The Traveling Ban and Jewish Ethics

Orthodox Jews do not have access to news on Shabbat, and we see it as a blessing, as there is one day when we can get off the media rollercoaster, relax, and meditate. There is always, however, a kindred soul who will inform the rabbi of major, and sometimes troubling, current events. Last Shabbat, it happened just five minutes before my speech, as a friend briefed me on the traveling ban, and added that people are being detained or returned to their countries and that I must address it from the pulpit. I didn’t address it, at least not directly, because I needed time to digest the news. The pace of my speech, however, has slowed down considerably, not because I finally complied with the request to speak slower, but because in the back of my mind, a heated debate was raging, considering threats of terrorism and pulling up memories of the Holocaust. I have been thinking about the ban since then, as I believe many Americans and people around the world do, and I have decided that I would like to address it from this forum, not as a political question, but as a question of Jewish morals and beliefs. We should be able to discuss the interaction of Jewish law and real life, and to analyze a situation in a logical, informed manner.

Let me start by saying that I do not take the threat of terrorism lightly. Growing up in Israel in the late 60’s and early 70’s, terrorism was an integral and scary part of my life. In elementary school, alongside the sweet educational posters, were warnings of suspicious objects and pictures of explosive devices hidden in everyday objects such as a loaf of bread or a watermelon. That was just the beginning. Kidnappings, hijackings, infiltrators, the Bloodbath Bus, the massacre of school children in Maalot, became almost daily events, and turning on the morning news became a dreadful ritual. Many years later, I froze in shock when I heard the blast at Sbarro Pizza, a few blocks from me, which claimed, among others, the lives of five members of the Schijveschuurder family, three children and their parents, who were themselves children of Holocaust survivors. When I lived in Bogota, Colombia, the country was terrorized by drug lords and guerilla fighters, and when I visited Barcelona in 1991 to consider a position there, ETA’s name was all over the news. Many years later, I moved to Brooklyn from New Jersey on September 1st, 2001, and ten days later, with smoke bellowing in the horizon and soot falling over the city, I was rushing to pull my children out of their schools and hide in the basement. The point of all this is not to tell you that I have bad luck and that you should probably not move into my neighborhood, but rather that terrorism is global and can strike anywhere. Terrorists claim that they are driven by ideologies, but the reality is that they are murderers who mask their violent urges with a veil of religiosity or political ideology. For that reason, we should always be vigilant, seek the advice of experts, and be willing to give up our privacy. Personally, I do not care if the government eavesdrops on me and follows me everywhere, as long as it guarantees the safety of the country. In regards to the ban, however, there is no evidence that it does anything to defend us against terror. I am not an expert on the matter, but since there are many opinions of experts, from both sides of the aisle, questioning the efficacy of the ban, the government should at least be willing to discuss these issues, and maybe suspend the ban until it is carefully reviewed and rewritten.

I also process the story through the lenses of the son of immigrants to Israel from Iraq, my mother in 1936 and my father in 1949. Those who came in the1950’s left everything behind, they were unwanted and unsafe in their own country, and they were welcomed only as an afterthought in their new one. Many of them longed for and mourned the culture they left behind, but had no choice but to adjust to life in the new country. One has to draw a distinction between immigrants coming of their free will, seeking better opportunities, and those who have nowhere left to go. It is true that many Arab or Muslim countries bar the entrance of Jews, but for most Jews it is not a matter of life and death, as they have a place they call home. We should also think of Jews affected by the ban, such as my father, who was born in Iraq, and my son-in-law, who was born in Iran, along with the Syrian, Yemenite, and Iranian Jews who left their countries since the 1980’s and are not naturalized citizens yet.

