My mother arrived in San Francisco as a three-year-old in the 1940s. She was overheard saying the word Fierlesher (Yiddish for fire fighter). Her father was told that she must not speak the old language in the new country. It was a difficult time for her family as her father sought a dignified livelihood and they all adjusted to living in a new land.
The Torah demands that I empathize with the migrant because my people were strangers in the land of Egypt. We are called to go further than that and “love the stranger.” That is why I am using these pages to draw on Torah sources and consider two elements of the immigration debate: a just use of “limited” resources and the role of prejudice in the attitudes to migration.
The United States is not the only country that takes harsh methods to limit immigration. Some of the reports about Africans seeking a new life in Israel have also been disturbing, and a range of anti-migrant policies and rhetoric is also being employed in many other countries across the world. In Australia, where I live, both major political parties have agreed to indefinitely detain at least some asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants who arrive by boat in third countries, such as Papua New Guinea, as a deterrent to others considering coming here. The policy is a significant shift for the ruling Labour party: only a few years back, a newly elected Labor government emphatically rejected the previous government’s strategy of sending asylum seekers to a third country, Nauru. But the government turned around and adopted the same policy in 2012.
Hard Decisions about Limited Resources
A taxi driver recently told me that that he believes Australia’s charity should be prioritized to benefit people living in Australia, i.e. Aboriginal people living in dire poverty. I don’t think this view is unreasonable. At one level, discussions about immigration policy need to focus on the realistic choices that people of goodwill in government and the community need to make about where limited available resources will be spent. Jewish tradition teaches us that “the poor of your city take precedence” (Sifre). We need to think seriously about whether or not we are prepared to live up to the beautiful sentiments expressed by Emma Lazarus: “Give me your tired, your poor… the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.” If we as nations are not prepared to rise to this challenge, then some prioritization of resources may be a necessary interim measure, until we can truly embrace all members of the human family.
One response to the taxi driver’s argument is that many of the “non-local” poor have already arrived and have been living locally for months and in some cases even decades. The other caveat is about levels of need: it is not right to prioritize locals’ every need against the basic needs or in some cases the very survival of “non-locals” (see Chatam Sofer, Shalaon Vetushuvot 2, and Yoreh Deah 231). We need to seriously consider the statement attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, “Live simply, so that others may simply live.”
Another consideration is the need to be equitable in our treatment of refugees. We are taught that in the administration of justice we must not be swept away by emotion (Exodus 23:3) and we must be fair to all. When I think about the plight of a particular undocumented immigrant, I would like to help that person, but I cannot dismiss the argument that in an unfortunate system of limited quotas, letting this person in will be at the expense of someone equally deserving who has been waiting for years in a refugee camp.
The Torah’s Demand for Economic Justice
Any justification of restricting immigration on the basis of prioritizing the “local poor” is based on a situation in which the available “pie” to be divided between those less fortunate is small. This must change. We are meant to see our assistance to those in need not as charity but as an act of justice. The Torah states that if a poor person cannot get a loan in the lead up to the seventh year when all loans are meant to be forgiven, this is considered a sin for the person refusing to lend him money (Deuteronomy 15:9). This is because the person who has the ability to give is like a king’s bursar, entrusted by the king to distribute funds. When the poor person cries out, it is like a citizen complaining to the king about the bursar withholding funds that the king had allocated for him (Michca Belulah).
Our tradition teaches that poverty is in part redeemed by the way in which it creates an opportunity for another to have the merit of providing for those who are poorer (Ohr Hachayim). Our decision to share our resources with individuals knocking on our door — whether they come to our houses, our embassies, or our shores in leaky boats — needs to be informed by the knowledge that ultimately all our wealth is not absolutely ours but has been given to us in trust, perhaps to share with the needy persons before us at this exact moment.
