Sanctuary Cities: Trump Antidote Borrowed From the Bible

If the term has a scriptural ring to it, it’s because the concept of 'arei miklat,' the Hebrew phrase, can be found in the Torah.

Demonstrators in Cincinnati protest President Donald Trump's travel ban on immigrants on January 30, 2017.
John Minchillo/AP

A few days after Donald Trump took office, I did a double take when I heard a Trump voter mention the need to shut down terror “camps” across the country, in an interview about what he hoped the new president would do. 

The voter, who had ventured to Washington to stand on the National Mall to celebrate Trump’s inauguration, spoke with Michael Barbaro, the host of a New York Times podcast.

He told him that “secure borders” were at the top of his list, adding that he was concerned about the “35 different camps around America that are training terrorists.” 

Barbaro didn’t challenge the young man, but asked if he was referring to the so-called “sanctuary cities” – some 39 municipalities and 360 counties across the country that had in recent years said they would not cooperate with federal immigration authorities’ efforts to track down undocumented immigrants with the aim of deporting them.

The policy varied from venue to venue, but generally, these local authorities said they would not use their law-enforcement powers to check the papers of everyone detained on suspicion of criminal activity, nor would they necessarily inform the federal government every time they encountered someone who was present in the country illegally. 

The interviewee confirmed that this was precisely what he meant, and he mentioned several times that the biggest of the terror bases was in “Islamberg.” 

Islamberg? I looked it up. It’s the name of a small hamlet in Delaware County, New York, near the Pennsylvania border. Islamberg was founded in the 1980s by a Pakistani Sufi, Mubarak Ali Gilani, as a community for African American converts to Islam to escape the crime and poverty of the city. 

Law-enforcement authorities from the area have said that the village is no terror incubator, but perhaps it was inevitable, these days, that a town with “Islam” in its name would be reflexively tarred with the brush of jihadism. 

Despite the impression given by the phrase, Los Angeles, New York and Chicago – just some of the large cities that have taken on the mantle of “sanctuary city” – have not been harboring violent criminals. Nor have they interfered with Immigration and Customs Bureau agents carrying out their duties.

They had merely stated their unwillingness to be a party to the Obama administration’s campaign to deport undocumented aliens (an effort that resulted in the expulsion of some 2.5 million immigrants over the past eight years), considering that many people entering the country without papers were fleeing persecution. 

Now, the Trump administration has ordered the Department of Homeland Security to withhold federal funds from local governments pursuing a policy of “sanctuary.”

If the term “sanctuary city” has a scriptural ring to it, it’s because the concept of “arei miklat,” the Hebrew phrase, can be found in the Torah, in both Numbers and Deuteronomy.

Generally (because both books describe the concept somewhat differently), refuge cities in ancient Israel were places where a person who had accidentally killed someone could take shelter, without fear of being pursued and killed by the victim’s family. 

The ancient Near East had a tradition of blood vengeance, and relatives of a murder victim were permitted, even obligated, to track down and take the life of the killer of their loved one.

The Torah, though endorsing that custom in cases of murder, makes a clear distinction between that and involuntary manslaughter, and says that the individual who carried out the latter is deserving of protection. 

The six cities that were otherwise set aside for the Levites – the tribe assigned to handle day-to-day operations of the ancient Temple – are designated, both in Numbers 35 and Deuteronomy 19, as such places where refuge can be found. Roads to these towns were to be maintained so that the involuntary killer could easily reach one of them.

Once there, they were to be immune from acts of revenge – so long as they did not venture beyond its borders. Once the incumbent high priest died, they were free to return home, and any guilt would be expiated. They could no longer be pursued.

Does the biblical concept of a sanctuary city have any relevance for the contemporary problem of refugees who have fled their homes in the wake of war, political upheaval or, as in the cases of many of those heading north from Central America, criminal extortion?

What do Jewish law and tradition tell us about a citizen’s responsibility to the refugee, especially as it may clash with the laws of their own homeland? I put these questions to three rabbis, Jewish scholars who have pondered the issue. 

