Photo by Christine Han, AJWS

The Torah of the Stateless and the Marginalized

Photo by Christine Han, AJWS
Photo by Christine Han, AJWS

What does it mean to be part of a social change movement?

I recently was privileged to learn first-hand one way of answering this question. I traveled with a cohort of other rabbis and cantors to the Dominican Republic as part of American Jewish World Service’s Global Justice Fellowship. The formal purpose of the trip was to enable us to meet some non-governmental organizations [“NGOs”] being funded by AJWS so that we could learn first-hand about the struggles they face and the courageous work they are doing to build a better society. The first part of our trip focused on the draconian actions by the government of the DR to strip citizenship from tens of thousands of Dominicans with Haitian ancestry. We heard from activists at MUDHA and Reconoci, two organizations working to affirm the rights of Dominicans of Haitian descent, how devastating these actions have been: loss of citizenship in the DR means that you cannot get a job, get health care, receive an education or even purchase a cellphone. It is state-mandated betrayal and destitution. Stateless individuals in rural bateyes or urban neighborhoods are left to fend for themselves in a Kafka-esque shadow world where there are few, if any opportunities and one’s entire fate rests on the arbitrary decisions of government bureaucrats who decide whether or not to grant someone their citizenship card.

We then spent the second portion of our experience learning about the struggle for civil rights and human dignity by members of the DR’s LGBT community. We met with the leaders of ASA and heard about their struggles to overcome the strong Catholic and macho culture that fosters discrimination — political, physical, and emotional — throughout DR society. We also met the leaders of Cotravetd – a group of transgender activists whose only means of financial support is to become sex workers. They told us, in painful and tearful exchanges, how they were disowned by their families and how they face a lifetime of rape, assault and downright torture by the police.

The stories we were told over the course of our week were difficult to hear.  They were deflating, infuriating, agonizing and harrowing all at once. But as the week went on, I came to realize that what I felt was NOT what the people we met in the DR were feeling. To the contrary, what they projected to us, whether in a stateless or an LGBT rights context, was hope and resolve. It wasn’t that they were in denial about their plight; it was that they were determined and confident not to let their present dictate their future. Equally important was that they were not acting alone. They had found or formed their own communities to support one another in the critical work they were doing.  They formed networks and coalitions with others fighting for similar goals and generated greater power and influence in doing so.  They were human embodiments of Rabbi Tarfon’s famous dictum from Pirkei Avot 2:16: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world], but you are not free to desist from it either.”

This, perhaps, was the underlying reason for AJWS to take us to the DR. We could have learned about statelessness and LGBT discrimination from reading about it online — or from talking with undocumented workers and members of the LGBT community in our own communities. But this wasn’t just a fact-finding mission; it was a journey of the heart and soul as well.  To (re)learn the indefatigable capacity we have to hope and to dream. And, for me, to do so within a caring, insightful, creative, and inspiring community of fellow clergy. It was and is a journey I continue to process and relish.

But I write this post not as a paean to a personally resonant trip but because of four important take-aways from my experience that I think are worth sharing in light of the particular political moment in which we find ourselves here, at the dawn of the Trump Administration.

  1. Please join me in pushing our State Department, via calls to your senators and representatives, to continue pressuring the Dominican Republic government to end its practice of statelessness and LGBT persecution. The U.S. carries significant influence in the region and can be a huge catalyst in getting the DR to change its draconian policies.
  2. The situation in the DR is a reminder of how fragile democracy can be. The stateless policy is not, as I had presumed, a vestige of earlier colonial policies or generations of discrimination. It started in 2010! When a right-wing, ultra-nationalist party came to power and asserted leverage on the government to change its citizenship rules.  At a time when our new president campaigned on mass deportations and other citizenship-oriented harsh policies, we in the U.S. must be vigilant in standing up to government-sanctioned affronts to human rights.
  3. Social change takes strategic planning, sustained effort, and lots of time.  There is no such thing as short-term, lasting change. This is crucial for us to remember in light of Saturday’s dramatic Women’s March on Washington.  The Women’s March will be an historical anecdote of little significance if it isn’t followed by a longer-term campaign.  That’s the difference between an event and a movement.  Real, transformative change requires us to roll up our proverbial sleeves, suffer setbacks, dust ourselves off and trudge forward with small but determined steps, and cultivate allies to amplify our impact.
  4. Perhaps most important, if the people we met in the DR can retain hope and optimism, so too should we. We heard a story while we were there that following the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010, which killed over 200,000 people and destroyed the capital city of Port-au-Prince, there were dozens of aftershocks.  After each one, people would emerge from what was left of their homes, join together, and sing songs of hope.  May we be blessed, in the days, weeks, months, and years to come, to find our own sources of optimism and determination, to have the fortitude, discipline, and commitment we need to create a better world, and to find our own songs of hope to shout from our rooftops.

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