Donald Trump’s decision to phase out the Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals program has sent a wave of fear through the almost 700,000 young people covered under the initiative. Brought here illegally as children, they have grown up as Americans. For the most part a community of strivers, many of whom are their family breadwinners, they face the loss of work permits, driver’s licenses and, ultimately, the prospect of deportation over the next two years unless Congress grants them permanent legal status.
The five-year-old DACA initiative provided a haven for these individuals in the hope that they would one day be able to attain legal citizenship. Its demise has dashed their hopes replacing them with a sense of impending catastrophe. The President’s actions will do little to alleviate the plight of America’s remaining jobless — unemployment is low, many illegals do thankless work shunned by most Americans, and immigrants have demonstrably invigorated cities and expanded job opportunities. Nor are security issues relevant despite Trump’s incitement to the contrary. Rather, his ukase caters to the passions of his nativist base. The issue that galvanizes them is not the straw man of unimpeded immigration, which no one supports, but closing the gates to refugees and blocking a path to citizenship for the 11 million unauthorized immigrants already here en route to deporting them. The prospect of rounding up citizens for detention and expulsion has a particularly ominous ring for Jews, as it should for all decent Americans.
Trump’s recent ploy to suspend the decree on certain DACA holders at the expense of unauthorized youngsters crossing the border in flight from gang violence was roundly rejected by Dreamers who refused to be complicit in traducing others to gain exemptions for themselves. Such stratagems smack of the “humanitarian’’ choices offered to victims of the Nazis over which kin would be sacrificed and which “saved.” Although in this instance the consequences may be less fatal, the principle is the same — a malevolent act implicating the vulnerable in the fate of the condemned.
Trump basks in the energies of his newly unleashed forces of ICE to loiter outside of schools, workplaces and hospitals in Javert-like pursuit of unauthorized immigrants. One notable example is the dispatching of an ICE patrol to the hospital bedside of an intubated little girl who presumably must have posed a security risk given their prodigious efforts to apprehend her. In the ensuing interviews, one ICE supporter responded indignantly that the US shouldn’t be responsible for the health care of the entire world. The girl was here illegally and the law must be upheld.
One wonders if this man considers himself a Christian. Which brings us to the question of why so many Trump supporters, particularly of the evangelical persuasion, but whose numbers extend to the Jewish community, embrace a man, or rather a movement, that holds hostility to the alien as a central tenet. In this context, we might ask what the Judeo-Christian tradition teaches us regarding the stranger?
Genesis, Exodus and Deuteronomy admonish us repeatedly to treat the stranger as we would ourselves, because we were once strangers in a strange land. The experience of slavery in Egypt is central to the ethics of Judeo-Christianity. It sears into our collective memory the lesson of compassion that is a basic attribute of a merciful God and the implicit commandment to follow in His path of righteousness. These weeks, the Torah passages in the synagogue have been devoted to the story of Abraham, himself an alien who depended on the forbearance of the peoples among whom he dwelt for his own well-being. And what are Abraham’s virtues? Mercy, Justice, Humility and Hospitality. It is this last, his spontaneous generosity to God’s messengers, who appear to him as strangers, that presages the Lord’s blessing. And it is the ill treatment of these same strangers by all the men of Sodom that leads to the city’s doom. It is not their impulse toward sodomy but their abuse of the alien, in contrast to Abraham’s hospitality, that precipitates their destruction.
Although Scripture inveighs against prohibited sexual activity, the overwhelming preponderance of its teaching reminds us repeatedly of our obligations to the stranger, the widow and the orphan; that the vulnerable in our society be treated with dignity. It speaks to us in the Torah, in the Prophets, in the Sermon on the Mount. We can only wonder why some people who call themselves Christians, obsess on what they consider sexual license — whether “unnatural” or procreative — at the expense of the deeper meaning and humane lessons emanating from the Bible. Their obsession with the sanctity of “life” inures them to the sacredness of the living.
The church has altered its view of sexuality over time. In the medieval era masturbation was considered murder. Aquinas thought it worse than rape, since the latter was only a sin against man but the former was a sin against God. Moreover, he believed that the fetus didn’t gain its humanity till 40 days after conception. The ancient Hebrews saw men’s sperm as containing complete proto-human beings, only nurtured in the womb. Religious views of sexuality have changed with time. To impose one’s theological beliefs on a secular society based on current religious dogma is a bad idea. But mobilizing evangelical forces in its name, to elect a man whose faith is questionable, whose example is unsavory and whose conduct is execrable, has resulted in a regime that subverts the very Judeo-Christian values it claims to uphold.
The Trump regime, through its Bannonite wing, has forged an alliance with the alt-right and countenanced the depredations of neo-Nazis who have voiced their cry of “Blood and Soil” in American streets. It should be remembered that this was the slogan of the actual Nazis, a paean to war and violence that was the antithesis of the Christianity it sought to replace with its own form of barbarism. The Aryan Christianity that it professed was merely a step toward the pagan triumph of the Third Reich. Shamefully, too many Christian leaders went along with it. One can only hope that our own Judeo-Christian leaders will do better against what is, spiritually, a mortal enemy. Their place belongs with the alien, the outsider, the vulnerable, the poor and the needy. Today, the Bible’s “strangers” are the immigrants vilified, demonized and persecuted by a demagogue and his minions. It is the task of our men and women of faith to provide sanctuary, succor and hospitality to these strangers in our parlous times; to protect the sheep from the wolf, in the hour of the wolf.
Jack Schwartz was a former book editor of Newsday.