November 18, 2011
By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy
Picture the scene- Head bowed, with hat in hand, in great humility, our patriarch finds himself in a humiliating position, standing before the local leaders: “My name is Abraham. My wife, Sarah, just died. I have been living amongst you, the Hittites, for some time, but I am not originally from here. Ger v’toshav anochi b’toch’chem- I am a resident alien among you, but I need to bury my wife. Please, I’m willing to pay top dollar for the right. All I want to do is bury my wife.”
That, my friends, is essentially the presentation that our patriarch had to make to the Hittites in order to bury his beloved Sarah. The term, “Ger v’toshav,” meant more than literally, “I’ve been living and dwelling” amongst you. More likely it was a statement of status. A modern commentary on our story suggests that historically: “Disposal of real estate to an alien may upset the local demographic balance, impair social cohesion, and weaken the community in its relationship with neighboring cities and tribes.” Abraham must humble himself in order to perform what most of us would consider a basic human right because he is not a citizen.
This anecdote from our Biblical history is indicative of an ongoing theme in the history of the world and our own country. The “haves” are less than welcoming of the “have nots.” Those who currently live in a particular city, state or nation are resistant to newcomers. We certainly know this from our own Jewish history.
When the first Jews arrived at the Dutch Colony of New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant, Governor of the colony petitioned the Dutch West India Company, writing as follows:
“The Jews who have arrived would nearly all like to remain here, but you should know that they, with their customary usury and deceitful trading with the Christians, are repugnant to the rest of us…Due to the fact that they had been captured and robbed by privateers or pirates, they might become a charge in the coming winter. Therefore, we have, for the benefit of this weak and newly developing colony, deemed it useful to require them in a friendly way to depart. We ask most seriously in this connection, for ourselves as also for the general community of your subjects, that the deceitful race-such hateful enemies and blasphemers of the name of Christ-be not allowed further to infect and trouble this new colony.”
Fortunately for Jewish history, the Board of the Dutch West India Company had a few Jews on it. The reply to Stuyvesant was essentially, “you don’t have to like them, but you do have to keep them.”
The greatest migration of Jews to America came in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Jews along with many other immigrant groups arrived seeking freedom and economic security. While we often romanticize that period, we should realize that all these new immigrants were not received with open arms. In 1912, Reverend AE Patton wrote the following:
“For a real American to visit Ellis Island, and there look upon the Jewish hordes, ignorant of all patriotism, filthy, vermin-infested, stealthy and furtive in manner, too lazy to enter into real labor, too cowardly to face frontier life, too lazy to work as every American farmer has to work, too filthy to adopt ideals of cleanliness from the start, too bigoted to surrender any racial traditions or to absorb any true Americanisms, for a real American to see those items of filth, greedy, never patriotic stream flowing in to pollute all that has made America as good as she is- is to awaken in his thoughtful mind desires to check and lessen this source of pollution.”
So much for Emma Lazarus’s famous poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Recently I had the opportunity to learn from Dr. Jana Lippman of Tulane University, who outlined trends in American immigration policy, inclusive of the inconsistency between professed values and legislation. In particular, during the past two centuries there has been a clear pattern of xenophobia, not just towards Jews, but also towards Chinese and other Asians in the 19th century, Italian and Irish Catholics, really towards whomever the next new ethnic group might be. Four primary fears seem to be at play.
First is the fear of those with different religions- Protestants toward Catholics, Christians toward Jews, now everybody against Moslems. Next are fears of radicalism, those outside agitators who are coming to tear down the American democratic ways of life, historically including Communists, anarchists, socialists and now terrorists. In much of this we can find fears of race. Originally only those considered “white” were allowed to immigrate, but “white” meant Northern European WASP. Definitions of who is considered “white” have changed, but color of skin continues to be an element. Finally, there are economic fears: The usual refrains are: “They are coming to take away our jobs,” when we know that new immigrants are often the ones to take the least desirable positions in society, jobs that no one else will perform. “They are going to be a drain on our society,” when we know that most are hard-working men and women, who simply seek opportunity for physical and economic security.
