The Widow, the Orphan, and the Stranger: Christianity, Judaism, and the refugee crisis

The Truth Between Us #7 – On January 27, US President Donald J. Trump issued an executive order limiting the admission of refugees from seven Middle Eastern countries, including Syria, into the United States. The move sparked widespread protests, including from Christian and Jewish groups. In this post of The Truth, Murray and I explore the religious aspects of the refugee question, and where it touches on Jewish-Christian relations.

Murray Watson: It is a brutally disappointing reality that the technological and scientific advances in our world have not been matched by corresponding advances in our abilities to defeat war, violence and hatred—the ancient enemies of humanity. The levels of disruption of human life today are staggering: according to the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees, nearly 34,000 people a day are forcibly displaced by violence, and there are more than 21 million refugees who have been driven from their homes, who are seeking places of safety and shelter in which to live and raise their children. It seems likely that our world has never seen levels of displacement like these, and everyday those images fill our television and computer screens.

The reactions to the growing refugee crisis have run the gamut between extraordinary acts of welcome and generosity by some countries to efforts to violently block refugees and keep them out by other countries. Turkey is currently hosting 2.5 million of those refugees, and Pakistan is home to 1.6 million of them.

There are 15 “situations” that the United Nations points to as generating refugees and displaced persons, but it is perhaps two of them—the civil war in Syria, and those desperately trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe—which have attracted most of our attention. In 2016, nearly 4,000 people drowned in the Mediterranean trying to cross that body of water, often in fragile vessels that were barely seaworthy, and not designed for as many desperate people as crammed into them. The photos of their plight tear at our hearts, and make us ask what we can do, in the face of such tremendous ongoing suffering.

For all of those reasons, the question of refugees has been a growing subject of concern for many religious groups, especially in the West. In these early days of the new Trump administration in the United States, the President’s recent actions regarding immigration and refugees have sparked heated political arguments—and religious arguments, too. How many refugees can/should a country accept? Should preference be given to certain religious minorities? What moral and pragmatic guidelines should govern such a delicate but urgent debate?

Donald Trump signing the order in front of a large replica of a USAF Medal of Honor, with Mike Pence and James Mattis at his side (Public domain)
Donald Trump signing the order in front of a large replica of a USAF Medal of Honor, with Mike Pence and James Mattis at his side (Public domain)

In recent years, Pope Francis has been one of the most outspoken advocates for refugees, calling upon nations to do whatever they can to welcome and support these people in their vulnerability. Together with Patriarch Bartolomew (the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople), the Pope traveled to a refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece last April, to issue a joint plea on behalf of those who were compelled to leave their homelands to seek safety elsewhere: “We have come to call the attention of the world to this grave humanitarian crisis and to plead for its resolution. As people of faith, we wish to join our voices to speak out on your behalf. We hope that the world will heed these scenes of tragic and indeed desperate need, and respond in a way worthy of our common humanity.”

The Patriarch said: “We have wept as we watched the Mediterranean Sea becoming a burial ground for your loved ones. We have wept as we witnessed the sympathy and sensitivity of the people of Lesbos and other islands. But we also wept as we saw the hard-heartedness of our fellow brothers and sisters–your fellow brothers and sisters–close borders and turn away. Those who are afraid of you have not looked at you in the eyes. Those who are afraid of you do not see your faces. Those who are afraid of you do not see your children. They forget that dignity and freedom transcend fear and division. They forget that migration is not an issue for the Middle East and Northern Africa, for Europe and Greece. It is an issue for the world.”

In light of the recent decisions by the new American administration, the Pope criticized “the contradiction of those who want to defend Christianity in the West, and, on the other hand, are against refugees and other religions … It’s hypocrisy to call yourself a Christian and chase away a refugee or someone seeking help, someone who is hungry or thirsty, toss out someone who is in need of my help.”

Numerous national bishops’ conferences (and many national and international organizations of other denominations) have spoken out strongly against a mentality that sees refugees primarily as a threat or a problem.

Christian theology is profoundly rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures, which speak of the particular care that is owed to those that Biblical scholars call the “Deuteronomic triad”—the widow, the orphan, and the stranger/foreigner living in the midst of the people of Israel (Deut. 10:19; 27:19, etc.). The prophets of Israel spoke passionately about how a truly God-fearing society ought to show concern and love for its most vulnerable.

A Syrian refugee child (photo credit: Ahill34, CC BY-SA via Wikimedia Commons)
A Syrian refugee child (photo credit: Ahill34, CC BY-SA via Wikimedia Commons)

And the words of Jesus in the Gospel are unambiguous: speaking of the criteria for the Last Judgement, he says that God is himself present in the suffering and the needy, and that those who receive God’s blessing at the end of time are those to whom God can say “I was a stranger and you welcomed me … For whatever you did to the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.”

Christian morality has always emphasized this presence of God in the Other—and especially in those who are struggling or vulnerable. In a Christian worldview, refugees are not—and can’t ever be—just “those people over there”. Christianity does not accept or condone indifference.

