We – the Children of Israel – were running, from Egypt, slavery, from being battered, barely human tools of a ruler.
They were running, from Sudan, Eritrea and then, Egypt, from being battered, barely human tools of a ruler.
We were running, to possibility, full humanity, becoming creators of our own destiny and of a better world.
They were running, to possibility, full humanity, becoming creators of their own destiny and of a better world.
We were heading to the Land of Israel.
They were heading to the State of Israel.
This Shabbat, we remember a harrowing moment in that biblical journey – a central paradigm in our national identity.
“Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you left Egypt. How he cut down the stragglers in the rear, destroyed the enfeebled at the back, when you were tired and weary. And they did not fear God. Therefore it shall be, when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies, in the land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance to possess it, that you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you will not forget” (Numbers 25: 17-19).
But today, in the State of Israel, we are resurrecting – not erasing – the memory of Amalek. We are in our land now and the tired and weary among us – refugees from slavery in Eritrea and genocide in Darfur – are cut down by our governmental policies; policies that persist despite Jewish, civil and international law (law that we, Israel, largely wrote in the wake of our own people’s desperation for refuge), and despite our own Supreme Court’s rulings.
Mutasim is from Darfur, where 40 percent of his village – a community similar in spirit to our shtetl – was murdered in one attack; these pogroms are still happening now. He joined the resistance and then, with his life at terrible risk, he fled.
“I went to Egypt,” Mutasim recounts, “but people were watching me, and I became paranoid. I knew that many Sudanese had been arrested in Egypt and returned to Sudan because the governments cooperated with each other. I feared I would face the same situation in Libya.”
Mutasim, like most Sudanese and Eritreans, escaped from Egypt and set out for Israel.
“Israel has no ties with Sudan, and they would not be able to reach me there.
That’s why I came to Israel, because I was hoping to feel safe for the first time in many years.”
And he is relatively safe. But relative justice is not what the Jewish state should strive toward; being better than Libya and Egypt in our treatment of the weary and desperate people who come to us is not acceptable.
Here, Mutasim is not hunted down. But he is detained in the Holot facility – a blot of shame on our nation. And his “free” brethren are left with no legal status, no economic security, flailing in the unparted sea, treading water in our country.
Why do we adopt the paradigm of fear and oppression, modeled by the nations who tossed us to our anguish, and not create our own model – one of courage, faith and opportunity? A model through which God’s command resonates: “You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:34).
I don’t want to hear about obstacles, about how big and impossible this mitzva is – whining like the spies in Numbers – “All the people we saw there are very tall… We felt as small as grasshoppers, and that’s how we must have looked to them.”
We are the Start-up Nation, entrepreneurial, creative, scrappy – why do we not apply that ingenuity and moral fortitude to moral issues? We could transform Holot into Democracy U. – training Eritrea and Sudan’s future leaders in everything from agriculture to government, medicine to green energy, infrastructure to education.
But instead, we cling to the mode of xenophobia we once detested.
Let’s dare to dream of our highest selves, of bold new ways, my fellow Israelis – we of whom God commanded, in Deuteronomy 4:6, “Show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’”
The writer is a rabbi who lives in Jerusalem with her husband and five children. She is co-author of Jewish Family & Life: Traditions, Holidays and Values for Today’s Parents and Children (Golden Books), founder of JustAdopt.net and active on behalf of asylum seekers and Jewish pluralism. Twitter: @justadopt and @rabbasusan.