Welcome! I am Rabbi Jonathan Biatch of Madison, Wisconsin. "Pulpit Perspectives: My Observations as a Congregational Rabbi" is published every two weeks to reflect my observations about life in my congregation and with my members. The opinions expressed here are solely my own. I invite you to join the dialogue!

Monday, June 14, 2010

The recent successes of immigrant populations suggest that a different approach needs to be considered for comprehensive immigration reform.

You may remember these recent headlines:

The New York Times proclaimed: "In Miss USA Contest, a Novel Twist," because pageant organizers had crowned a 24-year-old Lebanese immigrant as Miss USA 2010."

From the Detroit Free Press: "Metro Detroit celebrates Miss USA's Arab-American winner."

And in what was to me a clear reach for ratings and in reference to a controversy spun by the political Right, CNN had this headline: "Miss USA: Muslim Trailblazer or Hezbollah Spy?"

Then there was a hate-filled website that read "Zionists Install Rima Fakih as Miss USA 2010." And there are even more which I would not repeat in this forum.

There were similar events that also made headlines. Thaindian News announced "Anamika Veeramani Wins Bee Championship," when it beamed with pride that Veeramani was the third consecutive Indian-American to win the Bee Championship. I wonder what the hate websites said about that!

We Jews should understand this manifestation of hatred. We, too, once ascended into mainstream society accompanied by derision and contempt. And so it is with today's new immigrants, who have become the targets of racists.

Whether through the anti-immigrant sniping of radio and television talk-show hosts, or the ranting of nativist groups on the World Wide Web, or the anti-Semitic attitudes recently expressed by former White House correspondent Helen Thomas, many in our society have felt emboldened to assert expressions of white superiority or, as some might call it, "American exceptionalism." (You know, I really dislike that term.)

Yes, the cries of white supremacists have again been heard in our land.

And overall, our society has grown coarser. Hate speech has become more widespread. And why our society has not come out more fervently against these new and emboldened expressions of hatred - I just don't understand.

Psychologists will tell us that expressing our feelings makes us generally feel better. But the prejudicial emotions that are aired so freely in the media these days - from many places along the political spectrum - do nothing but degrade the humanity of which we really should be rightly proud.

Remembering 'the plight of the stranger in our midst' is a command spoken by the Torah no less than 36 times. This represents a sacred obligation which should permeate every moment of our lives. And all of this begins with our speech. How we put our thoughts and emotions into words truly declares our intent and our direction.

The racially triumphalist speech to which we are subject makes me view, in a much more positive light, Korach's words of dissent in the Torah portion of Korach, beginning in Numbers 16. When contrasted with the nativist language that we hear from people like Glenn Beck, various states such as Arizona, TEA and other sectarian parties, and the vast array of hate websites, Korach's cry rings in our ears, for it can be heard as a declaration and desire for equality.

At the beginning of our parashah Korach bellows out at Aaron and Moses, "You have gone too far. The whole community is holy - every one of them - and the Eternal God is among all of them. Why then do you raise yourselves above this assembly of God?"

Now: It is clear, in the context of the Torah, that Korach protests the elite status of the Cohanim - the priestly class - of which he is not a member. He criticizes those who have, in his eyes, unduly elevated themselves within the Israelite hierarchy. So on behalf of the entirety of the community of Israel, he demands equality and justice.

As the narrative of the Torah unfolds, we see that God actually finds his protest objectionable, and punishes him, his followers, and their families. The purpose - and plain message - of the narrative is that the community of Israel needs a stable hierarchy of civic and religious leadership to survive the rigors of desert life. The preservation of Israel requires the keen oversight of the priests to ensure that each sacrifice and each ritual is observed in scrupulous fashion. Citizen participation is not required.

But understood in a different context, we today might read Korach's words as a plea to whomever is listening that, in his view, each citizen of Israel - and, by extension, each person on the planet - is graced with an equal amount of God's divinity; each person is made in God's image. And if that is the understanding, then no difference should stand between one person and another.

It is ironic that, both from the biblical and the scientific/evolutionary points of view, the generations of humanity are understood to have descended from a single ancestor. Whether we're talking about Adam and Eve, who in the book of Genesis originated in the Garden of Eden, or about homo habilis, one of our first ancestors who walked upright, who seems to have his/her origins in the south and east parts of the African continent, our commonality should make us grow closer to one another rather than act as a barrier keeping us apart.

And, at least from the standpoint of the rabbinic commentators of Torah, this common ancestry that we read about in Genesis 5:1 is the most important 'take-away' that we articulate through Jewish tradition. This unique and unified human pedigree, according to our Torah authorities, should permeate every action we take during our lives.

It is in this context that I share with you my profound disgust of that infamous new Arizona state law about identifying and dealing with immigrants. It is, as we know, a statute that enables law enforcement personnel or agencies to "determine the immigration status of the person" whenever any "lawful contact" is "made by a law enforcement official or a law enforcement agency."

This new law invites racial profiling at its most nefarious level, that is, when it's sanctioned by the state. And given the vast numbers of Latino Americans in Arizona, not to mention any other minority of some color, the law could subject massive numbers of Americans to violation of their freedoms.

All that is needed by any officer or agency is "reasonable suspicion" to ask someone for "zheir papers." And unlike most laws that I have read, certain terms, especially the ambiguous phrase "reasonable suspicion," are not defined. This murkiness will surely lead to abuse, particularly in a 'wild west' state.

If simple physical appearance, or arbitrary officer discretion, are determining factors, any non-white person living in Arizona is really, as they might say in Spanish, "auf tzuris."

As an update: On June 4th, 2010, a coalition of civil rights groups petitioned the federal courts to block the implementation of the law until its constitutionality can be determined. The coalition includes the American Civil Liberties Union, the Mexican American Legal Defense & Education League, the National Immigration Law Center, the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, the ACLU of Arizona, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

And a month ago, 13 Reform Rabbis in Arizona notified the governor of their opposition of the law. They stated their abhorrence of an "inhumane and retrogressive bill" that "threatens the rights of all Arizona residents by making the failure to carry identification into a crime and leaving the entire population vulnerable to police questioning." They rightly complained that the permissions given to local law enforcement was "an affront to American values of justice and our historic status as a nation of immigrants."

All of this brings me back to the Torah's unique appreciation of the plight of the stranger that I mentioned earlier. For centuries of history, and more centuries of our story as described in the bible, we have been intimately familiar with the plight of the stranger.

From our past days enslaved at the hands of Egypt's leaders, to our wanderings from land to land while in exile, we know - in our kishkes - the hardships, the degradation, and the disabilities of being foreigners in a strange land. We understand deep inside how it feels to be chased, enslaved, imprisoned simply for our existence, and then expelled for the same reason.

We also know the hard work that it takes to survive in a foreign land. Many of our ancestors were itinerant peddlers on foot - perhaps with a horse - making their way across the landscape, in Europe or America. And we persevered, despite the employment and social disabilities that we suffered at the hands of the Christians and the Muslims. When arriving in great numbers on these shores, we banded together, helping one another even with social barriers erected.

So we also remember the joy we felt when we had realized that we had 'made it' in America. We recall the elation when Louis D. Brandeis was nominated, then confirmed, as the first Jewish Supreme Court justice. We enjoyed an immense sense of satisfaction when, in the face of quotas in secular or other sectarian institutions, we created our own medical schools and hospitals which, even today, have continued to achieve the highest levels of quality and patient care.

And Jews have 'made it' in many fields, from politics to education, from science to entertainment, from law to medicine, from retail successes to volunteer excellence. So we can really only be happy for another immigrant community who also desires to succeed in our country of possibilities.

So I return to the words of Korach in our parashah: "The whole community is holy - every one of them - and the Eternal God is among all of them. Why then does anyone raise himself or herself above this assembly of God?"

So when an Arab American wins a Miss USA beauty pageant, or when a Hindi American wins, for the third straight year, the national Spelling Bee, we see that, even with the hatred and the prevalent name calling; even with the steepness of the climb: other minorities, too, are beginning to make it in our country.

And this should make us proud. Perhaps even hopeful. But certainly very proud!