Angel of History/Footsteps of the Messiah

In his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History‘, Walter Benjamin condemns the image of ‘progress’ put forth as dogma by the Social Democrats, which insisted that humanity has evolved towards ever-greater perfection throughout history, into the present.

“Progress, as it was painted in the minds of the social democrats, was once upon a time the progress of humanity itself (not only that of its abilities and knowledges). It was, secondly, something unending (something corresponding to an endless perfectibility of humanity). It counted, thirdly, as something essentially unstoppable (as something self-activating, pursuing a straight or spiral path).”

He contrasts, with this image of progress, his conception of history as catastrophe-

“There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. An angel is depicted there who looks as though he were about to distance himself from something which he is staring at. His eyes are opened wide, his mouth stands open and his wings are outstretched. The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment so fair [verweilen: a reference to Goethe’s Faust], to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm.”

There is a striking resemblance between Benjamin’s conception of history as catastrophe, and the notion of the ‘footsteps of the Messiah’ as it appears in rabbinic theology, especially when contrasted with the religious Zionist notion of redemption, so similar to Benjamin’s critique of progress.

From Rav Tamir Granot, describing the thought of early-1900s anti-Zionist Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman-

“Rabbi Wasserman was one of the personalities who molded the perception of the final period in the life of the Jewish nation in exile, including the period of the Jewish state, as “Ikveta de-Meshicha“, or ‘footsteps of the Messiah’…

The ancient term coined by Chazal is of great significance for an understanding of Rabbi Wasserman’s historical approach, and it should be contrasted with the term commonly associated with Religious Zionism – “at’chalta di-ge’ula,” the beginning of the redemption, or “reishit tzemichat ge’ulateinu,” the beginning of the flowering of our redemption.

The concept of the “beginning of the redemption” expresses a view of the modern era as a constructive stage on the way to the final redemption. It entails a positive view of our historical reality, seeing in it the Jewish nation’s development and progress on the way to redemption.

The term “footsteps of the Messiah,” although also denoting proximity in time to the redemption, expresses a completely opposite view of the period.  For the Jewish nation, the modern era – and especially the period between the two World Wars – looked like a general, almost catastrophic, crisis and disintegration, especially as pertaining to the spiritual situation.  The disintegration of traditional society, the loss of the communal structure, the Enlightenment, Reform, assimilation, and finally Zionism and Communism, all represented a multi-pronged attack on faithful Judaism, endangering the continuation of Jewish existence in accordance with Torah and the commandments.  If we add to this the reality of economic distress, WWI, emigration, and pogroms, intensified in the 1930’s with racist antisemitism, the murderous decrees, and Stalin’s persecution, we are faced with an extremely grim picture, which Rabbi Wasserman identified as a descent to the nethermost depths.  Chazal, in the final mishna in Sota and in the Gemara ad loc., describe just such a situation and refer to it as “the footsteps of the Messiah.”

18) The Chafetz Chaim taught further: The changes that take place in the world today within a short time, used to take hundreds of years.  We see that the wheel of time is spinning at lightning speed.  “What has God done to us?” (Yirmiyahu 5:19); why are conditions changing in this way? Concerning these questions, the Chafetz Chaim taught: Since the time of Creation and until today, endless accounts have piled up.  Before the Messiah comes, these accounts must be settled, because the redemption will remove the evil inclination, and thus all matters of this world that pertain to the battle waged against the evil inclination will be cancelled.  Therefore, every person must settle whatever debt he still owes God.  Since the time of the Messiah is very close, it is imperative that this process be speeded up.  From the day that the Chafetz Chaim, z”l, expressed this view, the pace of events in the world has grown even faster.  Overnight, literally, things have happened that previously would have taken many generations… It is as though the wheel of time is accelerating under pressure from an external command: “Hurry up!”  Anyone with intelligence can understand that we are living in a special period, which is destined to change the entire world order; day by day, the pace grows faster…”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stewards of Remembrance

There is a gift of remembrance, nestled in the human heart, that makes the angels tremble with jealousy. Remembrance is not the simple muscle memory of the living creature, human or animal, that yearns instinctually for the food it once had, misses shelter, longs for a lost kiss, or the embrace of a mother. In remembrance there is something more. 

Looking at old photographs, engaged in reminiscience, there is a haunting, a deep sadness, an awareness of the passing of time itself, a sorrow and wisdom embedded in the notion that the moment itself, the presence of the present, is eternally passing away. Often we can hold this quality of remembrance before the powers of our thought for only a moment, before it flits away; as if we get glimpses of a secret dwelling within, and beyond, time itself. 

The past is eternally past; this moment, too, is already past; the drama of our human lives will fade away, will be held onto only as sweet memory, as history. The hands of those who came before us have worked hard to bring us to the present. Our ancestors are no longer with us, and yet our remembrance of them is charged with gratitude, awe and responsibility. 

It as if somewhere, a candle is lit that bathes the halls and caverns of time itself in the light of remembrance, a light suffused with the sigh of the human heart, the yearning, hope and sorrow of our incomplete redemption. When we turn our gaze upon the past, we see by virtue of this light only; in this light, the daily motions of humans upon the earth are captured as shadows. We cannot see this candle directly, but to sit before it fills our hearts with a deep, unspeakable sadness and a warm, unquenchable gratitude.

