Ugly debate doesn’t align with Jewish values
by Max Weisman
There is a famous Talmudic story in which Rabbi Hillel tells a young man, all while standing on one foot, that the Torah can be summarized as the golden rule: Treat others as you wish to be treated. We are reminded that, regardless of the persecution and discrimination the Jewish people face, we are to treat others with dignity and respect. This applies to other Jews in our community as well as to the stranger.
The U.S. is currently in the middle of an ugly debate around strangers — our immigrant community. As people from all corners of the world flock to the U.S., it is our job to lead the way in welcoming them. Immigrants are here to seek opportunities for success, quality education, refuge from war-torn countries and countless other reasons, not dissimilar to many of our ancestors.
Jews, from biblical times to Babylon to Ancient Rome to Nazi Germany and even in present-day America, know what it’s like to be “othered” rather than welcomed. Our Jewish values remind us to treat current immigrants with the dignity that we wish we had been shown throughout history. When other nations deemed Jews as “less than” or “undesirable,” we would not have wished to be deported or separated from our family in cages. So why would a modern and democratic nation do the same to others?
The current political discussion around immigrants is despicable — it’s not democratic and certainly not aligned with our Jewish values. To be so scared of those who speak or pray or dress differently than us that our government’s solution is to build walls and cages is a way to run a zoo, not a country.
In a few weeks, we will celebrate Purim. This is the classic Jewish story of a man in power trying to exterminate the Jews because we were seen as different and thus a threat. In the Purim story, when Esther tells King Achashverosh that the king’s top advisor is trying to kill her and her people, his response is not to build cages and walls. That would have been cowardly, undemocratic and not a viable solution. Instead, he confronted his advisor and stood up for oppressed people.
But we don’t have to feel defeated. We can be a part of the solution.
On a small scale, treat your neighbors with kindness and welcome others with open arms. Support immigrant-owned businesses, befriend those in your community who may look or speak differently than you, consume books and movies about other cultures.
On a larger level, speak out against systemic oppression. Be aware that our country is treating immigrants on a frighteningly similar scale that we were treated in Germany in the early 1940s. Think back to every time a Holocaust survivor spoke to your Hebrew school class and you wondered, “What would I have done?”
Now is the time to act instead of wonder.
Max Weisman is a senior associate at Ceisler Media. He lives in Philadelphia.
Progressive dogma not welcome on pulpit
by Albert Eisenberg
The American and Jewish foundational stories are fundamentally linked. The Hebrews were commanded to resettle Eretz Yisrael after years in slavery in the Diaspora, while the first “Americans” — those native to Europe, that is — came to the New World with messianic fervor and with freedom of worship in mind.
The U.S. has stood as a welcome signal for immigrants worldwide for generations, and Israel, too, has beckoned back Jews from Baghdad to Galicia to Ethiopia.
But to hear many in a decidedly left-leaning rabbinical establishment tell it today, Jewish values demand a certain approach to America’s contemporary immigration issues.
It sounds something like this: You welcomed in the stranger among you, and therefore the U.S. today should take in scores of Syrians and Afghans and Eritreans. Or you should not deport immigrants who have overstayed visas or come here completely against our laws. Or raise legal immigration quotas by whatever percentage the Democratic Party is arguing.
Any opposition to refugee programs that have a tenuous track record of assimilating people here, or support for enforcing existing immigration laws by way of Immigration and Customs Enforcement is deemed not only beyond the pale politically but against Jewish values. Or so I hear in the often one-note sermons delivered at the various synagogues I attend now and again across the city where I live.
The call from the pulpit for more immigration, more lax enforcement for illegal immigrants and bigger and more comprehensive refugee programs is part and parcel with the average d’var at the average left-leaning shul, which is to say is that delivered to any non-Orthodox congregation on a given Shabbat.
Environmental “justice,” racial “justice,” anti-Trumpism, immigration and refugee issues are all common topics in sermons across Philadelphia and elsewhere. And yet, these speeches feel to me more like the left-wing orthodoxy dressed with Talmudic language rather than an approach to current issues based on Jewish teachings. The conclusion is always the same, and it’s whatever will galvanize the mostly progressive synagogue-goers into political action.
Surely it is a virtue to welcome in the “stranger” and treat every person with dignity, but one individual stranger does not apply to a massive absorption of new populations, and there is no such example in the Torah of the Jewish people welcoming massive foreign populations — and certainly not without demanding some sort of cultural or religious assimilation.
We are living in a world with 7 billion people in it, billions of whom come from what economists label euphemistically the “developing world.” Can the U.S. really take every one of these in, in an era of environmental degradation, increasing consumption and economic duress for many native-born Americans?
It is worth recognizing that Judaism and Jewish life have flourished for centuries not with openness but with insularity; that is why we have laws of kashrut, eruvs to retain community within specific geographical regions and laws of communal (as well as personal) prayer.
That doesn’t argue for any immigration policy in particular, but rather a more balanced conversation that doesn’t claim the mantle of tenuous or ahistorical biblical quotes in order to satisfy today’s progressive dogmas.
So what does Jewish wisdom have to teach us about present-day immigration policy? Probably not as much as you will hear from the pulpit on any given Saturday. JN
Albert Eisenberg is a right-leaning political consultant and commentator based in Philadelphia.