It’s only fitting that “dreamers” are in the news on the eve of Rosh HaShanah, ushering in a High Holy Day season that focuses us on visions, goals and aspirations for the new year.
The media headlines have been about President Trump’s callous decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which could result in the U.S. deporting about 800,000 so-called “dreamers” who are the innocent victims of a Washington struggle between moral decency and political expediency.
The program, launched during the Obama administration, protects undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children. These are young people — the oldest would now be 36 and most are between the ages of 22 and 28 — who trusted the government and provided personal information to enroll in the program, which allowed them to apply for legal status and work permits, renewable every two years.
By all indications, these are model would-be citizens. In order to qualify for the program, applicants must attend school, be a high school graduate or equivalent or be honorably discharged from the military. Surveys indicate that 98 percent are bilingual and about 90 percent are employed. But they would not be allowed to continue to work when their DACA permits expire in March, the president’s deadline for the program, unless Congress passes what is known as The DREAM Act (the acronym is for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors).
As the legal and political debates go on, it’s worth reflecting on the underlining clash between the views of the proponents and critics of the legislation because it underscores the deep struggle taking place in our society over what America stands for in the world, and to ourselves.
The critics of DACA, symbolized by the president and his America First motto, envision a country that returns to its native roots (meaning European), turning inward, feeling frightened — committed to protecting America’s shores from foreigners who threaten to take our jobs if not, in some cases, commit terrorist acts.
The proponents harken back to America as a nation of immigrants (including the president’s grandfather, who came to the U.S. from Germany in 1885), an open refuge for those who dreamed of a better life and sought the opportunity to live in a land of democratic values, economic opportunities and human rights.
As American Jews, we are truly a community of immigrants, with so many of us tracing our lineage here to brave family members who uprooted themselves and sought refuge from anti-Semitism and economic woes in Europe and Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Yet we have an even longer history of leaving a native land to pursue the dream of a better and more meaningful life, starting with the first Jew. It was the biblical Abraham who followed God’s call that he leave his father’s house for “the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you,” God tells him (Genesis 12:1-2).
Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, on leaving his father Isaac’s house — under threat from his twin brother, Esau — stops for the night and dreams of a ladder with angels ascending and descending, and God appears to reassure him of Divine protection.
Jacob’s favored son, Joseph, is described as a dreamer and an interpreter of dreams, most significantly catapulting himself from an Egyptian prison to the most powerful appointed position in the land by successfully interpreting two of the Pharaoh’s dreams. That paved the way for his father and brothers to be saved, and propelled the transition of a family into a fledgling nation that became the People of Israel.
In modern times, it was Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism, who famously said, “If you will it, it is no dream.” He wrote in his diary, after the first Zionist Congress in Switzerland in 1897, “at Basle, I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. If not in five years, certainly in 50, everyone will know it.”
It was 50 years later, in November 1947, that the historic United Nations vote on the partition of Palestine took place, which led to statehood six months later. So from Abraham to Psalm 126 — “When the Lord restores the fortunes of Zion, we see it as in a dream” — to Herzl, to the American Jewish experience and the creation of the modern state Israel, we are a people and nation of dreamers. Not in a fanciful way but in striving to repair and improve the world, rooted in a vision of justice and compassion.
For all of these reasons and more, amidst a toxic political climate that is tearing at the fabric of our society, our High Holy Days should be devoted to not only reflecting on our own failures, but on doing all we can to ensure that our country remains the land of the free. And that our dreams do not become our nightmares.