For We Were Strangers in Egypt: The Jewish Imperative for Justice

10/27/2016 11:29 pm ET Updated Oct 28, 2017

As a rabbi and political columnist, I find that every election demands close reflection, introspection, and action. The answer, this year, is clear.

My favorite Biblical quotation occurs several times in the Torah, including Exodus 22:21-22: "You shall not oppress or mistreat a stranger, for you were strangers in Egypt. Do not afflict the widow or the orphan." This, for me, is the foundation of ethical monotheism: resisting the urge to abandon the weak and favor the strong. While Donald Trump, personally and politically, has contempt for the "losers" of our society, my spiritual traditions teach concern for them - concern that translates into respectful language, progressive economic policies, and a refusal to engage in stereotyping.

More recently, my heritage as an American Jew reminds me that my people have been "strangers in Egypt" right here in America, as well as in Germany and the rest of Europe. From Henry Ford in the 1920s to the white-shoe antisemitism of the 1950s to the coddling of the alt-right in the 2010s, most Jews recognize that antisemitism and flag-waving, nativist conservatism and nativism go hand in hand.

This is not just a historical memory. As my Twitter feed reminds me every day, many of our fellow citizens do not regard us as fully American, or even fully human. And the oppression of Jews is not unlike oppression of African Americans, immigrants, Muslims, Latinos, women, Asian Americans, LGBT people and anyone else. Different, but related.

In addition to being a historically oppressed group, American Jews are mostly two or three generations removed from the immigrant experience. We're outsiders here in America, even when we're on the inside. We root for the little guy, the underdog, the underprivileged.

That's why American Jews overwhelmingly (though not unanimously) allied with African Americans against conservatives in the 1960s, with LGBTs against conservatives in the 2000s, and with Latinos, women, and others against conservatives today. When people speak in broad generalizations about Mexicans or Muslims, we know that those same people used to do that about us. And many still do.

My grandparents came here with nothing and worked their way up, American Dream style - with the help of their community, family, and basic government assurances that they wouldn't have to go it alone if times got really rough. Sure, we could learn the opposite lesson: that we worked hard for ours, now it's time for "them" to work for theirs. But that's a mean, nasty lesson to take away - and contrary to every religious teaching I value. I feel obligated to do my best to cultivate empathy for everyone: gun owners, business owners, and farmers; transgender people, Native Americans, and the working poor; folks dealing with mass incarceration, police violence, and systemic racism.

That empathy isn't some soft, mealy-mouthed feeling. It's a personal commitment that I will gladly honor on November 8, pulling the lever for Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine.