Statement on Faith Traditions and Immigration Policy: A Jewish Perspective

Prepared for the Senate Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security, and Citizenship

By Stephen Steinlight on October 7, 2009

Dr. Steinlight has previously held senior positions in the American-Jewish Establishment and in interfaith and human rights organizations. He was Director of National Affairs (domestic public policy) and Senior Fellow at the American Jewish Committee; Vice President of the National Conference of Christians and Jews; Director of Education, United States Holocaust Commemoration Council; and Executive Director, American Anti-Slavery Group.

October 8, 2009

To the Chair, the Honorable Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.)
To the Ranking Member, the Honorable John Cornyn (R-Texas)


Dear Senator Schumer and Senator Cornyn:

I address you, respectfully, as a patriotic American and a faithful Jew, the son of a refugee and a first-generation American. This statement is written for “the record,” though I and devout Catholic and Protestant thinkers – also knowledgeable in the field of immigration policy – should have been given the opportunity to testify before the Subcommittee at the hearings on Thursday, October 8.

Thus I begin my statement with a protest. You have invited only representatives of faith groups that support open-borders immigration, amnesty, and “comprehensive immigration reform,” policies profoundly unpopular with the American people and which divide people of faith. By permitting only one side to address you in a great national debate, you have done a profound disservice to the American people as they seek to respond to immigration policy through influencing the judgment of their representatives. You have done yourselves a disservice as well by prohibiting the possibility of being educated by a different point of view.

Silencing opposing voices through prior censorship is un-American, representing a profoundly troubling attitude toward freedom of expression and pluralism, cornerstones of our republic.

Finally, and most disturbing to people of faith, you have wittingly or unwittingly demonstrated disrespect toward our Judeo-Christian heritage which does not identify God with narrow partisanship or the specifics of public policy. People of faith – whether Christian or Jewish – regard such a narrow conception of the Almighty as blasphemous, as taking the name of the Lord in vain. God is not a Democrat or Republican, nor even an Independent. God is not a liberal or a conservative. All our traditions understand God and God’s plan for humankind as ineffable. Neither Christianity nor Judaism has “a position” on what constitutes the best immigration policy for America in the 21st century. Faithful Christians and Jews have different, opposing views – and each can call on their religious traditions to make their case. By inviting only people of faith that take one side on the immigration debate, you have, in essence, identified those people as the “Party of God.”

It is an open secret that the vast majority of American Catholics dissent from the pastoral letters and statements of the Church hierarchy, but it is representatives of the hierarchy who will speak at your hearing. Indeed, within virtually any demographic one might name, the opinions of elites (often self-appointed) differ profoundly from those of ordinary citizens. It is also true that the politically correct Jewish Establishment cannot claim to speak in the name of Americans who are Jews with any credibility. The fraudulence of their mandate was evidenced by the disastrous conclusion of a much-publicized Jewish Establishment campaign called “Progress by Pesach” (Hebrew for Passover) in support of amnesty and “comprehensive immigration reform.” Backed by some 26 Jewish organizations, including the leadership of the Conservative and Reform religious movements – a group claiming to speak for some two million American Jews – its goal was the presentation of a monster petition to members of Congress attesting to the extent of Jewish support for open-borders. They received a mere 3,000 signatures, and of this infinitesimal end product, many signatures were duplicates and many fraudulent.

I have addressed more Jewish audiences on immigration policy – whether in houses of worship or before local chapters of national Jewish organizations – than any other living American. I have spoken to some 200 Jewish audiences over the past five years. On every occasion, support for my opposition to “comprehensive immigration reform” receives support from some 75-90 percent of the audience. This evidence should not be dismissed as merely anecdotal. The only conflicting “evidence” is a transparent “push-poll” conducted by the American Jewish Committee whose findings are meaningless.

It is more in sorrow than in anger that I characterize the hearings on Thursday, October 8, as a cynical sham that mocks our deepest values as American. Those that organized the hearings on the basis of naked partisanship should be ashamed of the disrespect they have shown the Bill of Rights and the rich diversity of Christian and Jewish thought.


Those that advocate amnesty and “comprehensive immigration reform” do battle with quivers ostensibly devoid of substantive arguments. They have them, all right, but the real motive forces that drive their case are too narrowly chauvinistic, politically cynical, ideologically foreign, or too brutal to share openly with the American people. Among these are: encouraging extreme identity politics, ethnic pandering for partisan gain, raw economic greed as corporate members of their alliance work to create a permanent underclass to re-barbarize American capitalism, and advancing a post-Americanism which includes explicit and implicit rejection of the moral authority of the nation state. Whether articulated with affected innocence in irresponsible platitudes by princes of the Church or in the thinly veiled sneers of my own politically correct clergy, the tenets of our civil creed, the bonds that unite us, are devalued or derided: patriotism, civic virtue, love of knowable community, belief in a common destiny, faith in the rule of law.

