When Jacob sent his sons to Egypt to buy food, he had no intention of gaining control over that country or of changing its demography.

He knew that the future of his descendants lay in the land of Canaan, as God had repeatedly promised him and the other patriarchs. Nor did Jacob change his mind when he was taken to Egypt to meet Joseph. From his point of view, the stay in Egypt was meant to be temporary, until conditions allowed the return home.

But a generation or so after Jacob and his family had settled in Egypt, they began to feel unwanted. The regime – and probably the masses, too – felt that the number of Israelites was growing too fast, they were controlling the economy, and their loyalty could no longer be trusted.

Well before the draconian decrees of Pharaoh, the children of Israel sensed changes in the attitude of the Egyptians: the cold shoulder, avoidance of social contact, reduction of economic relations, and alarming rhetoric presenting the Israelites as a fifth column, as invaders – as strangers.

As immigrants have learned throughout history, these excluding and humiliating messages are extremely painful. They also prepare the ground for real measures of exclusion, discrimination and persecution, measures which in turn intensify these messages in a poisonous and destructive spiral.

The traumatic experience of the Israelites in Egypt serves repeatedly in the Torah as the basis for an uncompromising demand never to behave the way the Egyptians did: not to oppress strangers but to embrace them. “Love ye therefore the stranger; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:19) How vulnerable strangers were is evident from a comment Boaz made to Ruth: “Let thine eyes be on the field that they do reap, and go thou after them: Have I not charged the young men that they shall not touch thee?” (Ruth 2:9) If it had not been for Boaz’s explicit warning, the young men most probably would have harassed the young girl who had recently arrived from Moab, in spite of her relationship to Naomi.

That is the grim reality of foreigners: harassed, thirsty and dependent on the goodwill of others. A negative attitude toward gerim is so prevalent, that gerim take it for granted.

“Why,” asks Ruth, “have I found grace in thine eyes, that thou shouldest take knowledge of me, seeing I am a stranger?” (Ruth 2:10) With this biblical background, and given the Jewish historical experience of being strangers in many locales, one would have expected that when the Jews were finally on the hosting side, they would treat their own gerim differently and that they would offer hospitality, food and shelter to those strangers who came to live among them.

Unfortunately, the Jewish state is not living up to these expectations.

As these lines are being written, thousands of immigrants and refugees from Africa were protesting the way they are being treated: exploited in their workplaces, without basic medical or social rights, and, above all, living with the knowledge that they are unwanted and under threat of deportation.

Watching pictures of the thousands of Africans gathered in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, I felt that this is where I should have been, too, with other Israelis there to show sympathy and solidarity. In a sense this is where all Jews should be, imitating the example set by God who “loveth the stranger, in giving him food and raiment.” (Deuteronomy 10:18) Giving immigrants food and raiment should be our concern, not questions of how best to get rid of them.

I am not naive and do not underestimate the practical difficulties of absorbing this large group, finding homes for them and providing them with the conditions for a decent life. But Israel has proven its ability to overcome such difficulties with other groups of immigrants, so there is no reason to think they are insurmountable.

But hey, you are saying, those were Jewish immigrants. Do I really expect the Jewish state to make similar investments for goyim? Here we get to the crux of the matter, which is tied up with a fundamental debate about how to interpret the Jewishness of the state.

In my view, a Jewish state is a state whose values are inspired by Jewish tradition, which implies, in the current case, an opening of its heart and pocket to the strangers among us. On the opposing view that informs Israel’s present policies, a Jewish state is one that endeavors to maintain the purity (forgive me for using this word) of the nation.

While all other nations are morally expected to open their gates to immigrants, especially to Jews in distress, Jews, some assume, are subject to a different morality. Of all civilized states, the Jewish state has a particularly harsh policy against the absorption of immigrants from the Third World. Israel has not been willing to offer refugee status to any of the thousands who have come from unstable and tortured countries, mainly Eritrea and Sudan. Citizenship has not been offered to any one of them – in accordance with government’s general reluctance to grant citizenship to non-Jews.

This is a true test case for both the Jewish and the democratic nature of Israel. So far Israel has failed, because its default position toward African immigrants has been negative, supplemented with an unclear readiness to make exceptions for “genuine” asylum- seekers.

We need a paradigmatic shift to the opposite attitude – treating all immigrants as gerim for whom we should care, unless this is impossible or too costly. Let our shared memory as Jews lead us to side with the weak and vulnerable. We know better than most what it means to be on that side of the equation.

Daniel Statman is a member of the iEngage Project at the Shalom Hartman Institute and a professor of philosophy at the University of Haifa. Get more information


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