The Immigration Act of 1891 banned polygamists from entering the United States. It was passed during the administration of President Benjamin Harrison. Later, when he was president, Theodore Roosevelt expanded that ban to include all who believed in polygamy as a religious principle, whether or not they personally practiced polygamy — or, indeed, whether or not they were married at all. That is to say, Teddy Roosevelt imposed a “Muslim ban” in 1907.
Mormons, the target of the 1891 ban, had formally renounced and prohibited polygamy, and by 1907 the practice had all but disappeared even among those who had entered so-called “plural marriages” before the 1890 manifesto that changed Latter-day Saints’ marital practice. Roosevelt’s action thus was directed specifically at Muslims.
It did not take that long, however, for Jewish religious leaders to recognize the earlier act as transparently religious in motivation and intent, as well, and to protest such religious discrimination.
In November of 1897, 120 years ago, Isaac Mayer Wise — rabbi, author, editor, Reform movement visionary, and Hebrew Union College founder — protested the Muslim ban in an editorial published in “The American Israelite,” a leading 19th century Jewish newspaper. He began by making reference to Solon, the Athenian law-maker, constitutional reformer, and poet, who was counted among the founding fathers of the legal profession and thus is a towering and transformative figure in the principle of society based in law:
“‘Every citizen must be an active partisan in his state,’ said Solon, which meant every man must take an interest in every question arising in his state or municipality, and take a decisive stand. Indifference is a sin of omission,” Rabbi Wise wrote. “Whatever is to be done for the benefit and wellbeing of all, is the duty of each.”
Rabbi Wise continued with words of Torah: “Therefore the law of the covenant, formulated in the Decalogue, is in the second person singular, and not in the plural form, although it was addressed first and foremost to the whole congregation of Israel.”
The practical application of the Sinai covenant, and its implicit call for individual responsibility and activism in civic affairs and devotion to the rule of law, was abundantly clear to Rabbi Wise:
“Our newly amended immigration law bars out Moslems on the ground that they believe in the Koran, which, in turn, teaches polygamy,” he wrote. “It is as plainly against the spirit and letter of the constitution as purchasing a senatorship.”
Rabbi Wise’s reference to buying a seat in the Senate may have been about Senator Mark Hana of Ohio, who was alleged to have secured his election, at least in part, through bribery. Rabbi Wise, who presided over a congregation in Cincinnati throughout the protracted scandal, was writing as a critical and civic-minded constituent of the embattled senator. The allusion must have been far from subtle in 1897 Ohio.
Rabbi Wise’s editorial in defense of prospective Muslim immigrants to the United States is a forgotten gem of American Jewish history and rabbinic leadership. Not only is it prescient in its anticipation of events 120 years later, but with erudition and moral clarity, it draws a direct line of development from Israel’s covenantal tradition to the Greek crucible of western civilization, grounded in the rule of law, to the Constitution of the United States. Rabbi Wise taught us that much is at stake in the manner in which America responds to its constitutional obligations, and in how individual Americans hold their leaders — and their president — accountable.
The American Jewish community is quite properly carefully attuned to the evil of encroachments on religious liberty, carefully attuned to the Constitution’s hortatory protections against “religious tests,” and all too aware that mistreatment of any religious group also bodes ill for the Jewish people. George Washington admonished all his fellow Americans: “While we are contending for our own liberty, we should be very conscious of violating the rights of conscience in others, ever considering that God alone is the judge of the hearts of men, and to Him only in this case they are answerable.” More to the point, President James Madison, a seminal jurist and, as it happens, a scholar of Hebrew, cautioned Americans to be mindful of our history:
“The people of the United States owe their independence and their liberty to the wisdom of descrying in the minute tax of three pence on tea, the magnitude of the evil comprised in the precedent. Let them exert the same wisdom, in watching against every evil lurking under plausible disguises, and growing up from small beginnings.”
Madison concluded his timeless message in Latin: “Obsta Principiis: Resist the beginnings.”
Solon was right. “Society is well governed when its people obey the magistrates, and the magistrates obey the law,” he wrote. Solon had a worthy and gifted disciple in President James Madison, just as Madison’s legacy was carried on effectively by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise. Rabbi Wise died in Cincinnati in 1900, just days short of his 81st birthday. His wisdom in 1897, his understanding of our obligations both as Americans and as Jews, remains a vital, living legacy.
His message thus enjoys the blessing of long, health life bestowed upon Moses, enshrined in the closing chapter of the Torah: He was “120 years old when he died, with his eyes undimmed, his vigor unabated.”
May those who take up Rabbi Wise’s cause in the moral crisis of 2017 be similarly rewarded. As Rabbi Wise wrote in 1897, “Take a decisive stand. Indifference is a sin of omission.”