Eritrean Protestors 311.
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
In the coming weeks, the Jewish world will begin its annual reading of the book of Exodus. While the telling of the Jewish people’s physical and spiritual birth remains a source of national inspiration, it is perhaps the narrative’s glimpse into the decline of Egyptian society and Pharaoh’s fall that holds some of the most pointed lessons for Israel today.
As the book opens, Joseph and his brothers and all of their generation have died but their descendants are an ever growing presence in Egypt. In a particularly evocative verse we are told that “the children of Israel were fruitful and swarmed and increased and became very, very strong, and the land became filled with them.” The Torah’s portrait of a teeming population of “others” is not a difficult one for many in today’s Jewish state to relate to and, depending upon your own community of identity, you will probably have little trouble identifying the other.
For those whose reality and image of a Jewish state is a state of Jews, arriving at Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station is a particularly startling sight. Like a Middle Eastern Lower East Side whose population of poor Jewish immigrants has given way to a new group of peoples, the streets of South Tel Aviv’s Hatikva neighborhood literally overflow with the sights, sounds and smells of Africa and Asia, where a combination of foreign workers and asylum seekers have transformed the neighborhood.
Standing among onlookers at the recent Human Rights March, it was hard to miss the group of chanting refugees seeking asylum from Eritrea and Sudan as they made their way down the street. As my wife and I watched the march, a sympathetic but agitated man asked us what it was all about. As he watched the hundreds of Africans march by, he said “This is a problem.
We can’t take them all in. What about the France? What about Spain?”
Meanwhile, if you were to enter Tel Aviv’s station and ride the bus a
mere 45 minutes to Jerusalem, you would be confronted with a different
reality. Venturing out into the near complete haredization of western
west Jerusalem, one cannot help but be struck by the average family
size. It’s as if some of today’s Jerusalemites are trying to realize the
fantastical comment by Rashi that “swarmed” meant six children were
delivered at each birth. A secular Israeli faced with the high birthrate
and low work-rate of these communities may surely fear this other.
if you live in Safed or are a national religious rabbi funded by the
state, or one of their admirers, you may see Arabs everywhere you look:
overpopulating the North and out to take advantage of your nice Jewish
MEANWHILE, BACK in Egypt, when faced with an exploding
number of Israelites, Pharaoh exclaimed, “Get ready, let us deal
shrewdly with them, lest they increase, and a war befall us, and they
join our enemies and depart from the land.” Along with a growing sense
of hysteria in Pharaoh’s voice, the response presents an almost
contradictory concern that on the one hand the Hebrews will grow too
numerous and on the other they will leave (which would seem to defuse
the previous fear).
Noting the contradiction, our sages and other
Jewish commentators divided the verse to understand “departing from the
land” as referring to the Egyptians and not the Israelites. Which is to
say, they feared that the Israelites would grow so numerous and
powerful that they would actually displace them and take control of the
nation. Or, in contemporary terms, the Israelites were a demographic
Seen from this perspective, many in Israel and the Jewish
world may perhaps sympathize with the trepidation and insecurity
experienced by Pharaoh. However, what really matters is how a society
channels such anxiety and responds to its challenges. Pharaoh’s sin was
not the fear he felt, but that he chose to respond to it by afflicting,
embittering and enslaving.
Likewise, Israel is right to ask the
necessary if discomfiting questions associated with accommodating an
increasingly diverse society. What’s disconcerting is the intent behind
the solutions being offered. These include political leaders who promote
refugee detention centers in lieu of formulating a reasonable
Or rabbis who release statements urging Jews no to rent or sell property to Arabs.
each case, the Jewish state and its leadership run the risk of
consistently choosing cruelty or indifference over humanity. And once
that step is taken, Israeli society, like Pharaoh, may find itself on
the path to a hardened heart, which despite its own conscience will
increasingly find compassion and loving kindness difficult choices to
take.The writer, a rabbinical
student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, is currently studying at the
Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.