According to Yuval Cherlow, a modern-Orthodox Israeli rabbi who heads the Tzohar organization’s ethics section, the biblical rules relating to sanctuary cities don’t have much bearing on the question of how to relate to refugees.

Rather, he says, “my religious understanding comes from another source: The Torah commands us not to take advantage of the stranger [ger, in Hebrew] and not to abuse him – because we, too, were once aliens, in Egypt. That is, anyone who has been through the experience of being a refugee cannot allow himself to ignore the distress of the other.”

Cherlow adds that since the United States is historically a land of immigrants, “it cannot disregard migrants.” At the same time, he stresses that a state’s first responsibility is to the security of it own citizens. 

There are, therefore, “considerations that can justify the restriction of immigration and absorption. So, the obligation may be limited, but it certainly exists,” Cherlow says.

Rabbi Peretz Rodman offers a similar interpretation. He notes that “every government has the obligation to vet immigrants, and to check everyone who arrives at its border.”

From there, however, “to start with the assumption that an entire class, or that every member of an ethnic group, is undeserving of welcome is just wrongheaded.” According to Rodman, who heads the Masorti (Conservative) Movement’s beit din (religious court) in Israel, “The overriding assumption should be to help these people.” 

Rodman acknowledges that every one of us is subject to “a wearying,” as he puts it, that causes you after a while “to question every panhandler who stops you to ask for a handout. But your default attitude should be,

‘I want to help, because I’ve been there.’ We Jews were persecuted. And that holds for modern history, too. Israel was founded so that there shouldn’t be any more Jewish refugees.”

Rodman refers to an essay by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks , in which the former chief rabbi of Britain’s United Hebrew Congregations admits that, “I used to think that the most important line in the Bible was ‘Love your neighbor [sic] as yourself.’

Then I realized that it is easy to love your neighbor because he or she is usually quite like yourself. What is hard is to love the stranger, one whose color, culture or creed is different from yours.

That is why the command, ‘Love the stranger because you were once strangers’ resonates so strong throughout the Bible.” 

Rabbi Shai Held is president and dean of New York’s Mechon Hadar, an egalitarian, nondenominational institute of Jewish learning. He is deeply troubled by the harsh turn that American policy toward refugees has taken in recent days.

He suggests that the “extremely ill-conceived announcement and execution” of the ban on certain Muslims entering the country – for the moment, at least, put on hold by a federal court - has led to unnecessary suffering, and attributes this to a new chief executive who seems to be “incapable of generosity or kindness.” 

But Held says he looks to a different section of the Torah for guidance on the question. He refers me to an essay of his on Parashat Ki Teitzei (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19), in which he analyzed the commandment that tells us, “You shall not hand over to his master a slave who seeks refuge with you” (Deut. 23:16).

It also says that a refugee slave “may choose among the settlements in your midst, wherever he pleases; you must not oppress him.” 

The commandment, wrote Held, is remarkable, considering that in the rest of the ancient Near East, it was a given that runaway slaves had to be turned in:

“One who harbored a fleeing slave was also subject to grave penalty. Conversely, one who returned a runaway slave to his master was richly rewarded.” There were even international treaties to this effect.

Speaking by telephone from New York, Held suggested that this “unprecedentedly powerful” statement by the Torah that “runaway slaves have a place here” must come out of “a radical sense that we ourselves are a nation of runaway slaves.

It appears to be a conscious subversion of standard practice” in other lands of the region at that time. The Torah was telling us that, in Held’s words, “we need to subvert a policy we see as fundamentally cruel and inhuman.”

None of these rabbis discounts the importance of security, or the responsibility of a state to protect its borders and put the interests of its citizens and residents before those who seek to live among them.

But all agree that Jews have a special responsibility, delineated in the earliest Hebrew texts, to empathize with the immigrant, certainly those fleeing persecution, and to treat them with humanity when they are at their most vulnerable. 

In this sense, the actions taken by the United States in the opening days of the Trump administration seem to fail even a minimum dignity test.