Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of ICE, has given us a case study in evasion of moral responsibility by disavowing responsibility for the suffering and deaths of migrants on our borders. The Jewish tradition teaches that he and his colleagues bear responsibility for the consequences of the inhumane conditions the United States government is creating along our southern border.
The heartrending image of Oscar and Valeria Martinez Ramirez’s lifeless bodies on the banks of the Rio Grande, her small arm draped around his strong neck — are a moral crisis for all Americans, and a political crisis for the Trump Administration. A seeming eternity ago, on June 28, shortly after the heartrending photograph of the dead father and daughter surfaced, Mr. Cuccinelli struggled to manage both the moral and political dimensions of Oscar and Valeria’s drowning by placing responsibility squarely onto Mr. Ramirez. Cuccinelli said to the press “The reason we have tragedies like that on the border is because that father didn’t wait to go through the asylum process in the legal fashion and decided to cross the river and not only died but his daughter died tragically as well.” In Mr. Cuccinelli’s account, there is a finite quantity of responsibility – and it can be shifted away from Cuccinelli and policies of his agency to Mr. Ramirez and his choices.
Judaism rejects Cuccinelli’s disavowal of his own responsibility. The Rabbinic tradition, building on the Bible, anticipates and rejects his arguments, placing the responsibility for harsh and neglectful treatment of migrants solely on the shoulders of senior government officials.
In a tragically contemporary scene, Deuteronomy states that the death of a person in the space between governed cities is a moral crisis for the geographically closest government. For Oscar and Valeria Martinez Ramirez, who drowned near the northern bank of the Rio Grande river, that government is the United States Government.
The Talmudic Rabbis place the senior officials of the nearest government on trial for the guilt of the person who died outside of their borders. To be cleared, the officials must swear, “We did not send this person away without food; we did not see him and ignore him.”
“We did not send him away without food; we did not see him and ignore him.”
Could there be a more biting condemnation of our government’s conduct along the southern border? The requirement to “see” and “not ignore” casts the new policy of forcing asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico as an effort to keep travelers from being “seen” by the United States – much less attended to. “We did not send him away without food” – what could be further from the pens without medicine, adequate nutrition, or adult supervision in which migrant children are being held?
The definitive commentary on this passage of Talmud by the great medieval scholar Rashi moves our focus from the crisis on the US-Mexico border in general to the anticipation and rejection of Mr. Cuccinelli’s argument in particular. Commenting on the oath “We did not send him away without food,” Rashi suggests a way that lack of food could be deadly beyond starvation: “hunger can compel a person to attack others, who killed him in self-defense.”
Let’s be clear on the radicality of Rashi’s statement. Even if a migrant resorts to violence and is killed by others in self-defense – it is the government, in denying the migrant access to their basic needs, that bears the guilt of his demise. The moral responsibility of a powerful, well-resourced administration is incommensurate with that of a desperate or panicked traveler: the policy decisions of the former can never be cleared by the choices, in reaction to those decisions, of the latter. And how much sharper is Rashi’s argument when applied to fathers like Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez, who used his last strength in an attempt to give his daughter a better life, an attempt that would never have been necessary if not for our government’s recent policy of cruelty and neglect towards those at and just beyond our borders.
We want to make it clear that none of the preceding requires open borders, the decriminalization of illegal border crossing, or even increasing the number of asylum requests that are granted. In a different constellation of political entities and actors, Judaism draws our attention to the massive power and responsibilities governments to maintain borders humanely, with generous allocations of food and water, human resources, and sympathy. Then and only then can a government be said to have done right by the people who pass near its borders. But a government that hardens its borders, making passage unsafe and depriving travelers of the resources and attention they need – stands, in the eyes of the Jewish tradition, as guilty of causing any misfortune that befalls those travelers. It is the creation of untenable circumstances by a powerful entity – and not the choices, no matter how ill-advised, that individuals make in extremis – where Judaism places the locus of morality.
At this moment of political and moral havoc in American history, the Jewish tradition offers a voice and a vision – as it has since the earliest days of this republic. Because that vision is audacious, we at times fall short. And because our country wields such vast power, our falling short carries with it the most dire of consequences, often borne by others – in this case, Oscar and Valeria Martinez Ramirez. As stories come and go so quickly, it is easy to forget last month’s outrages – and so it is partly because of, and not despite, the rapidity of the news cycle that we have chosen to return our attention to the Ramirez family and Mr. Cuccinelli. May we, from Mr. Cuccinelli to each and every American citizen, open our ears and our hearts to the call to be both more Godly and more humane in our dealings with each human, endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights – no matter which side of a border they reside on, or which citizenship they hold or seek.
This piece was co-authored by Rabbi Jason Rubentstein. He is the Howard M. Holtzmann Jewish Chaplain at Yale.