Putting those moral principles into diplomatic and legal practice, however, is certainly a more difficult task. Obviously, there are limits to how many newcomers any society can reasonably welcome, given its economic situation and social structures. But I guess the Christian instinct would be to push to be more generous rather than less … to take more risks, rather than fewer—and not to succumb to a logic of fear or xenophobia, which views the Other primarily as the Enemy to be defended against. The mentality that argues that borders should be closed, because “they” are “not like us” is sadly superficial, and fails to grasp the fundamental solidarity that unites all human beings together.

When that mentality targets particular religions or cultures, it becomes even more objectionable; the rabbis of the Talmud were right 1400 years ago: “Why was man created as a solitary human being without a companion? So that it might not be said that some races are better than others” (Tractate Sanhedrin 37a). Efforts to appeal to Christian teachings to rationalize exclusion and suspicion run entirely counter to many of Christianity’s most prominent contemporary voices.

In an era of globalization, the problems of the rest of the world almost inevitably become our problems as well. In an era of uncertainty and fear, we must appeal to the best in people’s instincts, and not the worst. And we must mine our religious heritages to find sources of wisdom, strength and compassion to address such issues sensitively but courageously. Our history is filled with too many bitter lessons of those who chose security over compassion, and self-interest over solidarity. History will judge us … let us not make those same mistakes again.

Watson: Lazar, obviously our approaches to moral questions like refugees differ a bit, because the New Testament contains ideas and teachings not contained in the Tanakh.  Many American Jewish organizations (across the spectrum of Jewish practice) have reacted very harshly to President Trump’s recent executive orders regarding immigration and refugees. Where the demands of security and the imperative of compassion come into conflict, which one do you think should be weighted more heavily today? How do we find the “sweet spot” that maintains both, without compromising either?

Lazar Berman: Murray, let me first say that since Judaism is also rooted in the Hebrew Bible, we are guided by the same passages about caring for the uniquely vulnerable. This is no surprise to Jews or people with basic knowledge about Judaism. What I will try to do is introduce some considerations and questions that come into play, in my opinion, when trying to apply biblical and halachic teachings to real world situations. It is obviously more complex and nuanced than “Jews must support the acceptance of all refugees into the countries they live in.”

Let’s start with a fundamental question about the Jewish people and our covenant with God. Are we meant to be a “holy nation,” set aside from the nations of the world by laws such as Kashrut, marriage, and access to rituals in the Temple? Or are we a “nation of priests,” meant to help the nations of the world move toward holiness?

Why is this relevant? The answer guides our response to refugee issues. There is a tension between the well-being of Jewish communities (especially in Europe), and the introduction of refugees from countries in which hostility to Israel and Jews are commonplace. There is a tension between devoting Israel’s resources to the poor in Israel, and spending that money on foreign refugees seeking shelter in Israel. There is a tension between throwing Jewish communal energy and weight behind protecting those who are vulnerable in the Jewish community, and spending communal resources on refugees around the world.

This tension is recognized in the Torah, and is resolved there as well.

Our status as a “nation that dwells alone” is actually what allows us to help spread the recognition of God in the world. In Deuteronomy, Moses tells the Israelites to observe God’s commandments carefully “because this will show your wisdom and insight to the nations, who will hear about all these laws and say, ‘What a wise and insightful people is this great nation!’ For what other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we call upon him?!” (Devarim 4:6-7). Isaiah expresses this same sentiment, when he calls Israel “…the people whom I created for Myself so that they may proclaim My glory” (43:21).

Michelangelo's Isaiah, Sisten Chapel (photo credit: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
Michelangelo’s Isaiah, Sisten Chapel (photo credit: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

In other words, we must focus on living as a holy people, so that other nations will be drawn to God as well. As Rav Kook writes, “Israel, as a special nation, blessed in the depth of its holiness, influences the entirety of the whole world, to refine the national soul within each nation, and to arouse every single nation to a more lofty status.” Following halacha carefully, living morally pure lives within our covenant with our Maker, allows us to create a society of justice in which no one is neglected.

Therefore, we must find a way to both ensure that the vulnerable within our people are cared for, while also making sure that the message of care for the vulnerable reaches the nations as well.

Turning to refugees fleeing danger – We are commanded to shelter a slave when he flees his master, and not send him back to his bondage. “Don’t turn in a slave to his master, when he flees to you from his master. Let him dwell with you in your midst, in the place he chooses in one of your gates as suits him; don’t oppress him. (Deuteronomy 23:16)” This would seem to guide our treatment of those coming to our countries to escape peril back home.

However, there are circumstances in history where rabbis where rabbis did permit restrictions on accepting Jewish newcomers so as not to endanger the  local Jewish community by upsetting secular authorities. Context does matter.

It does seem that in all of the commandments to show mercy toward the vulnerable, there is a focus first on those “in your midst” – people within  your town, in the Jewish community, in Israel. Does that mean that Jews should not advocate for refugees in Syria or Myanmar until there are no more poor Jews? Not at all. Perhaps the framework is that of responsibility – we have the responsibility to make sure that those “within our gates” are cared for, and cannot turn that responsibility over to anyone else. At the same time, we should be active in other situations, but the responsibility does not ultimately lie with us.

Another important question that should be examined is – Do Torah commandments about the vulnerable require Jews to urge the governments of non-Jewish countries in which they live toward certain policies?  This obviously has implications for how Jews should engage politically outside of Israel in light of Jewish teachings, but that is a subject for another time and place.

Watson: Obviously, Israel is a much smaller country than the United States or Canada, and its location in a volatile and dangerous part of the world means that Israeli refugee policy must be (to a large degree) a
function of Israel’s security policy. And yet Israel has traditionally
been very generous in welcoming refugees (especially injured people
who have been provided with Israeli medical care). How does Israel’s
unique history–as a nation founded by refugees and immigrants, where
many of its citizens have seen active service in situations of
conflict–shape its approach to these issues? How is the current
Israeli approach similar to–or different from–that being shaped by
the new Trump administration?

Berman: Israel has much to be proud of in terms of its care of refugees – from Vietnamese to Syrians – but its has shown a tendency to prioritize other considerations as well. This is connected to the tension I mentioned earlier. How should a Jewish state balance between resources for the many poor Israelis, and aid toward others? How does it balance security concerns and a desire to help its neighbors?

There is no question that Israelis reach back to Jewish teachings when faced with opportunities to help refugees. This includes both government initiatives – care for injured Syrians, a program to accept Syrian orphans – and efforts by NGOs like IsraAID in the Middle East and Africa. The concern for human life also drives IDF medical missions to disaster areas around the world, where Israeli field hospitals are recognized as the world’s best.

Still, like the Trump Administration, and many other countries, there is concern over hostile actors sneaking in along with refugees, and potentially costing citizens their lives.

In Israel, there is also the ever-present demographic fear, that accepting too many refugees will change Israel character as a Jewish and democratic state. I would like to see Israel take in several thousand Christian and Yazidi refugees from Iraq and Syria, but I am aware that will not happen because of the aforementioned issues.

The most complex refugee situation Israel faces is the migration from east Africa. There have been government initiatives to provide some protection and aid, and many Israelis have devoted themselves to advocating for Sudanese, Eritrean, and Ethiopian migrants, but in general, they were seen as an unwelcome burden, or even a threat or “cancer.” There have been demonstrations against them, they have been blamed for sexual abuse of Israeli women, and a wall was built along Israel’s southern border (sound familiar?).

So the earlier tensions and questions arise – Are they strangers in our midst? With so many poor Israelis, how much can be devoted to the care of non-Israelis entering the country illegally? Can they be deported if they face danger back home?

SS St. Louis surrounded by smaller vessels in its home port of Hamburg (Public domain)
SS St. Louis surrounded by smaller vessels in its home port of Hamburg (Public domain)

Watson: Recently, especially with International Holocaust Remembrance Day and President Trump’s Executive Order 13769 coinciding, many used the plight of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany to argue to make modern political arguments. Do you feel that is a helpful or appropriate argument, both in this case and in general?

Berman: That’s a phenomenal question, Murray. I often hear objections to using the Holocaust to inform contemporary questions, invoking “Godwin’s law” and such. I cannot imagine a more important historical lesson than the Holocaust- on the lethality of anti-Semitism, on the dangers of dictatorship, on international responsibility, on the necessity of fighting evil, and more.

At the same time, we must make sure the victims of the Shoah are not seen as having value only when they are a metaphor for a contemporary issue. I had a sense that this year, many individuals and organizations who would not have marked Holocaust Remembrance Day in any way did so because it gave them an edge in the debate over refugees. That reduces the victims to tools for someone else’s agenda, and robs them again of their humanity. I would hope that the Jews turned back from American shores on the MS St. Louis are seen as valuable and precious because of who they were, and not only because they can help someone argue against the Trump Administration today. I would hope that the Holocaust is seen as vital to commemorate because of the destruction of Europe’s Jews, and not because it can be used for the agenda of others. Once that is achieved, then the proper lessons can be drawn from it that can and must inform the actions of contemporary governments, and of Western civilization as a whole.


In “The Truth Between Us,” blog series at The Times of Israel, Dr. Murray Watson (see his introduction here) and I explore a wide range of issues surrounding Christianity, Jewish-Christian relations, and the Christian communities here in Israel. The goal is to reach greater knowledge and understanding about complex issues that lie where Christians and Jews meet

About the Author
Lazar Berman, a former Times of Israel journalist, holds a Masters degree in Security Studies from Georgetown University. He has worked at the American Enterprise Institute, and served as a Chaplain-in-Residence at Georgetown. Lazar's writing has appeared in Commentary, the Journal of Strategic Studies, Mosaic, The American, and other outlets.
Related Topics
Related Posts