Compassion vs. Justice

October 1, 2010
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Bonnie Koppell

Rabbi Amy Eilberg poignantly articulates the visceral Jewish response to the Arizona law, AZ SB 1070, when she writes that, “My heart tells me there is only one authentically Jewish response to the immigration debate raging in our country.” Yes, we Jews have always stood in solidarity with the stranger, the outsider. It is a mitzvah for us to remember the Exodus from Egypt on a daily basis, and we should never forget the formative experience of slavery. The novelist Nathan Englander, writing in The Ministry of Special Cases, gives voice to the historical response of Jews to anything that remotely feels like oppression: “It doesn’t matter if anyone’s really coming or not, it’s your lot as a Jew to fear it. We are bred for the waiting.”

Unfortunately, public policy must be based on more than what our hearts tell us. A midrash depicts God debating whether the world should be founded on the principle of justice or that of compassion. On the basis of justice alone, none of us would endure, given the flawed nature of our being. On the basis of pure compassion, there would be little motivation to do what is right. Both principles are necessary for the world to endure, and we, who are formed in the divine image, must incorporate these sometimes competing qualities into our debate.

AZ SB 1070 requires the state of Arizona to enforce existing federal immigration law. The law makes it a state crime to be in the country illegally. It directs that in the course of a lawful stop, an officer, “when practicable,” shall ask about a person’s legal status “when reasonable suspicion exists that the person is not legally in the United States.”

Our tradition recognizes the fundamental importance of boundaries. In fact, Torah establishes a mitzvah to respect the landmarks that divide property: “Do not move your neighbor’s boundary.” (Deuteronomy 19:14) The entire Torah can be read as an exercise in sanctifying differences — light from dark, Shabbat from the week, Israel from the nations. We can readily empathize with the frustration of those who feel that our national borders have become meaningless. The murder of Robert Krentz, an Arizona rancher killed on his own property, galvanized the community to confront the issue of immigration.

There can be no disputing that a sovereign nation has the right to establish specific territorial boundaries as well as specific requirements for becoming a citizen. Jewish law recognizes a category of ger toshav, a resident alien, but such individuals do not have the same status as citizens. Those who choose to enter our country without observing the procedures established in U.S. immigration law and regulation are here illegally, intentionally violating American law. This is not debatable.

What is debatable is what we do about it. My greatest sympathy lies with the children of illegal immigrants who are brought to this country at a young age. The sins of the parents should not be visited upon the children, and the so-called Dream Act should be enacted to create a path to citizenship for these children.

The AZ SB 1070 law is complicated, because it is hard to discern when it would be appropriate to ask about a person’s status and how an authority should interpret the meaning of ‘reasonable suspicion.’ For example, we’ve all heard the expression, “Funny, you don’t look Jewish.” We are well aware that there is no such thing as “looking Jewish” — that in our wonderfully diverse communities we are blessed with Jews of every ethnicity. So what would create “reasonable suspicion” and how does one look illegal?

As this law takes effect, there is concern regarding the requirement that law enforcement professionals make such determinations. Respect for law is founded on its fair application — “freedom and justice for all.” We must have confidence in our law enforcement professionals that compliance with the letter and the spirit of the law will occur.

Justice vs. mercy is a fundamental ethical challenge, and one with which we all struggle as we wrestle with the consequences of the fair enforcement of our laws and our Jewish heritage as “compassionate ones, children of compassionate ones.” Our hearts as well as our heads must have a voice in the ongoing debate.

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Rabbi Bonnie Koppell is the rabbi at Temple Chai in Phoenix and a chaplain in the U.S. Army Reserve. As a colonel in the 63rd Regional Support Command, she has been deployed twice to Iraq and twice to Afghanistan to provide Jewish religious support.

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