Is there a Jewish viewpoint on the immigration law passed recently in Arizona? Are we supposed to make a concerted effort to welcome others because of our own history of being shut out or expelled from other countries?
It is my longstanding policy not to mix rabbinics overly with politics. For this reason, I will avoid addressing the present concerns of the immigration law passed by the State of Arizona, directly.
Naturally, the Torah has much to say about the subject of immigration, at least when using the term “stranger” or “alien.” In Judaism, the proper all encompassing term is “ger.” In Modern Hebrew, the term is “mehager”—immigrant.
“Ger” is frequently found in Torah literature and we see the term “ger” moves from a stranger, alien, other and outsider to mean most frequently convert or proselyte. This most certainly the common understanding of the Sages of Israel.
Let us look at some verses from the Torah that deal with the “ger” or “gerim (plural).”
Perhaps the most famous verse in Torah that pertains to otherness and being a stranger is found in the Covenant of the Halves dealing with Abraham and his descendants, leading to the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt. “And he said to Abram, Know for a certainty that your seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years.” (Genesis 15:13)
As a Jewish people, we are sensitized to the immigrants’ plight, due to our own alienation and suffering. The observance of the holy days of Pesah (Passover), especially with the Pesah Seder and the recitation of the Scriptural verses and Midrash, highlight the place of the “other” and knowing the “nefesh ha-ger”—the plight (soul) of the outsider.
Abraham repeatedly used the term “ger” when referring to himself, as in his negotiations with the Hittites to purchase a suitable burial place for his wife Sarah, when she died. “I am a stranger and a sojourner with you; give me possession of a burying place with you, that I may bury my dead out of my sight.” (Genesis 23:4)
Moving into the Book of Exodus, we find a more straightforward presentation of the place of a “ger” in the Israelite society, as a convert or proselyte. “When speaking of the Pesah and the eating of the Korban Pesah—Paschal lamb, the Torah says, “One law shall be for him who is native born—ezrach, and for the stranger—ger who sojourns among you.” (Exodus 12:49)
We can translate our Jewish experience and the more generalized “giyur”—conversion experience of those wishing to join up with our people, into attitudes that we might apply towards aliens and immigrants wishing to come to the United States of America.
It would not be wholly correct to say that Judaism has always openly embraced others wishing to join our nation. The Talmud speaks of a class of unacceptable prospective converts known as gerim gerurim. This refers to numerous aliens attempting to join up, with unwholesome motivations, especially at the time of King David and King Solomon.
“R. Jose says, In time to come idol-worshippers will come and offer themselves as proselytes. But will such be accepted? Has it not been taught that in the days of the Messiah proselytes will not be received; likewise were none received in the days of David or of Solomon?” (see Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Avodah Zarah 3b)
Nonetheless, in today’s world, we are taught to be “me-ka-rev”—to draw people close, while pushing them away nominally. We draw close with a stronger hand that the one used to push away.
I would think that there is no one “Jewish” viewpoint on the subject, as with other matters that we must consider. But, clearly Judaism has sensitized our people to look favorably upon others who come to join our people.
There is a significant difference between treating resident aliens compassionately – which is a quintessential Jewish value that emerges from the Torah (cf. e.g. Leviticus 19:33; Deuteronomy 10:19) - and determining which people are to be suitably welcomed as resident aliens. The same Torah that enjoins us to remember our own history of depredation in the attempt to sensitize us to the plight of the resident alien also enjoins us to exclude the Ammonite and Moabite (Deuteronomy 23:4) from residency altogether. Apparently the Torah concedes that there are some people who are “undesirables.” Whether this applies to current events is an arguable point. (A careful reading of the Torah may lead us to conclude that the Moabites and Ammonites are only excluded from marriage with Jews and not from residency among Jews.) But the Torah frames all of these laws in the context of a Jewish society operating by Jewish law. This surely is not the case in the United States. Rabbi David Novak, in another context (The Sanctity of Human Life ), raises the problem of how – if at all- Jewish law is to inform public policy when public policy aims at serving broader interests. It is a question that brooks an easy answer. We would do well to retain our sense of compassion but resist the urge to make it the determining factor of political policy.
I have published the following remarks in several places. I think they very accurately reflect my viewpoint as a Jew, based not only on our history, but on our enduring commitment to prophetic Judaism.
A generation ago, Pastor Martin Niemuller, in "Letters from Prison" wrote,
" In Germany they first came for the Communists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me.
And by that time, no-one was left to speak up."
I am not an African American but I learned from Martin Luther King, Jr. the transformative words, "I have a dream".
I am not a nineteenth century Viennese Jew witnessing European anti-Semitism, but I leaned from Theodor Herzl who wrote, envisioning a Jewish state, "If you will it, it is no dream."
I am not a Latino picking fruit, but I learned from Cesar Chavez, who taught us, "Si Se puede."
I did travel in the American south, and saw signs that read, "No Jews, dogs, or N. . . s allowed" and I learned from them.
To paraphrase Supreme Court Justice, Potter Stewart, I may not be able to define racism, but I know it when I see it.
Despite the governor's denials, racism is blatantly clear in Arizona Law 1070.
One clause in this infamous law says that a private citizen who does not think a police officer is enforcing the law can take that officer to court. The implication is that a KKK member can sue a police officer for not being sufficiently racist.
It is interesting that police chiefs in several Arizona counties have come out in opposition to this law which discourages citizen cooperation with the police and encourages rogue cops who dishonor the badge by arresting drivers for the crime of DWB (driving while black) to expand their practice to DWH. Having spent fifteen years as a police chaplain, I understand and salute the dedicated cops who oppose this law.
Let's look at reality. Canadians or northern Europeans who have overstayed their visas are not sought. This law declares an open hunting season on Hispanics.
It also says that an immigrant must carry identification with him or her 24/7. Does this imply a practical necessity for Hispanic citizens to carry their American passport all the time? Of what administration in what country does that remind you.
I call on ministers to honor the injunctions in Exodus and Deuteronomy, "Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt", and encourage City Council to join Boston, Massachusetts; New York City, St. Paul, Minnesota, and the California cities of Oakland, San Diego and San Francisco in banning official business trips to AZ, and entering into new contracts with that state.
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