Zero Tolerance for Zero Tolerance

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In response to recent “zero tolerance” immigration policies that resulted in separating children from their parents, local faith leaders organized a vigil outside of Olympia City Hall. We heard from faith leaders, immigrant justice activists and local officials. Over 350 people came to show their support. I’m proud to have helped organize and MC the gathering, and these are the opening words I shared:

Welcome my friends, on behalf of Concerned Clergy of Olympia and Interfaith Works, welcome here this evening. My name is Rabbi Seth Goldstein, and I serve Temple Beth Hatfiloh here in Olympia, and we are here at our seat of government to send a message and affirm our community’s support for justice, for compassion, and for each other.

Tonight we will hear voices. The voices of faith, the voices of immigration, the voices of our leaders. But mostly we have come here to stand. To stand up and to stand together. To stand opposed to destructive and harmful policies. And to stand for children, and families, and immigrants.

My faith tradition (I’m Jewish) can not be any more clear: 36 times we are told in the Torah to love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. 36 times.

One of those times in Leviticus:

The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love them as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt:

I do not know how this millennia-old text and tradition can be any more clear. But if President Trump, or Attorney General Sessions, or Secretary Nielson can’t understand that, then I better read it in the original Hebrew:

כְּאֶזְרָ֣ח מִכֶּם֩ יִהְיֶ֨ה לָכֶ֜ם הַגֵּ֣ר ׀ הַגָּ֣ר אִתְּכֶ֗ם וְאָהַבְתָּ֥ לוֹ֙ כָּמ֔וֹךָ כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם

Love the stranger, because you were a stranger. And who among us has not been a stranger? Who among us has not been an immigrant? Some of us are immigrants to this country, some the children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren of immigrants. Some of us are immigrants to Olympia from such far flung places like California, or Chicago, or New York. Some came voluntarily, some not. Some internally driven some externally driven.

But whatever the circumstance that brought you here to this spot at this time, we can say that each one of us, at one time or another, has been alienated, different, other, outside. We have all been the stranger in one way or another, and so we are all compelled to open up our heart to the stranger.

Our country’s history is based on the promise of liberty and justice for all. And so many times we have fallen short of that promise. From forcibly bringing people to this country in chains and selling them as property, from dislocating people from native lands for resettlement on reservations, from confining people in internment camps out of fear and suspicion, to quotas and statutes to keep out so-called undesirables (which at one time specifically targeted Jews). And now to travel bans to separating families at the border to zero tolerance policies.

We don’t have a legacy of loving the stranger in this country. We have a legacy of jailing or confining or excluding or killing the stranger. This administration has proven time and time again that it upholds that legacy. And that legacy must end.

And remember: No executive order condemning the separation of families will undo the fact that this administration condoned it in the first place.

So, I’ll tell you what I think. I think we need to have zero tolerance for zero tolerance.

Zero tolerance for the inhumane treatment of those fleeing oppression.

Zero tolerance for the cries of children calling out for their parents.

Zero tolerance for injustice.

Zero tolerance for compassionless policy.

Zero tolerance for the closing of heart, hand and mind.

So we still have work to do. We still have much work to do.

As a person rooted in spirituality, as I know others among us are, I know that text and tradition and belief and practice are not meant to maintain the status quo. Or defend that which is indefensible. Or give sanction to that which is immoral. They are meant to be a guide to being our best selves, and provide us with a vision of what could, should and will be.

That is why we stand here today.


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