Mr. President, Religious Freedom is in our DNA: Meet US Protesting Your Muslim Ban by Ayala Emmett

Temple B’rith Kodesh Interfaith Prayer Service
Photo by Yonathan Shapir

You should have been here Mr. President when our sanctuary filled to capacity. While those you banned waited for the Federal Court’s decision, we the people gathered on Sunday for an interfaith prayer service.

We squeezed closer in our pew to make room for a woman looking for a seat. Out of breath and sitting down, she told us that she was late because she was looking for parking. The enormous parking lot of Temple B’rith Kodesh could not hold the thousand people who wanted to be part of an interfaith service to welcome the stranger.

When the rabbis spoke at our prayer service, they had you in mind. They recalled the Holocaust and the shameful fact that America turned away Jewish refugees fleeing from the Nazis. They called on us to greet people we don’t know, to act in oneness as a reminder that we can do better, that we can turn around that tragic injustice. In an instant a melodic humming filled the sanctuary as personal names and faith affiliations bounced in the air, creating a canopy of peace, a Sukkat Shalom.

This precious moment is a reminder Mr. President that we have a hallowed American commitment to religious freedom. Since you often tell us that you are highly educated, you probably remember that religious freedom was first enshrined in the law when after a hot and oppressive summer in Philadelphia, on September 17, 1787 Americans declared in Article VI of the Constitution that ‘No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.’ Three years later, on December 15, 1791 the Founders inserted The First Amendment, ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion’.

Taking you at your word Mr. President that you know it all, you surely know that America made history when it legally separated an unholy alliance between church and state. America was a first country in the 18th century western world to bring about the separation of powers and the Founders were very conscious of their drastic departure from the rest of the west.

It is probably not news to you that Jefferson proudly used the phrase “a novel experiment” when he described the 1779 Bill for the Establishment of Religious Freedom in Virginia. The novel experiment according to Jefferson meant that none of the Christian denominations would be favored, that they all are equal. Jefferson specifically included in religious equality, by name, Jews and Gentiles, Muslims, Hindus and Infidels. Clearly your position to allow Christians from the banned countries to the exclusions of Muslims undermines a Jeffersonian principle.

There was also Mr. President, John Adams who we have on our side. John Adams spoke clearly of the significance of religious freedom. He denounced in his 1765 the European alliance of church and state, which he saw as the melding of two tyrannies ruling over the common people.

Next to these esteemed American presidents you look kind of lonely and out of line. But there is more. There is also a historic exchange of letters between Moses Mendes Seixas the warden of the Hebrew Congregation Yeshuat Israel in Newport RI and President George Washington who you like to invoke.

Yeshuat Israel was a congregation of Portuguese/Sephardi Jewish refugees from the Iberian Peninsula, the founders of Judaism in early American history. Like many refugees who enrich our culture, Portuguese Jews brought with them their Iberian history of worldliness, global experience in commerce, mastery of a number of languages, an open engagement with other religious communities and a strong commitment to religious freedom.

They also carried to America an ethic of justice for the socially marginalized, an ethic that would fulfill numerous biblical injunctions in Leviticus and Deuteronomy to care for the disadvantaged including the ger, the stranger. The American Portuguese Jewish ethics included caring for the powerless, the poor, the widow, and the orphan both Jews and non-Jews.

At the same time the Sephardi Jewish community was committed to the American Revolution and forged an alliance with the Patriots and the rebellion. In 1780, for example Moses Seixas signed a historic public document supporting the revolutionary cause in Newport Rhode Island and one of his brothers Abraham Seixas served in the revolutionary war.

Moses Seixas wrote his letter to George Washington on August 17, 1790 when the president came for a visit to Newport Rhode Island. The quote from his letter says what refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants would easily recognize today: “Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People ~~ a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance ~~ but generously affording to all Liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: ~~ deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language equal parts of the great governmental Machine.”

George Washington replied to Seixas’ letter and read his own letter in public which includes the following: “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.”

George Washington repeated verbatim Seixas’ phrase “A Government, which to bigotry gives no sanctions to persecution no assistance,” to make clear that the government recognizes moral commitment to religious freedom.

You have shown Mr. President that you grasp the importance of directly communicating with the people. You would undoubtedly appreciate the fact that the letters between the son of Jewish refugees and the president of the United States became a media event and a national document. Newspapers then were numerous, popular and available in the most remote places in America. Publishing the letters widely inscribed religious freedom in the public mind and future presidents used the letters to define us as a nation.

It is helpful to note, Mr. President that the letters were entered into the Congressional Record in your lifetime in 2001. A number of Republican presidents used Washington’s letter to assert this country’s commitment to religious freedom and to rights of minorities. President Reagan did it twice, in 1982 and in 1986. George H.W. Bush mentioned in 1989, and George W. Bush in 1989. In the 1960 election, presidential candidates Richard Nixon and John Kennedy made statements on the commemoration of 170th anniversary of George Washington’s letter to Moses Seixas. Nixon spoke of the letter’s longevity as an inspiration.

In 1944 Eleanor Roosevelt who promoted human rights here and around the world reminded the country of Washington’s letter: “One other significant line in the letter should be spread abroad to the world. Washington said: ‘There shall be none to make him afraid.’ Let us hope that will be true in the future for every man as regards his religion.”

Like millions around the country, we are the people rejecting your attempt to ban on religious grounds refugees, immigrants, asylum seekers, and green-card holders. We know that the ban on Muslims is a threat to religious freedom. If you persist in your Muslim ban Mr. President, we will resist. We are committed to a fundamental American principle enshrined in the law and ensured in an ethical public obligation. And one last thought. We know all too well that we have work to do to ensure civil rights in our ever-evolving democracy so that none shall be afraid.