There were already thousands of people standing outside Terminal A at Philadelphia International Airport on Sunday afternoon, but people continued to arrive to join the massive protest spurred by President Trump’s Executive Order on immigration.
When there was no room left outside behind police barricades, people coming via SEPTA, many of them carrying makeshift signs, filled the terminal’s baggage claim area and the International Arrivals Hall.
At one point, the airport tweeted a warning: “International Arrivals Hall is at capacity. @PhillyPolice Airport unit directing demonstrators to A bag claim.”
Traffic was snarled on I-95 as more demonstrators made their way to the airport between 2 p.m., when the protest officially began, and 4 p.m., when it was set to end. SEPTA added an unscheduled train from the airport to take protesters home.
The demonstrators were of all races and age groups, but the Jewish presence was impossible to ignore. Had 6ABC’s chopper gotten aerial shots of the crowd, they surely would have shown innumerable heads topped with yarmulkes and shoulders draped with tallit.
Many of the demonstrators’ signs had Jewish themes: “JEWISH REFUGEE FROM SOVIET UNION/THIS IS NOT THE AMERICA THAT WELCOMED MY FAMILY” and “MY FATHER WAS A WANDERING ARAMEAN.”
One man, wearing a white yarmulke, held a sign with two stars of David and the words, “NEVER AGAIN: REMEMBER THE MS ST LOUIS, TURNED AWAY FROM THE USA IN 1939,” along with a black and white photograph of the benighted ship and newspaper headlines from that time.
Next to him a woman’s sign read: “I AM A 2ND GENERATION AMERICAN FROM A FAMILY OF HOLOCAUST SURVIVORS.”
Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) members held a large banner that read, “REFUGEES WELCOME/DEPORT RACISM.”
Elana Baurer, a JVP organizer, said her group was “horrified” by Trump’s executive order. “We believe that all of our humanity is tied up in that of our neighbors, regardless of their identity.”
JVP Deputy Director Rabbi Alissa Wise stood against the barricade wearing a shirt that read, “Stop profiling Muslims.” She was accompanied by a rabbinic student and a woman who identified herself as both the spouse and the daughter of a rabbi. Wise held a sign that read, “ANOTHER JEWISH FAMILY AGAINST THE BAN AND FOR HUMANITY.”
Inside the International Arrivals Hall, Max Stern, who grew up on the Main Line, held a sign with a quote from Elie Wiesel: “No human race is superior, no faith inferior. All collective judgments are wrong. Only racists make them.”
Stern chose the Wiesel quote, he said, because Trump’s executive order came a day after Holocaust Remembrance Day. “So I thought it would be pretty appropriate.”
He was also motivated to demonstrate because of his own family history — including a grandmother who sailed, at 12, from Austria to El Salvador alone, and then made her way to the States, never to see her family members again.
“I feel very strongly connected to refugees and their struggle,” Stern said.
Rona Buchalter, director of refugee programming and planning at HIAS PA, was also in the arrivals hall, where she’d spent the better part of the day dealing with immigration issues of a HIAS refugee.
“You know, it’s hard,” she said, when asked how she felt about the executive order and the thick crowds around her. “I’m sick to my stomach about what’s happening, and worried about the people and worried about the nation. People are scared and I worry about them,” she said.
At the same time, she noted, “it’s also been really exciting to see people come out in force. People who don’t think of themselves as activists have been activated by this, and that’s critical. We all need to speak out and keep talking and just keep pushing back against the things we think are wrong.”
That’s what brought David Zvi Kalman and his family from the Mount Airy neighborhood to join the protest.
“Judaism and America both have long traditions of helping refugees and helping immigrants, something which is baked into both of our cultures,” said Kalman. “The idea that America would change its policy on immigration to suddenly be hostile to refugees is abhorrent.”
“When the order came out and we realized the impact it was going to have, we felt that we couldn’t not go,” said Kalman’s wife, who preferred not to be named. “Our family are all immigrants from a couple generations back … and we want to demonstrate to our children that we find [what’s going on] unacceptable.”
June Cohen, a retired postal worker, marveled at the Jewish turnout. She was at the airport with the retired principal of William Meredith Elementary School, Cindy Farlino, who carried a sign that read “JEWS AGAINST THE MUSLIM BAN.”
“We know what fascism looks like; we are not going to let that happen again,” said Farlino. “This registry is very reminiscent of what happened in 1939, and that’s one thing that spurred me on.”
Orthodox Rabbi Will Keller, the grandson of immigrants, came to the airport for slightly different reasons.
“I believe deeply in this cause,” he said. “We have a biblical mandate to be there for the stranger; it says that countless times in the Torah. It’s our obligation to be here and to stand up to tyranny.”
Keller moved to Philadelphia quite recently — “and I want more people to be able to come here as well!” he said.
From an organizational perspective, numerous Jewish groups have made official statements opposing Trump’s executive order, including HIAS, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, Bend the Arc, J Street, the Religious Action Center, American Jewish World Service, the Orthodox Union, Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, and others.
More than 1,700 rabbis, including 20-plus from the Philadelphia area, signed a national letter, penned by HIAS, welcoming refugees, while hundreds of Soviet Jewish refugees wrote and signed their own letter opposing Trump’s action.
Even SEPTA’s transit chief, Thomas J. Nestel III, was struck by the Jewish presence: “WOW. Protester just told me about his father fleeing Nazi Germany and then being drafted in the US Army to fight Nazis,” Nestel tweeted. “That’s why he’s here.”
The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia‘s Jewish Community Relations Council released the following statement:
The Jewish Community Relations Council opposes President Trump’s proposed executive orders that would restrict entry for refugees from predominantly Muslim countries, halt federal funding for “sanctuary cities,” and expand detention for immigrants and asylum-seekers.
We are deeply concerned about President Trump’s actions on immigration. These pronouncements not only severely restrict immigration, they instill fear among existing immigrant populations that they are not welcome and may be at risk. The ‘sanctuary cities’ provision, especially, threatens to seriously compromise law enforcement’s ability to keep communities safe by undermining trust and communication between police and immigrant populations.
The Jewish people know firsthand the consequences of turning away those fleeing persecution. Based on our own immigrant experience and Judaism’s imperative to “welcome the stranger,” the Jewish Community Relations Council has advocated for more than 70 years on behalf of immigrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers who hope to build a better life for themselves and their children. Resettled refugees have consistently boosted the economy, and enriched our culture and pluralistic ethos.
The United States currently has one of the most stringent immigrant vetting policies in the world and this should continue. In the midst of a severe international refugee crisis we have to balance our legitimate concern about radical Islam with our core values and history which dictate that we remain a haven for immigrants. The American immigrant experience is one of the country’s greatest sources of strength.