“My people were refugees too”
That’s what it said on the sign my mom carried to a protest at BWI airport against Trump’s executive orders on immigration. To be honest, I never really expected my mother to attend a protest–not because she doesn’t care, but because she just has such a strong aversion to crowds, jostling, and disorganization. And that’s fine; you know, not everybody has to be a protest person. But on the issue of refugees, on the issue of targeting people based on religion, Jews–including my mom–are freaking out and speaking up en masse. Jewish groups all over the country–from the Union for Reform Judaism to the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, from progressive groups like T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights to the politically conservative Commentary Magazine–are uniting to oppose Trump’s refugee ban. There’s a saying that if you’ve got two Jews, you’ll get three opinions, but on this issue, we’re pretty much all in agreement: This ban is atrocious, and we have to do something about it.
Our Judaism requires us to accept immigrants and refugees with open arms. The Torah states very explicitly, and on multiple occasions, that we as Jews have an obligation to protect the vulnerable: the stranger, the foreigner, the immigrant, the refugee. Leviticus 19:33-34 says “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.” Welcoming the stranger is one of the most central Jewish values. All you need to do is look at a prayer book to see just how seriously Judaism takes this obligation:
These are the obligations without measure, whose reward, too is without measure:
- To honor father and mother
- To perform acts of lovingkindness
- To attend the house of study daily
- To welcome the stranger
- To visit the sick
- To rejoice with bride and groom
- To console the bereaved
- To pray with sincerity
- To make peace where there is strife
And the study of Torah is equal to them all, because it leads to them all.
It’s right there. Right in the morning prayer service–L’hachnasat orchim, to welcome the stranger. According to the Talmud, welcoming strangers is even more important than talking to God.
But even if God hadn’t commanded us to welcome and protect immigrants and refugees, our history would. The reason Jews are panicking is because we’ve seen this before, and we know firsthand what happens when this kind of thing goes wrong. We’ve been refugees before, not just once, but many times throughout our long history of being “other.” We learn in Hebrew school how six million of our people were killed while much of the world did nothing. We remember that in 1939, a ship full of Jews fleeing the Nazis was denied entry into the United States. We remember that Anne Frank and her family applied for refugee status and were denied. We remember what happened, and we recognize the Nazi again in our government today–in Donald Trump, in Steve Bannon, in the targeting of religious minorities, in the silencing of dissent. We remember the lucky Jews who managed to escape, and we remember so many more who cried out for help and were turned away. We remember when we were refugees, and we remember that it’s only been a few decades since American Jews have been able to stop running. We may not be the victims this time around, but it doesn’t matter. When we say Never Again, it doesn’t mean “never again for the Jews;” it means Never Again. Period.
And so we speak out, and we fight to keep that promise of Never Again. The refugees may no longer be Jewish, but we still are. Every year during the High Holidays, we read Unetaneh Tokef. We read through a list of possible fates: who shall live, and who shall die; who shall have rest, and who shall wander; who shall be exalted, and who shall be humbled. We read that on Rosh Hashanah, these fates are written, and on Yom Kippur, they are sealed. Right now, America finds itself in the midst of a national Unetaneh Tokef. The fate of our country is currently being written, and before we know it, it’ll be sealed. Long after Trump is gone from the White House, we will remember who spoke out, and who stayed silent. Who answered the call to resist, and who ignored it. Who stood in solidarity, and who stood idly by. Pirkei Avot teaches us that it is not up to you to complete the task, but neither are you free to ignore it. We can’t save all the refugees, but we can do our part. We can’t control what Trump does, but we can decide how we react to it. Are we going to be silent, or are we going to be Jews? I, for one, choose to be a Jew, and I hope you will, too.