As a board member of the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, an organization that mobilizes faith-based communities in California in pursuit of immigrant justice, I was sickened by Forward Editor-in-Chief Jane Eisner’s ambivalent stance toward the new Sanctuary Movement. In her opinion piece published on February 28th, Eisner demonstrates her failure to understand that the decades-old Sanctuary Movement is rooted in communities of color, that is, communities most at risk for deportation. Eisner discourages synagogues from participating in the Sanctuary Movement because she believes that congregations that offer sanctuary will cause “further politicization of religious life.” This is terrible advice at a time we desperately need an intersectional, multifaith coalition that confronts racism as well as the root causes of what compels people to leave their homes in the first place.
Eisner believes religion and politics should be separate in American life and, in her view, offering physical sanctuary to human beings about to be deported politicizes religious spaces. However, offering sanctuary is first and foremost, a religious act, according to Jewish teachings. Talmudic sages elaborate and clarify biblical commandments and values by prioritizing them: “What are the greatest principles of Torah? Save one life, save an entire world; human dignity overrides every negative precept of Torah; love your neighbor as yourself. How? Don’t stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” These are not suggestions; they are commandments. Piety without instrumental action is condemned by prophets and sages alike. Defying ruling systems that wield unjust power is exactly how our religion got started! The midwives resisting Pharaoh come to mind.
Eisner, like many, thinks providing sanctuary is limited to physical sanctuary. This is inaccurate. Sanctuary includes rapid response, advocacy, relationship building, and accompaniment. Physical sanctuary is only one tactic among many that communities can engage. Even without offering physical sanctuary, congregations can still be active in supporting sanctuary and immigrant justice by joining local multifaith sanctuary coalitions.
Instead of educating her readers about the many inspiring ways religious communities and multifaith coalitions are reaching out to each other in deportation defense, Eisner warns the Jewish community away from being political. She acknowledges, “Maybe offering shelter from the law for a desperate person is justification enough.” This begrudging nod to those most at risk is painful and feels racist as well as dismissive. ICE agents are not threatening the religious right or the Ashkenazi Jewish community. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is not breaking down their doors, not deporting their families, not incarcerating their relatives, not denying them access to medical treatment, and not rounding them up on the street on the way to school or while riding on a bus to work. If religious institutions fail to provide sanctuary for those most at risk from racist deportation policies, who will? Shall we stand idly by as our neighbors are being rounded up? Doesn’t that sound familiar to Eisner? Indeed, it is the very people who defied Nazi ‘law’ and rescued Jews by providing them sanctuary who we honor as heroes today. Decades from now, who will the undocumented and immigrant community honor? And who will be among those remembered as bystanders, or worse, as those counseling non-involvement?
Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb is cofounder of the Community of Living Traditions, a multifaith residency devoted to nonviolence in study and action. She is also cofounder of the Shomer Shalom Institute for Jewish Nonviolence and the Muslim Jewish PeaceWalk, as well as a performing artist, author, and percussionist.