On Wed. June 20, President Trump signed an executive order potentially paving the way for immigrant families to stay together after entering the U.S. Last week, the Orthodox Union (OU) was the 27th organization to join the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) letter calling for an end to the separation of families detained crossing the southern border of the United States, but not before the organization inadvertently drew some negative attention of its own.
On June 13, a delegation of 100 Orthodox rabbis and communal leaders from across the U.S. converged for the OU Advocacy Center’s 22nd Annual Leadership Mission to Washington, D.C. The OU’s stance is that a photo of a plaque being presented to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions during the day’s events was misconstrued by the media as a signal of support for the administration’s immigration policy. Some organizations and members of the Orthodox community, however, aren’t having it.
“As Jews, we know what it is like to live under the bitter yoke of persecution,” said DC resident Jesse Rabinowitz. On Tues. June 19, Rabinowitz was one of several people who confronted Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen while she ate dinner at a local Mexican restaurant. “Would the OU have worked with the Hitler regime and said they worked with ‘whoever is in the government?’ This is not a political issue. It is a moral crisis and we demand moral leadership and courage. We are far past the point of polite political discourse.”
“The purpose of the Mission was to bring national leaders of the OU to Washington for a day of advocacy on some of our key issues,” said OU Advocacy Center Executive Director Nathan Diament. “We were particularly focused on the appropriations for [Department of Homeland Security] security grants to nonprofits, most of which go to shuls and day schools, as well as the anti-BDS legislation sponsored by Senators Cardin and Portman.”
In advance of the June 13 event, social justice organization T’ruah circulated a petition that garnered more than 1,400 signatures calling on OU leaders to raise the “zero-tolerance” policy with Sessions. A statement by OU President Moishe Bane released June 14 asserted that the issue was raised with Session, but privately rather than on camera (the lead up to Session’s address to the OU Mission as well as his remarks was broadcast on CSPAN).
The session at which the attorney general spoke was primarily meant to celebrate the OU’s legislative victory over the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)’s policy against providing federal aid for houses of worship damaged in natural disasters, according to a representative from the OU’s central office in New York. OU Advocacy Center Chairman Jerry Wilansky recognized members of Congress Reps. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) and Grace Meng (D-N.Y.), both of whom joined this decades-long battle after Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
Smith was presented with the Orthodox Union’s Friend of the Synagogue Award (Meng was not present at the event). Smith spoke about his connection to the Jewish community and partnership with Diament in combating FEMA’s discriminatory policy.
Speaking prior to Sessions, Diament’s praise of the Trump administration in general and of Sessions in particular was focused solely on this subject of supporting religious liberty. He referenced, among other things, guidelines issued by Sessions’s office in October 2017 to ensure religious liberties are not infringed upon across federal government programs; legal briefs filed by the Department of Justice (DOJ) in multiple religious liberty cases; and the enforcement of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which prevents discrimination against faith groups in land use and zoning decisions.
“For all these reasons, we are pleased that the attorney general is with us at the Orthodox Union’s Leadership Mission to address this fundamental topic,” said Diament.
When Sessions took the podium, he was met with a standing ovation. He spoke about “the promise of freedom of conscience” that led many to immigrate to the New World, and the centrality of religious liberty to the foundation of the United States.
A cultural shift toward open hostility for religious people contributed to Trump’s success in the presidential election, said Sessions: Being described as “deplorables” or the losers in the “culture wars” left many Americans worried about the future of their religious freedoms, and Trump’s promise to protect the free exercise of their faith “was well received by a lot of people.”
Speaking after Sessions, OU President Moishe Bane thanked the attorney general for his work on these issues and presented him with the token of appreciation that has drawn so much attention: an artisitic rendering of the iconic Torah injunction “Tzedek tzedek tirdof” (“Justice, justice shall you pursue”).
Congressman Smith was the only person that day to receive an award from the OU, said Diament; Sessions was one of multiple speakers to receive different tokens of appreciation that day.
The camera stayed on Sessions as Bane delivered his final comment, one Diament highlighted in his interview as a deliberate message to Sessions and the administration: According to one interpretation of the verse, the repetition of the word justice is meant to emphasize that in the pursuit of justice, the means must also be just.
One can’t say for sure, but the look on Sessions’s face in that moment suggested the message did not go unnoticed.
“We did not properly anticipate that the ‘message’ we were trying to convey would be overwhelmed by the negative reaction and spin to the photo,” said Diament. “Everyone present at the event understood exactly the message we were sending, but it didn’t translate into the Twitter-verse,” he said.
On the evening of Wed. June 20, Orthodox social action groups Hitoriri and Torah Trumps Hate organized in front of the OU’s DC office for an event advertised on Facebook as “Seperating Families Isn’t Kosher.” The Facebook event description for the event accused the OU of “an emerging pattern of continued lack of respect for the mitzvot of bein adam l’chavero, commandments regarding how a person treats their fellow.”
The event included a “Moral Mincha” afternoon prayer service and short text study, and a “speak-out” regarding the OU’s relationship with Jeff Sessions. A similar event was recently held outside the OU office in New York.
Diament reiterated that the OU has publicly expressed its opposition to the family separation policy and joined the other signatories to the ADL’s letter. As legislation moves in Congress to overturn the family seperation policy, he said, “the OU will be inviting community members to contact their representatives to urge them to vote for such legislation.”
“Though we celebrate the fact that the OU has joined the rest of the Jewish community in signing a letter condemning the family separation policy, they must move beyond statements and marshal their resources, savvy, and power to end the policy of family separation" and work to ensure the Trump Administration takes concrete steps to protect asylum seekers, said Rabinowitz.
By Rachel Kohn
Rachel Kohn is editor in chief of Kol HaBirah