Cinco de Mayo and the Jews

Our chavurah met last Saturday evening, after the controversial Arizona immigration bill had hit the media, and we had a lively discussion.

We live in New Mexico, a majority-minority state with the highest percentage Hispanic population in the country (at 43.4% according to Wikipedia), where, today, Cinco de Mayo, is a real holiday with crowds packing our neighborhood Mexican restaurant and all the grocery stores, as people stock up to celebrate whatever happened in Mexico on May 5. (I actually know what happened on that date in 1862, but I’m not sure that most of those celebrating it know.) So, you’d imagine that New Mexicans are not happy with Arizona’s anti-immigrant sentiments, but then Arizona is our next-door neighbor, and we share a stretch of the same troubled Mexican border that it does. And besides, most of our Hispanic population is not really made up of immigrants, since their families already lived here before the U.S. invasion in the 1840s. In New Mexico, the Hispanics are the old-timers (after the Native Americans, of course, who make up a hefty ten percent of the population), and they look a bit askance at all the newcomers, Latino as well as Anglo.

So feelings about Arizona’s new law are mixed in our state, but the chavurah seemed to be drifting in the direction of unquestioning support for Arizona and tough rhetoric about immigration. As chavurah leader, I felt compelled to make two Jewishly-related observations:

First, a recent Torah reading, Parashat K’doshim, contains this verse:

The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God. (Lev. 19:34, NKJV)

In Divine Reversal, I discuss­ this verse in the context of Yeshua’s command to love our enemies (Matt. 5:43ff.):

Leviticus 19 commands us to love not only our neighbor, but also the alien, or stranger, as ourselves. And alien is defined in terms of Israel’s experience as an alien in Egypt. . . . The Israelites kept themselves separate from the Egyptians, maintained different values and customs, and proved to be strangers not just in origin, but also in their outlook and practice. They resisted assimilation into Egypt. Since you were aliens like this, Moses says, you are to love aliens, even aliens like this, as well. “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Exod. 23:9). In the same way, the alien whom we are to love might be different from us, not just the “good” outsider who is trying his best to be like us. The stranger might even turn out to be at enmity with us, as Israel was, or was perceived to be, during its sojourn in Egypt.

Sure, a nation has the right and even responsibility to maintain its borders, but the believer has the responsibility to respect and be concerned for the alien, even the one who snuck in illegally, or who doesn’t show much inclination to drop his Spanish, forget about ­Cinco de Mayo, and assimilate. We can argue some other time about how respect and concern should play out, but surely they will avoid the harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric that is employed without much thought at times by those who claim to follow Yeshua.

Then there’s a second Jewish connection. One of our chavurah members said that she didn’t have any problem with immigrants, as long as they came in legally and played by the rules, like her grandparents. The problem with that objection is that immigration was wide-open back when our grandparents or great-grandparents came to America. In the 1920s things began to tighten up, partly in response to the huge numbers of Jews who had already made it into America. If the rules that folks should play by today were in place back in the pre-World War I era, the great Jewish migration to America would never have happened, and our parents would have been born in the doomed Jewish communities of Poland or Russia, and most of us would never have been born at all.

I’m not staking out a position in this blog on Arizona’s immigration law, except to agree with concerns that it might provide a pretext for racial profiling and harassment. The onus is on Arizona officials to see that the law doesn’t do what its opponents fear. Mainly though, I’m simply trying to think about the issue outside the usual right-wing and left-wing boxes. Politics at the service of ethics is what I’m after, and there’s some complex ethical terrain to navigate here.

11 thoughts on “Cinco de Mayo and the Jews”

  1. Well said! We have a call to a higher morality that embraces the alien and stranger. Accepting any immigrants changes us. As far as i can see the main objections to Mexican immigrants are 1. our increasingly Mexican/latino presence with Spanish language threatening English as the one true American language, and 2. tax dollars paying for benefits to immigrants, legal or otherwise. Neither of these objections seem informed by biblical moral teaching.

  2. Good analysis, Russ. Few thoughts on this. 1) There may well be a constitutional problem with the Arizona law, in light of the fact that immigration is a federal matter despite the fact that Arizona tried to make it a state matter by making it against Arizona law to be in the state illegally – again, a questionable assertion. 2) At the turn of the 20th century, mobility among nations was still very limited. It’s true from 1881-1924 the US received more immigrants per native born than in all of its history. As mobility has increased limits upon immigration have been imposed throughout the world. 3) I like the argument about treating the alien well. We have some illegals in our congregation – even some who have become members. Questions have arisen about helping them, and I’ve cited the same Scriptures. 4) I wrote a blog on immigration about 3 months ago. Can be seen at and go into the archives. 5) The immigration system in the US is completely broken. It’s easier to come here illegally than it is legally. Very sad.

  3. Thanks for working to shed some light on a very complex issue. You’ve thrown down a bit of a gauntlet here, and I think it’s a welcome challenge to us to think outside of our respective political boxes.

