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US rabbi’s arrest garners global attention

  • waskow screen shot
By Wednesday afternoon, more than 2.62 million people across numerous social media platforms had viewed footage of an elderly rabbi protesting, and then shuffling along with his hands cuffed after his arrest in Philadelphia on 30 June.
by MIRAH LANGER | Jul 05, 2018

The man is 84-year-old Rabbi Arthur Waskow. He was arrested protesting outside an ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] facility in Philadelphia, after speaking at a civil disobedience rally against recent changes to the American government’s policy on illegal immigrants which resulted in significant numbers of children being separated from their parents at borders.

The video, tweeted on 30 June by Stance Grounded @SJPeace, went viral. It showed a frail old man with a patterned kippa shaking as he held the microphone in front of the access door to a building. Someone had to support him up by holding a hand against his back. He told the police gathered nearby: “If you need to arrest us, so be it, but remember who the real criminals are.”

A second video showed Waskow seated in a wheelchair. A policeman bent down and placed plastic ties across the old man’s shaking hands. The police then had to pass a walking stick back to the old man. Yet, even with this aid, two people had to support him to help him get up. He then shuffled, painfully, step-by-step, as he was escorted into a police van.

“Criminals are living in the White House who would tear away even nursing children from their mother’s breasts,” the rabbi is recorded as saying shortly before being taken into custody.

“You are citizens as well as police officers. We invite you, we beg you, we urge you, we implore you as citizens to be aware of the criminals that are wrecking the decent lives of decent families.”

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report in the wake of the video’s global reach, Waskow said his primary reaction to all the attention was “astonishment”.

“It is my 25th arrest over the past 55 years, and none of them have got anything like this response,” said the veteran civil-rights activist.

Waskow, who has been named by Newsweek as one of the 50 most influential rabbis in America, told the SA Jewish Report he believed the attention was due to the fact that a policy involving the suffering of children was “the ultimate horror for many people”. Further, he said, the image of a rabbi, as a carrier of a moral tradition, being arrested, struck a deep note with the public.

Waskow was born in Baltimore in 1933, according to the website of The Shalom Center, which he founded. He was ordained in 1995 by a trans-denominational rabbinic committee that included a rabbi whose lineage was in the Hassidic tradition, a Reform rabbi, a Conservative rabbi, and a feminist theologian.

He has a PhD in American history, with a dissertation on The Race Riots of 1919. He has lectured extensively at various universities, and published numerous books, including The Freedom Seder, a New Haggadah for Passover. He is associated with the Jewish Renewal movement, and says he has always been inspired by a Jewish sense of justice.

During his long history of seeking social justice, Waskow also spoke out against the apartheid regime.

He told the SA Jewish Report that he had made the call to end racial oppression after making contact with South African-born Reform Rabbi Brian Walt, who is a founder of Rabbis for Human Rights.

Beyond the focus on his most recent arrest, a sustained drive was needed to “light up dark places in our society” and ensure that “decent human life” was upheld, Waskow said.

“The time has come in the US, and in other places where there are ultra-right-wing governments, [to foster resistance]. The way to gather is the way we did it [at the protest]. We were… in communion.”

While the public response to the rabbi’s protest action and arrest was positive on the whole, there was sporadic criticism.

“It’s sad because of age… but I guess if u break the law that’s what happens,” tweeted someone called Lynn.

Another tweeted: “That was so pure and whole hearted, it actually brings me to tears.”

William Ashmore tweeted: “I hope to be 85 one day, and have at least half of the spirit for humanity that this man has.”

Some suggested that the rabbi’s presence linked the current immigration policy and Jewish history: “I will stand with my Jewish brothers and sisters who recognise that they’ve seen this before,” one tweeted.

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