What Kind of Society Should We Have? Immigration in America - An I-Thou Issue Author: Rabbi Don Goor
Date: Mar 30, 2006
Last week a member of our congregation was inducted as a judge. At the induction ceremony, his wife commented that many years ago she knew she was in love this man when she was out on a date and saw how well he treated the busboy at a restaurant. She knew that if he treated those subordinate to him with so much concern and attention, then all the more so, he would always treat her well.
Her comment reminded me of a popular axiom: It is said that the measure of a society is in how it takes care of those who are in need.1 This week is a good week to measure American society. This week is a good week for us as Jews to be reminded of God’s vision for society –a clearly articulated Jewish vision for society. The debate taking place within the halls of Congress and now on the streets of Los Angeles is in essence a debate on the quality of American society.
As Jews we have two options – we can relate to public policy issues from the outside in - as theory, worrying about problems on a mega scale. Martin Buber, the great theologian would call this an I-It relationship – a relationship based upon transactional value. Or, as Jews, we can relate to public policy issues from a human perspective, concerning ourselves with people, with values. Martin Buber called these I-Thou relationships – relationships infused with holiness.
At first glance the question of immigration is an I-It question – a transactional question – what is best for our economy? What is best for our jobs? However Torah is clear – when we look at public policy questions having to do with society, the transactional questions are secondary. Torah minces no words – the human level is the crucial level, the first level, the holy level.
So, we have a choice – I-It or I-Thou?
Immigration is all the buzz this week. 500,000 people rallied at City Hall. What are the issues at stake? Read the paper, watch the news. The talk is of illegal immigrants, of security in a war against terrorism. The talk is about guards on the border and walls to protect us from the river of humanity flowing northward. The talk is about a bill passed by the House of Representatives that makes it a felony to be in this nation without the proper papers – and even worse, makes it a felony to assist that person. We would be felons if our homeless shelter this Sunday night fed or provided medical care to an illegal immigrant. The ramifications of this piece of legislation are clearly not Jewish.
When we read Torah, when we read the Bible, when we read Jewish texts, immigration is also all the buzz. However, the talk is quite different. It is never about legality or illegality. It is never about walls or protection. The Jewish buzz on immigration isn’t about the quality of our defenses; it’s about the quality of individual lives. The Jewish buzz on immigration is not I-It, it is I-thou; it doesn’t begin with policy it begins with humanity.
And that is where current debate goes wrong. When we talk about immigration, we talk about an issue, social and economic, that affects our nation. When Jews talk about immigrants, we talk about human beings, created in God’s image. Judaism is very clear in its teachings. The Jewish view of society begins with human beings. Only when we begin with the human being can we then create a policy that reflects our values.
Why is immigration a Jewish issue? We are immigrants. That is the story of our people. Abraham was the first Jewish immigrant. Lech-Lecha. He went from his homeland to the land of Canaan and from there to Egypt and then back to Canaan. Lech-lech.
Joseph and his brothers ended up in Egypt again. Why? In Canaan life was tough. In Egypt there was food, employment, a livelihood. Lech-Lecha. Thousands of years later our people were forced to immigrate, to leave our holy land. Our diaspora, that continues even today, has forced us to move from nation to nation. Lech-Lecha. 350 years ago the first Jewish immigrants arrived in America. Initially these 23 Jews faced hostility and deportation. From Abraham and until today, immigration takes place for economic and political opportunity. And we know, from Abraham and until today, immigrants have been greeted with distrust and concern.
Lech-lecha. We know the heart of the immigrant because we were immigrants, by choice and by force, legal and illegal. As Jews we are compelled - we have a responsibility in our current national debate, to remember the individual, to know the heart of the immigrant. And we must not forget that remembering the individual and knowing the heart of the immigrant will affect public policy. It will also provide the measure of who we are as a society.
Thirty six times in Torah we read about protection – not from the stranger – but rather, for the stranger.
“When strangers sojourn with you in your land, you shall not do them wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the natives among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)
Torah is describing an I-Thou relationship – a holy relationship – even with the stranger in our midst. Torah teaches us that Jews are compelled to raise our voices on behalf of those who are marginalized, whose God-given rights are not respected.
What weight does Jewish tradition have in our debate today? How do we ensure there is holiness in our debate and our relationships with immigrants – legal or illegal?
Let me make it clear, Judaism does not condone unlawful entry or circumventions of our nation’s immigration laws. We clearly support the right of our government to enforce the law and protect the national security interests of the United States. We also recognize that the current immigration system is overly complex and unworkable. Judaism and Torah remind us that the debate is not about illegal immigration – it is about immigration reform that can respond fairly to individuals and families, as well as to modern labor demands.2
An I-Thou debate on immigration must be mindful not to blame immigrants for our social and economic ills or for the atrocities committed by the few who have carried out acts of terrorism. An I-Thou debate on immigration would call attention to the moral dimensions of public policy and pursue policies that uphold the human dignity of each person, the resident and the stranger.
In the most practical sense, this means that the bill passed last year by the House of Representatives is not Jewish in its essence. It expands enforcement without addressing humanitarian interests. It is completely I-It, without even a hint of I-Thou. This is a nonpartisan issue. President Bush and the McCain-Kennedy bill closely represent the Jewish values at stake. They too see the issue through I-Thou eyes. They agree with our tradition that America needs comprehensive immigration reform legislation that includes provisions that provide:
• Border protection policies that are consistent with American humanitarian values and effective against illegal migration, thereby allowing the authorities to carry out the critical task of identifying and preventing entry into the United States of terrorists and dangerous criminals;
• Opportunities for hard-working immigrants who are already contributing to this country to come out of the shadows, regularize their status upon satisfaction of reasonable criteria and, over time, pursue an option to become lawful permanent residents and eventually United States citizens;
• Reforms in our family-based immigration system to significantly reduce waiting times for separated families, who currently must wait many years, to be reunited with loved ones; and
• Legal avenues for workers and their families who wish to migrate to the U.S. to enter our country and work in a safe, legal, and orderly manner with their rights fully protected.3
In the Torah, God knew that this debate would continue, and God addressed us when God demanded protection for the stranger in our midst. American Jews have followed these ideals from early on. For the 350 years of our presence on this continent, we have actively engaged in the struggles of new immigrants and in the development of our nation’s immigration policy. From the 1880’s through the 1920’s we strongly opposed efforts to curtail immigration. Immigration laws had devastating effects upon us - we suffered terribly during the Shoah, the Holocaust, when immigration laws and quotas were upheld. Torah has been at the heart of Jewish attempts throughout American history to create a fair and humane system of immigration.
Our historical experience as slaves in Egypt molds our hearts, and it is our hearts that ought to mold our society. Our Jewish response to the public policy question of immigration is not I-It, concerned with enforcement only. Our Jewish response is I-Thou. It begins with concern, with compassion, with kindness. The immigrant is in us. We know the heart of the immigrant because we were immigrants. The immigrant is not a problem to be solved but a person to be cared for. In the Torah the stranger was cared for because the stranger was also God’s creation. And today, Judaism challenges us to see reflected, in each immigrant, the image of God. Only when we see the issue as a human one, can we respond in a human way.
It is said that the measure of a society is in how it takes care of those who are in need. We are surrounded with people in need who deserve a fair and human response. Let it be our collective prayer that the legislative process will produce a just immigration system of which our nation of immigrants, and we Jews, a people of immigrants, can be proud.
Ken Yihey Ratzon – Amen.
1 Based on Hubert Humphrey
2 Adapted from the Los Angeles Archdiocese Website
3 Adapted from the Religious Action Center website