A powerful moment in President Obama’s immigration reform speech came when, after telling the emotional story of a young immigrant, he quoted a verse from the Book of Exodus to bookend his case for empathy.
This was not only a significant moment in Obama’s speech, but a significant moment in the panoply of presidential speeches. For while presidents sometimes allude to biblical texts or their ethical principles, it’s rare for verses to actually be quoted in full. This, of course, predictably set FOX & Friends into a fiery rage, a rage which has placed Obama’s quotation into sharper focus.
Since this is a fascinating verse I regularly teach to Jewish day school students in the original Hebrew, I thought it would be instructive to a) briefly examine the actual verse, b) examine Obama embedding this verse into the immigration reform debate, and c) examine the contemporary reality of the place and people to whom the verse was originally directed: Jews entering the Land of Israel.
Obama’s Quoting of Exodus 23:9 – Don’t oppress the “stranger”
Below is the moment, after telling the story of Astrid Silva, in which Obama invokes the Book of Exodus:
Scripture tells us, “We shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger. We were strangers once, too.”
My fellow Americans, we are and always will be a nation of immigrants. We were strangers once, too. And whether our forbearers were strangers who crossed the Atlantic, or the Pacific or the Rio Grande, we are here only because this country welcomed them in and taught them that to be an American is about something more than what we look like or what our last names are, or how we worship.
Now, forget for a moment some of the historical inaccuracies and the glossing over of American atrocities, which could be a topic in its own right. Instead, I want to focus on the verse Obama quotes by examining its context and actual meaning.
In the Book of Exodus, the Israelites are camped at the foot of Mount Sinai, having just been rescued from their 400 years of enslavement in Egypt. Soon, they will break camp and march toward the Land of Israel, their future home. Before this happens, though, Moses must enjoin upon the Israelites those laws they must keep upon arriving in Israel.
And so we get this (Hebrew and my translation):
גֵר לֹא תִלְחָץ וְאַתֶּם יְדַעְתֶּם אֶת נֶפֶשׁ הַגֵּר כִּי גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מצרים
You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the “soul” of the stranger, since you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.
This is a powerful commandment, founded upon empathy, directing those Israelites who take the Land of Israel to not oppress the “stranger” residing alongside them, particularly since they know a thing or two about oppression.
There are two words here the rabbis debated more than any other. The first, “stranger,” came to be understood either as converts living amongst the Israelites or minorities from outside nations who dwelled amongst the majority.
The second word, “soul,” prompted the rabbis to ask, “What does it mean to know someone’s soul, or נפש?” Interestingly, Obama’s translation, which changes to word “soul” to “heart,” is close to the interpretation of Rashi, a great rabbinic mind from the 11th century. To Rashi, knowing someone’s “soul” in this context means understanding how difficult it is for someone, both emotionally and physically, to live under crushing oppression.
Obama embedding Exodus into the immigration reform debate
While some might argue that Obama cast too broad a net after quoting Exodus 23:9, there is no question that the ethical concept contained in the verse – empathy for the “stranger” – is both applicable and essential to the broad-based championing of immigration reform.
Empathy for the “other” stands at the heart of what is needed in this country, particularly since many American citizens are descended from immigrants and/or those who were once oppressed.
The question worth asking, in a country where the separation of church and state should be ironclad, is whether Obama was right to quote a verse from the Hebrew bible.
Regardless of that question’s answer, one thing is certain: its evocation not only evokes an ethical principle, but the people and place to which this principle originally applied. It evokes a place the Obama administration, and America, has for some time considered a close ally and critical foreign policy investment. It is also a place Obama has repeatedly critiqued for the oppression of those “strangers” living there.
The intensifying oppression of Palestinians by Israel
Israel’s democracy is crumbling this very moment under the weight of societal racism and institutional oppression. If you’re not following Israel right now, you might be shocked by everything I’m about to relate, all of which has transpired in the last two weeks alone.
After increased violence and the criminal murder of innocents on both sides, including a brutal terrorist attack at a Jerusalem synagogue, extremists in Israel have begun imploring businesses not to employ Arab citizens. Recently, video of a planned “demonstration” went viral where Israeli-Jews filled up grocery carts, brought them to the cashier, and asked, “Do you employ Arabs?” then abandoning them and leaving when the answer was “Yes.”
Signs have popped up around Jerusalem which read, “Jews only employ Jews,” a few businesses have been seen posting signs that they don’t hire Palestinians, and even the mayor of Ashkelon, a city of 125,000 citizens, decreed that Arab citizens could no longer work in the city’s schools.
While some Israelis are expressing shock and horror by such developments, they stand in the minority and against the incitement and racism being furthered by Israel’s leaders.
Consider this: Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is currently pushing a “Jewish nation-state bill” which only guarantees democratic rights for Jews. This during a time in which Netanyahu is also championing the illegal destruction of family homes belonging to Palestinian terrorists (but not similar Jewish criminals). Jerusalem’s mayor is even suggesting that Palestinian family members, no matter how distant, should lose their Israeli citizenship as well.
All of this, of course, is set against the larger backdrop of Israel’s assaults on Gaza and its decades-old military occupation of the West Bank, both of which have caused intense suffering and denied Palestinians their basic human and civil rights.
Defenders of everything above will chant, “This is what war looks like.” However, one cannot look upon the extremist gangs which currently roam Jerusalem’s streets chanting “Death to Arabs” while looking for Palestinian citizens to assault and claim that this is the appearance of war.
Instead, it is a glimpse into what oppression of the “stranger” for decades has done to Israeli society, what it has done to the collective empathy of a people, my people, who know a thing or two about being oppressed.
“You shall not oppress a stranger.” Obama evoked these words as a call for empathy, a call to end the dehumanizing oppression of immigrants in this country. Words which echo from ancient Israel, a country where those echoes are getting fainter by the day.
David Harris-Gershon is author of the memoir What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?, published recently by Oneworld Publications.
Follow him on Twitter @David_EHG.