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.
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 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
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
“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
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
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.
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.
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