This past summer, on a stunningly beautiful day, I went to Ellis Island. I had been there many years ago, but had not seen it since it had been remodeled in 1990. The exhibits there powerfully depict the experiences of many of the 12 million immigrants who passed through its doors between the years 1892 and 1954. After spending weeks or months at sea in unfathomable conditions, many — like my own grandparents — arrived with little more than the clothes on their backs.
Few, if any, spoke English when they arrived, and most took on American surnames, hoping to blend in with their new culture as they proudly took on their American identities.
All four of my grandparents came through Ellis Island: two from Galicia, one from Romania, and one from Russia. It was a thrilling moment when I found my grandfather’s name on one of the ship’s manifests on the Ellis Island Web site. He arrived in the United States in 1907, hoping — like many other Jewish immigrants — to leave behind the pogroms and find a better life for himself and for the children and grandchildren he dreamed were yet to come.
I am so grateful that he, along with my other grandparents, managed to leave, and managed to get permission to enter this country. I suspect that most likely, I would not be here if they had not.
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayetze, we read: “And Jacob went out from Beersheba, and went toward Haran.” (Gen. 28:10). The question is raised: Why does the Torah tell us that Jacob left Beersheba? After all, aren’t we more interested in finding out where he was going?
We learn from a variety of sources that when a person wishes to go from one place to another, there are two possible motives for doing so: he may want to leave where he is, or he may want to go to the place where he is not. Here, in Vayetze, both were true for Jacob. Rebecca had told Jacob to flee to her brother in Haran, because Esau was making plans to kill him. As far as she was concerned, she just wanted Jacob to find a safer place to live. Jacob’s father Isaac, on the other hand, wanted his son to go to Padan Aram to find a wife for himself. To honor his mother, Jacob had to leave Beersheba, whereas to honor his father, he had to go to Padan Aram (Aaron Yaakov Greenberg, Torah Gems).
People leave their countries of origin for all kinds of reasons. Some are fleeing persecution and political oppression. Others are fleeing repressive and backwards practices that have irreparable and devastating physical and emotional consequences. Some are searching for better circumstances for themselves and their families, hoping to leave behind poverty, illiteracy, and the psychological, physical, and social debilitations that often accompany these conditions. They, like my grandparents, simply want a better life — both for themselves and for future generations.
Without a doubt, there are real economic and political concerns that must guide a nation’s immigration policy. But those concerns must not be driven by fear and anxiety, for fear and anxiety — as Jews experienced in the 1930s and 1940s in Europe — can lead to insidious ends.
It is fear and anxiety that are driving local, regional, and national lawmakers to put into place laws that attempt to “bring about justice.” But it is a justice not balanced by compassion and mercy for the individual and the families involved.
In various cities throughout this country, immigrants who lack proper documentation are being rounded up and sent to detention facilities, many to then be deported to their countries of origin. They are separated from their families — including many young children — and sent back to countries where they do not speak the language or have the resources to survive. Furthermore, in many places local police, landlords, and employers are taking it upon themselves to interpret and enforce immigration policy, even if they do not have the authority to do so.
Here in Washington State, in Southeast King County in a small city called Pacific, members of the local police department have deputized themselves as agents of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), using minor traffic violations as a reason to arrest undocumented immigrants and send them to deportation centers. A Seattle Times article on August 3 quoted the police chief, John Calkins, as justifying the practice.
“I’m proud of my officers and the job they’re doing,” Calkins said. “I told them if there’s a violation, whether federal, state, whatever, they’re not to just turn their backs on it.”
As Jews, we have an important perspective to bring to bear on the issue of immigration. Core to our identity as Jews is an understanding of what it means to be a stranger in a strange land. Having been forced to go down into Mitzrayim because of famine, our people spent 420 years doing backbreaking work that the residents of that land did not want to do.
That experience was indelibly imprinted upon our collective psyche. Forever thereafter, we were told to remember: “V’ahavtah et ha’ger, ki gerim h’yitem b’eretz mitzrayim” — “Therefore love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Furthermore, the command to love the stranger, to recognize in him or her a reflection of the Divine Image, has guided Jews in how to treat the stranger. Time and again our sacred law instructs us: “You shall not oppress a hired servant that is poor and needy; whether he be of your kinfolk, or of the strangers that are in your land within your gates. (Deut. 24:14).
The stranger was guaranteed the same protection in the law court as was extended to the native: “Judge righteously between all people, as well as with the stranger that is with you.” (Deut. 1:16).
More recent history has also shown us what it means to be stripped of rights and be deported from our countries of origin, only to realize we had no place to take us in and give us refuge. How many lives were lost on boats that sank after leaving Germany; how fortunate are those who made it to shore.
A nation’s immigration policy is one measure of its well-being. It is also an indicator of its moral compass. As this nation struggles to hammer out an immigration policy that is both realistic and reasonable as well as just and compassionate, and as local municipalities work to develop practices that are both legal and respectful, we Jews can and must use our collective voice and power. We must challenge all Americans to put aside fear and anxiety, and to work instead toward a vision of the common good — that which would be good not only for the current citizens of this country, but for all of those strangers who want to call this country home.