As the political debate here and abroad swirls around immigration policy at a time of empathy and fear, both our Jewish and American traditions remind us anew of our responsibility to care for the stranger, the “other.”
Thanksgiving is a national opportunity to remember our blessings, particularly of living in a democracy, enjoying the greatest freedom Jews have ever had in any diaspora country in history. It is that recognition of our inalienable rights as free men and women that has allowed us as Jews to thrive in mainstream society while practicing and taking pride in our own religion. But we must not forget those who flee oppression.
The Passover seder reminds us that our forefather Jacob was, in effect, the first refugee from Syria. Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove noted in his sermon at Park Avenue Synagogue last Shabbat that we recite in the Haggadah “arami oved avi,” translated either as “my father was a wandering Aramean [now Syria]” or “an Aramean sought to destroy my father.” (See the rabbi’s sermon under Opinion at thejewishweek.com)
Either way, the message is that Jacob, the patriarch who literally would become Israel, was on the run, seeking a new and secure home. And the Torah repeatedly reminds us of our obligation to the stranger among us, commanding us not to oppress a stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt (Exodus 22:21), and later (Deuteronomy 10:19), to love the stranger because of our experience as slaves in Egypt.
Tell that to some of our brethren who, caught up in the fevered rhetoric of the day, need to remember that we Jews have a long history of seeking refuge from persecution and being turned away, too often with tragic results.
It is true that there are security concerns about taking in large numbers of Syrian refugees, but President Obama is calling for a modest, almost symbolic, number of 10,000. And our system of vetting refugees is a rigorous and lengthy process. Would-be terrorists are not likely to apply for refugee status and wait many months, if not years, for approval.
While there are those calling for closing mosques here and establishing a registry for Muslims, it is our duty to speak out against blanket bigotry and in favor of human rights and common sense.
As noted here last week, it is instructive to substitute “Jew” for “Muslim” in discussions and debates, and measure our response.
As Jews and Americans we should act with compassion and a sense of history, refusing to turn our backs on “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”