June 17, 2024
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June 17, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Jewish Unity Around Immigration Reform

Every American Jew’s family immigrated here from somewhere. Immigration is a topic that liberal and conservative Jews can coalesce on.

It is a fundamentally Jewish ideal and value to welcome the stranger and treat the foreigner with dignity and respect. We are repeatedly commanded in the Torah to remember that we were strangers in a strange land—hearkening us back to a place of empathy. Even if we are settled and successful, we must remember that we were once strangers and to use this as motivation to care about the stranger in our land who is just starting out and trying to do their best.

America has a murky history with immigration. There were no limits on immigration for the first half of our country’s history. If you came here by land or by water, you were a legal resident. The most comprehensive immigration restrictions came when quota systems were put in place in the 1920s, and so began the makings of the dysfunctional immigration system we have today. The odious origins of the quota systems were specifically designed to exclude Jews and Italians. Language used in the debates in Congress are eerily reminiscent to the ones we have heard over the past five years. “Immigrants (most of whom were Catholics or Jews) arrive sick and starving, are less capable of contributing to the economy, were unable to adapt to American culture.” These lies told centuries earlier by Haman attempted to dehumanize us, the Jewish stranger. Fortunately, Jews aren’t looked at that way in American society today, but other peoples are dehumanized the same way.

A stain, among many, on America’s immigration history is the MS St. Louis, a ship carrying 900 Jews fleeing Nazi Germany in 1939 that tried to land in Cuba, the U.S. and Canada but was denied by all. The ship was forced to turn back. Many of the occupants on the St. Louis were murdered by the Nazis. This tragedy shows the extreme consequences of the failure to be more welcoming. Hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests, is a quintessentially Jewish act, one taken by Abraham and Sarah who welcomed in would-be idolaters who worshipped the dust on their feet, Rashi says. Yet, they were lavishly and respectfully welcomed.

Dozens of times the Torah demands that we respect and even love the ger. While there is some debate, the Torah often is referring to a ger toshav, a resident alien. For example, we are told to give the ger our non-kosher meat. Most certainly the Torah isn’t suggesting that we give non-kosher meat to a convert, the more common term for ger. Who then is the ger? It is a non-Jew who kept the 7 Noahide laws of ethical monotheism and lives among us.

One might reasonably argue that the Torah places limits on our generosity. Indeed, even if it were a mitzvah, we would not have to spend more than 20% of our money. If one wanted to use this to argue against immigration, they could say, “We must restrict immigration as immigrants are taking our jobs, which certainly exceeds 20%.” Many economists have found that bringing in more people creates more jobs and stimulates the economy. Indeed, the USA has a flat birthrate and an aging population and needs more workers.

Finally, immigration, particularly from Latin America, is arguably a religious imperative. Beyond talking about the value of human life and the responsibility that we have to feed the gentile poor along with our own poor, there is something more fundamental that makes having a more generous immigration policy an obligation. If one were to dig a bor/pit in the middle of a public thoroughfare and others were to get injured because of it, the digger would be liable. If someone dug an injury-causing pit on someone else’s property, let alone a public area, then most certainly they would be liable. While not widely known, the United States wreaked havoc on many Latin American countries during the Cold War. America was worried that the Soviets would get a stronghold in the Western Hemisphere. Anything that looked like communism needed to be squashed. Politicians such as former President Bill Clinton have acknowledged that America’s involvement caused human rights abuses and other problems in many Central and South American countries for decades. The staggering list of countries in which we were actively involved in “regime change” or “supporting” despicable dictators against the will of the people to suit American needs is astounding. The United States is not solely responsible, but we, as the diggers of many “pits” in other countries, are responsible for the damage it has caused and the people emigrating.

While I do not advocate for open borders and believe this to a be a strawman argument for anti-immigrationists, Jews can identify with those desiring to come here from dangerous places wanting to make a better life for their families. In contrast to the xenophobic quota systems of the 1920s that kept us out, we need to make it easier and faster to immigrate to and get asylum in the U.S. legally. We need to show compassion and mercy for those who can’t afford to wait while immigration reform languishes. We were strangers in a strange land and have been implored by the Torah to feel empathy. But it is not only good for our souls and for the economy; America contributed to the dysfunction and our country is liable for the damage caused by the pits we have dug. A compassionate immigration policy is essential. On this issue, the Orthodox Jewish community can be united.


Rabbi Maurice Appelbaum is a chaplaincy educator and former pulpit rabbi who lives in Teaneck with his wife and children. He can be reached for respectful dialogue at [email protected].

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