African migrants walk outside Holot open detention center in the southern Negev last year..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Bleak. Dismal. Glum. Not the usual description of Passover. But this year as we entered the holiday, the Interior Ministry, with no seeming sense of irony, announced that we would begin deportations of asylum seekers.
Post hag, my friends and I exchanged stories of seders where we sat slumped instead of reclined, counted drops of wine from cup to plate not for the loss of the ancient Egyptians, but of our own national purpose.
Proof texts to the ministry’s arguments against remembering that we, too, were strangers, might look like this: “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.”) I visited Holot Detention Center over Hol Hamoed along with other members of my synagogue.
The detainees there, some friends, some new faces, gave me hope. We visitors, regulars from my synagogue, munched matza sandwiches and spoke with Mutasim and Dawid and Adil and Yousef.
And for the first time this Passover, the matza did not feel like a cruel joke – crunching greedily in God’s face.
For that moment, matza 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 matza 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 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 in the land of Egypt; I am Lord your God” (Leviticus 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 percent 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 needs to be 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, 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. “It is not upon you to complete the task, nor are you free to desist mimenu” – from “it” – or “from God.” Rabbi Susan Silverman is the author of the forthcoming book Casting Lots: Taking a Chance on Family, Adoption and God (Da Capo Press, 2016) and can be followed @ RabbaSusan.