“No Ban In My Name”

One of the great legends of my family is about my great-grandpa Harry, who — according to a story my mom told me over and over again throughout my childhood — stowed away on a ship leaving Russia for the U.S., jumped off the boat when it entered New York Harbor, and swam ashore towards the hope of a new life in the promised land of America. Grandpa Harry and Grandma Rosie had three children, eight grandchildren, and thirteen great-grandchildren — which makes all of us the descendants of an illegal immigrant. A ban on a particular ethnic or religious group could very easily have kept the 24 of us from becoming the contributing members of American society that we all were or are.

The foundational story of the Jewish people is one of a people that became free after being enslaved in a foreign land. For 1,000 years, our kingdom was one in which the law of the land — the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, which is the sacred text of our people — was filled with commandments to be kind to the stranger, and to empathize with those who came from other places and other traditions to live among us. Here is a sampling of those laws:

Exodus 22:20

(20) You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Exodus 23:9

(9) You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.

Leviticus 19:33-34

(33) When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. (34) The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the LORD am your God.

Leviticus 24:22

(22) You shall have one standard for stranger and citizen alike: for I the LORD am your God.

Deuteronomy 24:17-18

(17) You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger or the fatherless; you shall not take a widows garment in pawn. (18) Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and that the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore do I enjoin you to observe this commandment. 

Deuteronomy 27:19

(19) Cursed be he who subverts the rights of the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. — And all the people shall say, Amen.

For nearly 2000 years, our people were without a homeland, forcing us to become strangers, resident aliens, wherever we called home. We hoped that our hosts — whoever they were — would treat us fairly, and allow us to feel safe. Sometimes this was our experience, but more often it was not.

Today, nearly 1/2 of the world’s Jewish population lives in the United States — a place in which almost everyone’s ancestors were, at some point, strangers in a strange land. While in the abstract that might sound like a large number, estimates on the quantity of the American Jewish population range from 5.7 to 6.8 million people — out of an estimated 319 million Americans. In 2015, the Pew Research Center estimated the US Muslim population to be 3.3 million people. Jews and Muslims are both small minorities in this country – minorities that are here because this is a land that was founded on the ideal of religious freedom. This is a country that was built on the Torah’s principles of being kind to the stranger, and respecting other minorities, because nearly every single American citizen, or at least one of their ancestors, was once a stranger in this strange land, was once a minority in a new world.  

Recently, I was one of over 1900 American rabbis who signed a letter proclaiming our support for refugees from across the world, a letter that said that “The United States must continue to be a safe haven for people fleeing religious persecution, genocide, and terror.” Allowing our nation to become a place that is not welcoming, that is not safe for those fleeing persecution or seeking a better life, would be a betrayal of our best ideals, our most fundamental religious beliefs, and our own stories and identities. What if a ban had been enacted towards YOUR ancestors, at the moment when they were coming to this land, fleeing persecution and/or seeking a better life? Where would you be then? Not here. “V’ahavta l’rei’echa kamocha,” the Torah says in Leviticus 19:18.” You shall love your neighbor as yourself. That’s a much more pleasant commandment to have to live up to than to be cursed because you subverted the rights of the stranger. Please join me in loving our neighbors, whoever they be, wherever they are from, and however they worship God.

Thank you.

Rabbi David Katz