The American and Jewish foundational stories are fundamentally linked. The Hebrews were commanded to resettle Eretz Yisrael after years in slavery in the Diaspora, while the first “Americans” — those native to Europe, that is — came to the New World with messianic fervor and with freedom of worship in mind.
The U.S. has stood as a welcome signal for immigrants worldwide for generations, and Israel, too, has beckoned back Jews from Baghdad to Galicia to Ethiopia.
But to hear many in a decidedly left-leaning rabbinical establishment tell it today, Jewish values demand a certain approach to America’s contemporary immigration issues.
It sounds something like this: You welcomed in the stranger among you, and therefore the U.S. today should take in scores of Syrians and Afghans and Eritreans. Or you should not deport immigrants who have overstayed visas or come here completely against our laws. Or raise legal immigration quotas by whatever percentage the Democratic Party is arguing.
Any opposition to refugee programs that have a tenuous track record of assimilating people here, or support for enforcing existing immigration laws by way of Immigration and Customs Enforcement is deemed not only beyond the pale politically but against Jewish values. Or so I hear in the often one-note sermons delivered at the various synagogues I attend now and again across Philadelphia.
The call from the pulpit for more immigration, more lax enforcement for illegal immigrants and bigger and more comprehensive refugee programs is part and parcel with the average d’var at the average left-leaning shul, which is to say is that delivered to any non-Orthodox congregation on a given Shabbat.
Environmental “justice,” racial “justice,” anti-Trumpism, immigration and refugee issues are all common topics in sermons across Philadelphia and elsewhere. And yet, these speeches feel to me more like the left-wing orthodoxy dressed with Talmudic language rather than an approach to current issues based on Jewish teachings. The conclusion is always the same, and it’s whatever will galvanize the mostly progressive synagogue-goers into political action.
Surely it is a virtue to welcome in the “stranger” and treat every person with dignity, but one individual stranger does not apply to a massive absorption of new populations, and there is no such example in the Torah of the Jewish people welcoming massive foreign populations — and certainly not without demanding some sort of cultural or religious assimilation.
We are living in a world with 7 billion people in it, billions of whom come from what economists label euphemistically the “developing world.” Can the U.S. really take every one of these in, in an era of environmental degradation, increasing consumption and economic duress for many native-born Americans?
It is worth recognizing that Judaism and Jewish life have flourished for centuries not with openness but with insularity; that is why we have laws of kashrut, eruvs to retain community within specific geographical regions and laws of communal (as well as personal) prayer.
That doesn’t argue for any immigration policy in particular, but rather a more balanced conversation that doesn’t claim the mantle of tenuous or ahistorical biblical quotes in order to satisfy today’s progressive dogmas.
So what does Jewish wisdom have to teach us about present-day immigration policy? Probably not as much as you will hear from the pulpit on any given Saturday. pjc
Albert Eisenberg is a right-leaning political consultant and commentator based in Philadelphia. He has worked on Israel and Jewish-related issues, among others.