Immigration is the Jewish Question of Today

by Sidney Hollander
JCUA Board Member

Sidney Hollander

Sidney Hollander

It was a week before the beginning of Pesach. I was marching from 101 West Congress to 1901 South Ashland along with about 150 other opponents of the Draconian deportations that are now terrorizing immigrant communities: 2 million deportations in the five years of the Obama administration. “Two million too many,” we chanted. “Not one more.” “Deportations’ got to go.”

Thoughts of throwing off the chains of oppression in Pharaoh’s Egypt come readily to mind, for immigration is a fundamentally Jewish question.

“Welcome the stranger,” God tells us, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Over the centuries we have all too often lived as unwelcome strangers, and, unwelcomed, have all too often had to leave in search of refuge that has not always been forthcoming, in a world that would not welcome Jews. The Nazi genocide, including the closed doors of the American state, is only the most recent, although probably the most horrific, instance.

This was the first leg of a larger and longer march that started at a place of bondage, the local headquarters of the federal deportation agency that has been preying upon immigrant communities with ever increasing cruelty over the past decade. ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is aptly named, for it does have a heart of ice, invoking memories of Pharaoh’s hardened heart that stood between the ancient Israelites and their freedom. Starting from the seat of oppression at 101 West Congress, this first leg was heading for a long-standing place of welcoming, safety and support, St. Pius V Catholic Church, at 19th Street and Ashland Avenue.

‘As a Jew, I find this very troubling.’

Places of refuge for undocumented immigrants are rare in today’s United States. As a Jew I find that very troubling. After all, soon after leaving Egypt, according to the biblical narrative, we arrived at Mount Sinai and received our law, including the obligation to welcome the stranger, which is the most often repeated mitzvah in Torah. I think we Jews do bear a special responsibility to resist the awful reign of terror that our government is visiting on immigrant communities.

Established immigrant members of our society are being arrested and deported every day in very large numbers (daily deportations average 1,100) for such trivial infractions as traffic violations, as reported by the New York Times on the very day I was marching to St. Pius. It is said that they are being deported “back” to their “home” countries, but in fact they usually have only the most minimal ties to those countries because, after all these years, their real homes are right here. What should we, as Jews, be doing to “welcome these strangers among us”?

As I march along I imagine what I would do if I had an encounter with an ICE agent:

“Where are your papers?”

“I don’t have any papers.”

“Are you a US citizen?”

“I don’t know. All I know is what my parents told me. They might have lied to try to protect me.”

“Do you have a driver’s license?”

“Yes, but it may be fraudulent. I got my first license in another state. All they wanted was a Social Security number, as far as I can remember. Then I got my Illinois license by reciprocity.”

“Where were you born?”

“I don’t know. My parents said it was in D.C., but I don’t really know.”

I’m sure my imaginary exchange with the ICE agent was inspired by the story about the Jews of Denmark during World War II. The story goes that when the occupying Nazi army ordered the Danish Jews to wear yellow arm bands, all Danes wore yellow arm bands.

What the Torah says about immigrant rights.

“You shall have one law for stranger and citizen alike (Leviticus 24:22).”

I cannot imagine a better fulfillment of that mitzvah than the Danes’ courageous actions. Surely they must be counted among the most righteous gentiles of those dreadful times. Theirs was an act that continues to stand as an example for us Jews to emulate in this day.

Meanwhile, after a community-supplied lunch at St. Pius, the march continued (alas, without me), gathering support and participants as it made its way to the Broadview detention center of ICE.

The marchers had declared publicly that they were going to take direct action against the system of deportations. Their plan was peacefully to block the buses that were scheduled to ferry immigrants from Broadview to O’Hare for deportation that very day. Arriving at the Broadview center, however, the marchers found themselves confronted not by buses, but by the absence of buses. ICE, having learned of the marchers’ plans, had cancelled that day’s deportations from Broadview.

Victorious as they certainly were, the marchers quickly realized that they needed to broadcast their victory and assert the urgency of their issue more visibly and publicly. They took their message a couple of blocks down the road to a busy intersection where they sat down on the pavement, blocking traffic in two directions. Thanks to the extensive press coverage that followed, a wider public was alerted to the ongoing injustice of ICE’s war on immigrants. I firmly believe that as awareness spreads many others will be jogged out of their indifference be moved to join in as we work to right the terrible wrong being done to the “strangers among us.”

For me, and I think for all Jews in the U.S., in our relative comfort and security, this is the pressing “Jewish question” of today.


Shavuot Text Study: Judaism and Immigration Justice

On the night of the holiday of Shavuot Jewish communities throughout the world have engaged in the practice of all-night Torah study since at least the 16th century. In keeping with that tradition, Rabbi Ben Greenberg of JCUA prepared a text study to be used on Shavuot night on the topic of immigration justice. We hope this text study will serve as a valuable resource for rabbis, educators and all interested.

Download the Immigration Text Study Guide

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