A Jewish solution to the migrant problem

We must not lose our compassion for migrants from Eritrea, Sudan and elsewhere.

September 17, 2013 21:48
3 minute read.
African migrants stand on their balconies at an apartment block in south Tel Aviv.

African migrants stand on their balconies 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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The Left are triumphant and the Right are outraged.

The High Court of Justice on Monday struck down a law designed to help immigration authorities combat the illegal influx of migrants from Eritrea, Sudan and elsewhere.

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In the 9-0 decision, the justices argued that the June 2012 amendment to the Law for Preventing Illegal Border Crossing, which allowed the state to detain migrants for up to three years without a trial or an evaluation of their immigration status, was an infringement of Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty.

For the Left, the ruling was a vindication of their adherence to the universality of human rights – regardless of race, religion or place of origin.

For the Right, meanwhile, the decision was yet another indication that the High Court was dominated by a weak-wrist liberal consensus.

Both the Left and the Right cited Judaism, Jewish values and the special lessons of the Jewish people to support or oppose aggressive anti-migrant policy.

Justice Edna Arbel, who wrote the main opinion for the court, argued “we must not forget… our moral obligation toward every human being as engraved on the foundation stone of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”

Justice Miriam Naor pondered whether Israel would have the wisdom to find a humane solution that is accordance “not just with international law but with Judaism.”

Labor chairwoman Shelly Yacimovitch argued that the Jewish people, with its long history of suffering as refugees at the mercy of other nations now have a moral obligation to show special sensitivity for the plight of modern-day refugees.

Figures on the Right, meanwhile, deployed Judaism as proof for the exact opposite conclusion.

Strategic and Intelligence Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz, paraphrasing the Jewish law that the poor of one’s city take precedence over the poor of more distant locations, said that the State of Israel had a moral obligation first and foremost to alleviate the plight of Israelis living in South Tel Aviv.

Former interior minister Eli Yishai (Shas) attacked the court’s ruling because it hurt Israel’s ability to protect its Jewish character.

What are we to make of a situation in which the same Jewish tradition and sensibilities are used to support diametrically opposed conclusions regarding immigration policy in the Jewish state? A possible solution would be to blame one of the sides – either the Right or the Left – of misrepresenting Judaism to further a political agenda.

However, there is another possibility. Perhaps both the Left and the Right are touching on genuine Jewish values.

On one hand we, as Jews, have an obligation to love the stranger because we were strangers in a foreign land.

The Jewish sage Hillel’s golden rule “don’t do to others what you would not want done to you” commands us not to commit the same injustices perpetrated in the past against Jewish refugees before the state of Israel came into existence.

At the same time, ensuring Jewish continuity is central to Judaism. Endogamy, kosher food restrictions and the emphasis on Torah study are all designed to preserve the Jewish people. In the State of Israel this particularistic aspect of Judaism has been translated into the importance that most Israelis see in maintaining a strong Jewish majority.

According to a study conducted by Sammy Smooha and the Israel Democracy Institute, in 2012 91.8 percent of Israel’s Jews supported the Zionist claim that Israel has the right to exist as a state catering to the needs of Jews both in Israel and in the Diaspora.

The challenge presented by some 55,000 migrants who managed to gain entrance to Israel is balancing these different Jewish values. On the one hand we must not lose our compassion for migrants from Eritrea, Sudan and elsewhere – many of whom refugees fleeing war zones where mandatory military service is a form of slavery. At the same time, we have an obligation to protect the citizens of South Tel Aviv and maintain Israel’s unique character as the world’s only Jewish state.

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