Silence is akin to complicity — Talmud, Yevamot 87b.
The handmade sign stood out to me from the many others being held in the crowd of about 300 gathered in the plaza in front of the Peter Rodino Federal Building on Broad Street in Newark.
It was Sunday morning, August 11 — on the Jewish calendar, it was Tisha B’Av. Members of 13 Jewish congregations from northern New Jersey, including my own, Temple Sinai of Bergen County in Tenafly, had gathered for a special observance of this traditional day of mourning for the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, and the exile of the Jewish people from the Land of Israel. The service was organized by Rabbi Elliott Tepperman of Bnai Keshet of Montclair and Rabbi Marc Katz of Temple Ner Tamid of Bloomfield and led by more than a dozen rabbis and cantors.
Under the leadership of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, there were more than 50 such gatherings that took place throughout the country on Tisha B’Av morning. These observances were co-sponsored by six other national Jewish organizations: The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the National Council of Jewish Women, HIAS, Bend the Arc, J Street, and Torah Trumps Hate. The goal of these observances was to stand in solidarity with asylum seekers and immigrants who are being held in detention centers near the border with Mexico or in jails across the country, including several in New Jersey. All of the Tisha B’Av vigils took place in front of buildings that house ICE offices.
As various rabbis and cantors led prayers, shared teachings, and chanted verses from the Book of Lamentations, the traditional reading for the day, my eyes kept going back to that small sign in front of me: “Silence is akin to complicity.” In the Talmud this text is not about Tisha B’Av, nor about immigration. It is a halachic principle about how to determine guilt when there is only one witness who steps forward and accuses someone of an immoral or improper act. Typically, Jewish law requires two witnesses to establish guilt. In the case where there is only one witness, if the accused denies the allegations he or she is not deemed guilty of the transgression. However, if the accused does not open up his or her mouth to object or contradict the accusation, that person is considered guilty. Silence is seen as an admission of guilt.
Who was being accused? Who was the one witness? What was the accusation? Was the accused being silent? I suddenly realized why I had to attend this service and vigil. In the court of public opinion immigrants entering our country without a visa and those seeking asylum are being accused of being a threat to Americans: they are “invaders” seeking to take away jobs from real Americans, drug smugglers and violent criminals seeking to harm us, “illegal aliens” who were deemed criminals by dint of committing the crime of illegally crossing the border.
Viewed as criminals they have been put in detention centers or in actual jails around the country. (This is big business, by the way, as the Federal Government awards large contracts to county jails and private prisons for the privilege of “housing” these “illegals”.) Infamously, children have been kept in cages. Meanwhile, our government is stepping up raids on businesses and threatens to take people without proper documentation from their homes. Rules are being changed to make it more difficult for those immigrants who are struggling economically to get green cards.
Are the accused speaking up to deny the accusation? It’s hard to make one’s voice heard from a jail or detention center. Few immigrants or asylum seekers have attorneys and not many speak English. In the best of circumstances, it would be hard for new immigrants to speak for themselves and tell their stories. It is no wonder so many Americans assume that they are “guilty” of being a threat to our way of life.
This is why we were at the Peter Rodino Federal Building on Tisha B’Av: to be the voice of the voiceless, to be the witness for the defense. “You are my witnesses…my servant whom I have chosen,” God says to the Jewish People through the prophet Isaiah. Why us? Why must we, the Jewish People, speak out? The answer is clear: Who can understand the plight of the refugee more than those who have been refugees more than any other people throughout history? Who can explain to those who live safely and comfortably in their homes that people don’t just leave their homeland unless they are under duress, more than those who were forced from their homes by violence, persecution, extreme poverty and other threats more than any other people? Who can understand what it means to cross borders illegally to gain safe refuge in places where authorities wanted to keep their kind out, more than those who crossed those borders to find that refuge more than any other?
The experience of being migrants, refugees, unwelcome, unwanted was at the core of what it meant for us as a people to live in exile. How can we forget that just a handful of generations after coming to America? As the T’ruah website explains, “Tisha B’Av is a day of mourning for the plight of our refugee ancestors. On this Jewish day of mourning, we cannot ignore the cries of those whose tragedy is right before us, the many immigrants and asylum seekers who are being treated inhumanely….”
“Silence is akin to complicity.” We know what the silence of others brought when we were the illegal immigrant and refugee. We dare not be silent now.
Jordan Millstein is the rabbi of Temple Sinai of Bergen County in Tenafly.