African migrants take part in a protest against Israel's detention policy toward them.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
‘This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the Land of Egypt. May all who are hungry, come and eat.”
Really? How many of us will have anyone at our Seder table who was ever even remotely truly hungry? Not I.
And what of the commandment, “The stranger living among you shall be for you as a citizen, and you shall love him as you love yourself, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34)? I can’t recall a Passover when we have been more directly put to the test in regard to this admonition than is the case right now.
Always, there have been the oppressed with whom to identify. Throughout the generations, we have declaimed that none of us can truly be free as long as anyone anywhere remains in shackles. But never has our festival of freedom coincided with the scheduled deportation of the 35,000 African asylum-seekers living among us in this Jewish state we so love.
That the High Court of Justice has now intervened, delaying the deportation pending clarifications from the government regarding its plans, only underscores that there are exceedingly difficult quandaries to resolve in dealing with the matter of these migrants. I wouldn’t want to suggest otherwise. For or against expulsion, nothing is as black or white (pun intended) as some would have us believe. The genuine distress the asylum-seekers have caused the veteran residents of south Tel Aviv also needs to be part of the equation.
But as important as the ultimate decisions are with regard to these dilemmas, so is the manner in which we approach them. Both will say much about the sort of society we are building – a message that will be heard loud and clear by those who live in Israel, by Jews everywhere, by our friends, and by our foes. And, as we are inviting the entire world to celebrate 70 years of independence with us, its echo will reverberate with particular resonance.
Just how weighty this issue is might be gauged by a resolution on the matter adopted by the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors a month ago. It called upon the government “to ensure every migrant has an opportunity to apply for asylum, and receive transparent due process in the examination of their application.” It also called for establishing “a task force... that will examine the issue with a view of submitting recommendations for further action.” And it urged that legal status be granted “to the more than 500 young migrants who arrived in Israel years ago as unaccompanied minors and were integrated in the education system of youth villag - es operated by the Jewish Agency and the Ministry of Education” who “speak fluent Hebrew, are imbued with Israeli culture, and are loyal to the State of Israel.”
This declaration was highly unusual for the Jewish Agency, an apolitical body that prides itself on working hand-in-hand with the government and which studiously avoids speaking out on controversial issues, particularly if such statements might be construed as critical of government policy.
Except that when it comes to matters impacting directly on the nature of the Jewish state, we are fashioning our relations with world Jewry.
The impending eviction of the migrants from Eritrea and Sudan is just such an issue. This time it’s not about the Western Wall or conversion but about the morality of Torah in the life of the collective. “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the soul of a stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.” Demographics will play a major role in determining whether or not we remain a Jewish state; so will the moral choices we make.
I want to be absolutely clear. The Jewish Agency resolution in no way suggests what the preferred course of action in regard to the migrants might be. The task force it called for could well return with a vote of confidence in the government’s plan. But I have no doubt that in its exploration of alternatives, it will take into consideration the ethics of our tradition as well as the realpolitik in which policy is formed.
In doing so, it will be heeding not only the call of the 25,000 demonstrators who gathered in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square last Saturday night to demand that other ways of dealing with the problem of “infiltrators” be considered, but also the voices of hundreds of rabbis and Jewish leaders in Israel and around the world.
They are not all bleeding-heart liberals. Among the latest to speak out on the mat - ter is Rabbi Avi Gisser, chief rabbi of the Samarian settlement of Ofra, who called the refugee crisis, “an ethical, constitutional and humanitarian challenge” for Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, and urged that it be resolved “inhumane, ethical and appropriate ways for Israeli citizens and Jews.”
While much of the rhetoric on the matter has focused on the need to differentiate between “job-seekers” and “asylum-seekers,” our tradition and our history would suggest this not be the only factor to be taken into account in formulating policy. As our own descent into Egypt was a consequence not of our being persecuted but of our being hungry, it should be taken for granted, as Gisser has posited, that we be guided in our actions by a concern for “how to behave toward poor and needy people seeking shelter” and that we “not forcibly send people to a place where we cannot guarantee their safety or the minimally humane, appropriate way in which people should live in security and with basic welfare.”
He might well have been referencing Deuteronomy 23:16-17: “You shall not turn over a slave who seeks refuge with you. He shall live with you in any place he may choose, within one of your gates. You must not mistreat him.” Or Herzl: “My testament for the Jewish people: build your state in such a manner that the stranger will feel comfortable among you.”
These are the values that need inform our judgments on the matter. These are the words (Deuteronomy 27:19), ancient though they may be, that makes the repetition of our story fresh and contemporary, year after year: “Cursed be he who distorts the justice due a stranger... And all the people shall say, Amen.”The writer is deputy chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive, a member of the Zionist Executive and senior representative of the international Masorti/Conservative movement within Israel’s National Institutions. The views expressed herein are his own. firstname.lastname@example.org
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