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Welcoming the Stranger

January 26, 2016

This piece was originally published in the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent

Welcoming the Stranger, Living Our Values

by Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D.

“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Exodus 22:20

The commandment to welcome and embrace the stranger appears 36 times in our Torah.  Suffice it to say, it is a crucial element of our tradition, one that should guide and permeate our actions. Simultaneously, the tradition guides us to view others as created B’tzelem Elohim, made in God’s image.

These two concepts can serve as the starting point for the American Jewish discussion about the current humanitarian disaster in Syria and Iraq and the hundreds of thousands of people in dire need of refuge. I am proud that many segments of our Jewish community have taken a sensible, compassionate approach to the issue. 

As an historian of American Jewry, and as the granddaughter of immigrants, I must point out that our people have both benefited from, and been victimized by, changes in U.S. immigration policy. Starting in 1881, with the assassination of Czar Alexander II, and the terrible wave of pogroms that followed throughout the Russian empire, masses of eastern European Jews sought refuge through America’s liberal immigration policy. Over the next 40 years, some 3.5 million Jews immigrated to America — a migration that forever transformed our people and our country. 

The Immigration Act of 1924, prompted by growing nativist sentiments, had disastrous consequences for European Jewry. In the 1930s, the majority of the American public opposed admitting European refugees, including Jews. How many victims of the Holocaust could have been saved had our national leaders taken a more principled stand?

In the Jewish media, I have seen a considerable amount of debate devoted to the question of whether or not today’s refugees from the Middle East are analogous to Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe. Of course, the two situations aren’t the same; history rarely affords such complete parallels. But what is clear is that the Syrian Muslims and Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities, such as the Yazidis, are fleeing for their lives, trying to escape a calamitous civil war in which all sides are pursuing scorched-earth policies. 

I understand and would never dismiss the public’s concern. Recent events have only served to remind us that the United States faces a very real threat of terrorism. The Reconstructionist movement embraces nuanced discussion. The U.S. approach to the new refugee crisis should be rigorous, with due diligence taken. 

Between 1991 and 2008, the United States admitted some 50,000 refugees from Iraq. By nearly all accounts, this resettlement has proved successful. Why would we expect our experience with Syrian refugees to be dramatically different?  Can our system guarantee the absence of risk? Probably not. But there are few such guarantees in life, and living in an open society guided by certain values has always entailed some risk.

In the wake of the recent attacks in Paris and California, Muslim-Americans are facing increased scrutiny and suspicion. The Reconstructionist movement believes it is incumbent upon American Jews to stand shoulder-to shoulder with our Muslim neighbors. In fact, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College is a founding member of an interfaith coalition named Shoulder to Shoulder. Our movement is proud to have congregations, faculty and rabbinical students who are actively engaged in building Muslim-Jewish relationships, and who are working closely with our newest refugee communities. We, too, were once recent arrivals to this country, facing mistrust and discrimination. That experience guides us.

For all these reasons, last month I was one of more than 1,200 rabbis, including at least 160 Reconstructionist rabbis, who signed a HIAS-sponsored letter calling on our elected officials to exercise moral leadership for the protection of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.

To conclude, I’d like to cite the letter. The “heartbreaking attacks in Paris and Beirut are being cited as reasons to deny entry to people who are themselves victims of terror. And in those comments, we, as Jewish leaders, see one of the darker moments of our history repeating itself.” It goes on to state, “in 1939, our country could not tell the difference between an actual enemy and the victims of an enemy. In 2015, let us not make the same mistake.”

Join me in calling for a national policy that welcomes and protects the stranger, a policy that lives up to the highest ideals of our faith and our country. Join me in defending our cherished values of welcoming and embracing the stranger.

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