Op-Ed: The Ban and Jewish Identity

by Rabbi Phillip Graubart February 27, 2017


rabbi-philip-graubartIs there a cogent, ethically plausible argument for turning away all refugees from certain majority Muslim countries? Maybe – I’ll get to that in a moment. But it’s impossible to separate President Trump’s executive order from his paranoid campaign rhetoric aimed at scapegoating others. As we all know, he began his campaign condemning Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and reached his low point when he called for a complete ban on all Muslims entering the country. Along the way he tweeted false, offensive and fear-mongering messages about Jews (too powerful, too rich) and African Americans (hopelessly prone to crime, live in ravaged, crime-infested neighborhoods). The not so subliminal (and effective) message of his campaign was that notorious others – mostly Mexicans and Muslims, but also sometimes Jews or blacks or women – are out there threatening you, your livelihoods and your families. And I’ll put a stop to it.

It’s impossible to exaggerate the galloping danger of this message. Bigotry is one thing, but paranoid bigotry employed by national leaders stirs up demons, destroys empathy, leads directly to oppressive measures, and gets people killed. It’s not a new or unfamiliar message; it’s echoes reverberated not so long ago in Rwanda and Kosovo. But it is, quite possibly, the most dangerous and deadly idea in the history of humanity. Jews, unfortunately, know it well. President Trump and his fellow-traveling apologists can claim that this isn’t a Muslim ban, but virtually every day Trump spent on the campaign trail blasting others testifies to Trump’s essential message: I’m keeping them out – the dangerous others, the outsiders, the strangers – because they, all of them, constitute an existential danger, and I’m here to protect us.

Judaism, as a system of ideas, was formed in direct opposition to this paranoid bigotry. Pharaoh and his advisers warned his people that a small minority – the Israelites – constituted a danger to Egyptian nationhood. The quick result was baby killing, torture, slavery, and attempted genocide. When the Israelites escaped, God gave them the Torah with one commandment repeated more than any other: “Do not oppress the stranger because you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.” In several place the text reads: “Love the stranger.” Judaism’s dominant, normative message is to transform our own slavery wounds, our trauma, into love and empathy, and, at all costs, avoid the trap of Pharaoh and his advisers. As Hillel would later phrase it, what was hateful to us, we don’t do to others. The commandment to embrace strangers is all the more astonishing and inspiring since Biblical Israel was never particularly wealthy or powerful, and the various Jewish kingdoms were constantly surrounded by enemies. Nevertheless, the Torah repeats the commandment, 36 times. Take the risk, the Torah tells us, because without it, you lose your essential identity, your reason for being. It’s your story, the meaning behind your unique history.

Which brings me to the policy argument. Should the most powerful country in the history of the world close its doors to victims of the worst contemporary humanitarian crisis? Should we act on our finest ideals, but then risk bringing in terrorists who may murder us? The only way to answer these questions is to assess the risk – and then the answer becomes obvious. Precisely zero Muslims from any of the seven countries under the ban has killed any American in a terrorist attack. Furthermore, according to various credible sources, the chances of an American being killed in our country in a terrorist attack is one in a billion. In general, refugees commit far fewer crimes than American citizens. In other words, the risk is negligible, while the moral imperative is enormous. For Jews, it’s everything. It’s definitional. It’s no accident that it was a Jewish woman who wrote the words engraved on the Statue of Liberty.

Jordan, a much poorer country with a lot more to lose, has taken in over half a million Syrian refugees. Israel, with all its security concerns, has taken in more than the United States. How did this happen? How did we lose the courage of our convictions, how did we embrace demagogic fear mongering at the highest levels? It will take years before we can answer these questions, but, for a serious Jew, the way forward is obvious. Love the stranger because we were strangers.

*An excerpt of this op-ed was published in the March, 2017 issue of the San Diego Jewish Journal.


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