Immigration opens up a complicated set of ethical and spiritual questions, and it’s time to confront them directly.
Every country in the world uses oppressive and sometimes violent means to keep out those whom it does not want, and these actions are almost always based on both capitalist economic rationales (“there is not enough to go around, so don’t let others share it”) and racist feelings toward others (“they don’t deserve what we deserve because they are less valuable or less truly human than we are”). There is also this phony argument: “My great great-grandparents built up this country; therefore, I am entitled to it because I inherited their genes.”
Our claim to own this part of the earth that we call “our country” because we currently live on it is fundamentally problematic. The notion of ownership of the earth and its products is a convenient fiction popularized in each generation by the latest set of victors in struggles for land that have been going on for at least the last 12,000 years. With this concept the winners justify their current power to exclude others from that land. This way of valorizing the ethos of “might makes right” has been going on for many thousands of years.
The notion that we “own” the land on which we live, foreign though this notion was to many indigenous cultures, seems so intuitive to people in modern, global, capitalist societies that it almost seems sacrilegious to question it. Yet that was precisely what the Torah and Jewish tradition set out to do over two thousand years ago.
A Spiritual Critique of Land Ownership
The Torah approaches the question of land ownership (Leviticus 25) by commanding that every seventh year be considered a Sabbatical year in which all work on the land is prohibited—no planting or harvesting. Anything that grows on that land is considered ownerless and hence available for the poor and the homeless to take. Those who have inherited land are expected during the Sabbatical year to live off of food that has been planted and harvested previously. Moreover, all debts are automatically canceled on the seventh year. The Torah goes on to ordain that at the end of the seventh cycle of seven years (or in other words, every fifty years), the last Sabbatical year will be followed by yet another year of no work—the Jubilee year, during which all land will be redistributed back to the original (essentially equal) distribution of the land among and within the twelve tribes.
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