April 1, 2020

Make America just (again)

At the height of the escape from Egypt, the Israelites are encamped on the banks of the Reed Sea and the Egyptians are bearing down on them. The Israelites and Moses are crying out to God. In a surprising twist God answers Moses: “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward!” Rabbi Eliezer expands God’s words thus: “The Holy One of Blessing said to Moses: ‘Moses, my children are in trouble! The sea is closing in on them, and the enemy is chasing them, and you are standing and praying?!!’”

There is a time for prayer and a time for action. We are now in a time that demands action.

Donald Trump has made immigration, refugees, and immigrants a target since the beginning of his candidacy. He now seems to be fulfilling his promises to build a wall (which the American taxpayer and not Mexico will end up paying for); deny entry to refugees based on their religious belief; establish a belief and values test for entry; empower local police to act as immigration and deportation agents; renew and expand contracts with private prisons to imprison immigrants without trial or representation for the sole “crime” of being undocumented.

This is all inimical to Jewish tradition and American values.

The great 12th century philosopher and jurist, Moses Maimonides, OBM, taught that the commandment to not return a runaway slave to his master (“You shall not turn over to his master a slave who seeks refuge with you from his master. He shall live with you in any place he may choose among the settlements in your midst, wherever he pleases; you must not ill-treat him.” (Deut. 23:16)) is given to “makes us protect and defend those who seek our protection and not deliver them over to those from whom they have fled. It is not even enough to protect those who seek your protection, for you are under another obligation toward him: you must consider his interest, be beneficent toward him, and not pain his heart by speech.” Maimonides further taught that this law is imposed upon us in regard to all who seek refuge regardless of their relative status in society. (Guide for the Perplexed III:39)

While the history of the United States is spotty at best in regard to welcoming strangers, and giving comfort to the weak—Native Americans were subjected to genocidal treatment; Africans were brought to this country by force as chattel to produce wealth for their masters and die—the ideals of the country give hope for its perfectibility. The preamble of the Constitution sets out as its task the creation of a more perfect Union—that is, the admission that the current Union is not perfect but perfectible. The first way that this more perfect Union might be established is by establishing Justice. Justice might reasonably be defined in line with the Declaration of Independence as: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” When one group is discriminated against systemically, by denying them entry to the country or by denying them the privileges of citizenship once they are in the country, the country is no longer pursuing justice. To quote Martin Luther King “America has defaulted on this promissory note [which guarantees these unalienable rights].” However we must with King “refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.”

In order to walk in the way of righteousness and prove that the bank of justice is not bankrupt, the Jewish community must stand with all right-minded communities to

– Support the creation of “Sanctuary Cities” across the country which will not cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in the involuntary deportation of undocumented residents;

– Urge cities and states to set aside resources which will guarantee access to counsel to insure due process for all those involved in deportation proceedings;

– Support the permanent extension of DACA until such time as a path to citizenship is created;

– Support a broad immigration reform which would allow eleven million undocumented residents of this country a path to becoming US citizens;

– Oppose the creation of a deportation force, or the channeling of extra funds to ICE or the Border Patrol so that they act as a deportation force;

– Support the closing of detention centers where immigrants are held in prison-like conditions despite the fact that they are not charged with any crime;

– Oppose the use of private prisons in general and specifically for incarcerating undocumented immigrants.

We have entered upon dark times, but we cannot despair. We must act justly and then “God will cause your vindication to shine forth like the light, the justice of your case, like the noonday sun.” (Psalms 37:6) This is how we make America great.


Rabbi Dr. Aryeh Cohen is Professor of Rabbinic Literature at the American Jewish University and Rabbi in Residence at Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice.