourse, and moved by brave Holocaust survivors I have met such as Isaac Gendelman, Martin Finkelstein, and Nessie Godin, I founded F.A.I.R– Fans of Asylum and Immigration Reform, a student advocacy group. This student-led group is dedicated to seeking justice and aid for refugees and asylum seekers in the United States and at our borders.

F.A.I.R volunteers contributed to the Walk with Waymakers campaign which raised $8,000 for the Young Center for Immigrant Rights. Among other actions, they assign child advocates to unaccompanied children at the US border. Additionally, we promoted the ACLU petition to stop the spread of COVID-19 by releasing vulnerable communities from immigrant detention, jails, and prisons. The crowded and unsanitary conditions in the detention centers pose a severe humanitarian threat, increasing the likelihood of getting infected. Lastly, I and other F.A.I.R volunteers started Skyping with refugee children to help them practice English and cope with the current situation in which schools and libraries are closed. Reading stories to children, playing virtual Simon Says, and presenting Show and Tell highlighted that even small gestures make a big difference.

One might think that policy changes can be achieved mainly through words and political speeches. But in my opinion, actions speak louder than words. This idea is brought to life in the Haggadah when we recite, “In every generation, one is obligated to see oneself as one who personally went out from Egypt.” The Jewish medieval scholar and philosopher Maimonides interpreted this saying as “one is obligated to SHOW oneself…” with actions, not only words. This was my vision when founding F.A.I.R.

The challenge of solving the refugee and border crisis is daunting, and it won’t happen with the flick of a switch. I realize there is strong opposition to fair-minded, liberal immigration policies. Yet, the struggle for human rights requires dedication and an understanding that it is a gradual process which can succeed with small incremental steps. As Dr Martin Luther King said, “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”

Learning from immigrants and refugees- from their stories and cultures- and taking action on their behalf- signing petitions, writing letters, donating resources, and volunteering- is at the heart of our Jewish and American traditions. The hardships we felt during this year’s Passover, an ounce compared to those felt by refugees and asylum seekers worldwide, can become a “glorious opportunity” to pledge solidarity and engage in action for those who really need our help.

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Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

CBS News: “”We are trapped”: Immigrant women speak out from detention amid pandemic”

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Violence against Jews a sign of increasing hate in the U.S. https://www.juancole.com/2020/01/violence-against-increasing.html Tue, 07 Jan 2020 05:01:17 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=188387 (The Baltimore Sun) – What could cause such hate in a person that would drive them to kill and injure innocent members of a minority group?

I was troubled by this distressing question once again, when on December 28, during the last candle lighting of Hanukkah, an intruder with a large knife burst into the home of a Hasidic rabbi in a New York suburb, stabbing and wounding five Jews who had come to celebrate Hanukkah.

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In the face of this horrific violence, both the Jewish and non-Jewish communities responded with resilience and unity, which is ultimately what the story of Hanukkah represents.

This eight-day holiday celebrates the Maccabees’ victory over the Helenists during the time of the Second Temple. The Helenists joined forces with the Syrian-Greeks in suppressing Judaism, advocating a total assimilation into Syrian-Greek culture. The Maccabees, however, rejected their efforts and fought back, leading to a Jewish victory.

Resilience runs in the blood of the Jewish people — from the earliest persecution by Pharaoh in Egypt, through the persecution by the Romans during the time of the Second Temple, through the Crusades by the Catholic Church beginning in the 11th century, through the Spanish inquisition in the 1400’s, through persecution by Czarist Russia in the 19th century, and finally the mass genocide in the Holocaust by Nazis and their collaborators. Jews were always targeted yet consistently showed resilience and determination.

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In contrast, during many of these dark periods, the Jews in the United States enjoyed freedom and acceptance, and were able to integrate almost fully into the economic and cultural life in America. The United States served as a place of refuge, where Jews were granted civil rights and everyone could practice their religion freely.

However, the attack on the last night of Hanukkah, coming on the heels of other terrorist acts against Jews, Hispanics and other minorities, fills us with shock and disbelief. How is it possible that in a country that has been a beacon of equality and religious freedom, people are still being targeted because of their religion or ethnicity?

Another very recent example: on December 24, an Iowa woman intentionally ran over a 14- year-old girl and attempted to kill her because she “was a Mexican.” Three people were killed in what police have said was a targeted shooting at kosher grocery store in Jersey City, New Jersey last month.

Indeed, under the Trump Administration, we have seen a drastic rise of hate crimes: The FBI reported 7,175 incidents of hate crimes in 2017 — a 17% increase from 2016, and an uptick for three consecutive years from 5,479 incidents in 2014, according to a Politifact article.

This step backwards goes beyond persecution of Jews; rather, it depicts the very scary direction this country has taken under President Donald Trump. These incidents and statistics clearly indicate that the Trump Administration has fostered an era in America where xenophobia, racism and anti-Semitism are welcomed and normalized.

Now, more than ever, it is pivotal to fight for the restoration of tolerance, equality and acceptance in this country. All fair-minded citizens should stand up and fight back by showing resilience. To counter Mr. Trump’s rhetoric of hatred and bigotry — we must demonstrate love and compassion.

But we must go beyond resilience — we all need to get politically engaged in the approaching elections, including the primaries, in order to change the dark and insidious narrative that the Trump Administration has adapted.

In contrast to the racist and hate-filled tweets that Mr. Trump regularly sends out to millions of his followers, the Democratic candidates should send out equally-forceful, but totally-opposite tweets.

When presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders traveled to Des Moines to celebrate the final candle lighting, he posted on Instagram that he is delighted “to once again reaffirm our belief in an America where justice, freedom and religious freedom apply to all people — and to stand united to wipe out all forms of racism, discrimination, and bigotry.”

It is with this sentiment and determination to act that all of us must must approach the upcoming elections and the new decade.

Reprinted from The Baltimore Sun with the author’s permission.

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Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Associated Press: “Thousands rally against anti-Semitism in New York”

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