The Torah and migrants

This week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim, includes the famous commandment to love the stranger which has been much discussed in our American-Jewish community in light of President Trump’s moves to restrict our acceptance of refugees, deport undocumented immigrants and remove legal protections from “dreamers,” as well as Israel’s efforts to deport some 38,000 African migrants.


“When a stranger comes to live in your land, do not mistreat him,” says the Torah, and continues, “Treat the stranger the way you treat your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were strangers in Egypt. I am the Lord your God (Lev. 19:33-34.)”

As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes, this is an extremely radical statement. “Most people in most societies in most ages have feared, hated and often harmed the stranger. People don’t usually love strangers. That is why, almost always when the Torah states this command – which it does, according to the sages, 36 times – it adds an explanation: ‘because you were strangers in Egypt.’ I know of no other nation that was born as a nation in slavery and exile. We know what it feels like to be a vulnerable minority. That is why love of the stranger is so central to Judaism.”


For the vast majority of American Jews, this makes our stance toward the Trump administration’s malicious policies toward refugees and immigrants an easy call. We vehemently oppose and reject them.



It is apparently not so simple for Israelis.


Of course, the religious and political leaders of Israel would maintain that they take the strictures of the Torah extremely seriously. We read recently about a furious debate between the Rabbinate and Israel and the Jewish religious authorities in Italy about whether or not the humble artichoke could be kosher.


According to the Israeli Rabbinate’s Import Division head, Rabbi Yitzhak Arazi: “The heart of the artichoke is full of worms, there is no way you can clean it. It cannot be kosher.” Israel banned a ready-made version of the Roman-Jewish community’s specialty dish, carciofi alla giudìa, from Israeli shelves.Italian Jews angrily rejected the decision and Rome’s chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni, and the Jewish community leader, Ruth Dureghello, were seen busily peeling artichokes in a pre-Passover video greeting to the community.


One could only wish that these same religious authorities would be half as exercised over the fate of African migrants as they are over artichokes. Earlier this month, the government of Benjamin Netanyahu reached an agreement with the United Nations to settle half of these migrants permanently in Israel and the other half in European countries. But barely a day later, the Prime Minister ripped up the agreement when he came under pressure from part of his right-wing political base who do not want any of the Africans to stay.


Israel does not even call them migrants, let alone refugees. It refers them as “infiltrators” as if they were a fifth column of a foreign army who sneaked into the country to commit sabotage.


Now, the government has admitted it has no plan for how to deal with the problem, leaving the migrants in limbo. Netanyahu tweeted that he will reopen a detention center in the desert to house mainly single males, the aim apparently being to make life so uncomfortable and unpleasant for them that they voluntarily agree to be deported to who knows where.


This would appear to be as clear a violation of the commandment to “love the stranger” as one could find. A true leader of Israel would tell his followers: “I know you feel threatened by these people but they pose no danger to us and we are commanded in the Torah to welcome them.” But Netanyahu is not that leader.


As American Jews, we are often told we have a duty to support Israel. But that cannot mean supporting everything that its government does. When we are forced to choose between a foundational principle of our ethics, our religion and our law and a leader pandering to his base, 

we have a moral obligation to remain true to who we are and have always been.