Each year, as we prepare for the celebration of Passover, I am reminded that the holiday offers some guidance to Jews on how to ethically address the modern question of American immigration.
In the story of Exodus, God commands the Israelites to remember: "You shall not oppress the stranger; you know the heart of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." During Passover Jews are reminded that we were once strangers who were powerless in a foreign and hostile land. Of course most Americans, if they look in to their past, have ancestors who were refugees in a strange land, or who were oppressed as slaves.
The Torah further instructs in Leviticus: "When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. 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."
Can we honestly say to ourselves that we don't "wrong" the immigrants who are strangers in our land when we allow them to be paid less than minimum wage, or look the other way when contractors fail to provide safety equipment to workers doing dangerous jobs? When families are torn apart? Or when we detain or deport people without the due process that our own citizens would expect if they were faced with losing their homes or their liberty? The Jews are commanded over and over to welcome the stranger, but lawmakers across the country want to make it a crime to provide assistance of any kind to an undocumented immigrant.
It's not an easy time to welcome the stranger. It's understandable that, after suffering murderous terrorist attacks by a group of foreigners, some wish to close our nation's doors and expel undocumented immigrants. But while we have a right to defend ourselves, that right does not free us of our moral obligation towards the overwhelming majority of immigrants who are not terrorists.
Through the centuries, Jews have gathered at Passover to retell the story of our liberation from bondage. By recalling the oppression of our people, we are reminded to cherish the freedom we now have, but also to avoid oppressing others. As the debate over immigration reform continues this year, we should all consider our deepest moral beliefs about how we should treat strangers, and how we would wish to be treated in a strange land, and make those beliefs heard in Congress in the weeks and months ahead.