When looking at the issue of immigration policy in our country today, as Jews, we need to not only recall our history, but we have to consult our basic values. The Torah teaches us to reach out to and care for vulnerable populations, including non-citizens and resident aliens: “If your brother, being in straits, comes under your authority, and you hold him as though a resident alien, let him live by your side” (Leviticus 25:35). We are repeatedly commanded to care for the needy within our extended family: “If there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements… do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs” (Deut. 15:7). Rabbinic Judaism also entitled non-Jewish individuals to financial and emotional support from the Jewish community in order to create a harmonious society: “Our rabbis have taught: ‘we support the poor of the non-Jew along with the poor of Israel, and visit the sick of the non-Jew along with the sick of Israel, and bury the poor of the non-Jew along with the dead of Israel, in the interests of peace’” (BT Gittin 61a).
Today, we are in need of a fair, just and humane immigration policy. Let us not irrationally pander to fears, but realistically open our doors to those who want freedom, to those who share the same kinds of dreams that our ancestors envisioned, to those who are fleeing from political and economic oppression. Let it be one that realistically screens and protects us from those who seek to undermine our country, but not discriminate against those who might one day be our leaders, thinkers, creative geniuses, as well as those who will perform the basic tasks that make our lives easier and fill critical positions in construction, agriculture, hospitality and retail, to name but a few.
It is time to stop speaking about “illegal aliens” as if they are criminals, who are robbing us. Yes, there are men and women in this country, without proper documented immigration status, who are working in all sorts of jobs, most of them positions that no one else will fill, as the State of Alabama and Georgia recently discovered, when there were not enough workers to harvest crops. Some of our ancestors did not enter the country through official channels either. And what of families who have lived, worked and paid taxes here for decades, whose children were born here? A fair solution to their ambiguous status must be reached.
Some of the legislation that has been passed in states around the country reflects the fears alluded to earlier but not the reality of our nation. In some cases it is mean-spirited and justifies bigotry and discrimination. My colleague, Deacon Priscilla Maumus writes, “Arizona and Alabama citizens were told it was a criminal offense to transport an undocumented immigrant to school, to church or to the hospital. This applied to families, too who are often a blend of documented and undocumented immigrants. A teenage son who is a citizen could not drive his undocumented grandfather to the hospital in the event of a heart attack or his aging grandmother to Mass on Sunday without risking arrest and arraignment. Blended families, with some legal and some undocumented immigrants, are still liable to be separated and a mother deported, while her children remain in the United States.” Parts of the laws in those states have been struck down by the courts, while others remain.
And talk about racial profiling! Can you imagine being stopped for a traffic violation and have to prove your citizenship? This is not likely to happen to anyone who looks like most of us, but if your skin is a darker complexion or if, God forbid, you have a slight accent, that could be the case. For that matter most of the conversation about “illegals” that I hear focuses on Hispanics or Arabs. Funny, how we don’t hear much about the Israelis who are here without proper papers, or the thousands from the former Soviet Union, who are busy caring for our elderly throughout the northeast.
There is no question that national immigration reform is necessary. Our borders need to be secure, so we know who is entering and monitoring them. Many proposals are before our state and federal legislators. Our laws need to enable longtime undocumented residents to earn their legal status and eventual citizenship. Families should be unified not torn asunder. Workers require protection from exploitation and provided with due process.
Our role is simple. We need to monitor state and federal legislation on immigration. I realize that much of it is confusing, but our task is to ensure that what is passed will appropriately address the real issues, not the fears, that people will be treated humanely according to the highest standards of our nation and our religious values. Let us embrace the applicable exhortation, cited in scripture numerous times, “You shall not oppress the stranger, the resident alien, for you were gerim/strangers in the land of Egypt.” It all started with our patriarch, Abraham, in this week’s portion.