While Judaism does command us to love the stranger, it does not necessarily oppose laws that “get tough” on illegal immigration. The governing Jewish legal principle here is dina demalkhuta dina, “the law of the state is the law.” That is to say, Judaism recognizes the right of a government to exercise powers that belong to its legitimate prerogative. Since it is widely accepted that the protection of national borders and the control of immigration are part of a government’s “legitimate prerogative,” Jewish law holds that the state is empowered to enact policies to that end. On the other hand, dina demalkhuta dina also requires that, in order to be considered “legitimate,” a law must apply equally to all the citizens of the realm. If the Arizona statute falls unfairly upon a particular ethnic minority, it is not valid under the principle that “the law of the state is the law.”
The question, in other words, is one of fact: does the law discriminate unnecessarily? Is it unjust? Or is it a necessary and proper measure undertaken to protect the public safety, a claim made by the state of Arizona and vigorously contested by opponents of the law? This factual question should be the focus of Jews who are concerned about social justice.
While the Torah calls on us to be kind and compassionate to strangers, Jewish law does not require us to endanger our physical or financial security when doing so. Shulhan Arukh, Hoshen Mishpat 156:7 records restrictions that municipalities were authorized to establish in order to keep aliens from undermining their economic welfare or from increasing the tax burden to unsustainable proportions. Jewish law recognizes the right of every jurisdiction to control its borders and to regulate immigration. The question then is: what is a fair and just immigration policy? How does a country balance its obligation to protect its citizens, its need to expand its economy (which immigration helps by increasing productivity, demans and skill base), and its duty to serve as a safe haven for persecuted and oppressed parties? This is the debate that the Arizona law should arouse in our country.
As for concerns about profiling—there is precedent in Jewish law for being wary of a person based on his/her suspicious behavior. Tractate Derekh Eretz instructs us to respect but suspect (Pirke ben Azai, ch. 3). Rabbi Elazar instructed how to intuit a person’s possible illicit behavior through observation and information gathering (Talmud, Baba Metzi’a 83b).
“Do not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9)
As Jews, we well understand what it is like to be a stranger, ‘the other’. That experience is part of the very fabric of our Jewish identity; it is woven into every fiber of our being. Throughout the Torah, we are admonished to remember our own experiences in Egypt. But it is much more than merely recalling a historical event that we are commanded. We are not allowed to discriminate or exploit them because of their lack of tribal or family ties in the place in which they now find themselves. But our obligations extend further; it is not merely that we must do them no harm. In Deuteronomy 10:18 - 19, we are taught that God “upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” We must actively support them, giving them the resources necessary for their basic needs.
Even if we ourselves have not been an immigrant, often it has been members of our families in previous generations who have been the beneficiaries of being welcomed to the shores of the U.S. as immigrants. A visit to the Ellis Island and the wonderful museum there will quickly remind you of all that we have received because of the willingness of this country to allow us in (and, of course, we know well what happened when the U.S. did not Jews here, particularly during the Shoah). The same is true of the hundreds of thousands of Jews from the former Soviet Union who have made their lives here. We well know what it is to be a stranger.
There is no question that we, as Jews, have an obligation to ensure that the immigration policy of the United States is one that provides for those who wish to enter legally. They are not to be discriminated against on the basis of their status, denied jobs, government services, education, etc. Without question, we are a country of immigrants and have benefited from those who have made a life for themselves and their families.
The same is true for refugees. Given the political climate found in many countries throughout the world, we must be open to those who are suffering political, religious and other types of oppression. We must be vigilant that these doors are not shut tight, particularly given the climate that we are now experiencing in the U.S. Yes, we sometimes feel uncomfortable when we see or meet those who look different than we do, who don’t speak the same language or have the same religion or traditions to which we are accustomed. But put yourselves in their shoes, or better yet, in those of your grandparents, great grandparents, whoever it was who first came to this country. That's an important dimension of Passover - to internalize what it means to be a stranger. If you can do so, you will certainly then understand the feelings of these strangers.
Regarding the new law in Arizona, it is fraught with a great deal of controversy and we will have to wait to see how it plays out in the courts. Nevertheless, there are many legitimate concerns that have been expressed and to which we should be sensitive as Jews as I shared above. For example, will people be selected for searches solely on the basis of their ethnicity? Will people be pulled in an effort to instill fear in these communities? What will be the impact on those who are here illegally – will the searches expand into more active hunts for illegal aliens? We must wait and see. Yet, we must not let the fear of the stranger grip us in creating a climate of pervasive apprehension in our neighborhoods. We will be judged not only on how we treat each other, but on how we act towards the stranger. Answered by: Rabbi David Seed (Emeritus)
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