Synagogues can't be sanctuaries from the law
At a time when much of American Jewry is opposed to the immigration policies of the nascent administration of President Donald Trump, it was probably only to be expected that a growing number of synagogues would declare themselves “sanctuaries” where “undocumented” immigrants—a euphemism for those who crossed into the U.S. illegally or overstayed their visas—can find both shelter and help in evading the authorities.
These institutions and their supporters say their decision is grounded in justice, history and even Jewish liturgy. But in spite of the high-flown rhetoric they put forward to defend their actions, this concept is about partisan politics, not principle. The motivation for the growth in support for this idea is a desire to join the “resistance” against Trump rather than a serious belief that religious institutions have the right to designate their buildings as a place where the law may not be enforced.
The notion of “sanctuary” can be traced to the Bible where cities of refuge are mentioned. But there is no analogy between illegal immigration and a law to shield those who had committed manslaughter so as to prevent them from being killed outright as a matter of tribal blood vengeance. Jews are commanded to “welcome the strangers” in their midst and to oppose discrimination. But here again, the link to contemporary controversies breaks down because nothing in Jewish law grants foreigners the right to enter the country and stay indefinitely without permission.
Far more compelling are arguments based in recent history. Liberals say that as the descendants of immigrants, Jews should support new arrivals. Most emotively, they point to the enactment of restrictive U.S. immigration laws in the 1920s that were aimed at European Jews and then America’s refusal to provide a safe haven for those fleeing the Nazi death machine during the Holocaust as a reason to oppose Trump’s executive orders temporarily banning entry from six Muslim-majority countries that are terrorist hotbeds, as well as the pause in accepting Syrian refugees.
But the notion that the Syrians, let alone those streaming over the border from Mexico, are analogous to Jews who were all marked for death by the Nazis is absurd. It should be possible for reasonable people to differ about whether vetting procedures already in place are sufficient to protect the security of Americans at a time when Islamist terrorism is on the rise without labeling opponents as analogous to 1930s-era anti-Semites, or without pretending that Syrians—who have already found havens elsewhere—and other would-be immigrants are in anything like the same position as the Jews during the Holocaust.
Few of those who might take advantage of sanctuary synagogues are actually fleeing persecution, and they can petition the government and courts for asylum. The overwhelming majority of those on the run are economic migrants. We can identify with their plight, but the hyperbolic claims about them being victims of injustice has little basis in fact. They broke a reasonable law enacted by a legitimate government, not a tyrannical regime, and like all those who violate the law, they don’t wish to be held accountable.
One may agree with the idea that immigration is good for the country without accepting the notion that those who have come here illegally should be able to remain with impunity. We can even agree that some answer short of mass deportation should be found for those who have been here for many years without further lawbreaking, and for their children who violated no law on their own. But until our system provides such a solution, if you are arguing that your synagogue has a right to grant sanctuary, then for all intents and purposes what you are saying is that the U.S.—apparently alone among the nations—has no right to determine who may enter its borders. Indeed, if that logic holds, then the concepts of borders and laws can be nullified by a mélange of sympathy for lawbreakers and animus for the current president.
Jews should also remember that the essence of a democratic nation—and the safety of minority communities such as our own—rests on the notion of the rule of law. However much as we might sympathize with illegal immigrants, they are not Holocaust refugees or runaway slaves. They are simply people who broke a law that legal immigrants have respected. No matter how much you may dislike Trump, that can’t justify turning houses of worship into places where the will of a democratic nation can be flouted.
Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of JNS.org. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.