‘No Lives Matter’
By Rabbi David Seidenberg
[Rabbi David Seidenberg is the creator of neohasid.org, author of Kabbalah and Ecology (Cambridge U. Press, 2015), and a scholar of Jewish thought. As a liturgist, David is well-known for pieces like the prayer for voting and the translation of Laments. David also teaches nigunim and is an avid dancer. He was ordained by both JTS and Reb Zalman. This essay first apeaared at https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/no-lives-matter/. My thoughts on his essay and its accompanying cartoon, also by Rabbi Seidenberg, will appear after his essay.--- AW, editor]
The Trump administration recently added rules for legal immigrants that would deny citizenship to the poorest, and a truck rammed into a line of Jews who were protesting immigration policy and the detention centers. Are these events connected?
The rules change doesn’t seem comparable to people dying at the border, even though Trump official Cucinelli admitted that the new rules would nullify Emma Lazarus’s words in the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor…” What this can mean more precisely is that poor immigrants will be too scared to seek public assistance, since that would jeopardize their naturalization. And fearing public help means hunger, sickness, despair, death.
This fits nicely into the greater narrative on immigration being woven by Trump and the designer of his worst immigration policies, Stephen Miller. That narrative is quite simple: we don’t care if you die.
The drivers of this policy don’t care if people drown crossing the Rio Grande after waiting months to enter legally. They don’t care if children are psychologically tortured by being separated from their families, and they don’t care if a little girl gets sick and isn’t treated until it’s too late. They don’t care if a man is deported back to a country he has never stepped foot in, even if he dies there of neglect. And they don’t care if a man who was deported dies trying to cross the desert to get back to his American children.
In the midst of so much uncaring, how often do you recall when our president was a candidate, gleefully imagining he could get away with shooting someone in the middle of 5th Avenue? “I wouldn’t lose any voters!” Trump bragged.
By now, there’s so much water under the bridge, so many offenses against basic human decency — and so little consequence for those offenses — that I rarely think about his fantasy life as a murderer anymore.
But it’s long past time we reckon with that fantasy, and how it undergirds what’s happening to real people. That includes the death of children in ICE or Border Patrol custody, who get our keenest attention: Mariee Juarez. Felipe Gomez Alonzo. Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez. Jakelin Caal Maquin. But over two dozen adults have also died. And this is not counting the death of people like Adrián Luna. After 27 years in the US, Adrián was deported, leaving behind his wife and children in Idaho Falls. As reported last year, Adrián was desperate enough to get home to his children that he tried to cross the desert, where his decayed body was eventually found.
People on the right know just as well as the rest of us that some parents who are deported will risk their lives to get back to their children. Anyone who intentionally puts a parent in that situation, who fantasizes about deterrence and getting tough on immigrants in that way, is culpable when someone like Adrián dies.
What about the children who are American citizens, whom the parents leave behind? What about the hundreds of children in Mississippi who came home from school one day without parents to care for them, because their parents had been arrested, imprisoned, deported? Separating immigrant children from their parents in the detention centers is seen as a crime against humanity; this way of separating parents from their children should be seen the same way.
This isn’t just a lack of caring. At his campaign rallies Trump loved to recite the lyrics to a song called “The Snake” — another fantasy — about a snake who, having been saved by a soft-hearted woman, bites her. She protests, “Now I’m gonna die,” but the snake rebukes her. “‘Oh shut up, silly woman,’ said the reptile with a grin, ‘You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in.’”
To Trump and his followers, the snake is the immigrant, and the song is more than a rejection of the words on the Statue of Liberty. We know from history that describing a distinct group within society as the enemy as “snakes,” or as an “infestation” and “invasion,” as he has also done, is the language of fascism. So many people who throng his rallies love this exaggerated rhetoric. But exaggeration and fantasy often show us the outlines of our desires, especially forbidden ones. And they have consequences.
(“GIVE ME.” D. Seidenberg, (cc) 2019)
Everyone “knows” that you treat an infestation with exterminaton, and an invasion with war. But even after the mass shooter of 22 people in El Paso used the term invasion, this president is not repudiating these analogies. Nor does anyone imagine he will refrain from describing black cities and African countries as “infested.”
The line leading from calling people from Mexico and Central America snakes, to treating asylum-seekers as criminals, is direct. Forcing people to live in detention centers like animals in cages is exactly what we would expect, based on what happened in concentration camps in other times and places. But the line that leads from mistreating people as vermin to the massacre in El Paso is almost as direct. Both depredations are a kind of wish-fulfillment for Trump and many of his supporters, even when they are horrified by the violence. That’s because a nightmare can be a kind of wish-fulfillment as much as any other dream.
Similarly, some commentators and politicians lamented the deaths of children who had crossed the border, while also saying the tragedy would teach would-be immigrants a lesson, “Don’t come to America.” The lesson to learn should be: Don’t put children in concentration camps. By drawing the lesson they chose, they were also embracing those deaths — even though they embraced them regretfully, using words like “tragic” and “sorrowful.” A glint of Trump’s murder fantasy can be heard in their sorrow. No one with a conscience or a heart should ever forget that.
