Jewish law and the approaching caravan

About 500 troops are stationed at Base Camp Donna in South Texas. The military police, medical personnel, and army engineers stationed there are among the approximately 8,000 troops (as of this writing) who were sent to the U.S.-Mexico border to augment about 2,000 National Guard troops previously deployed there. Those troops, and as many as 7,000 others who may yet be deployed, ostensibly are there to provide logistical support to the US Border Patrol as it seeks to prevent a caravan of Central American migrants from entering the United States.

According to an unclassified US Army report that recently found its way into the pages of Newsweek, only about 1,400 of those people travelling in the caravan actually will reach the border, perhaps right after Thanksgiving. In other words, there will be at least five US troops at the border for every one migrant trying to cross over, with the potential ratio growing to 11 to 1. These are in addition to the Border Patrol agents, who may number as many as 18,000.

Unlike the Border Patrol, these troops legally have no role to play in dealing with the migrants. Perhaps because President Trump refers to the caravan’s approach as an “invasion,” however, there has been some confusion at the Pentagon, which for weeks identified the deployment as “Operation Faithful Patriot.” That designation was more than just problematic. According to Article 10 US Code Section 101(a) (13), “an operation” is defined as one “in which members of the armed forces are or may become involved in military actions, operations, or hostilities against an enemy of the United States, or against an opposing military force.” That definition does not include providing logistical support to another federal agency.

On Election Day, therefore, Defense Secretary James Mattis discontinued the designation. The official reason given was that the deployment does not meet the test of a military “operation,” which he probably knew when he signed on to the designation in the first place. The unofficial reason was that it had clear and unsavory political overtones — which, in fact, may have been what was intended in the lead-up to Election Day.

That confusion existed was evident by the fact that at least some of the troops were wearing heavy body armor in the Texas heat (some troops passed out because of it), even though body armor is not required for a support mission. The use of body armor now also has been dropped.

Troops may also have been misled about their mission when the president said that they should fire their weapons at any migrants throwing rocks at them. Although he later amended that statement, he nevertheless was describing a scenario in which U.S. troops would confront civilians trying to cross the border.

The potential thus exists for a bloody confrontation between armed troops and unarmed civilians, something US law does not allow, or between the Border Patrol and the migrants, which would be a tragedy.

Jewish law takes a different approach. In fact, its approach was unique even when its laws first were promulgated. To quote the biblical scholar Richard Elliot Friedman, “In the whole ancient Near East, in all those lands, through several millennia, we have found [only] fifty-two references to equal treatment of aliens, and all fifty-two are in the [Torah]…!”

This does not mean borders may not be made secure, according to Torah law, or that criminals should be allowed in, but it does mean that people who enter legally are to be treated under the law the same way that citizens are treated. “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Lord am your God.” (See Leviticus 19:33-34.)

One law, specifically, would seem to deal with the approaching caravan — Deuteronomy 23:16-17. “You shall not turn over to his master a slave who seeks refuge with you from his master. He shall live with you in any place he may choose among the settlements in your midst, wherever he pleases; you must not ill-treat him.”

What is a slave? To be sure, its most common definition is someone who is the property of someone else. That, however, is not the only definition. According to the New Oxford Dictionary, a slave also can be “a person who works very hard without proper remuneration or appreciation,” or someone “who is excessively dependent upon or controlled by something.” Merriam-Webster is even more pointed: “one [who] is completely subservient to a dominating influence.”

By almost all accounts, except for the admittedly unverified claims of the White House, most of the people in the caravan “are fleeing persecution, poverty and violence in their home countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador,” in the words of a BBC News report. Clearly, they fit the New Oxford Dictionary’s definition of slave.

The Talmud has little to offer regarding Deuteronomy 23:16-17, other than to suggest that it applies only to slaves escaping to the Land of Israel from another country (a suggestion without foundation). One discussion (found in the Babylonian Talmud Tractate Gittin 45a) does offer a hint about its application, however.

The discussion begins by stating the first part of the law — “You shall not turn over to his master a slave who seeks refuge with you from his master.” An objection is raised, because this law seemingly conflicts with Exodus 23:33, “They shall not remain in your land, lest they cause you to sin against Me.” While this verse specifically refers to the seven idolatrous nations living in Canaan when the Israelites first arrived there, it also could be interpreted to mean that no idolaters may live in the land, wherever they came from.

The Talmud then dismissed the objection by citing the second part of the verse (Deuteronomy 23:17): “He shall live with you in any place he may choose among the settlements in your midst, wherever he pleases; you must not ill-treat him.” In other words, as long as the escaping slave agrees to abide by the laws of the land, he or she is permitted to live “in any place he [or she] may choose among the settlements in your midst,” and may not be mistreated in any way.

For the record, the Talmud makes clear the “resident alien” does not have to convert to Judaism, or follow such laws as kashrut and Shabbat.

Simply stated, then, a slave who seeks asylum and who agrees to abide by the nation’s laws is not just to be welcomed, but also is to be provided proper shelter wherever in the land he or she chooses to settle.

While Jewish law does not attach to the United States, what it has to say can inform how this country and its leaders act. On May 3, President Trump spoke these words at the White House: “[In] solving the many, many problems and our great challenges, faith is more powerful than government, and nothing is more powerful than God.”

In solving the problem posed by people seeking freedom from oppression, it would serve him and the country he leads best if he put more faith in God’s words than his own rhetoric.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi of Temple Israel Community Center, in Cliffside Park, and Temple Beth El of North Bergen, both in New Jersey. A former president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, he chose to work as a journalist after being ordained. That career helped him hone the skills that serve him so well on the pulpit, and helped him become a popular adult Jewish education teacher in Northern New Jersey.
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