Tradition Today: The stranger in your midst

Is it even legal to discriminate against any group in employment on the basis of race or religion?

arabs 521 (photo credit:
arabs 521
(photo credit:
Many organizations have been getting into the business of giving so-called “kashrut certificates” that deal not with the ritual aspects of kashrut but with ethical concerns. The Rabbinical Assembly in America now has a Magen Tzedek certificate it issues to indicate that the kosher food is produced in ways that meet the standards of business ethics of Judaism, so that the food is ethically pure as well as ritually pure. Other rabbinical associations have followed suit.
Here, there is a group that issues certificates to firms indicating that they follow ethical business practices. All of this only emphasizes that Judaism is more than a set of rituals, it is also an ethical way of living.
So I was shocked to see a recent newspaper report that there is a Jewish organization planning to give “kashrut certificates” to stores and companies that can prove that they do not employ “enemies of Israel,” which the head of the group explained means Arabs.
Any business displaying such a sign would be one I would absolutely refuse to patronize. The most disturbing part of the report was that this certificate was being sought after by many places in the ultra-religious areas of Jerusalem. What evil spirit is getting into such groups that they would offer such a thing? And that anyone would want to display it? This is yet another discriminatory measure together with calls not to rent to Arabs and demands for loyalty oaths. I hope that common sense will prevail and that this “kashrut certificate” – which should more properly be called a certificate of shame – will disappear as if it had never existed.
Is it even legal to discriminate against any group in employment on the basis of race or religion? After all, Arab citizens are guaranteed freedom and equality by our Declaration of Independence. It states quite clearly, “The State of Israel will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex; will guarantee full freedom of conscience, worship, education and culture.”
It would be well for us to remember both our history, in which for centuries Jews were denied employment in so many fields, and our tradition which forbids us to discriminate against non-Jews. For centuries in pre-emancipation times Jews suffered under restrictions that were placed on them in regard to ways that they could make a living.
They were prohibited from engaging in many trades and forced into such enterprises as money lending out of necessity. And in the Nazi era, among the first anti- Jewish laws that were passed in Germany and Italy were those forbidding the employment of Jews.
They were forced out of universities, out of schools, out of orchestras, and their stores and businesses were boycotted. Then there was the informal discrimination against Jews that existed even in England and the US, where it was difficult for Jews to be employed in banking and in certain law firms, as well as quota systems that kept Jews out of prestigious universities and medical schools. Do we now want to imitate that by encouraging businesses not to employ Arabs? That religious Jews should do that is particularly disturbing because the Torah goes out of its way to prohibit discrimination against and persecution of “the stranger.”
The Torah takes it for granted that when Israel inhabits its own land there will be non-Israelites who will dwell there with them and makes provision to protect them.
The Torah is emphatic in emphasizing that these strangers must be treated well and fairly. In the very first of the Torah’s legal codes it is stated: “You shall not wrong a stranger [ger] or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20). This is repeated again even more explicitly in the very next chapter: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 23:9).
The holiness code in Leviticus reiterates this and equates the stranger to the native, i.e. the Israelite: “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Lord am your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34).
When the theme of the stranger is taken up by Deuteronomy it requires the judicial system to protect the rights of the stranger: “...decide justly between any man and a fellow Israelite or a stranger” (1:16). “For the Lord your God... upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (10:17-19).
They were easy victims of economic exploitation, the deprivation of property, or denial of legal rights. Therefore the Torah provides for their protection and it is God who upholds their cause! Yes, we were “strangers” not only in Egypt, but in so many other places. We know and understand what that means and therefore should be ultra-sensitive to how we treat others. Israel has sufficient laws to protect us against traitors and enemies, internal as well as external. It does not need vigilante groups to work outside the law to keep us safe and untainted by the “strangers” in our midst.
The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, was the founding director of the Schechter Rabbinical School. His latest book is Entering Torah.