In 1938, the west organized the Evian conference to address the growing challenge of Jewish refugees desperately fleeing Germany, Austria, and parts of Eastern Europe as the horror of the Nazi program became clear. Evian was a disaster. No one wanted to accept Jewish refugees. The Australian representative went so far as to declare “We have no real refugee problem and we are not desirous of importing one.” Instead of finding a place of refuge, Evian only further emboldened the Nazi program. Had any nation on Earth found the compassion to open its doors, millions of Jews would have been saved and World War II might have been derailed before it even began. There was a chance to invite God in with compassion and love; instead the nations of the world turned away from suffering and moved closer to war.
We see a similar moment in the story of Balaak and Balaam. The Israelites, refugees from Egypt, are heading to the promised land. Balaak sees them and instead of reacting in compassion gives into fear. He wants to bar Israel from his lands and seeks out the great prophet Balaam to curse them. Balaam is a fascinating biblical figure, the only non-Jewish prophet of note. The language of his story echoes that of Abraham. I wonder: perhaps Balaam was a proto-Abraham. If he could find his own inner reservoir of compassion and love, perhaps he could have opened another pathway for God into the world. Instead, he gave into a blend of avarice and fear and attempted to curse Israel seven times. Yet again and again God forced words of blessing instead, including the words, “How glorious are your tents, Israel, your dwellings Jacob.”
Here too there was a chance to invite God in through compassion. Had Balaak remembered his connections to the Israelites, or Balaam found his love for humanity, war and destruction would have been averted.
I worry today that we stand at our own Balaak moment. When President Trump urges congresswomen to go back to their own countries, he serves only to indulge in hateful speech and to embolden racists and xenophobes. Such language has no place in our political discourse. I find myself profoundly sad that this can happen in our country. I want to invite God back in and worry that words drive us further from the divine.
I am saddened by the conditions at our southern border. The Inspector General of the DHS identified children going without meals for days, saw such serious overcrowding that people are held and forced in a standing position for days on end. Such treatment is unacceptable from the United States of America. Whatever our immigration policy should be, we cannot treat human beings in this fashion.
Further, I am saddened by the overuse of Holocaust. I worry that we demean the memory of the genocide and hatred that led to the Nazi slaughter of six million Jews. I am saddened also that such metaphors turn our need for more humanitarian treatment of immigrants into a partisan fight over the right time to use the term “concentration camps.”
We had a President who spoke differently about immigration. Ronald Reagan, in his last address as President, said in part:
`You can go to live in France, but you cannot become a Frenchman. You can go to live in Germany or Turkey or Japan, but you cannot become a German, a Turk, or Japanese. But anyone, from any corner of the Earth, can come to live in America and become an American.”
[…] It’s the great life force of each generation of new Americans that guarantees that America’s triumph shall continue unsurpassed into the next century and beyond. Other countries may seek to compete with us; but in one vital area, as a beacon of freedom and opportunity that draws the people of the world, no country on earth comes close.
This, I believe, is one of the most important sources of America’s greatness. We lead the world because, unique among nations, we draw our people — our strength — from every country and every corner of the world. And by doing so we continuously renew and enrich our nation.
I believe God can be found in those words because they invite in compassion. I believe the nations that have welcomed Jews have prospered because policies of openness invite dynamism and because compassion invites the blessings of God. I wonder if our immigration policy could draw on this ethic and create a far better system than our current broken policies.
I have been participating in daily vigils at Page Mill and El Camino at 12noon each day (except Shabbat) to draw awareness of the humanitarian crisis at our southern border and will participate in a vigil at 6pm at Palo Alto City Hall on August 11
th, Tisha Bav, a day in which we remind ourselves of the brokenness in the world and that we can and must do better. I hope you can join. This isn’t about our views on immigration policy or the current administration; this is about the need to live up to basic American and Jewish ideals of how we treat the stranger.
There is too much anger right now in our politics. I am not angry; I am sad. I am searching not for outrage but for compassion and justice. As Micah the prophet instructs, all God requires of us is to act justly, with compassion, and humility.
Rabbi David Booth
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