Cease Citing Bible To Defend Bush’s Immigration Bill


By Stephen Steinlight

Published April 27, 2007, issue of April 27, 2007.
  • Print
  • Share Share

It would be virtually impossible to unearth a single statement by a mainstream American Jewish leader in support of President Bush’s “Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act” that does not cite Leviticus 19. Citation of the passage is as ubiquitous as mainstream Jewish organizational support is monolithic in backing Bush’s bill and its provisions: exponentially increased immigration, guest worker programs and the amnestying of illegal aliens.

Many critics of this legislation, which will de facto result in an America with open borders, argue that its underlying purpose is to create a vast underclass of impoverished Mexican immigrants — who will be exploited as cheap labor at the direct expense of America’s most vulnerable, in particular poor African Americans.

That clearly comports neither with Jewish values nor Jewish attitudes toward immigration — especially the clear line most Jews draw between legal and illegal immigration. Indeed, survey research shows that most ordinary American Jews, like the great majority of ordinary Americans, oppose the “Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act.” The mainstream Jewish leadership, however, has chosen to disregard the majority of the Jewish community and back Bush’s bill — and it seems the only defense they can offer for their obduracy is Leviticus 19.

Mainstream Jewish organizations can’t get enough of Leviticus 19 — “When strangers sojourn with you in your land, you shall not do them wrong. The strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as the natives among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The biblical passage is the routine rhetorical climax, the putative ace in mainstream Jewish groups’ hand. Drenched with scriptural authority, it’s presumably unassailable. Leviticus 19 supports Bush’s immigration bill, end of story.

Or is it?

Mainstream Jewish organizations cite ancient Leviticus 19 like a contemporary policy recommendation, as though the Torah’s authors were policy wonks with foreknowledge of 21st-century America’s immigration debate. It’s disturbingly reminiscent of the lunatics who believe they’ve broken the Bible Code, deciphering names like Reid, Kennedy and Hagel buried in Scripture — though it’s unlikely their numerology will uncover Sensenbrenner’s, Tancredo’s or any Blue Dog Democrats’.

Leviticus 19 is one of Judaism’s greatest ethical statements. It makes empathy, and even love, for non-Jews a binding duty, asserting ethical universalism and reminding us that the God who commands it is the God of all humankind, not only of Jews. Moreover, this universalism is exceptional; strictures surrounding it are addressed to the Children of Israel as a people set apart, a “chosen people.”

Leviticus 19, like other passages throughout the Bible, demands special treatment for orphans, widows and strangers. Status among Israelite tribes, like other ancient peoples until Athenian democracy, was determined by ownership of land. Since orphans, widows and strangers lacked it, provision was made for their welfare, such as allowing them to glean the corners of the fields for sustenance.

Leviticus 19, however, is not Judaism’s only word on the treatment of strangers, and it is in reading other biblical passages that it becomes clear that key terms have been mistranslated for what can only be political purposes. The word in the Bible for stranger is “Ger v’tohshav.” The precise English equivalent is sojourner.

“Ger v’tohshav” is first used in Genesis 4:23 to describe Abraham when he dwells briefly with the Hittites in Kiryat Arba, what is today Hebron. Richard Elliot Friedman, a leading authority on biblical language, translates the term as “alien” and “visitor.” And every English dictionary defines sojourn as a temporary stay. Given this translation, this passage has absolutely no utility to those, including leaders of mainstream Jewish organizations, who argue that 12 million illegal aliens should be permitted to remain permanently in the United States. Indeed, it furnishes excellent ammunition for the anti-amnesty coalition — that is, were it equally prepared to trivialize scripture.

The term reappears in the last book of the Bible, Chronicles 29:15, in a metaphysical context. King David employs it to contrast the transitory nature of human existence with the eternality of God, creator and steward of the earth on which we briefly dwell as wanderers.

Terms for immigrant or immigration are absent in the Bible, which demands empathy and hospitality for sojourners. Narratives about inclusion are rare. Indeed, we know the rule by the exception — namely, the story of Ruth.

The Bible does address the inclusion of strangers in civil and legal terms in Exodus 12:49, Leviticus 24:22 and Numbers 15:14, which proclaims that there shall be one law for citizens and strangers alike. But it is important to note that while strangers did have rights, they only earned them once they went through what in those days constituted the process of naturalization: circumcision and abandoning idolatry. Strangers were required to strictly obey Israelite law and not undermine the legal fabric of Israelite society.

An exegete could actually cite this text to justify deporting illegal aliens that have violated so many American laws as to threaten the rule of law itself, but I won’t exploit the Bible to make that case.

Leviticus 19 commands us to love the stranger. Bush’s cynical, reactionary bill, you can be certain, is not about love, and Leviticus 19 surely does not command us to exploit strangers as cheap labor or for political gain. Cherry-picking the Bible to support a shameful scheme to exploit poor immigrants at the expense of impoverished Americans to engorge the wealth of rich employers is a sacrilege. Why not just cite the Wall Street Journal?

Mainstream Jewish groups can cite Leviticus 19 all they want, but the Torah simply does not take a position, pro or con, on Bush’s “Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act.” The Torah is not for open borders or for reduced immigration. God is not a Democrat and a liberal, nor a Republican and conservative, nor even a moderate or independent.

God is ineffable. The divinely inspired human beings that recorded God’s vision for humankind sought to make us ethical, reverential beings; they did not set political litmus tests.

Seeking to turn God into a partisan of one’s cause is spiritually arrogant and repugnant. It’s reminiscent of the behavior of Islamist mullahs, supremacist Christians, Frankish crusaders chanting “Gott Mit Uns” and all the basketball players that ever crossed themselves before taking a free throw. Jews should know better.

Stephen Steinlight, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies, is a former director of national affairs at the American Jewish Committee.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.