Nature already does a great job consecrating space; humans can build temples of spatial holiness that, in the end, mimic the beauty of nature, or gesture to a truth beyond it. This is all well and good, though one wonders if nature itself already offers, to our gaze, the most perfect temple imaginable. 

But nature cannot speak of time or remembrance; before remembrance, nature is mute, its gaze does not venture towards these realms. An animal cannot tap into this eerie, ghostlike quality of awareness of the passing of time itself, in its ineffable, simple yet staggering beauty. It is as if humans have been gifted the ability to dwell in time, to consecrate time itself. It is given to humans to build structures of holiness in time itself. In our hearts and minds, existence doubles back upon itself; we are ‘he who writes and he who is written’ (Jabes). We are stewards of remembrance, entrusted to care for that candle that, flame bent towards the past, makes its nest in the very pulse of being. 

(Written at the wake of Dottie Nabakowski)

Our Relationship to the Land

‘Every Jew has a stake in the Land of Israel, and therefore what is done in Israel is the business of every Jew.’ – the Lubavitcher Rebbe, 1970

In the above quote, the Lubavitcher Rebbe was responding to criticism that, from his home in Brooklyn, he was too involved in the state affairs of Israel. His involvement, it should be noted, was very right wing– for decades, he counseled Netanyahu and the many other leading Israeli politicians who visited him in Crown Heights to hold on to every inch of land in the West Bank, to see Israel’s wars as wars of expansion, to see all Palestinians as Amalekites, etc.

But this quote resonated with me, ironically, as an American Jewish BDS activist. While the Rebbe, were he alive today, may recoil in horror to hear me say so, I actually share his sentiment. It drives the work I do, to advocate for an end to occupation and apartheid, and for the return of Palestinian refugees. I do this firstly, not as a white person fighting American empire and global white supremacy, but as a Jew (and yes, as a white Jew specifically), as a Jew with a stake in the affairs of his people, and with a concern, today, for what we’re doing in the holy land. I think the Rebbe’s quote can serve as an effective model to help Jews doing anti-occupation/BDS work articulate a healthy self-interest in our work, and a healthy relationship to that land, wherever we live around the world.

When we ask ‘what is the future of Judaism beyond Zionism?’, or ‘what will the new Jewish identity look like?’, another question is folded within these- ‘how should we conceive of our relationship to Eretz Yisrael, outside a Zionist framework?’ Thankfully, many different answers exist to this question, as they should- you have the secular ‘doikayt’ diasporists on the one hand, attached only to ‘Zion’ as a symbol for the future liberation of humanity, and those who gravitate towards some form of ‘old time religion’ on the other, grounded in apolitical devotion to the living stones of the land. And, of course, you have many shades in between, within and around these two points I have chosen, somewhat arbitrarily, amidst many others in the rich tapestry of Jewish experience.

Mostly, I have drifted around the former camp, with at least one toe in the latter. My family is rooted in America and, before, that Europe; I am a Marxist spiritual agnostic, I have a pious rabbi and a fiery radical jostling within me in sometimes uneasy, but always creative, tension. And while I cling to a fierce diasporism, I see alot of beauty in directing our prayers towards Jerusalem, as a compass for our souls; I resonate with the idea of Eretz Yisrael as a throbbing in the heart of every Jew in exile in an unredeemed world.

In many ways, this dream of Zion has always been a deeply diasporist one for our people, steeped, for every Jew who has muttered it three times a day throughout the centuries, in the yearnings, sorrows and joys of their experience in history. For so many Jews across the spectrum of observance and identity, the hegemony of political Zionism, among other forces of modernity, has erased from our memory this sensibility of a relationship to Zion suffused with the travail of exile, an exile at once spiritual and physical, personal and collective, signifying the incomplete redemption of the soul, the Jewish people, and the world. Instead, Zionism has taught too many Jews to hear the cries of our sages for Zion, as little more than an injunction to pray today for the political victories of the modern nation-state of Israel, as one would cheer for a football team.

I feel drawn to this larger idea of Zion as a modality of exile, but I feel a connection to the physical Eretz Yisrael as well, one made all sorts of complicated by the two months I spent in yeshiva in Jerusalem, followed by four months doing activist work in the West Bank, in 2011. My time at the yeshiva, during which I occasionally traveled to religious sites (including occupied Hebron), was in many ways problematic- from the politics and the patriarchy, to the very fact that I, as a Jew, could visit there while Palestinians couldn’t (which applies, also, to my time in the WB)- but many of my religious experiences were very beautiful. And while some of these experiences- like the study of Torah and Talmud in a spiritually charged community- could also occur with equal force elsewhere, many were not wholly unrelated to that land, and the centuries of Jewish yearning somehow calcified in its stones. In many ways I’ve repressed the joy I felt, unable to let myself fully re-embrace those experiences, to let myself dream of them occurring again in that place, because of the reality of the occupation, the awareness of the continuing Nakba that remains unrecognized.

