Ask the Rabbis // What Does Judaism Say about Immigration?
As the rabbi of a Sephardic congregation that is a second home to members from every continent, I am intimately familiar with the unique challenges confronting immigrants in our country. My father was born and raised in Tehran, Iran, and relocated to the United States at the age of 19 to pursue a higher education in American universities. I am well aware of the complexities of immigrant life and the attitudes that new citizens adopt toward their host countries.
A primary concern for newcomers is self-definition. Are they a true part of the American family or mere outsiders who have arrived here to reap the benefits of membership in our “club”? One finds proponents of both viewpoints in an immigrant community. Some immigrants settle in established enclaves, remain devoted to the perpetuation of their culture, language and traditions, and impress this dutifully upon their children. They see themselves as “strangers in a strange land,” drawn to America in search of material opportunity, political sanctuary or both.
On the other hand, there are individuals like my father, who, unlike the majority of his relatives, embraced the American way wholeheartedly. He married an American woman and moved to a middle-class neighborhood on Long Island. English was spoken in our household, not Farsi. My father’s profession brought him into contact with other well educated, but American-born, citizens. This was a far cry from the route taken by many fellow Iranians who specifically chose careers that kept them in a Persian milieu.
The Torah’s commandments regarding strangers represent nothing more or less than the rigorous application of the principles of universal justice even in the face of nationalistic zeal. Tribal mentalities, familial loyalties and fear of the unfamiliar are not to interfere with our duties to one another as human beings created in the image of God. It is incumbent upon American citizens to disregard artificial distinctions of nationality and ethnicity and to treat immigrants however they define themselves with the respect and consideration to which God entitles all of us.
Rabbi Joshua Maroof
Magen David Sephardic Congregation
Based on our own experiences as Jews, we must be sensitive to issues surrounding immigration and the presence of immigrants in our communities. The Torah itself is explicit in Exodus: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Combined with this commitment to human equality, we, as individuals have an obligation to ensure that new immigrants to our country are treated with respect, economic fairness and that they receive appropriate and equal public services. Moreover, our historical experience of persecution should encourage us to make both the United States and Israel serve as safe havens for those who are oppressed in their home countries. Clearly, laws that are the product of prejudice, or that specifically target or discriminate against immigrants, are counter to Jewish values.
The economic issues central to the topic of immigration in a globalized society are more complicated to negotiate within Jewish law. If new immigrants compete for jobs with those who are “native born,” Jewish law could be interpreted to set limits on such immigration in order to preserve the livelihood of those already engaged in a particular trade as the Talmud discusses. In a global society, however, the nuances of such competition become harder to define, since businesses can move production around the world seeking lower wages.
And yet nothing relieves us of our responsibility to “pursue justice” in alleviating poverty and oppression throughout the world, either by providing more opportunities for others to seek a livelihood in a new land, or through programs to provide aid and economic development in the countries which are the source of our immigrants. But why not start closer to home?
Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal
Shaare Torah Congregation
“Know the heart of the stranger,” we are told, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The Sukkah teaches the fragility of our homes, the sh’mitah teaches the tenuous hold we have on our possessions. “All that we prize is but lent to us.” The central tale of our tradition is a story of a journey, an experience of flight and freedom, the bond forged in the fire of our connection to one another, our coming “home” and the support and command of a loving God.
In Israel or America, in our homeland or dispersion, we are immigrants and the children of immigrants. And whether we decide as Americans through the political process to open our arms or arm the gates, as Jews the message is clear: those struggling to leave the place of their birth and find freedom and security and opportunity in a new land are human beings. There is no “us” and “them.” They are God’s children. They are our brothers and sisters. We are all immigrants.
Rabbi Michael Feshbach
Chevy Chase, MD
Were it not for America, I would not exist. My Syrian-Sephardic-Arabic father would have never met my Litvak-Ashkenazi-Yiddish mother, both of whom were assimilated to a common language and values. It is likely that few of those reading this would be here, either.
