Jewish Perspectives on Immigration
Rabbi Daniel S. Brenner
Delivered February 1, 2006
New York Immigration Coalition Inter-religious Rally
Battery Park, New York City
Before I say a few brief words regarding Jewish teachings on immigration, I want to say that today I am standing on what is for me and my family sacred ground. It was on this spot that 100 years ago, my late grandfather, Herschel Brenner, then a six year old boy from Częstochowa, Poland began his new life. I often imagine that family of nine, in a small Brooklyn apartment, my great grandfather working a job as a stone cutter in the monument business, learning a new language, becoming Americans.
For Jews in America, any reflection on immigration must include the tale of the S.S. St. Louis a ship of 937 Jews fleeing Nazi Germany in 1939 that was not welcomed into American or Cuban ports. The boat returned to Germany where most of the passengers were eventually murdered by the Nazis.
A Jewish perspective on immigration policy begins with the biblical command:
"Do not stand idly by while another's blood is being spilled" (Leviticus 19:16)
Today, as war and famine continue to lead strangers to these shores in search of protection and asylum, we must be mindful of the need for a safe haven.
There is a classic Jewish joke on the topic.
It is the beginning of the Nazis rise to power in Germany and a Jew from Vienna, desperate to find a safe place for his young family, gets an appointment at the visa office.
“Where to?” the visa officer asks.
The Jew does not have an answer.
The officer points to the globe that sits on the desk. The Jew spins the globe, meditating on each continent and each country.
“Well, where to?” the officer says.
Finally the Jew replies:
“I hate to bother you, sir, but do you have any other globes?”
But the notion of a safe haven is only one of the teachings on immigration that has strong roots in the Jewish tradition.
The classic Biblical text on how we are to act towards those who come into our land from other lands is cited in the interfaith statement. Leviticus chapter 19 verse 33-34:
33 "When an alien resides with you in your land, do not harass him.
34 You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you; have the same love for him as for yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt. I, the LORD, am your God.
But it is an oversight to read this verse without reading the two verses that follow it
35 "Do not act dishonestly in using measures of length or weight or capacity.
36 Just balances, just weights, a just measure for flour, and a just measure for oil, shall you have: I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.
Why is a law about strangers followed by a law about honest measurement in the marketplace?
Because in order to create a society which treats the alien as the natives are treated, we must begin by creating a just, transparent, economic system. One which does not cheat immigrants, one that does not create a second class of citizens who must hide in the shadows for fear of imprisonment and deportation.
The biblical laws were very clear – if one lived among you and followed the minimum ethical standards- the Noachide laws- then it was a responsibility to treat that person
with the same love and concern that we treat our other neighbors.
Today we are most concerned with the way in which the proposed legislation, the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act, goes about enforcement.
Andrew Grove, a Jewish survivor of Nazi Germany, wrote last week (1/26) in the Wall Street Journal:
The bill contains a provision punishing anyone who "assists, [or] encourages . . . a person who . . . lacks lawful authority to remain in the United States" to remain here….
This could change the nature of our society in a way that I have seen firsthand. As a Jewish child hiding from the Nazis in Hungary, I saw how the persecution of non-Jewish Hungarians who hid their Jewish friends or neighbors cast a wide blanket of fear over everyone. This fear led to mistrust, and mistrust led to hostility, until neighbors turned upon neighbors in order to protect themselves. Is this what we want?
We are a nation that respects the rule of law. But we would be wise to remember the teaching of the 18th century Chasidic Rabbi Simcha Bunam. He asked the question - Why in the verse in Deuteronomy 16:20 does it say: 'Justice, justice shalt thou pursue'? Isn’t it enough to say the word once? It repeats to teach us that we may use only justifiable methods even in the pursuit of justice."
Today we are here to send a message to the Senate and the White House. And in particular I would like to address our President.
Mr. President, in January of 2004, you said:
“Over the generations, we have received energetic, ambitious optimistic people from every part of the world. By tradition and conviction, our country is a welcoming society.”
And last night you emphatically stressed the contribution of immigrants to this nation.
But until the words terrorism and immigration control are detached from one another then we are not creating a welcoming society. In fact, the moral failure of the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act lies in the very title of the bill. There should be a moral outcry whenever the ‘terrorism’ and the word ‘immigration’ are used in the same sentence. There is a great irony here - the two men who crashed planes into the Twin Towers came to the U.S. legally, on tourist visas which were extended to student visas. But the roughly eight million women and men who could not afford to come here legally are the ones who face a society of suspicion, and the threat of detention and deportation. These women and men are praying that they will simply be allowed to work and feed their families without being labeled as felons.
Mr. President, senators, direct your heart to theirs, have compassion for their prayers, help us all, as a nation, to act humbly, love kindness, and walk with God.