It’s as if my activism now is driven, at the end of the day, by a desire to see justice in that land, so that my- our- spiritual relationship to it, as an idea and as reality, can be authentic again, without blood on our hands. I don’t need my people, in the present day, to constitute a nation-state there, atop someone else’s land, driving another people from their homes- but I want to be able to make holy pilgrimage there, as my ancestors did for generations, to sing and cry at its holy places. Until we have repented for and ended occupation and apartheid, and allowed the refugees to return, I don’t want to excise from my prayer book all the words about Eretz Yisrael, Yerushalayim, the Temple- I pray most fervently during those parts of the service, sometimes. ‘May our eyes behold Your return to Zion with compassion’- may we understand that the return of the holy presence to Zion may occur through none other than the attribute of compassion, and may we act accordingly.

In truth, our personal and collective relationship to the Eretz Yisrael, Zion and Jerusalem in our prayer books cannot be separated from our relationship to those actual locations in the world, and never has been, for any period in Jewish history. When our ancestors prayed for the holy land, they prayed partially, but not solely, towards an idea- their prayers were charged with the energy, full to bursting, of what they were experiencing in their own time, caught as they were, in their unique historical moment, in the tension between the travails of exile and the desire for liberation. And, their prayers were also directed towards a very real place, one they may have visited themselves or heard from other pilgrims about, one they may have hoped to be buried in. And today, Jews continue to pray for Zion with words charged with the passions of our historical moment, words related, viscerally and imminently, to a real place on the earth’s surface. Just as some Jews on the right today, sadly, read prayers about the rebuilding of the Temple and think literally of the shattering of the Dome of the Rock, Jews on the left should, and do, read the words in their Siddurim about peace and mercy in the holy land quite literally, and pray, wholeheartedly, for a just peace in Israel/Palestine.

 

But whereas yesterday, we looked towards Zion and dreamed of being liberated from exile, today, we claim to be liberated, as a people, in Zion, but in truth we remain deeper in exile. Zionism has helped us forget that, all along, exile for us meant much more, as a concept, than the simple dispersal of Jews across the earth’s surface- it meant the unredeemed sorrows of an unjust world; the continued existence of oppressors and oppressed; the incomplete process of redemption embedded within creation itself. Today, as the exile of the world continues, the exile of the Jewish people assumes a new and wholly unprecedented dimension. On the surface of things, we appear to be reconstituted, as a people, on our land- we appear to have miraculously ended 2000 years of Galut. We’ve even written this proud declaration into our very prayer books, alongside the pleas to Zion that made our ancestors tremble! Or at least the non-Orthodox prayer books have been altered in this way- these loftiest of claims made by Zionism upon the very core of Jewish history and identity were never accepted by traditional Jewry, including the predecessors of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, though he cheered on the conquests of the Zionist state.

But with Zionism, just as we have driven another people into physical exile, so have we driven ourselves deeper into spiritual exile as well. When we pray towards Jerusalem today, we must fervently pray for this exile to end; we must pray, in an old-and-new way, for justice, mercy and peace to dwell upon that land; and we must reaffirm that ‘every Jew has a stake’, as the Rebbe said, in demanding an end to Israeli occupation and apartheid, in demanding the right of return for refugees, in rectifying our relations, as a people, with the Other, with Hashem, with the land and with ourselves.

As the Rebbe showed in his life’s work, it is foundational to Jewish being-in-the-world that we remain invested, concerned, implicated in the affairs of the Jewish people, the affairs of the world at large, and the relation between the two. In this way, Jewish being-in-the-world has always been ‘political’ in the broad sense, long before that word came to connote the affairs of modern nation-states. And as the Rebbe said in the quote above, this ‘political’ sense of Jewish being-in-the-world has always somehow involved the land of Israel, whether as yesterday’s futural promise or today’s political nightmare. May we pray today, with the thoughts of our heart and the work of our hands, that this nightmare come to an end.

 

Lighting the Candles

When Rabbi Schmelke and Rabbi Phinaes came to the Mezeritzer Maggid, they were already great students of the Torah, but they gave little attention to the study of ethics. The Mezeritzer convinced them of the importance of devoting adequate time to these studies as well. After they had left him, the Maggid turned to his Disciples, and said:

“I found a house full of candles that were unlit. I have kindled them, and the house is filled with light.”

  • Hasidic Anthology, ‘Moral Instruction’

‘And You Are Faithful to Resuscitate the Dead’- Towards a Torah of Radical Remembrance

“And You are faithful to resuscitate the dead. Blessed are You, Hashem, Who resuscitates the dead.”

                 – from ‘Gevurot’, ‘God’s Strength’, a daily Jewish prayer

“The class struggle, which is always present to a historian influenced by Marx, is a fight for the crude and material things without which no refined and spiritual things could exist. Nevertheless, it is not in the form of the spoils which fall to the victor that the latter make their presence felt in the class struggle. They manifest themselves in this struggle as courage, humor, cunning and fortitude. They have retroactive force and will constantly call into question every victory, past and present, of the rulers. As flowers turn toward the sun, by dint of a secret heliotropism the past strives to turn toward that sun which is rising in the sky of history. The historical materialist must be aware of this most inconspicuous of all transformations.”

