Some of Jewish tradition’s most cherished spiritual lessons derive from the narrative of the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness, guided by God’s presence as they make their way toward the Promised Land. Today, as we hear increasing reports of migrants risking incarceration, starvation, and death in the deserts along our southwest border, these sacred stories call out to us with a desperate immediacy.

It is all too clear that U.S. border policy is creating a crisis of death and disappearance in the southwest borderlands. It is unconscionable that our government is leaving migrants to die in the desert – and that humanitarian workers are now being criminalized for helping them. As a Rabbi and a Jew, my faith compels me to witness and to respond.

Image of car door among some trees, painted with sign: "No Mas Muertes, Bienvenidos"

Entrance to No Mas Muertes desert aid camp near Arivaca, AZ. Image courtesy of Patrice Clark.

No More Deaths/No Mas Muertes – a humanitarian organization based in southern Arizona – has documented how border enforcement pushes migration routes into some of the most remote, dangerous areas in Arizona’s deserts. As violence and hardship grow in parts of Latin America – in direct response to US foreign policy – and as pathways to asylum and other relief are cut off, growing numbers of people are crossing the border to reunite with their families and seek safety.

In 2017, 57 sets of human remains were found in Arizona’s West Desert, including 32 on the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge – a vast and remote stretch of land that shares 56 miles with the U.S.-Mexico border. Yet this number represents only a fraction of the people who have disappeared and died in the region; some estimate that 10 times as many people die trying to cross these deserts.

For the past three years, No More Deaths/No Mas Muertes has left water, food, socks and blankets for migrants crossing the Cabeza Wildlife Refuge, but outrageously enough, these humanitarian relief efforts have now been criminalized by the Trump administration. Earlier this year, Scott Warren, a humanitarian aid provider with No More Deaths, and two people receiving humanitarian aid were arrested by U.S. Border Patrol. Now Warren is facing federal felony charges, and he and eight other No More Deaths volunteers are also facing federal misdemeanor charges relating to their humanitarian aid work on the Cabeza.

This weekend, I will be joining 60 faith leaders from around the country in southern Arizona to witness and respond to the suffering on our border though “Faith Floods the Desert” – a collaboration between No More Deaths, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, and the Unitarian Universalist Association. Representing communities of many faiths and denominations, we will stand in solidarity with humanitarian aid workers and local residents by walking into the desert and leaving gallons of water along heavily-frequented migrant trails.

Faith Floods the Desert asserts, “the right of all people to receive the basics of humanitarian aid, including rights to food, water, and medical assistance.” As a longtime activist for a just peace in Israel-Palestine and a member of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council, I find that these words resonate in all-too-familiar ways. I cannot help but think of Palestinians in Gaza, deprived of these basic needs as a result of Israel’s crushing and brutal blockade. I cannot help but connect the state violence at our militarized southern border and the state violence directed toward Palestinians in the West Bank, forced to live behind militarized walls and travel daily through armed checkpoints.

I understand that my participation in the “Faith Floods the Desert” campaign is but a part of a larger struggle of solidarity with all who are oppressed by these interconnected systems of state violence. As American Jews, we cannot protest the injustices our nation commits against undocumented immigrants while remaining silent about the very same oppression directed toward Palestinians by a state that purports to act in our name.

According to the Torah, God provided for the needs of those who journeyed through the wilderness. The lesson this teaches us in our current political moment is all too obvious: the provision of humanitarian aid is divine work. Those who stand up to systems of state violence are not criminals – they are following a sacred imperative at the very heart of the Exodus story.

In the end, this is a universal imperative. It is time for all people of conscience to take a stand against the criminalization of basic human decency.

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Rabbi Brant Rosen  is the rabbi of Tzedek Chicago and the Midwest Regional Director of the American Friends Service Committee. He is a co-founder of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council. He blogs at Shalom Rav, and has been published in The Huffington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Forward, and The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, among others.

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