The Torah portion Mishpatim lays down the laws.
“You shall not wrong nor oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20).
And . . .
“You shall not oppress a stranger for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9).
Of course, we who live comfortable American lives in the early years of the 21st Century were not strangers in the land of Egypt.
Nonetheless, we are urged to heed lessons that have survived some 133 generations since, as Jewish lore maintains, the Torah was received at Mt. Sinai – and apply them to current events along the southern border of the United States.
The Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy – particularly the separation of children from parents who cross into the U.S. illegally – struck a decidedly negative chord in the Jewish community and contributed to a case of seemingly odd bedfellows.
On matters religious and political, little common ground often exists between non-Orthodox and Orthodox Jews.
That certainly appeared to be the case when the Orthodox Union, an umbrella organization representing a swath of religious Jews in America, hosted Attorney General Jeff Sessions at its annual conference and honored him with a plaque bearing the words “Justice, justice, you shall pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20).
So it was notable that just days later the OU signed onto a letter to Sessions and Homeland Security Secy. Kirstjen Nielsen expressing “strong opposition” to the zero tolerance policy, joining dozens of national Jewish organizations – including the representative bodies of Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism – and even more at the state and local level.
Orthodox Jews were more supportive of candidate Trump and have been more supportive of President Trump than their co-religionists.
An estimated 70 percent of American Jews voting in 2016 backed Hillary Clinton, while 25 percent cast ballots for Trump.
By denomination, though, more than half of Orthodox Jews may have voted for Trump, compared with 24 percent of Conservative, 10 percent of Reform, 8 percent of Reconstructionist and 14 percent of those who identify as “just Jewish.”
Since Trump took office, Orthodox Jews have registered approval of his job performance at a rate nearly equal to the disapproval expressed by non-Orthodox Jews.
Orthodox Jews may be inclined to overlook less savory aspects of Trump’s personal behavior because of such policy decisions as relocating the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and the nomination of Neil Gorsuch, now an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.
In the debate over immigration policy, it is important to know why these parents endure the hardship of the journey from Central America and the risk of being detained, prosecuted and deported once they reach the United States.
I have seen postings online of a poem called “Home” by Warsan Shire, a British poet and writer born to Somali parents.
Consider these lines:
“you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land”
Why they come is a separate issue from what we do once they’re here, how they are treated by our government.
I respect the Holocaust survivors who live with the traumas of their childhood and fear that history is repeating itself.
One of my sons asked my thoughts on comparisons equating the treatment of the children – some housed in facilities with chain link fence enclosures (but don’t call them cages) – with the Holocaust.
First, I explained Godwin’s Law, which holds that as an online discussion continues, the likelihood increases that someone will invoke Adolf Hitler and Nazis.
But, I said, this is not the Holocaust.
As abhorrent as separating children from parents may be, and as upsetting a many may find the photographs (when not taken out of context), video and audio of the children, this is not the Holocaust. Masses of people are not being forced from their home; are not being herded like cattle into rail cars; are not being marched to showers, where they are gassed, and their bodies then cremated; are not being gassed in mobile killing units, and are not being machine-gunned, their bodies dumped into pits.
That was mass extermination on a scale so great that a word – genocide – had to be created to describe it.
Those who feel so inclined may decry the immigration policy or even rebuke the President of the United States as being amoral – but should avoid using the Holocaust to support their argument.
Beyond the above admonitions from Exodus, consider the wisdom of Hillel, who converted a gentile to Judaism with these words: “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it.”