                 – Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’

For modern secular Jews, the ‘resuscitation of the dead’ can be one of the more alienating aspects of our tradition. Techiat HaMeitim, codified as one of the 13 foundational principles of Judaism by Maimonides in the 12th century, dictates that when Moshiach (Messiah) returns and redeems the world, the bodies and souls of the faithful will be resurrected to live again in a perfected world, this world, a world which will be at once fully ‘earthly’, and fully ‘divine’. Most of the time, I see Reform or Reconstructionist prayer books change this daily prayer from ‘blessed are you, Hashem, who resuscitates the dead’ to something like ‘blessed are you, Hashem, who gives life to all that lives’. Says the Enlightened Jew to himself- ‘of course, my dead body will not rise, fully intact, from my grave one day when a Messiah comes, and walk upon the earth again for all eternity, as the rabbis promised’. So we discard this notion completely, and regard the resuscitation of the dead as a quaint, magical notion, ill-suited to the rational world of today.

I would like to resuscitate this dead notion of the resuscitation of the dead, through a Marxist lens. I think, in discarding it completely, we are losing one of the most compelling aspects of our tradition. I would like to reinterpret it as referring, not to the literal reawakening of the human body, but to a way of relating to memory, animated by a passionate fidelity to the living past. Moreover, the memory in question is inherently radical and revolutionary. According to Rabbinic tradition, the resuscitation of the dead will occur only once the Messiah has come- and the Messiah comes to end all wars and oppression, and usher in an era of tranquility and peace upon the earth. It is no coincidence that, for the rabbis, the dead will awaken when the earthly bonds of oppression are shattered.

In 1940, the German Jewish philosopher and Marxist cultural critic Walter Benjamin wrote his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ as he was trying to escape Nazi-occupied France. He committed suicide one stormy night on the border, unwilling to be delivered by the French to the Germans. Fellow theorist and German Jew Hannah Arendt managed to smuggle his ‘Theses’ on scraps of paper out of Europe, and to publish it as his last work.

Benjamin’s ‘Theses’ are suffused with a Jewish spirit of radical remembrance, a quality that Benjamin himself, within the 18 Theses and in his larger life’s work, makes no effort to hide. For Benjamin, the Marxist historian is commanded to remember the struggling, oppressed peoples of the past, and to continue their struggle in the present. Echoing Howard Zinn, the ‘official’, textbook history of the past is most often the history of the victors, the gilded, hegemonic narrative crafted by the rulers of society, the story that fits their interests, portrays their rule as benevolent, inevitable, natural and divine. And why would we expect any different? Today, those with the power and resources write the textbooks and control the narrative; yesterday, the kings had the scribes, the rich had the parchment. Everyone else- the 99% of past and present, the overwhelming majority of the human race- could not as easily transmit their stories and histories to future generations. Of course, the historical memory of any suffering people is long- in rituals, in customs, in stories, in rich oral traditions, cultural memory is preserved and transmitted by all oppressed peoples as a means of survival. But this memory rarely builds monuments to itself; it is rarely recorded diligently, in great detail, and guarded closely in the king’s palace. It is not broadcast to millions of living rooms on the nightly news; the state produces textbooks glorifying its leaders, not exposing their barbarism.

It is the task of the radical historian to tear away the textbook ‘bourgeois’ version of history, and to listen, underneath, for the narrative and perspective of the oppressed. From this perspective, it is clear, writes Benjamin, that “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” To uncover the history of the oppressed is to learn that they lived, suffered, and died under oppression, and to realize that their struggle against that oppression, in their lifetime, was not completed. This memory is a work of mourning, a realization that the textbook version of history is dripping with blood, and that the suffering of the oppressed has not yet been avenged. And because “all rulers are the heirs of those who conquered before them”, the radical historian realizes that yesterday’s king left the seat warm for today’s president; today’s America is the Roman Empire reincarnate; we confront the very same oppressor our ancestors faced.

When we uncover this hidden truth of the past, we clarify the past, we bring it from a place of obscurity, hiddenness and falsehood- for example, ‘Israel was a land without a people for a people without a land, and the Israel/Palestine conflict is caused by antisemitism’- into a light of truth- ‘actually, Zionists drove the Palestinians off of their land, and that has caused the conflict today’. This clarifies, not only the past, but the present as well. Growing up, we are taught that the suffering of our situation is ‘natural’, or inexplicable, arbitrary and beyond our control; later, we realize this is actually the oppressor’s narrative, and that systemic inequality, not blind chance, structures our world through a series of traceable processes, in the past, that create and condition our suffering in the present.

In his ‘Arcades Project’, Benjamin describes this illuminating, clarifying power of radical memory as a form of awakening, as the ‘dialectical, Copernican turn of remembrance’. It is an awakening, because once we awaken to the root causes of our situation, we realize, like Neo leaving the Matrix, how asleep we once had been. “The tradition of all dead generations”, writes Marx, “weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” As long as oppressive structures are not overthrown, humanity remains in a kind of sleep, in an incomplete process of shrugging off the yoke of the past, of overcoming systemic inequities that are outmoded, reactionary, that prevent humanity from achieving its full potential. The existence of Donald Trump as president mocks us, like a sick joke, a rotting remnant of a capitalist world-system on life support, surviving only through the worst crisis-ridden speculations of finance capital, a nightmare which should have died long ago.

