Refugees in Israel are a test of “Jewish” in “Jewish State”.
So far, many Israelis are living up to the value of “Treating the stranger as a citizen among you.” But many, include a large swath of our government, are not. And, sadly, the biblical proof texts that undergird these anti-refugee arguments come from the biblical personalities who we least admire.
“If we treat the asylum seekers humanely, all of Africa will come.” (See Pharaoh in Exodus 1:10: “let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they increase.”
“They are criminals.” (See Haman in Esther 3:8 ‘There is a certain people … of thy kingdom; and their laws are different from those of every people; they do not keep the king’s laws; therefore it does not benefit the king to tolerate them.”)
“We cannot solve the problem of African refugees.” (See the naysaying spies in Exodus 13:33: “… we saw the giants; and we were like grasshoppers in our own sight, and so we were in their sight.”)
During a Passover visit to Holot, the shameful detention center in the Negev the men there — from Eritrea and Sudan who sought refuge in Israel — gave me some hope. We visitors, regulars from my synagogue, munched matzah sandwiches and spoke with Mutasim and Jack and Adil and Yousef. And for the first time this Passover, the matzah did not feel like a cruel joke – crunching greedily in God’s face.
For that moment, matzah was both symbol and action. The bread of affliction was not a pity party for my ancestors but a purpose for us, today. It was a taste of redemption for this bitterly ironic Passover. I had hated buying matzah before this holiday. Resented the cleaning, the toiveling of pots, the blasting of our oven and the running of an empty dishwasher. All the purifying felt like an affront to God – an attempt to wash away God’s most insistent command: “If a stranger (ger) lives among you in your land, you shall not wrong him. A stranger who lives among you will be like a citizen, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers (gerim) in the land of Egypt; I am Lord your God.” (Lev 19:33-34)
Holot is hot, and we scrunched together in the limited shade. We talked about the verification process to qualify as refugees according to international law (law that Israel helped write after the foundation of the state, when our own suffering and redemption were still alive enough in our memories to elicit empathy). Their stories are well known to us – the murder in one fell swoop of 40% of Mutasim’s village in Darfur, Dawid’s escape from slavery in Eritrea (via Sudan, then Libya, then sent back to Sudan, then Egypt, then Israel).
I imagine that God repeated the command to protect the stranger three dozen times because it’s really hard. It takes real faith in God — in a way that keeping kashrut or Shabbat does not. It is the real test of the Jewish soul. In that way, the refugees hold up a mirror to our inner character. And they give us an opportunity to rise to our highest selves.
And no, we do not have to take in everyone. But we must do the most we can. And absorbing the 45,000 asylum seekers who are here is something we can do. Quite easily, actually.
And no, “they” are not criminals. Despite the desperate circumstances we have offered, the crime rate from asylum seekers is below the national average. Israelis are six times more likely to be involved in a crime in Tel Aviv than African asylum seekers.
And yes, we can solve some of the hardships of refugees. We are the start-up nation – an innovative, Talmud-sharp people. Let’s apply that chutzpah-creativity to moral issues. With the money we spend on locking up the stranger, we could create “Democracy U” – programs throughout the country that educate Eritreans and others in what is needed to build a democracy. So when they can return home (yes, almost all want to once it’s safe) they have the skills needed to do what have done – build a developed, liberal, pluralistic country. I believe that Israel – the best of Israel – can create a model program for refugee education that can have a ripple effect throughout the world.
One more thought about faith: The naysaying spies said, “For they (the giants in the land) are stronger than us.” But Rashi says that the spies’ failing was their lack of faith in God, and that the word mimenu –“than us” is actually, heretically, mimeno – in reference to God: that the giants were stronger than God.
The word mimenu also appears in a central Jewish teaching to which we could also apply Rashi’s insight. Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor – v’lo ata ben chorin lhibatel mimenu. It is not upon you to complete the task, nor are you free to desist mimenu –“from it” – or, mimeno – “from God”.