Opinion

On Refugees, We American Jews Will Not Be Bystanders

What is the Jewish ethical imperative in the age of Trump? To watch vigilantly – but also to act, to speak up and make our voices heard, to stand between the victimizer and his victims.

A boy carries a sign as migrants and refugees march in solidarity with the Women's March on Washington in Athens, Greece, January 21, 2017.
LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP

Genesis 1 is like a hymn to biodiversity. We learn that when creating the world, God does not just create vegetation but vegetation “of all kinds”; not just create fruit trees, but fruit trees “of every kind,” creeping creatures “of every kind” and birds “of every kind,” indeed “every kind of living creature.” 

The Torah seems to revel in the breathtaking multifariousness of God's creation. The chapter’s effect is that we come to expect that everything God brings into existence will be created in stunning and multi-colored diversity.  

But then comes the creation of the human being, and suddenly we hear nothing at all about diversity. We expect to hear:

And God created human beings of every kind in God’s image

And yet, strikingly, that word, “לְמִינוֹ,” (“of every kind”) is absent.

The meaning of that omission is crucial: The Torah is suggesting that in contrast to vegetation and the (rest of the) animal kingdom, there simply are no kinds of human beings. We are all descended from Adam, the ancestor of us all. Only after we establish the most basic lesson, and for many the hardest lesson to learn, humanity’s essential indivisibility, can we safely, responsibly, go on to celebrate and defend human diversity.

That’s why the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11, follows this message of oneness. The Torah tells us it is a bad thing for the whole world to be speaking the same language, saying the same words, thinking the same thoughts: We should celebrate and defend human cultural, linguistic, and geographical diversity.

It is so profoundly tempting, such a basic human inclination, to insist that some people are more human and more valuable than others. Human history is littered with corpses of those who died because others insisted that they were somehow less human and less valuable.

Skin color, race, gender, sexual orientation: throughout history, people have murdered, oppressed, enslaved, degraded, and discriminated against those they believed were not worthy of respect. To take Genesis 1 seriously is to understand that all of this is a revolt against the God of creation.

People in power sometimes need to be reminded – sometimes forcefully and relentlessly – that there are no kinds of human beings. A person who does not understand this, a person who refuses to understand this, is fundamentally unworthy and unfit to be a leader.

****

So what kind of human being is worthy of being a leader?

When Moses witnesses an Egyptian beating a “Hebrew, one of his kinsmen,” he intervenes and strikes down the Egyptian oppressor. He cannot tolerate the abuse of his fellow Israelite. But he is not content merely to defend the Israelites; he also seeks to mediate between them.   

But crucially, Moses’s circle of concern does not end there. Standing at a well witnessing local shepherds mistreating Midianite women, Moses “rises to their defense, saves them, and waters their flock.” (Exodus 2:17) 

Why is it so important to the Torah to tell this story? Jewish leadership worthy of its name must not only be offended by – and must not only act against – injustices perpetrated against our own people; as Moshe models for us, Jewish leadership must also be outraged by – and must act against – injustice committed against anyone.

Let me be clear: Solidarity with our own people is necessary, and, according to the Torah, it must come first. We have entered into a very confusing, uncertain, and frankly frightening time. I don’t think that in their wildest imaginations the Jews of Whitefish, Montana imagined that they’d be dealing with a constant flow of threats and intimidation from white nationalists and white supremacists.

And none of us thought that Jewish Community Centers across the country would be targeted – one after another after another – with a growing barrage of bomb threats.

We are learning again what we have learned again and again throughout Jewish history: When hatred is unleashed, Jews never emerge unscathed. And so we will need to stand with each other and for each other.

Moses models that solidarity with our own people is necessary, but he also models that it is decidedly not sufficient. Ethnic solidarity must be entwined with broader human solidarity. Moses is an Israelite who speaks up for non-Israelites, and man who speaks up for women. I want to underscore that last point: “Real men” do not degrade women. Real men stand alongside women and fight for their honor.

Only when Moses shows that he understands that does God appoint him to lead the people out of the house of bondage. 

To be heirs of Moses, we need to watch closely and carefully, even vigilantly. But watching closely and carefully are not enough. All of us encounter situations of injustice and pretend not to notice—or, when we do notice, we marshal a litany of rationalizations for remaining silent. We need to watch and also to act, to speak up and make our voices heard, to stand between the victimizer and his victims.

It’s really very simple: The degradation of any human being anywhere is an urgent and burning Jewish issue.

***

When it comes to oppression and degradation, we are all summoned to lead.

Let’s take the Torah’s stand on particularly vulnerable population groups: widows and orphans. All over the ancient Near East, there was profound concern for these groups, but it was the king who was responsible for their wellbeing.

Much of Bible – and the book of Exodus is a key example – is different. Here, it is not the king alone who is responsible for the fate of widows and orphans; it is all of Israel, the democratization of moral responsibility. We are all responsible.

In his commentary Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra makes a powerful – and frankly daunting – claim: The status of those who witness oppression and remain silent is the same as the status of the oppressors themselves. In Jewish ethics, in other words, there is no such thing as an innocent bystander. In a society where some are oppressed, all are implicated. We are not free to turn away.

I’d like to take one more step. Despite the ancient world’s concern for the widow and the orphan the immigrant did not win such support. Most scholars agree that the Torah is the first to expand the category of yatom (orphan) and almanah (widow) to include the ger (the sojourner, the immigrant).

The biblical ger, recent scholarship has shown, is an immigrant who had fled his place of origin because of social or political upheaval. It would not be much of a stretch, therefore, as my colleague Rabbi Jason Rubenstein points out, to translate ger as refugee.

The word ger may well be connected to a biblical Hebrew word for fear – gimel-vav-resh. The ger flees crisis and arrives scared. The Bible mandates us the responsibility not to oppress the ger – and to love him or her.

There is much to disagree and argue about regarding immigration law. Good, honest people can have profound disagreements about these questions. But on one matter there is no room for disagreement at all: The demonization and dehumanization of immigrants and refugees is a direct assault on the Torah’s view of a good society. We must fight it wherever we see it.

Deuteronomy, tells us that God loves the stranger and cares for him or her. The very next verse challenges us to do the same: You too must love the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.

If we want to love God we must strive to love those whom God loves; we must learn to love the downtrodden.

***

The road ahead of us will be long, and it will undoubtedly be rocky. Many of us are anxious and fearful. That’s not just okay; it’s appropriate. Courage does not mean that we have no fear; courage means that we do not allow our fears to govern us, that we do not allow fear to have the final word.

We must be determined and resolute: We will not be bystanders; we will raise our voices; we will stand up and be counted.

Rabbi Shai Held, a Jewish theologian and educator, is President and Dean of Mechon Hadar and the author of "Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence" and the forthcoming "The Heart of Torah." Follow him on Twitter: @HeldShai