Just as our ancestors were unable to vanquish the enemy, it is by no means guaranteed that their stories of struggle, and our own, will be remembered. “In every era,” writes Benjamin, “the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism which is about to overpower it”. In every era, the ‘truth’ of the past threatens to be forgotten. The false version of events, told by the oppressor, is largely accepted as fact; the stories of the oppressed threaten to be buried under the weight of this oppression, to slip permanently from our collective memory. It is incumbent upon us to attempt, over and over again, to re-awaken and clarify subterranean history, to overcome the gravity of forgetting, to do continuous, circuitous and always-novel battle, with pen and sword, against the persistent effort of the rulers to maintain hegemony, to restore illusory narratives, to destroy radically subversive institutions of cultural memory.

“And you are faithful to resuscitate the dead”. With this plea, the rabbis begged God not to forget, but to fulfill, the tradition of the oppressed. Though we oppressed Jews may die today, they said, God will not forget our suffering, as He will not forget those who came before; one day, the Messiah will come, this earth will know peace, and we all will dwell anew and free in this kingdom of peace. This is not a heaven or afterlife, occurring on some other plane or dimension- our bodies are restored on earth, the promised kingdom is created politically, here, as a harmonious human society, at once earthly and divine but in the flesh, immanent, interpersonal, within our grasp.

In the future messianic kingdom, according to rabbinic tradition, all the faithful, oppressed Jews who have existed across all moments of history will be resurrected; they will dwell together, in harmony, in the land of peace towards which, in the suffering of their former lives, their prayers had always turned. Says Chabad.org– “In this dark and imperfect world, we cannot yet behold and enjoy the fruits of our labor. But in the Era of Moshiach, the accumulated attainments of all generations of history will reach their ultimate perfection. And since ‘G‑d does not deprive any creature of its due’, all elements that have been involved in realizing His purpose in creation will be reunited to perceive and experience the perfect world that their combined effort has achieved.” In the same way, the Marxist historian believes that in the future, all the oppressed of the past will be remembered; the enemy that oppressed them will be finally vanquished; the world for which they struggled will come to fruition; they will be redeemed. The spirit dwelling behind both these Messianic visions is the same.

“The Era of Moshiach is not a supernatural world; it is the very same world we know today–without the corruptions of human nature. Man will have conquered his selfishness and prejudices; a harmonious world community will devote its energies and resources for the common good and the quest for continued growth in wisdom and perfection. In short, the Era of Moshiach represents man’s attainment of the peak of his natural potential.”

Neither the radical historian nor the religious Jew prays for the liberatory force of history, or for God, merely to ‘remember’ the dead, but to bring the dead back to life. The latter is much more radical. It is not that in the promised stateless classless society, the great, definitive history book will finally be written, and all oppressed narratives of the past will be remembered fully, in a grand apotheosis of knowledge- this fantasy of pure knowledge, of total accuracy in and for itself, is in fact closer to the bourgeois fantasy of total history. Rather, it is that the better world, for which our oppressed ancestors struggled, will finally come to fruition; their vision will be actualized; their arrow will reach its target; their oppressors will have not won. Freedom, which for them was only partial, a distant, longed-for vision, becomes actual, confirming their faith in its inevitability. By avenging their oppression, by vanquishing their oppressor, we bring to fruition that which, for them, slumbered in potentiality. Their struggle was not for naught- just as the end of a sentence bestows meaning upon its beginning, the meaning of their struggle is retroactively confirmed, made apparent, vindicated by our success in the present. They are brought back to life in victory, and their death- that is, their defeat by the oppressor- was in fact a falsehood.

When we struggle, in the present, we struggle also for the past; we fight for those before us, who were vanquished, who pray now, from beyond the grave, for our success. We bring with us their hope, it animates and sustains us. We avenge their deaths and we redeem their lives. So in the present, we pray for them to give us strength; we pray for the spirit of resistance that animated their bones, to animate ours as well; we pray that the liberatory spirit of God which guided their hands, will guide ours to victory. We have faith that their struggle was not in vain- that the movement of history towards justice ‘is faithful to resuscitate the dead’.

‘You will resuscitate the dead’- for the religious Jew or radical historian who mutters these words, the memory is turned toward the past, but the promise is futural. Suspended in this dislocated temporality, the religious Jew is comforted by the promise, not just that yesterday’s dead will be revived, but that we too, one day in the future, will be revived as well. Similarly, when we remember the struggles of oppressed peoples in the past, we know that they expected this of us; we ourselves pray that one day, some future radical will remember our struggle. The torch of struggle is passed between the generations, casting a glow into past and future with a flame that scintillates within this imperfect world, and gestures beyond, toward the half-glimpsed promise of the world’s perfection.

‘And You are faithful to resuscitate the dead’- may we merit, in our own day, to see humanity awaken from its sleep, unshackle the cords of oppression, and complete the process of liberation that animated our ancestors in struggle, and animates us today.

angelus-novus-paul-klee

Creating Sanctuary: Faith-Based Activism for Migrant Justice

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No More Deaths/Kate Morgan-Olsen

Migrants crossing the Southern Arizona desert can die of dehydration if they do not stumble across provisions such as these gallon jugs of water, which were placed near a migrant trail by the faith-based group No More Deaths.

THE SUN SHONE OVERHEAD as we walked through migrant trails etched into the mountainous Southern Arizona desert, looking for the body of a seventy-year-old man. It was a hot afternoon in July, five miles above the U.S.-Mexico border.

