The Pharaoh in the White House

This week’s Torah reading, which begins the Book of Exodus, reminds us that the oppression of the alien in our own times harkens back to the plight of the Israelites in Egypt.

The experience of liberation from the hands of a cruel tyrant is at the heart of the biblical injunction that “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” This admonition and its variants, repeated 120 times in Scripture, is a core value of Jewish belief, which stresses the rights of the alien to humane treatment. It has been invoked over the centuries by Jewish minorities in the Diaspora to remind their Christian hosts of its centrality to the same Bible which they themselves embrace.

The travail of the Hebrews forms a motif that echoes through the ages. What changes are the strategies, devices and guises of the oppressors, and the character of their victims. But the outlines remain remarkably similar. A callous leader stokes popular resentment against a vulnerable alien population. He stirs nativist animus with fears that the majority will be overrun by a growing numbers of foreigners: As Pharaoh tells his followers: “The Israelite people are much too numerous for us.” How to solve the problem? “Let us deal shrewdly with them so that they may not increase.” Why? “Otherwise, in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us.” In other words, Pharaoh has invoked a security problem, particularly threatening because the Hebrews dwell in a frontier area which makes Egypt particularly vulnerable to borders that can be breached by an invading foe, presumably with Israelite help. So what to do? “They set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor.” Thereby dispensing with the security problem while also creating a ready supply of expendable slave labor from this alien community.

Not content with this, Pharoah separates the male children from their parents with instructions to have them slain. In doing so, he charges “all his people, saying, ‘Every boy that is born you shall throw into the Nile.’ ” Thus, he has framed a populist appeal that makes his entire nation complicit in his genocidal policy. But not all the Egyptians accept Pharaoh’s edict. The midwives to the Hebrews, Egyptians according to some traditions, “fearing God . . . let the boys live.” And it is at this moment, that Moses’s mother, fearing he will be discovered by Pharaoh’s minions, puts him in a wicker basket and places it “among the reeds” of the Nile.

One does not have to go far in search of analogies to find a striking concordance between the ancient Egyptian pharaoh and the current American President regarding their attitudes toward the stranger. Like his monarchical predecessor, Donald Trump has maligned alien residents, inveighed against them as rapists and criminals. He has vilified as terrorists and parasites those who seek refuge here – as did Jacob’s clan fleeing famine in Canaan. He has stirred up animus against foreigners – both those who seek asylum and the millions already here – as threats to society. His response to their plight is pitiless. Like Pharoah, his heart is hardened to any possibility of mercy for their predicament. As if our own self-aggrandizing policies in Central America for more than a century haven’t exacerbated the baleful conditions that have driven many of these refugees north in the first place.

Like Pharoah, Donald Trump is obdurate in his relentless persecution of these people. We should remember that before God stiffens Pharaoh’s heart, it is already hardened. That is, it is soldered into his personality so that he is incapable of compassion and his fate will ultimately be determined by his own character.

Albeit Pharoah’s cruelty was to prevent the oppressed from leaving, and Trump’s malice is to keep them from entering, the impulse is the same: to inflict malignant hardship on the outsider in the name of some national purpose. Under its auspices any brutality is justified and indeed, the blame is projected on the victim.

If children are separated from their families it is the fault of their parents for bringing them here, never mind the conditions that prompted them to leave in the first place.

Asylum is withheld, families are separated, children are exposed to trauma, and worse, all in the name of a border wall that does little for security but does much to feed the ideological fervor of Trump’s base. The images of would-be immigrants and their young ones fleeing gas attacks, the pictures of boys and girls who have died in thrall to a hostile border security apparatus, the stories of families still unable to relocate their children, are all the result of a system designed for maximum cruelty as a deliberate strategy to keep immigrants from entering our country.

Trump’s argument for security is pathetic since there is no connection between immigration from Mexico and terrorism, immigrants commit less crime than the general population and crime is notably down in any case. Immigrants take the jobs no Americans want –whole industries would collapse without them – and actually contribute to employment growth. The fabrications against them are little more than a body of lies conjured up by a demagogue obsessed with catering to the nativist impulses of his base in order to maintain political power. If Trump is interested in security, the front line against terrorism is not in Mexico but Syria, from which he has retreated leaving his allies, including Israel, in the lurch.

The risks that immigrants and their children face on the trek north to encounter the obstacles raised by Donald Trump conjures up the image of Yocheved placing her baby gently in the bulrushes to hope for a better fate, or the desperate parents placing their children on kindertransport to escape the Nazi shadow. It should be noted that the precursors of our current nativists prevented 20,000 Jewish refugee children from coming to our shores in 1938.

Their heirs are with us today. We can only wonder how the Evangelicals – who support Trump in his malign campaign to harm the vulnerable, provided that he does their will on social issues – can call themselves Christians. Surely, they read the same Bible that decries oppressing the stranger as morally reprehensible. Mercifully, America abounds in good Christians as well, together with millions of other citizens who have resisted Trump’s unsparing ukase and, like the Egyptian midwives, have joined together in marches, protests, sanctuary cities and a panoply of other undertakings to sustain the honor and decency of what our country stands for. We can only hope that one day their efforts will prevail and the stranger in our land will be freed from the harsh hand of a modern pharaoh.

About the Author
Jack Schwartz is a former book editor of Newsday.
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