Compassion Required for Strangers Among Us

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This week, as Jews throughout the world celebrate the festival of Passover, we will be reminded that we were once "strangers in a strange land" – a point mentioned in the Torah 36 times – where the majority mistreated us cruelly.

One of the many lessons of this festival of freedom is that a society is judged by the way it treats the weak and the outsider. And though there are many particular lessons for Jews in the observance of this holiday, this notion of compassion for the stranger ought to inform the wider national debate going on this week about the fate of immigration reform.

The question of how to deal with the many millions of persons who live here without documentation is one that has perplexed generations of lawmakers. More to the point, it has also stirred up some of the same unpleasant anti-immigrant passions that have bedeviled our nation throughout its history.


Though this country, like any other, has a right to control its own borders and to keep out those whom it deems undesirable or a risk to the lives and liberty of its citizens, that is no excuse for the agitation behind a bill passed by the House of Representatives last fall which would not only seek to build a wall around our country, but to criminalize the illegals as well as any who aided or employed them.

This is economic madness since the immigrants are themselves responding to a demand for labor that is not being filled by those already here. But even more, it is also a thinly disguised attempt on the part of some politicians to curry favor with voters by tapping into the deep reserves of xenophobia that exist within the body politic.

The response from most of the organized Jewish community has been to rightly oppose the House bill and to back an attempt by some senators from both major political parties to parry this attack with a more rational argument. But unfortunately, the bi-partisan support for the bill co-sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) was not strong enough to prevent a filibuster of a compromise version of the legislation.

Their bill would have sought to create a path to citizenship and legality for the millions of immigrants who currently work and contribute to our economy. While it is not clear whether this measure may be revived, it is important for those who care about honoring America's historic legacy of welcoming immigrants and benefitting from their presence to not let this failure be the last word about true immigration reform.

And that brings us back to Passover. By rehearsing the narrative of our slavery in Egypt and emergence into freedom, Jews have always been able to capture not only the essence of Jewish identity, but the importance of taking action against injustice.

By asking us to understand that it was not just our ancestors who were slaves in Egypt, but each and everyone of us personally, the seder commands us to shake off our indifference to the pain of others.

And that is an important message for contemporary American Jewry to take to heart.

The genius of the holiday is not merely its ability to bring families together, but to remind us that – as much as Israel and the Jewish people are given particular responsibilities by Judaism – we are not absolved of the obligation to care for others.

Let this Passover reinforce our sense of commitment not only to help the needy and the "strangers" around us here in Philadelphia, but to all those in need.

With that in mind, the publishers and staff of the Jewish Exponent wish all of our readers a Pesach Sameach!

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