The chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary responds to the Republican frontrunner’s proposal to ban Muslim entry to the U.S.
All Americans should be outraged by Donald Trump’s advocacy of a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” Jews have special reason to be concerned.
I am the grandson of immigrants who came to America in search of freedom from Czarist oppression. I am a historian well aware of the pain and suffering inflicted on countless generations of Jews who were expelled from countries they had long called home and denied entry to other nations because of their religion. And I am a Jew commanded by the Bible to deal fairly with strangers (such as refugees) because “you were strangers in the land of Egypt”—and because our tradition holds that every human being is created in God’s image and is therefore entitled to be treated with dignity and respect.
The lesson of the Exodus, taught again and again by the prophets of the Bible, is that we all have responsibilities to add justice and compassion to God’s world. The lesson of America is that we are all descended from immigrants, and that our country thrives on our coming together: Jews, Christians, Muslims, and others; left, right, and center. Everyone.
Wednesday is the third day of Hanukkah, a holiday which—more than any other on the Jewish calendar—celebrates religious freedom. Antiochus Epiphanes, who promulgated the decrees against Jews that led to the Maccabean revolt in 165 BCE, was neither the first tyrant nor the last to argue that religious difference could not be tolerated. Jews are only one among many religious and ethnic minorities to have suffered from the argument that all members of the community should be punished for the misdeeds of a few, or that their religion itself constituted a threat to the wellbeing of the nation or the world.
Words matter greatly, according to Jewish tradition, and must be carefully weighed. Judaism’s sages taught that three sins are so grave they are not only punished in this world, but bar entry to the world to come: idol-worship, forbidden sexual relations, and murder—“and wicked speech is equal to all of them.” This holds true even for the weakest form of slanderous speech, for it destroys the reputation of those against whom it is deployed.
We’ve all seen words translated all too quickly into violence; Jews and many others have learned through atrocity that aspersions on our character lead to persecution. It is wrong and dangerous to imply that every Muslim is a potential terrorist, just as it is wrong and dangerous to say, because of the killings at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado last week, that every Christian should be viewed as a potential murderer.
Our country, like every other, needs to take concerted action to safeguard its borders and its citizens. Terrorists wreaking havoc on every continent from their base in the Middle East must be stopped before they spread so much fear that civilized countries sacrifice the ideals that are the most important guarantors of our security.
During Hanukkah, Jews light additional candles every night to dispel darkness, to counter fear, to encourage faith. Donald Trump’s proposal is a vote for darkness.
Arnold Eisen is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary