Home / Unlocked / Welcoming the Stranger – a Jewish Perspective to Ending Indefinite Immigration Detention

“You shall not oppress the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9), is a clear principle which offers an opportunity for René Cassin to look at a Jewish perspective to ending indefinite immigration detention.

Surrounded by mass immigration and rising cultural division, secure borders and immigration is high on Britain’s agenda. However, whilst security measures in regards to migrants and asylum seekers are required, these must be lawful and encompass basic human values, of equality and justice, we all hold deer. We must keep to ideals that brought many Jewish ancestors to the UK in pursuit of a safe, prosperous life. After all, welcoming the stranger is a core principle of Judaism. 

Currently, the UK is the only country in Europe that does not have a maximum time limit on the length of time a person can be detained. Indefinite detention is one of the biggest human rights challenges in the UK today, causing irreversible damage to those detained. Some are detained for months, and even years. René Cassin, a long-time member of The Detention Forum, is writing this blog in support of the annual ‘Unlocking Detention’ project. 

Water, bread, milk, flour and shade

This mitzvah of welcoming the stranger is prevalent in the Torah, marking multiple instances where Abraham, whom Jews hold to be the first Jew, welcomes strangers into his midst. We read in Parshat Vayera (Genesis 18:1) that Abraham sits in his tent on the plains of Mamre. The Midrash teaches us that Abraham and Sarah’s tent was four-doored; from whichever direction a visitor approached, it would appear open to them. Even after his recent circumcision, and in the context of the families’ difficulty conceiving a child, Abraham runs to welcome the strangers in the heat of the day. The hospitality is extensive; water, bread, milk, flour and shade. Thus, as descendants of Abraham, we carry his legacy to welcome strangers into our midst, even (and especially) when inconvenient. 

Rashi also teaches us that God initially brought the heat of the day to deter visitors but summoned the angels when he saw how aggrieved Abraham was when unable to extend any hospitality. Abraham and Sarah are ultimately rewarded, the angel brings news that Sarah will bear a son. Mitzvot of hospitality appear in the Torah 36 times, more than any other, creating a foundation to fight against hostile environments such as indefinite immigration detention. In fact, welcoming guests is one of the few mitzvot described in the Talmud for which rewards are received in both the present life and beyond, reflected in the story through the gift of life Abraham and Sarah receive.  

Fundamental morality principle

It is clear, that for the Jewish community, the UK’s immigration policies must recognise the value of welcoming those arriving in the UK seeking a safer life, as a matter of fundamental morality and with a solid basis in the Torah. As Rabbi Sacks has previously stated

“I used to think that the most important line in the Bible was “Love your neighbour as yourself”. Then I realised that it is easy to love your neighbour because he or she is usually quite like yourself. What is hard is to love the stranger, one whose colour, culture or creed is different from yours. That is why the command, “Love the stranger because you were once strangers”, resonates so often throughout the Bible. It is summoning us now.”

The importance of community action and hospitality is a virtuous responsibility that the UK must take on. Indefinite immigration detention could not be further from such values. We urge all readers to read more about René Cassin’s work on a 28-day limit for immigration detention here, and to get involved with the #Unlocked19 project. #Time4aTimeLimit

“There are no mass graves in Britain, but there are other ways people can vanish.” – Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg for The Guardian, in an article presenting the tales of a previous asylum seeker regarding indefinite detention.