The Jewish experience is a testament to immigration. During the First Crusade, Ashkenazi Jews moved to Poland, invited by a Polish king to develop the economy. After the Spanish Expulsion, Sephardic Jews dispersed throughout the Ottoman Empire and Western Europe; some even became the first Jews in North America. The last century has seen massive Jewish immigration: from every corner of the globe, to America, to Western Europe and to Israel.
What insight on immigration does our history provide? Medieval Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews kept their languages and culture as they moved, yet they were also well rooted where they landed and stayed for centuries longer than we have in the United States. If today’s American immigrants speak a foreign language, and their children grow up speaking both that language and English, for us this echoes the experience of German, Yiddish-speaking and Arabic-speaking Jewish immigrants of the past two centuries. It would be a shande if we whose lives were saved by immigration should slam the door behind us.
An assimilated Sephardic-American Jewish poet put it best: “Give me your tired, your poor…” Emma Lazarus didn’t write in Ladino or observe much of Jewish law. But she did put into words what America has meant to us, the erstwhile “homeless, tempest-tossed.” As Hillel said, “If I am for myself alone, what am I?
Rabbi Adam Chalom
Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation
Highland Park, IL
The xenophobic and racist undertone of much anti-immigration argument disturbs me. But coming from Jews, it infuriates. Our history, values and self-interest should all point us toward open attitudes and policies on immigration.
Through our many catastrophes and exiles, Jews benefited greatly from the host countries that took us in and suffered mightily when immigration was restricted. American Jewry’s remarkable growth—from barely five thousand in 1820 to five million a century later—came mostly through immigration. Today’s Israel regained its Jewish majority only shortly before independence, thanks to what immigration the Ottomans and British did allow.
Our values and texts say the same: Avraham and Sarah being welcomed into Egypt during the famine of Genesis 12; “Do not wrong the stranger;” the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, or hospitality. Traditional voices strongly suggest open arms to the immigrant, both personally and politically.
Jews are only human, and human nature is to conserve scarce resources for those already close to us. Yet history suggests that we fare best in open and expanding societies—golden age Spain, late medieval Poland, etc.—and suffer when nations close themselves up to all “outsiders.” It may not always start with us, but what is bad for any “Other” is ultimately bad for the Jews. We should work to liberalize immigration policy and attitudes in every nation we now call “home.”
Emma Lazarus’ “New Colossus” got it right—who are we to lower the Lamp or close the Golden Door?
Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb
Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation Bethesda, MD
Why should a person be treated differently from others because he or she happened to have been born elsewhere? We learn in Parasha Shalach, “There shall be one law for the citizen and the alien alike.” Our challenge is to determine how we can manifest this as a practical matter, governing ourselves without creating privileged classes.
As a people who suffered severe inequity because of a lack of the privilege of citizenship, it is incumbent upon Jews to point out the need for equitable treatment of all who live in this country. The rule is simple: one law.
Rabbi Stephen B. Silvern
Chair, ALEPH Board of Directors
Judaism has nothing to say about immigration. We don’t believe in it. We believe the earth belongs to God and even the land of Israel does not belong to us; none of us could sell any of it except on a temporary basis. Anyone who was lacking, whether Jew or non-Jew, was welcome to wander through our fields picking food for themselves from the corners of our fields, from bushels of harvest we dropped, or forgot, and so on. It is an injunction dramatized in the biblical story of Ruth and repeated several times throughout the Torah.
At the same time, while I have for years abhorred the rigid and often unreasonable immigration policy of this country, I am now a staunch supporter of any attempt of the United States to prevent illegal entry in a fragile era of potential infiltration by those bent on spreading terrorism. We are instructed to honor the stranger in our midst; true, but not at the expense of our own safety and the safety of those around us. To paraphrase an ancient rabbinic adage: Look out for the welfare of the stranger, but not to the neglect of your own welfare.
All who are hungry come and pick the fruits of my field, because, again, none of it is actually mine. And if you come into my field with any implement other than an orange picker, I will reach for my sword.
Rabbi Gershon Winkler
The Walking Stick Foundation
Thousand Oaks, CA