Our clerical opponents, among others, recognize they dare not publicize this underlying logic, thus they habitually resort to three pseudo-arguments, each an evasion suffused with disingenuous moralism. They argue ad miseracordiam, trying to inculcate guilt in ordinary Americans about the plight of illegal aliens for whom they wish to engender sympathy – greater sympathy, in fact, than for unemployed and impoverished fellow citizens. This logical fallacy’s essence – whether employed by religious or secular advocates – is arguing that particular actions or a public policy must follow the emotion of pity. Since they build this argument on compassion, we must note that on this miserably unjust planet of seven billion human beings, three billion have nothing while Mexicans are the richest in the Third World, possessing twice the income of the most wretched. (I refer to Mexicans throughout these remarks. Contemporary immigration – legal and illegal – is virtually conterminous with Mexican immigration. If one were to take the next 10 largest groups of immigrants from different countries of origin and combine them, their total would be considerably less than those from Mexico.)

Selective compassion for Mexicans is comprehensible only when viewed through the prism of narrowly defined communal, political, commercial, or sectarian religious interests. Second, our opponents level ugly charges of xenophobia or racism against those who disagree with them; and Third, with arrogant religiosity they assert Göt Mitt Uns, God is with us, engaging in advocacy exegesis, abusing Scripture to hoodwink a religious nation – perhaps deluding themselves into the bargain.

Our purpose today is not theirs: We offer varying perspectives from our faith traditions to address questions arising in the context of immigration. None of our Scriptures address immigration directly, certainly not as we understand it in modern historical terms, thus we work through analogy. Our views come from knowledge of our traditions, but are, finally, subjective interpretations. This reticence about religious claims is essential. God and God’s intentions are ineffable. No faith tradition has only one response to these questions. Scripture speaks with many voices, none reducible to a single meaning; nor can any be understood outside of context. We should walk humbly among our sacred texts.

In early 16th century Judaism, an historic hermeneutical enterprise encapsulated a long tradition of oral and written Biblical commentary into a work that remains authoritative. Its Hebrew title is Mikraot Gidolot, in English “Great Happenings.” Also known as a rabbinic Bible, it embodies Judaism’s understanding that faith and intellectual rigor are partners, that the divinely inspired words of the Bible’s authors require interpretation and that multiple perspectives yield the most thoughtful answers, not reductionism. A rabbinic Bible contains two Targums, interpretive translations of Biblical Hebrew into Aramaic, the lingua franca of Biblical times. One is the Eastern or Babylonian Targum of Onkelos, a Greek Monk and convert to Judaism; the other the Western or Jerusalem Targum of Rabbi Jonathan. On each page, Biblical narrative is surrounded by the commentaries of six great medieval exegetes, including Miamonidies of Andalusia and Rashi of Troyes in France.

Our opponents who cherry pick and dumb down sacred text are shameless reductionists, and they regard one passage from the Hebrew Bible as their trump card: Leviticus 19:33-34.

"When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”

This passage expresses the ethical universalism central to classical Judaism. Many liberal adherents regard it as Judaism’s totality – though it is but half of a dialectic counter-balanced by another: strong particularism, including national and civilizational allegiances. This particularism was relied upon heavily by the Founders in their great speeches and writing who cited the Providential role of the Almighty in the particular destiny of the American people.

One of Scripture’s great expressions of human empathy, the passage from Leviticus is not a press release from God’s Legislative Affairs Office endorsing “Comprehensive Immigration Reform.” It says nothing about immigration – for which there is no word in Biblical Hebrew – or amnesty, extended family reunification, bilingualism, birthright citizenship, guest workers, identity theft, ICE raids, eligibility for Obamacare, etc.

The Hebrew Bible’s authors did not anticipate the debate on immigration in 21st century America and do not address it in Leviticus. This self-evident truth should prevent clergy or lay leaders from treating it like political talking points. But they cite it to argue legislative particulars as though it were written by policy wonks. (I wonder if they’d care to cite Leviticus on gay marriage or the death penalty?) Their approach drenches political advocacy with arrogant religiosity, dangerously sanctifying partisanship.

Does Leviticus 19:33 address – let alone endorse – “comprehensive immigration reform?” Not by the most lenient interpretive standard. It commands empathy, "love" for the "other," for gentiles, asserting humanity’s oneness and God’s omnipotence. It commands us to treat the “other” kindly, the stranger residing temporarily and lawfully among us. It commands nothing more.