In comparison, it seems so much milder to tell legal immigrants that they can’t become American citizens if they receive support from the social welfare system. But when people don’t get the medical care or food assistance they need, that can also kill them.
It seems unlikely that someone who embraces a policy of making the border crossing more dangerous would be concerned with a little more sickness among poor legal immigrants, given that they are already prepared for children to die for the sake of deterrence.
We should never forget how Trump’s rhetoric was also connected to deadly attacks on Jewish communities. If people plant poisonous snakes in your neighborhood, your home, your bed, they threaten your lives as much as the snakes do. Last fall, the white supremacist who heard about National Refugee Shabbat drew that logical conclusion before he killed 11 Jews at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Last week a detention center officer rammed a truck into a line of Jews protesting to #CloseTheCamps. Several white nationalists across the country have been arrested this week for threatening or planning attacks on synagogues. And this week Trump called Jews “disloyal” if they vote for the Democratic Party.
You may also recall the president’s response to the murders. “If they had an armed guard inside,” he said, “they may have been able to stop him immediately, maybe there would have been nobody killed, except for him.”
People scolded Trump for blaming the victims. But is it not clear that even in this case, Trump is still fantasizing about killing, rather than thinking about ways to stop the spread of white supremacist ideas?
I can’t imagine why anyone would desire the power to kill with impunity, but that’s the kind of power Trump fantasizes about. If he says so again and again, shouldn’t we believe him?
Life and death are in the tongue. Trump tests that power every single day. Given a choice between human lives and his fantasy life, what Trump cherishes most is to feed his fantasy.
We can’t say Trump didn’t warn us. The end of the lyric about the snake couldn’t be clearer. The “silly woman” who is killed by the snake stands for liberals in the minds of Trump and his followers. Her death is yet another facet of Trump’s murder fantasy. It doesn’t matter to this president whether his policies lead to people dying in the desert, or his words give motivation to a gunman. “No lives matter” could be his slogan. And it seems that no amount of death will be enough for him to change his rhetoric.
As he sees others, so should we see him. As the lyric he so loves goes, “You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in.”
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Comment by Rabbi Arthur Waskow: The arena of these “fantasies” of “Fifth Avenue murders” that Trump has turned into real bloodshed is far wider and more varied than the border:
(1) What Trump does with ICE is to redefine the “border” to be inside American society, in Florida and Philadelphia, Colorado and Connecticut. Wherever there are neighborhoods, communities, of brown people who speak Spanish, Trump sees a “border” between them and white America. They are really foreigners, just like the Congresswomen -- US citizens all -- – whom he told to “Go back where you came from.”
And don’t think it will stop there. Muslims are already on the list. Blacks – an “infestation.” And now we know that a little further down on his list, hidden till now by his cupped hand, are those “disloyal Jews.” And despite the red-meat rhetoric aimed at the white male “forgotten” Americans denied the educations that would let them enter the new economy, Trump has no succor for them either. Voting for him till they die of despair and opioids is all he thinks they’re good for.
(2) And far beyond all US borders there’s the world, our Mother Earth. Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis dying of hyper-monsoon storms heated by Trump’s urging on of global scorching. Set up to die in the millions when the Himalaya snows that give water to billions come pouring not as a gradual melt to feed the streams and lakes but as a lethal flood that when it runs its course will leave behind no drinking water. Plus a million species, each sacred in itself and many of them crucial to human life and civilization, on the point of death. Murdered. This is really where “No Lives Matter.”
(3) But Trump’s fantasies of killing would matter much less had he not been elected President. And he could not have been elected unless something profound had been eating away at the guts of American democracy. The old America, of white domination and occasional perks tossed to the “colored races,” IS dying. The future is either a far more democratic America, in bank accounts as well as voting booths, in forms of prayer and sex as well as police cars and courts of law, in our dinner tables as well as our hot-water heaters -- or a truly white-male-wealth-supremacist society. If Lady Liberty is caged, imprisoned, it will not be only immigrants inside the cage.
And the old world, the old economy and culture and society, built on near three centuries of addictively burning Carbon, is also dying. One way or another. Either a new Beloved Community where humans see the entire web of life as sacred and the Interbreathing of Oxygen and CO2 as the Holy Spirit, or all our “civilizations” and our planet in ruins.
Gandhi’s wisest prophecy, disguised as a joke: Asked his opinion of Western Civilization, he answered: “It would be a good idea!”
Learning to become civilized from the indigenous people of the Earth. From the earthy Hebrew Bible. From the life-paths of Gautama, Miriam, Isaiah, Huldah, Jesus, Magdalen, Muhammad, Fatima, Francis, King, Hamer, Carson, Macy -- and a myriad others rarely named.
No way to cross the abyss in “incremental steps.” Leap, Turn, or Die.
Shalom, salaam, paz, peace -- Arthur