For months, I had worked with the faith-based humanitarian aid organization No Mas Muertes (No More Deaths), leaving plastic gallon jugs of water, easy-open cans of pinto beans, blankets, and other necessities along trails sprinkled with clothing, water bottles, food wrappers, cell phones, children’s toys, and toiletries discarded by the hundreds of undocumented migrants who risk the treacherous journey across the border every day. For months, we had found our gallon water jugs slashed and vandalized, and our cans of beans torn open and drained by agents of the United States Border Patrol intent on depriving hungry and dehydrated travelers of life-saving sustenance.

Walking through forbidding desert hills dotted with cacti and mesquite, I dreaded the moment when I would turn the corner and find the man’s remains stretched out under the unforgiving sun. Two days earlier, another group of humanitarian aid volunteers had found an injured seventeen-year-old boy on the side of the road. His group of ten travelers had been scattered by a low-flying Border Patrol helicopter, he said, and he had wandered for days with the seventy-year-old man and a forty-year-old woman. When his companions grew too tired to continue, he tied a pair of red boxers to a mesquite tree and left them underneath, promising to return with food and water. The day after his rescue, volunteers found the body of the woman.

We never found the body of the man, nor did we ever learn his name.

It is well known that Jewish tradition requires the deceased to be buried speedily after death. As the soul returns to G-d, the body must not be left to linger in the land of the living. A Jewish cohen (priest), though normally forbidden contact with a dead body, is commanded to render the honor of immediate burial to a corpse he finds on the street, even if he is on his way to enter a temple’s sanctuary on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. Because the human being is made in the image of G-d, to leave the image of G-d rotting in the street (or in the desert) is to condone the desecration of G-d’s name.

Figure

Creative Commons/Tomás Castelazo (tomascastelazo.com)

Crosses along the Tijuana–San Diego border wall remind would-be migrants of those who have perished in their attempts to cross over.

According to the Arizona-based Coalición de Derechos Humanos (Human Rights Coalition), nearly 180 human remains have been recovered in the Arizona-Sonora desert since October 2011, bringing the total since 2000 to almost 2,500. The number of dead bodies never recovered is undoubtedly much higher. The remembrance of every migrant who has died in the desert — those recovered, and those left to dust — remains as a testament to the horror of U.S. border policy, and bears witness to the cruelest injustice perpetuated by our government on a daily basis.

In the last decade, the United States has been seized by a spasm of anti-immigrant sentiment remarkable for its ferocious nationalism and uncompromising xenophobia. The persecution of neighborhoods, the raiding of workplaces, and the breakup of families by federal immigration authorities has accelerated inside this country. Meanwhile, a policy of increased and selective militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, begun in the 1990s, has strategically sealed off urban hotspots such as San Diego and El Paso to funnel migration into the vast and treacherous expanses of the Sonora Desert in Southern Arizona, deliberately turning the parched desert into a deadly weapon of “deterrence” and casting nearby cities like Tucson into the crosshairs of the national immigration debate. Faith-based communities have a vital role to play in today’s struggle for migrant justice, and in Tucson, they have put their faith into action for decades.

 The Origins of the Sanctuary Movement

Throughout the history of Tucson’s migrant justice movement, faith-based communities have struggled alongside threatened communities in the barrios(neighborhoods), on the border, and in their houses of worship to effect meaningful and lasting social change. In the 1970s, a multi-faith coalition called the Tucson Ecumenical Council worked closely with a broad swath of community organizations to support undocumented families endangered by Border Patrol and INS persecution, lobby the city to establish social services and facilities for impoverished communities, and raise money to fund legal efforts to fight deportation. Most importantly, religious leaders and congregations cultivated and maintained long-lasting personal relationships of faith and solidarity with undocumented families and communities, involving themselves directly in the struggle to better the lives of neighbors and congregants.

Tucson pastor John Fife, a long-time Sanctuary activist, offers this description of the movement’s origins:It initially involved some families that needed help, and of course the church was a place where folks were to help with housing, or with food, or with clothes, or with a family crisis, or whatever it was…. There were then, as there are now, many mixed families, where, for example, the parents were undocumented, but the children were United States citizens. So our efforts to legalize or regularize the status of members of those families, who often were also members of our congregation, represented vital work to protect the integrity of our families. But basically what made it all possible were the many solid relationships developed between community-based organizations and faith-based organizations in the barrio.Communities of faith also took a direct role in protest and activism. In 1970, when the Barrio Hollywood neighborhood held a series of marches, protests, and occupations to demand that the vast acres of the elite El Rio Golf Course be partially converted into community-oriented parks and facilities, religious groups sprang to action, holding regular prayer services on the ninth tee as a disruptive act of protest.

