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The Jewish Ethicist: Immigration

The Jewish Ethicist: Immigration

Hospitality is the best policy – when it is possible.


Q. What does Judaism say about immigration?

A. Right now there is an intense debate in the United States and all advanced countries regarding how much immigration to allow, and what to do about those who are already living illegally in the country. The new law passed in Arizona particularly brought public attention to the topic. Even relatively poor countries can be flooded with immigrants if they happen to be richer than their nearest neighbors.

While Jewish tradition certainly cannot give us a definitive answer to what approach is best, it can help us clarify some of the values involved.

The Torah emphasizes in many places a positive, welcoming approach to the stranger or immigrant. Indeed, this attitude is described as one of the foremost lessons of our exile in Egypt. For instance, it is forbidden to take advantage of the alien's vulnerability:

    And don't oppress the stranger nor pressure him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 22:20)

    Don't pressure the stranger; and you know the feelings of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 23:9)

The Torah even relates specifically to a refugee, one who is fleeing persecution:

    Don't turn in a slave to his master, when he flees to you from his master. Let him dwell with you in your midst, in the place he chooses in one of your gates as suits him; don't oppress him. (Deuteronomy 23:16)

Note also that the Torah condemns the nations of Ammon and Moav for failing to show compassion to the people of Israel when we were refugees. (Deuteronomy 23:4-5.)

Some of the verses commanding compassion for a "stranger" refer to a proselyte and others refer to a true foreigner, but the underlying ethical message is the same.

Indeed, Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook wrote that having strangers among us is an essential element of a Jewish settlement. (1)

On the other hand, anyone can understand the difference between being hospitable and welcoming to aliens and refugees, and creating a situation where our community is so overwhelmed that we ourselves become the aliens and refugees. Sometimes there are objective resource constraints on immigration.

In the Middle Ages, many Jewish communities instituted a kind of communal regulation called chezkat hayishuv, or residence permit. Rabbi Yechiel Michal Epstein explains that even though many authorities felt there was no precedent in Jewish law for such a limitation, "for in what way did the current residents obtain ownership on dwelling in that town?", even so it was accepted as a necessary piece of communal legislation. "And the reason is that Jewish settlement then was very precarious, and ruthless nations exiled them from place to place. And the more the settlement of Jews increased, the more anarchy reigned and sorrows abounded."(2) History does show that when there were urgent cases of refugees that temporary exceptions were made to aid them.

So we seemingly find an encompassing range of opinion, from the verses of the Torah encouraging us to welcome total strangers to customs of some European communities which excluded even our own countrymen. But in fact there is no paradox and it is all the function of circumstances. To the extent that strangers are productive and law-abiding and don't present an excessive burden, we are encouraged to learn from our own experience in exile to welcome them and even aid them.

If however we are in an unusual situation where accepting strangers presents a palpable threat to existing residents, then limitations or even total prohibitions can be justified, according to the circumstances.

My personal feeling is that in the United States today most communities are not facing any special danger from immigrants and efforts should be made to accommodate reasonable numbers of them. Others may view current circumstances differently. But the underlying Jewish message is clear: hospitality is the best policy unless there are pressing circumstances that make it impractical.

SOURCES: (1) Responsa Daat Cohen 235 (2) Arukh HaShulchan Choshen Mishpat 156:12

June 5, 2010

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Visitor Comments: 20

(20) Eddie, July 13, 2010 11:57 PM

How does the torah view lawbreakers?

Did anyone catch the part about ILLEGAL immigration? That would seem to be the relevant part of the problem. No one says we in the U.S. have a problem with legal immigration. The U.S. allows a lot of legal immigrants. The problem is with those who come here secretly, breaking the law and doing so with the intent of breaking more laws. Drugs, slavery, even just working here without paying taxes or obeying the laws concerning employment. What does the Torah say about that kind of behavior?

(19) Anonymous, June 14, 2010 7:35 PM

The scriptures "The Stranger"

These wonderful scriptures to me mean the stranger is the foreign exchange student, the child that was adopted from another country. The business men and women that is here on business for a certain amount of time from another country. The stranger is the ones that have moved here and became citizens of the United States. The stranger is the woman who met and married an American man through the Internet and moved here and became a citizen. The stranger is the foreign companies that established companies here in the United States and gave hundreds of jobs to Americans. In Israel the stranger is the non-Jews. Could possible even be thought of the Jews that were born in other countries, even though technically they are not strangers. Basically speaking the scriptures when speaking of the stranger is referring to non-Jews, passing through Israel. King Solomon built a temple and the non-Jews were welcome to come and pray there also. We welcome the stranger, because those strangers didn't welcome us in their land. So when they come on our turf, we don't act like the non-Jews did in the past, when we lived in their land. We are kind to them, not oppressing them. We don't set up tricks to destroy them. The scriptures is telling us we understand what being mistreated is all about in foreign lands, let's do better than they did, we are children of the King. Everyone is God's children, it's just that Jews in the past has been mistreated in foreign lands. The United States has done lots in helping immigrants to come and become citizens, if not, all of us would not be living here today. So though we do not live in Israel, we look at the stranger as those who come from other countries, just like we did. What I wrote is not referring to the AZ laws, for I disagree these scriptures should be connected to that law. Because I understand why they are having to set up laws in that state to control the situation at hand.

(18) Becca K., June 14, 2010 6:46 AM

so glad someone has something Jewish to say on this issue

I live in California, so this is a real issue out here. I find the anti-immigration rhetoric around here mostly xenophobic and anti-Torah (because of exactly the passages listed by the author). Of course, we have to better monitor foreigners crossing our border to commit terrorist acts, hide from the law, or traffic drugs for gangs. However, most illegal immigrants are just desperate to live someplace safe where they can make a decent living for their families.

(17) Anonymous, June 14, 2010 5:43 AM

Rabbi...can you define "Reasonable Numbers"? If not, whose decision is acceptable? Does Israel not require proper identification for legal entry...for visitors and those desiring permanent residence? This topic is too complex for mortals to reconcile, without provoking our friends and neighbors.

(16) Anonymous, June 13, 2010 4:02 PM

Willful Indifference

It speaks a lot about the willful indifference of Rabbi Meir, and those who agree with him, to the ethics they seek to hide behind, that they ignore the serious harm done to poor and suffering US citizens who are being harmed by the deliberate displacement of them by the cheap foreign labor the Rabbi favors in the US. There are massive tent cities all across the US, filled with US citizens and their children, they are homeless because they are discriminated against by employers, pushed out of their jobs, they can't find others, and lose their homes and apartments. Neither he nor others can claim ignorance, as it's a fact of life that is known. Nor did he or others condemn the Rubushkins who refused to hire US citizens an pay them a fair wage, rather they hired and abused illegals, and found immigrant Rabbis who looked the other way. I can't help but wonder if Rabbi Meir, is as false a Rabbi as those immigrant Rabbis were? What I see is that rather than "welcoming the stranger", this is a justification for harming the stranger, and the Rabbi an those like him are guilty of despising the poor US citizenry, and don't view them as neighbors, but enemies. Nor is it welcoming to use illegal aliens as a weapon to harm poor US citizens, those same US citizens and their ancestors who welcomed Jews to the US, and stood alongside them during times of crisis. Perhaps the Rabbi needs to be held to the high standards and ethics he treats as only excuses...

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