Utilizing this passage as sanction for amnesty requires conscious mistranslation. This is not an esoteric quibble. The word for stranger in the Hebrew Bible is Ger v'toh-shav – “sojourner” in English. First appearing in Genesis 4:23 to describe Abraham when he dwells briefly among the Hittites in Kiryat Arba, modern Hebron, its final appearance is in the last book of the Hebrew Bible, Chronicles 29:15, when King David contrasts the transitory nature of human existence with the eternality of God on whose earth we live as temporary wanderers.

The eminent scholar Richard Elliot Friedman, Professor of Biblical Hebrew at Oxford and Cambridge universities, translates it as "alien" and "visitor." All English dictionaries define "to sojourn" as "to stay temporarily." Arguing some 11 million illegal aliens should remain here permanently finds no support in Leviticus.

As noted, there’s no term for “immigrant” or “immigration” in the Hebrew Bible, and the Book of Ruth is an exceptional narrative about the adoption of a new national identity. Ruth, a Moabite, determines to remain with her Israelite mother-in-law after her husband’s death and become an Israelite. It’s instructive to contrast the powerful assertion of national belonging Ruth expresses to Naomi with the apparent indifference to national identity or loyalty to a competing one that characterizes so many contemporary resident aliens. Ruth says, “Wherever you go, I will go; And wherever you lodge, I will lodge; Your people will be my people and your God will be my God. Where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried.” The Book of Ruth provides perhaps the most ancient expression of the ideal of patriotic assimilation.

Fewer than 25 percent of foreign-born Mexicans have naturalized. The Pew Hispanic Center reports that number dropped 62 percent in the last year; one explanation is the cost of filing for naturalization rose $265.00. In the Book of Ruth we encounter an outsider’s total identification with an adopted nation and longing for complete absorption. Among a great many contemporary transnational migrants (a more accurate term than “immigrant”) we see something very different. Whether stemming from the anomie of the deracinated, economic calculation, unwillingness to choose between identities, or more likely, an abiding loyalty to Mexico – all Mexicans remain Mexican by Mexican law – there’s scant indication of a parallel desire to embrace American identity. This is especially true when that requires paying a price for wholesale violations of American law, playing by the rules, and going to the back of the queue. A recent survey conducted in Mexico finds 69 percent of Mexicans believe their compatriots in the United States owe Mexico primary loyalty; another finds 62 percent of Mexicans harbor irredentist attitudes, regarding the American Southwest as Mexican. Can one even disaggregate these groups – Mexicans here, Mexicans there – given porous borders, their peregrinations, and Mexico’s unbroken ties – ideological and legal –on its children here?

The Hebrew Bible addresses inclusion of strangers/aliens in civil and legal terms in several places. (Exodus, 12:49; Leviticus, 24: 22; and Numbers, 15:14). It proclaims: "One law for the citizen/native and the alien/stranger that dwells among you."

But this is no Bill of Rights for sojourners. The Bible demands strict obedience to Israelite laws and norms. Aliens gain rights only through lawful residency. While “aliens” need not convert, they must embrace monotheism, the bedrock of Judaic civilization. The punishment for idolatry is death. Strangers had to pay taxes, demonstrate civic loyalty by making the annual pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem, and preserve social order.

The Bible draws a bright line between its religiously defined notion of being a citizen – in Biblical Hebrew the word is ezrach – from a sojourner. While forms of legal residency for those outside the covenant find sanction in the Hebrew Bible, only conversion to Judaism conferred all rights and made one a full member of the people (for example, the remittance of debts every seven years was not permitted to resident aliens). The idea that conversion confers full rights is paralleled by a prepositional conception of American citizenship.

Leviticus 19:33 exhorts us to “Love the stranger." “Comprehensive Immigration Reform” is not about love; it’s about exploiting cheap labor, Hispanic identity politics, and creating a permanent Democratic political majority. Leviticus does not command us to exploit strangers for profit or political advantage.

Contemporary immigration pits hard-pressed constituencies against each other: poor illegal aliens against America’s unemployed, working poor, and working class, including legal immigrants. The competition gravely harms our fellow citizens, especially during times of acute economic distress. Our “jobless recovery” means nearly 10 percent of us are “officially” unemployed. Some 16 million are out of work, and while six citizens chase every job advertised, illegal aliens hold some seven million jobs. In this zero-sum game, our countrymen have first call on our loyalty: “charity begins at home.”

The Hebrew Prophets repeatedly demand justice for the humble laborers of one’s own community. This exhortation is recited in the Bible’s “Holiness Code” read in every synagogue on the Day of Atonement. Distorting Scripture to support legislation designed to import cheap labor to depress the wages and worsen the working conditions of our vulnerable fellow citizens is not only shameful; it is also sacrilege.

Dr. Stephen Steinlight
Senior Policy Analyst
Center for Immigration Studies
1522 K Street, N.W., Suite 820
Washington, DC 20005-1202

Topics: Religion, Jews