  4. I believe that the alien described in the Torah is OBLIGATED to respect and observe the law of the Land. Illegal aliens in Arizona and elsewhere by definition do not fit this description. They are also not political or religious refugees. We know that Arizona in particular is a place of high drug trafficking from Mexico and that a lot of crimes, such as murder, has been committed by the traffickers and undocumented and untraceable illegal aliens crossing from Mexico into Arizona. Its citizens are rightly fed up with such situation – their own “legal” criminals are quite enough. The state of Arizona has an obligation to enforce its laws and protects its citizens.

    I speak as someone who has immigrated, legally, with my family after waiting for more than two long years for the arduous, but again, legal bureaucratic process to finalize. As a refugee myself, I can testify that America IS indeed a very welcoming place to its aliens – more than all countries in the world combined. No one on this planet should have the right to accuse America of being anything but a heaven for the oppressed. But America is also a nation of laws – we should not be welcoming or approving of those who choose to disregard them, for whatever reason.

  5. Also, another important point to make – before Israelite became aliens in the land of Egypt, they requested (…”So now, please let your servants settle in Goshen…”) and were granted by the Pharaoh himself a special permission to settle there (…”the land of Egypt is before you; settle your father and your brothers in the best part of the land. Let them live in Goshen.” ) (Genesis 47:1-12).

    So, as you can see, Israelites were certainly not illegal aliens by any means but respected the law of the land of Egypt and only settled by permission of the authorities.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Gene. I understand the impulse behind the Arizona law, I think, and wrote that the onus is on Arizona authorities to ensure that it’s not abused. Some critics think that’s it’s inevitably abusive. On the other hand, it’s hard to argue against secure borders and the need to control access to our country. Jamie Cowen’s point is really important; “It’s easier to come here illegally than it is legally.” My main point, though, is to encourage us to think beyond the usual polarizing categories and to incorporate Jewish ethical thinking into our political discourse.

  6. My grandparents desperately tried to get out of German during the Shoah. They could not come to the United States until they found a sponsor who would put aside a large sum of money in an escrow account to assure the US government that this new family would not have to be supported by the welfare system. One of my grandfather’s patients (not Jewish) moved to NYC and begged her wealthy employer to become a sponsor for my mother, uncle and grandparents. He finally relented and placed $1,500.00 in a bank account. In those days that was a lot of money. They settled in upper Manhattan, my grandfather had to repeat medical school and my grandmother opened a nursing home in a rented apartment and took care of 13 elderly Jewish women to support the family.

    Our immigration system is broken and I don’t understand why congress won’t fix it. We have no guest worker programs and it is unbelievably difficult to get a green card. The High tech industry has been complaining for years that we cannot get enough highly educated persons into our country to work for our corporations. We have friends who have been married for two years, one from the US and the spouse from Canada. She still has not been given permission to work here. In the meantime her step children are without a mother figure in their lives because their mother died of cancer. Another example of the inhumanity of the system. THIS SYSTEM IS COMPLETELY BROKEN AND NO ONE IS MAKING AN EFFORT TO FIX IT.

  7. An American Jewish lawyer once asked Mark Twain “what has become of the Golden Rule?” His reply:

    “It exists, it continues to sparkle, and is well taken care of. It is Exhibit A in the Church’s assets, and we pull it out every Sunday and give it an airing. But you are not permitted to try to smuggle it into this discussion, where it is irrelevant and would not feel at home. It is strictly religious furniture, like an acolyte, or a contribution-plate, or any of those things.”

  8. Excellent comment, Rabbi Resnik. And very good discussion following. I am very far from this problem, living in Brazil, but I have seen many troubles faced by people who are illegally out of their will, and cannot resolve their situation. Like the problem of the Army wives: It’s a comfort to see good people concerned about this situation, without avoiding USA’s rights to secure its borders and also that illegal immigration does not become a burden on America’s citizens.
    As we say on the Medical field, “each case is a case in itself.” It should be approached like this.

  9. I have often noted in my reading of the Holy Book the passages you quote from Torah and others like them that demonstrate God’s concern for the alien and stranger in our midst. If my memory serves me, a harsher judgement falls on those nations who do not show kindness to the stranger and alien. When I hear believers in positions of influence or authority out of hand denouncing immigrants or aliens, I wince and wonder why the believing community seems to be so ignorant of the passages that shed light on an aspect of the heart of God.

    Thank you Russ for giving voice to a position or at least a facet of the picture that needs exposure and discussion in the believing communtiy.

    Most of the “strangers in our midst” with whom I have come in contact come to this country to escape some rather dire circumstances in their homeland and their desire is to provide a better life for their families-a future and a hope. Yes, ideally this needs to be done legally and above board. But I wonder if I faced a choice similar to theirs, would I do things “legally” and put my familty at risk? I don’t claim to know the answer! It is a complex situation and government has its obligation to protect our country and enforce the laws, yet we as individuals also have our obligation to live out Torah to those we rub shoulders with on a daily basis.

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