Immigration and the scoundrels

What is it that the Jewish community brings to the discussion of immigration? What learned wisdom do we have to share?

It is true that the Jewish people is a people born and nurtured in the Diaspora, as immigrants, as strangers and sojourners on the way to or from somewhere else, making temporary or permanent homes in foreign lands. As the French Jewish Bible scholar and thinker Andre Neher points out, beginning with Abraham, the Israelites spent more time wandering and living outside of Canaan and the Land of Israel than residing in it. As soon as Abraham follows the Divine directive and leaves Haran and arrives in the Land of Canaan, there is a famine and he and Sarah and the whole household hit the road again. This story repeats itself until three generations later the Israelites settle as sojourners in Egypt for four hundred years.

The Torah itself ends with the Israelites camped in the desert across from the Land of Israel, not having crossed over the Jordan yet. The Jewish canonical Bible ends just as Cyrus authorizes the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple and resettle the land, but before they actually return. This is an important point since the final book of the Jewish Bible (the TaNaKh—Torah, Nevi’im/Prophets, Ketuvim/Writings) is not historically the last book. Chronicles ends the canon, but the books of Ezra and Nehemiah recount the return to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the walls and the rededication of the Temple. The canonical choice then is making a point—a point about the importance of the Diasporic experience.

Further, the vast majority of the Jewish textual tradition was produced in Babylonia, Kairouan, Fez, Toledo, Barcelona, Burgos, Troyes, Dampierre, Medzhybizh, Vilna, Warsaw and on. The library of Jewish knowledge is a Diasporic library written by a diglossic people, the second learned language was always the rabbinic Hebrew of the sacred tradition. (In truth, the Jews were usually triglossic, speaking also a Jewish language in addition to the language of the place they lived and the holy language in which they studied and composed.) And so, there are those who say that what we bring to the table is the memory and experience, the truth and the travails of having lived in many, many lands as foreigners, sojourners, immigrants and refugees, documented and undocumented. This is true, of course, but there is more.

It is true that the foundational tale of the Jewish people is the Biblical story of the Exodus, in which we are narrated as having toiled for four hundred years as slaves, and so, the Torah reminds us: “you know the soul of the stranger.” The wisdom gained from this servitude is that the lesson of oppression is compassion. We who understand slavery, being marginal laborers, are mandated to be compassionate to those who know toil at the margins and under the radar.

There is something to this narrative, however I think that what we bring to the table is neither the history of our sojourns and tribulations—though that too. Nor is it the story of slavery in Egypt. There is no one alive who remembers what it was like to be a slave. Vicarious suffering does not create empathy, nor is it, to my mind, a solid ground for good politics.

What we bring to the table is a different part of the story—the part where the Israelites stand on the other side of sea, the side of freedom and liberation, and exult. What we bring to the table is the possibility of being liberated, of knowing that the tables do turn and that political structures of hierarchy and oppression are not eternal. They change.

We bring this and one other thing. Leviticus 19:2.

“You shall be holy for I, the Lord your God, am holy.”

Generations and centuries of scholars and scholarship have tried to understand how to fulfill the command: ‘You shall be holy.’ How is one to be holy? What is a practice of holiness? What is it that one does in order to become holy? In the twelfth century in Spain, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (known as Nachmanides) explained that this command is saying: Do not be “a scoundrel within the bounds of the Torah.” There are many things that are permitted and forbidden according to Jewish law. According to Nachmanides this extra prohibition comes to warn that one could follow the letter of the law and still be a scoundrel.

It is this frame which we can bring to the discussion of undocumented immigrants. We must warn against being a scoundrel within the bounds of the law. We can bring to the conversation the idea that citizenship is not only about a piece of paper. As Jeffrey stout writes:

An individual counts as a citizen in the formal sense only if he or she is recognized as such under law. The legal system confers the official status of a citizen on particular individuals. But when the legal category is applied in an arbitrarily narrow way, it can come into conflict with an informal process of mutual recognition among the people. In a broader sense, then, citizens are individuals who treat one another as bearers of the relevant kind of responsibility. To be a citizen, in this sense, is to be recognized by others as such, or more strongly, to be worthy of being recognized. (Blessed are the Organized, pp 10-11)

We must bring to the table the forceful idea that a large population of undocumented people have been working and contributing to this country, creating communities, raising families, more and more being involved in weighty political conversations that effect everybody in the country—in short have been behaving like citizens—for many years.

While not using the notion of holiness, the Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit articulates a similar point.

Since a decent society involves respect for humans, and humiliating any human being is wrong, no distinction should be made in this regard between members of the society and people in its orbit who are not members. It is for this reason that I do not define the decent society as one that does not humiliate its members, but extend the concept to include anyone under its jurisdiction. (The Decent Society, p. 150)

What we must bring to the table is the idea that if we are to become a holy society, a more perfect union, we cannot systematically humiliate and discriminate against fourteen million people. We must finally recognize them as being, for the most part, the citizens that they already are, and make that official.

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