Monday, January 30, 2017

You Shall Not Oppress a Stranger - Statement on Immigration and Refugees

The Conservative movement through its member organizations, The Jewish Theological Seminary, the Rabbinical Assembly, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Zielger School of Rabbinic Studies, the Cantors Assembly, the Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs, Mercaz USA, and the Women's League for Conservative Judaism, have issued a joint statement on President-elect Donald Trump's executive order on immigration and refugees. 
Read the entire statement here.


This past shabbat, I reminded my congregation that the prayer for our country is a sincere one to be prayed with a full heart:

"Our God and God of our ancestors: We ask Your blessings for our country - for its government, for its leaders and advisors, and for all who exercise just and rightful authority.  Teach them insights from Your Torah, that they may administer all affairs of state fairly, that peace and security, happiness and prosperity, justice and freedom may forever abide in our midst."

This was our prayer for President Obama and his administration, and it is our prayer for President Trump and his administration.  In that spirit, I wish to speak to the point regarding "insights from Your Torah" on the topic of immigration and refugees.

Immigration is within the rights of every sovereign state to determine.  Some countries, such as the USA, have thrived as a result of a long and valued history of immigration from around the world. Others have closed borders.  Others, such as Israel, have privileged groups which are allowed to immigrate and others which are not.  All three systems can be "good" or "moral," depending on how they are determined and how they are administered.

Our system has had quotas and restrictions against certain areas of the world at different times.  As in the case against the Jews in the 20th century, this is usually due to prejudice.  The Emergency Immigration Act of 1921, and its tweaks over the following 3 years, was targeted against Eastern European Immigrants in general, but had a strong effect of barring Jews.  Asians were already largely barred by the Asiatic Barred Zone Act of 1917.  It was not until the civil rights movement in 1965 that the Immigration and Nationality Act approached immigration from the point of view of skilled labor and family relations to U.S. citizens as the primary basis for coming to America.

In 1975 the U.S. resettled hundreds of thousands of Southeast Asian refugees through an ad hoc Refugee Task Force with temporary funding.  This experience prompted Congress to pass the Refugee Act of 1980, which incorporated the United Nations definition of “refugee” and standardized the resettlement services for all refugees admitted to the U.S. The Refugee Act provides the legal basis for today’s U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.

This past week, President Trump attempted to bar all immigration from 7 Muslim nations known for being places where terrorist training grounds exist.  They are Iraq, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Libya, Sudan and Yemen. He did it in a moment's notice, and swept up lawful permanent residents (Green Card holders) along with tourists, students, workers, or anyone else.

He also banned all refugee immigration for a period of time.

In my opinion as a rabbi, there are several items here that are deplorable and against Jewish law.

1)  The refugee issue is the simplest. We are duty bound to save lives.  Getting refugees to safety is a moral mandate.  How long did Jews sit in DP camps after the war? How would any have passed "extreme vetting?"  The ban on refugees, simply casting them off at the airport and returning them to the country they came from regardless of circumstance is irresponsible, uncaring, and contrary to Jewish Law.  Our obligation is to their safety first.  "you shall not subvert the rights of the needy in their disputes... You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt" (Ex. 23:6, 9).  Whether here or somewhere else, the status of refugees is our concern. Dumping or ignoring humans in need is not an option.

2)  The selection of these 7 muslim nations is at least troublesome, and at most prejudice disguised under a false pretense of security.  Ambassador John Bolton on Fox News claims that the other muslim nations, such as Saudi Arabia, who have actually produced the vast majority of anti-US terrorists, including 19 of 20 9/11 attackers, "give us strong intelligence" on refugees, and therefore don't need the ban.  That is for you to decide. But the essence of the ban is both political and religious.  The President was clear, that Christians will receive favored treatment if they come from those countries, because of the persecution they face there. The vast majority of victims of terror in the world are Muslims, and to ignore that fact is to both misunderstand the nature of ISIS and to prejudice an entire people. We are commanded "al takir panim b'mishpat," - "you shall not be partial in justice." By not hearing the details of their situations, and condemning them by religion and country, we violate Torah norms of Justice. Each individual deserves to be judged as an individual. In as much as it includes lawful permanent residents, it is surely to be held to be illegal in the courts of America as well.

The civil rights movement made immigration "race and religion blind," by focusing on skills and families.  This is the proper ethos for our immigration policies.

I strongly encourage you to advocate peacefully on behalf of the victims of these actions, with your time, financial resources and political advocacy - regardless of which party you belong to.  This particular issue must be resolved differently, as a matter of Jewish morality and ethics. Republicans and Democrats may assert their advocacy in different circles, and must do so.

I continue to pray our prayer, and hope that you do as well. But no, life is not only about prayer. It is about action, which  is why the word "torah" means "instruction."


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