In January I traveled with 14 rabbis and a cantor as part of American Jewish World Service’s Global Justice Fellowship to the Dominican Republic—a country that is home to the largest stateless population in the Western Hemisphere. We learned how Dominican court had stripped citizenship from some 200,000 people—Dominican-born children and grandchildren of immigrants from Haiti—a few years ago, rendering them “ghost citizens,” as Amnesty International put it. And yet, when we arrived, we were in shock because these stateless citizens—activists themselves—showed concern for us.
“We’re worried about you,” they said. “We’re praying for you. What are you going to do?”
They were referring to President Trump’s proposed immigration and visa policies. Word had spread.
As the grandchild of Syrian Jewish immigrants, I expected to empathize with what my Dominican hosts were going through. But I didn’t expect them to express solidarity with us. These were fierce human rights advocates used to dealing with a government that curtails their rights. We had come to stand with them, not the other way around.
They were women like Ana Maria Belique, an activist of Haitian descent whose own citizenship was stripped by the ruling. She explained how her society sees her as an “outsider,” because of her darker skin and Haitian ancestry, even though she is a Dominican citizen who has lived there her whole life. She said with or without documents, those of darker skin, like herself, are usually the ones targeted at military checkpoints. Although most Dominicans do not need to carry their papers within the country, Dominicans of Haitian decent are often stopped and questioned, no matter their citizenship status. Ana Maria worries that a new ambassador to the Dominican Republic would not take seriously their struggles, and would endanger her quest to reinstitute citizenship for Dominicans of Haitian decent.
Usually, on trips like this, we must work hard to avoid the kind of paternalism that can occur when donors or activists from wealthier countries head to the developing world. This time, although we still felt an imbalance of money and privilege, we also related to and internalized each other’s struggles in a way that felt truly reciprocal. Dominican activists and American rabbis asked each other, “What can we do to keep moving forward? What kind of strategies can we each employ to address unfair and oppressive policies in both of our countries?”
As an activist I’ve learned how much my white skin and class privilege protects me from the deprivations that affect so many Americans. My community is not struggling under the weight of the legacy of slavery and mass incarceration that affects many black Americans, for example. I’m not the first in my family to go to college, and I have never doubted that I’d have food to eat or a roof over my head. It was only in this moment, when I saw America’s recent turn toward nativism reflected in the situation I was learning about in the Dominican Republic, that I was able to truly take in what it might mean to live under that kind of oppression.
For all of us on this trip, the stories of Jewish statelessness were never far from our minds. One of the rabbis spoke movingly about how his father, a Holocaust survivor, was suddenly striped of his Hungarian citizenship and made to identify as a Jew, even though he always thought of himself as a Hungarian firsts. I thought of my own family, who had left Syria seeking economic opportunity in America. Thankfully, my grandfather arrived in the United States before the implementation of origin based quotas in 1924, quotas designed to staunch the flow of immigrants from places outside of Western Europe. I am forever grateful that my family faced no significant barriers in gaining citizenship in America. As a Jew my empathy with Dominicans and other minorities comes from knowing how crucial access to citizenship was for my family’s security and success.
There is some generosity in sharing this Jewish historical narrative with others. In a political climate of division and self-protection, this empathetic leap of moral imagination is crucial because it pushes against our basic inclination to protect ourselves above all others. It is only by overcoming this instinct that we can include those who are different from us within our circle of care. That’s the power of solidarity.