You might expect national Jewish advocacy groups to sometimes invite Wisconsin Jews to Washington, D.C. This was not that.
Instead, it was Wisconsin Jewish activists who invited national Jewish organizations to come to their protest with Hispanic groups at the U.S. Capitol, and to a meeting at Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) office.
“It flipped the organizational model,” said Elana Kahn, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Milwaukee Jewish Federation. “We made it happen.”
Kahn, and Rabbi David Cohen of Congregation Sinai of Fox Point, flew to the nation’s capital and back in a day, on Jan. 17. They did so to stand up for the needs of so-called Dreamers, people who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children and who now seek to stay. This was when the capital was abuzz with protests, in the days before the Jan. 19 government shutdown that lasted three days.
Before the trip, Kahn was in a planning meeting for the local Latino-Jewish Alliance – a partnership of the League of United Latin American Citizens of Wisconsin and the Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council – when Darryl Morin, of the League, talked about going to Washington. Kahn offered to join him.
Kahn then reached out and brought in the national Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella group for local organizations like the JCRC; the American Jewish Committee; and Cohen, among others. They joined 140 Dreamers, Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), the national League of United Latin American Citizens and the national Hispanic Federation.
“Our moral obligations to (Dreamers) flow from the Torah’s value of human dignity,” said Cohen, speaking to the assembled before the U.S. Capitol.
“Yet, had the prophets never spoken, Jewish history would compel us to action. From the time of slavery in ancient Egypt through the DP camps of Europe to the gates of Ellis Island, we have been immigrants. At times a despised minority, we know all too well the fear and ill will that surround those who are different.”
President Barack Obama launched the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in 2011, granting limited legal status to Dreamers. President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have said their principal objection to DACA was that it is unconstitutional because it was established by an executive order. On Jan. 24, Trump said he is open to a path to citizenship for Dreamers.
“We need a merit based system of immigration, and we need it now!” Trump tweeted on Jan. 16.
Cohen, Kahn and a representative from the Jewish Council for Public Affairs met with Casey Christine Higgins, assistant to the speaker for policy and trade counsel. They met for an hour in Speaker of the House Ryan’s Capitol building office.
“I came away with the impression that instability in the White House makes it very difficult for Congress to negotiate on any basis,” Cohen said. “They’re not sure where the White House is going to come down in the end.”
Cohen said he had the sense that for Ryan, the Dreamers were not a pet project but a source of concern, and that Congressional staff are trying to make government function.
While there were other Jews protesting the week of Jan. 17 – according to one report, police in the U.S. Capitol arrested some 100 Jewish activists, many of them clergy – Kahn was not aware of any other Jewish groups acting in concert with Hispanic organizations.
Cohen said it was moving to stand at the Capitol and deliver his speech in front of 140 Dreamers.
“In the face of current attacks on human dignity,” he told the assembled, “we can’t help but recall our own immigrant forebears, and reflect: ‘There but for an accident of history, Go I.’”
“In other words, a generation or two or three ago, it would have been me standing where you, the Dreamers, are standing.”