Because close relationships had already developed between religious congregations and migrant communities, faith-based groups working in Tucson’s largely Latino South Side in the early 1980s were quick to notice the growing number of refugees arriving in the barrios to escape political violence in Central America. As congregations like Southside Presbyterian Church worked to provide emotional, legal, and material support to refugees, they came to realize that the United States was funding and assisting Central American death squads with one hand, while working to deny asylum to political refugees with the other. A group of the faithful found themselves called upon to act. “Immigration judges were turning down everyone that we would take in to apply for political asylum, and refugees were dying in the desert,” recalls Fife, who was at the time the minister of Southside Presbyterian Church. Fife says Jim Corbett, a congregant in his church, came to him and asked him to consider two historical moments: the emergence of the slavery abolition movement and U.S. churches’ decision to help form an underground railroad to help slaves cross to safety, on one hand, and the almost complete failure of churches to help and protect Jewish refugees during the Holocaust, on the other. Fife says Corbett then declared, “We can’t allow that to happen on our border in our time,” and added, “I’m going to start a small group of folks who can help Central Americans cross the border safely without being captured by Border Patrol, and I believe that’s the only ethical position that people of faith can take under these circumstances.”

Figure

No More Deaths/Hannah Hafter

Volunteers provide basic medical aid to migrants injured while crossing the desert.

Six months later, when Border Patrol discovered that networks of worshippers were helping refugees cross the desert and housing them in Southside Presbyterian Church, Fife, Corbett, and the entire congregation decided to publicly defy federal law and declare their church a site of sanctuary, where refugee families could seek shelter while applying for political asylum. Citing as historical precedent the role of the church in the Middle Ages as a site of sanctuary for individuals seeking legal arbitration or protection from state persecution, the Sanctuary Movement also drew inspiration from the ancient cities of refuge of the Hebrew Bible, where individuals could escape from blood feuds or obtain a fair trial if accused of a serious crime. During a 1984 gathering of international Sanctuary activists at Temple Emanu-El Synagogue in Tucson, Dominican Sister Renny Golden said “the locus of G-d in history is discovered among the poor and the oppressed,” affirming that the theology of Sanctuary recognized the Torah itself as a document of migration and exodus, and sought to bear practical witness to its commandment to “welcome the stranger in your midst, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19).

To explain their work, the pioneers of Sanctuary in Tucson developed a philosophy of “civil initiative,” which they defined as “the legal right and the moral responsibility of society to protect the victims of human rights violations when government is the violator.” The decision to declare Sanctuary was a collective one, assumed by a congregation united in faith, solidarity, and compassion. “Whenever a congregation that proclaims the prophetic faith abandons the poor and persecuted to organized violation,” wrote Corbett, “its unfaithfulness darkens the way for all humankind. And when it stands as a bulwark against the violation of human rights, it lights the way. The congregational obligation to protect victims of state crimes extends beyond our individual civic responsibilities, because only in this kind of covenant community can we provide sanctuary for the violated.”

By 1986, over 560 synagogues and churches across the country had declared Sanctuary, and seventeen cities— including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco— had declared themselves “cities of sanctuary,” instructing public employees not to cooperate with federal immigration agents. By that time, undercover federal agents had infiltrated the movement as volunteers, collecting secret tape recordings of church meetings, conversations with pastors, and worship services. Priests, nuns, and other religious leaders and community activists were arrested, indicted, and charged with federal crimes, only narrowly escaping lengthy prison sentences thanks to an international outpouring of support.

Desert Aid and the Militarization of the Border

By the end of the 1980s, the Department of Justice agreed to end all deportations to El Salvador and Guatemala, grant all refugees from those countries work permits and temporary protected status, and reform the political asylum process. But as the first incarnation of the Sanctuary Movement drew to a close, a new human rights crisis loomed on the horizon. The inauguration of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 made the Mexican economy, and in particular the production of corn, dependent on American imports, sending countless destitute small farmers across the border to find work. The United States responded to these effects of its own policies by cementing key urban sections of the 2,000-mile border with eighteen-foot steel walls, vastly expanding the Border Patrol, and hyper-militarizing the border with state-of-the-art surveillance technology at taxpayers’ expense. These attempts to deter migration by forcing migrants to cross the treacherous desert have not deterred migration, which continues to oscillate in tune with the ebbs and flows of the U.S. economy, but have instead resulted in the deaths of over 6,000 migrant workers and the injury of tens of thousands more.

In response, faith-based communities in Tucson created the organization Humane Borders in the year 2000 to place water stations, marked by flagpoles, in critical areas of the desert. Today, Humane Borders continues to place over 20,000 gallons of water in the desert each year. Two years later, with the death toll rising, the Samaritans were formed as a brigade of medically trained, Spanish-fluent volunteers sent to patrol the desert on four-wheel-drive vehicles loaded with food, water, and medical equipment. Today, groups of Samaritans from cities across the borderlands descend daily into the desert, treating men, women and children suffering from dehydration, malnourishment, broken bones, rattlesnake bites, and, in some cases, sexual assault. Finally, in 2004, No Mas Muertes was formed to establish a permanent humanitarian aid camp in the desert. No Mas Muertes also staffs aid stations on the Mexican side of the border, in partnership with the government of Mexico, to treat migrants deported from the United States.

In 1984, the first international gathering of Sanctuary activists in Tucson affirmed that “Sanctuary is a dynamic movement that is no longer just place but more than place. . . . [it is] an event and a community.” Just as the practice of Sanctuary spread beyond Southside Presbyterian Church into a nationwide movement, so today’s desert aid movement has spread beyond communities of faith, as independent organizations in border towns most impacted by the crisis mobilize resources and form coordinated networks of solidarity and resistance.

