Trump, Let My People Stay: Passover’s Lessons on the Fight to Protect Dreamers

Stosh Cotler
March 29, 2018

At the end of this month, Jews will begin our celebration of Passover, when we remember the Exodus—our liberation from slavery in Egypt, the beginning of our journey to the Promised Land. As Michael Walzer pointed out in his classic Exodus and Revolution, the Exodus story is not simply about the ancient Israelites, but has become the template for subsequent liberation movements.   

The Festival of Freedom comes as the American Jewish community has spent the past six months acting in solidarity with the immigrant youth President Trump has threatened with deportation through his cancellation of DACA. We have called our members of Congress to demand they pass the Dream Act to protect these young people, we have organized protests and rallies, and we have engaged in civil disobedience and been arrested in support of this cause. Unfortunately, it appears that Congress does not have the political will  to take action.

With Passover approaching, and with Congress having failed again and again to intervene in support of the Dreamers, we can learn from the Israelites’ journey from bondage to freedom as we continue our efforts to secure protection for these young immigrants.

The story of the Israelites’ bondage in Egypt closely mirrors the plight of the immigrant youth currently living in fear thanks to the president’s destruction of DACA. When the Israelites first settled in Egypt, the land was ruled by a ‘good Pharaoh,’ a close friend and ally of their leader Joseph. When that Pharaoh died, a new leader with no relationship with Joseph or the Israelites took over, and a time of uncertainty and suffering began.

When Moses first sought to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, he didn’t immediately storm into Pharaoh’s palace and demand their freedom. He started with a smaller request: Asking Pharaoh’s permission to let the Israelites leave for a few days to worship in the desert wilderness. Only when Pharaoh refused this simple request did the ten plagues begin, growing in severity until the Egyptians finally relented and the Israelites obtained their long-sought freedom.

To this point, the Jewish community has followed a similar path in our efforts for the Dream Act, following the lead of the immigrant youth who are fighting for their lives and families. We started with traditional advocacy—calling elected officials and holding rallies. When these tactics proved insufficient to persuade Congress to act, in January we escalated to one of the largest acts of Jewish civil disobedience in recent memory. With immigrant youth ringing the Rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building, more than 80 Jewish Americans sat on the Rotunda floor, singing and chanting until we were forcibly removed and arrested.  

The escalation continued from there: Inspired by this civil disobedience, dozens of groups across the country engaged in their own protests, many outside their Congressperson’s district offices. And earlier this month, Jewish and Muslim faith leaders were arrested after sitting in protest outside the office of House Speaker Paul Ryan, taking the message of the Dreamers directly to the nation’s most powerful lawmaker.

Unfortunately, like Pharaoh, the hearts of our lawmakers have been hardened. They have failed at every opportunity to do what is right—indeed, what the American people overwhelmingly support and demand of them.

Now, Jewish Americans are preparing to escalate again: With less than eight months until the November elections, we are shifting our focus. If the current Congress will not pass a Dream Act, we will work to replace it with one that will. Across the country, volunteer-led groups of progressive Jewish activists are forming and mobilizing, preparing to hold their elected officials accountable for their cowardice on this issue.

Passover is about slavery and freedom, but it’s also about memory. When the Israelites are enslaved in Egypt, they cry out to God for relief. The Torah tells us that God hears them and remembers his covenant with Abraham.

As we remember the story of Passover while we celebrate the holiday, Jewish Americans will also remember the plight of the Dreamers. And when we go to the polls in November, we will remember which lawmakers expressed and acted in solidarity with them and which failed to. Together, in partnership with our immigrant allies, we will not relent until our leaders finally protect these immigrant youth and give them their freedom.