On one hand there is something beautiful about the way no expense is spared when someone is in trouble, such as an adventurer in a rowboat on the high seas who has lost her paddle. Yet, questions about the equitable use of limited public funds sometimes need to be asked. Being a citizen of one country or another doesn’t seem to be enough justification for determining whether one’s life is deemed priceless or expendable. Questions also need to be asked about the justice of treating some people harshly in order to deter other people from risking their lives. Australia has recently changed the law requiring plain packaging for cigarettes to discourage smoking; it could be argued that if we applied the same logic being used in the asylum seeker debate to smokers, we would be locking them up to help deter others from smoking. I think it is unreasonable and unjustifiable to punish people who have committed no crime just as a deterrent to others.
Prejudice Against Those in Need
It is tempting when refusing to assist vulnerable people to portray them as undeserving. Nachshoni, in his Studies in the Weekly Parshah (1989), draws on the teachings of R. Shmelke of Nikolsburg to caution against this. The Torah states, “Beware, lest . . . your eyes will look in an evil way on your needy brother and not give him” (Deuteronomy 15:9). On a simple level, this passage warns us against having an ungenerous perspective, but Nachshoni highlights that it is also interpreted to mean that in our reluctance to help a needy person we must not ascribe evil characteristics to the person seeking our help in order to justify our refusal. A variation of this theme also appears in Yalkut Hagershuni, which reinterprets the phrase “their sin is very grave” in Genesis (18:20). This phrase about the city of Sodom is literally understood as the words of God about the inhabitants of Sodom, but could also be interpreted as the words of the Sodomites about poor visitors or migrants to their city — words used to justify their inhospitable practices.
We need to be wary of the ways in which prejudices of all kinds continue to shape our attitudes toward immigrants. Some people have argued that because there are some Muslims who are ex tremists, stricter immigration policies should apply to Muslims in general. Generalizing from a tiny minority to a huge majority is neither reasonable nor just. No one wants to be called a racist now that racism is widely seen as socially unacceptable. As a result, we see serious resistance to the suggestions that some of our attitudes are driven by prejudice. My colleague Donna Jacobs Sife has taught me and many others that a commitment to justice requires being alert to unconscious prejudices that many of us still have in spite of our tolerant or accepting intentions.
We are all capable of prejudice and must remain vigilant in order to observe and change it within ourselves. I caught myself having such a response last winter when I saw numerous references in my Twitter feed to a woman named Ranjini who gave birth in detention in Australia. There were some references to her being an asylum seeker. At the time, I did not click on the links to find out more — my feeling was that I had other priorities, and there may have been an element of “compassion fatigue.”
However in reflecting on this, I asked myself, what if the name were Rochel instead of Ranjini and the woman were Jewish or Australian or even American? Would it have been of greater interest to me then? Was the issue that her “foreign” name brought to mind some one with dark skin and unfamiliar clothes and customs, and this got in the way of my automatically empathizing with her? Yet we are commanded, “The stranger who sojourns with you shall be as a native from among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34). In fact the most repeated commandment in the Torah is to love the stranger.
I went back to find out more about Ranjini, to put a human face to the name. In the photo that I found, I saw a smiling Tamil mother of three. I read in more detail about how she gave birth in Australian detention in January 2013. She had originally been accepted as a genuine asylum seeker but then was detained after Australian authorities made a secret determination that she posed some kind of risk. As soon as I learned these simple facts, she became no longer a foreigner with a foreign-sounding name to me, but rather a human being with a story. Yet, having grown up in a middle-class Jewish community in New York, it is still hard for me to imagine her world and the incredible hardships that she and so many others are escaping when seeking a new life in countries like Australia and the United States.
In the months and years ahead, I hope that fewer people have the need to flee their home countries, and that our governments find wise, compassionate, and equitable ways to respond to those who choose to flee or migrate for what ever reason. Until then, let us never lose sight of the humanity of the “stranger,” as not so long ago so many of our forebears, such as my mother and her family, were strangers and immigrants seeking a better life in “other people’s countries.”