In June 2012, a grassroots organization called People Helping People opened the Arivaca Humanitarian Aid Office in the 700-person town of Arivaca, Arizona, thirteen miles above the border, to offer resources, information, and support to a close-knit community that, in the last decade, has become a battleground of America’s war against migration. The residents of Arivaca, who have lived for decades without a police force or town government, now face the constant presence of drone helicopters overhead, Border Patrol vehicles and checkpoints in the streets, and migrants knocking on their doors day and night, begging for food, water, or shelter.

“I think it’s disgusting living in a war zone,” says Leesa Jacobson, an Arivaca resident, People Helping People volunteer, and Samaritans activist, “and that’s basically what we have here. It’s very incongruous to have so much natural beauty around, and then to have so much human ugliness. . . . It almost gets to be normal to have to go through a checkpoint every time you go to the grocery store, and that’s no good. It almost gets to be normal that Black Hawk helicopters are flying over your head, and they fly low, and you know that people are running for their lives, and getting lost, and that these are the people you will later see turning up at your front door, hurt and sick.”

The Humanitarian Aid Office promotes community-based discussion, education, support, and outreach, and works to spread legal information, material resources, humanitarian aid training, and other services to unite the community in resistance and solidarity. “We have know-your-rights trainings with an ACLU lawyer that are wildly popular,” says Arivaca resident and community organizer Sophie Smith. “We have regular meetings at the office that are incredible magnets for community involvement. And this community resists border militarization in a thousand small ways. People offer their homes for hospitality and respite to travelers in need, people stop on the side of the road to give food and water. . . . Now, having an office in the center of town means that people have a place to go for support when they have issues. The idea is to have a community response rather than a state-based response. Instead of calling Border Patrol, we can help each other.”

Migrant Justice in an Age of Economic Violence

Today’s migrant justice movement in America faces a vastly different political context than that faced by organizers in the 1980s — one marked not by the immediacy of death squads and military dictatorship but by protracted neoliberal economic exploitation. While the refugees who crossed the border then were fleeing U.S.-orchestrated political violence, today’s migrants are fleeing U.S.-orchestrated economic violence. While many of yesterday’s refugees came temporarily to escape brutal dictatorship and sought ultimately to return to their countries of origin, many — though certainly not all — of today’s migrants cross the border to find work and build new lives in the United States.

Today, a plurality of organizations such as Humane Borders, the Samaritans, No More Deaths, and People Helping People work tirelessly to alleviate suffering at the border and in the desert, while broad-based initiatives work throughout the country to strengthen and support undocumented families and communities.

In Tucson, recent xenophobic public policy has banned Mexican-American Studies from the public school system and has authorized police to demand proof of citizenship for even the most routine traffic stop, as the Border Patrol continues to terrorize the city’s proud, vibrant, and resilient barrios. In response, grassroots organizations such as Coalición de Derechos Humanos (Human Rights Coalition), Tierra y Libertad (Land and Liberty), El Cora zón de Tucson (The Heart of Tucson), and countless others offer legal representation, support networks, and other vital services for families threatened with deportation, while advocacy organizations such as We Reject Racism, U.N.I.D.O.S., and Fuerza! work to raise awareness and influence public policy around specific issues. Activists and organizers continue to pressure the Tucson Unified School District to lift their ban on ethnic studies courses, while shops, restaurants, and homes throughout the city proudly display “We Reject Racism” posters to passersby, affirming their solidarity with Tucson’s Latin American community.

From the Sanctuary Movement to No Mas Muertes, faith-based resistance in Tucson, too, has changed within this evolving political context. While yesterday’s congregations openly defied federal law, today’s religious activism in Tucson, from faith-based desert aid organizations like No More Deaths to church-based day laborer centers like the Southside Worker Center at Southside Presbyterian Church, commits itself primarily to community support and humanitarian aid within the parameters of law. Nationwide, the New Sanctuary Movement functions as an invaluable organizing platform for congregations to resist the criminalization of migrants, support undocumented communities and advocate for political reform.

“Today, the war in poor countries is more economic than military,” said California Sanctuary veteran and New Sanctuary Movement activist Ched Myers shortly after the New Sanctuary Movement’s founding in 2007, “but the casualties are the same: families pushed and pulled from their homes by the displacing forces of globalization. . . . We are again confronting a painful landscape of human suffering, which again offers our religious congregations an urgent opportunity to practice our faith.”

In the 1980s, faith-based communities in America practiced Sanctuary with a long-range perspective. “Today,” they reasoned, “we provide shelter for the refugee in the hope that tomorrow, through the combined efforts of the entire movement, justice may prevail.”

Today, faith-based migrant justice activism in America — whether it takes the form of a gallon jug of water in the desert, a day laborers’ center in the barrios, a protest on the streets, or an entirely new social movement — continues the tradition of civil initiative, bearing witness to what Sanctuary founders described as “the legal right and the moral responsibility of society to protect the victims of human rights violations when government is the violator.” Like the Tucson Ecumenical Council in the 1970s, congregations today must apply themselves directly to the issues facing their local undocumented communities. Through forming interfaith coalitions, building networks of material and spiritual support with community organizations, raising aware ness, and taking direct action against deporta tion, racial profiling, and all other forms of anti-immigrant xenophobia, faith-based communities can amplify the movement for comprehensive immigration reform, bearing prophetic witness to the words of Leviticus: “The stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34).