But beyond these somewhat selfish reflections, the ban for me was immediately associated with two essential Jewish narratives, the Exodus and the Holocaust. The Exodus taught us many lessons, among them the responsibility of the individual, the ultimate value of freedom, and the necessity to maintain hope. The responsibility of the individual is expressed by the fact that the plagues continued until the Egyptians themselves understood that they have to let the people go, and that they can no longer hide behind Pharaoh’s mantle. The ultimate value of freedom was demonstrated by Abraham, who was foretold of the exile but did not protest. He understood that his children must be enslaved in order to fully know what freedom means, and indeed the first commandment describes God as the one who delivers from slavery to freedom. The necessity to maintain hope is shown in the contrast between the belief of the Israelites that they had glorious past and that an even greater future awaits them, and the belief of the Egyptians that the world is cyclical and devoid of redemption. For the Egyptians, one tyrant was replaced by another, as each Pharaoh was a reincarnation and continuation of his or her predecessor, a concept conveyed in the arrogant words of Pharaoh “I have created myself” (Ezek. 28:3). It is not a coincidence that the story of the exodus is the axis of Jewish History, as its ideas of hope, freedom, and individual responsibility, kept us afloat, alive, and even successful through persecution and exile, until we have reclaimed all three with our national anthem: התקוה… להיות עם חפשי – the hope to be an independent, free nation…

The narrative of the Holocaust is a chilling one. It is that of refugees seeking asylum and turned back to the gas chambers of Europe by friends such as the United States and the United Kingdom. No Jew can stand idly by when a child or a woman seeking refuge from the horrors of war is being sent back “home”. We all want to believe that these things are not happening, and that the only people affected are potential terrorists, but we must have evidence of that, especially after the rigorous vetting process conducted before granting refugee status. The American people has already stood idly by as millions of innocent citizens were massacred in Syria. Israel, meanwhile, has taken care of victims of the war and given them medical treatment, despite the immediate and existential threat posed by Syria, and despite the bitter memories of the murderous onslaught of the Yom Kippur war.

The narrative of the Holocaust is also that of people targeted for nothing else but their religion. We cannot let this happen again, not to Jews, not to Muslims, not to any religion. Admittedly, international terror today is almost completely ruled and driven by extreme Islamists, but the solution is not waging a war on Islam. This will lead to disastrous results globally and will only embolden radicals, as the long and contorted history of religious conflicts can tell us. The solution is fighting the radical elements with all means possible, while strengthening moderate clergymen and teachers of all religions. Islam, as Prof. Khaled Abou El Fadl brilliantly explains in his book The Great Theft, was taken over by radicals who adhere to one or another interpretation of Islam and reject all others. One of the key players in the oppression of the moderate Muslim voice is Saudi Arabia, which controls both financial and religious treasures, and has the power to deny dissenters the completion of the Hajj, one of the pillars of Islam. El Fadl also writes that Saudi Arabia would support Western Universities only if they teach their brand of Islam.  In the past, Islam supported and promoted free thinking, called zandaqa, as Prof. Anouar Majid shows in his book exploring tensions between the Islamic world and the United States, A Call For Heresy. As a Sephardic Jew, whose culture and religious practices were deeply affected by the many facets of Islam, I feel that we should strive, while never ignoring the threat of terrorism, to build bridges and find common grounds, by seeing the humanity of each other, and by stressing the quest for personal and communal well-being, which at one point was a core element of all monotheistic religions.

In early medieval times, for example, scholars of all religions were able to coexist and flourish in parts of the Iberian Peninsula, also known as Al-Andalus. Maria Rosa Menocal, in her Ornament of The World, tells the story of that convivencia, the coexistence all humans should be entitled to, and shows that it possible.

It is my pledge with the readers to not dismiss this article as politically driven, but to rather take the time and study, in depth, the history of the monotheistic religions, of religious persecution, and of the eternal moral values of the Torah, and arrive at a well-balanced, informed decision, on whether the current ban on people traveling to the United States from the seven countries with an overwhelming Muslim population, stands the test of Jewish morality.


About the Author
Born in Jerusalem 1965. Ordained by Chief Rabbi Eliyahu. BA in Talmud Bar Ilan. MA hebrew lit. UCLA. Rabbi in South America, Los Angeles, NY and DC. Faculty member at AJRCA,non-denominational Rabbinical school. Involved in inter-faith dialog through lectures and Sephardic music. Active in helping the orthodox LGBTQ community. Contributed to Jewish Journal LA and Moment Magazine.