For nearly a month since Russia invaded Ukraine, Israel’s government has been struggling with how far to extend itself on behalf of the more than three million Ukrainian refugees that have fled their homes. Politicians here are faced with a difficult "Catch-22," having to choose between Israel’s Jewish values and its Jewish identity.
Israeli leaders have argued bitterly about the urgent need to save as many lives as possible on the one hand, and Israel’s basic need to maintain its Jewish identity at the same time.
Politicians such as Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked have called for a quota of 5,000 refugees. Israel must first and foremost preserve its Jewish identity and can’t simply allow thousands of non-Jewish refugees to overwhelm the small country. The critical issue of Israel’s Jewish identity has been denied repeatedly by our enemies and it must be maintained despite our humanitarian sympathies.
Other politicians have called for Israel to be more compassionate in light of the horrific suffering of so many refugees, a plight Jews can relate to all too well. The refugees fleeing Putin’s wrath are in grave danger and saving lives is the highest Jewish value.
“We won’t close our gates and our hearts to those who lost everything,” Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said during a visit to the Ukrainian border.
Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg said that Israel has a “moral, historical and strategic interest” in allowing more Ukrainian refugees into the country. “In such a crisis, Israel should not be stingy nor start counting heads, but should mobilize for the global effort,” she told Ynet.
The Bible offers a useful paradigm for navigating this difficult dilemma between Israel’s Jewish values and its Jewish identity.
After the Children of Israel leave Egypt, they receive the Torah in the Sinai wilderness where they dwelt amongst themselves for 40 years. The generation that left Egypt died out, and a new generation of Israelites entered the Promised Land. Upon their first exposure to strangers and foreigners, the Torah goes to great lengths to outline repeatedly the proper approach.
The books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy provide hundreds of unique commandments given to the Jewish People, but there is one law that is repeated over and over again, 36 separate times: “Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:18).
A foreigner was to be shown love and respect as a Ger Toshav, a “resident stranger.” A Ger Toshav was welcome to live peaceably in the land if he or she abided by the seven universal laws (sometimes called the “seven Noahide commandments”).
Besides for this biblical background, there is not a single country on earth better equipped to assist refugees than the State of Israel. Our raison d'etre was to be a place of refuge since during the systematic murder of 6,000,000 Jews by the evil axis powers in the Holocaust, the allied countries actively prevented Jewish refugees from finding safe harbor in our homeland!
Every Israeli school child learns about the British “White Paper” that established a cruel quota on Jews fleeing Hitler who were barred from entering pre-state Israel. And we have seen the heartbreaking photos of hungry Jewish children aboard the SS Exodus who were sent back from the port of Haifa by the British navy in 1947.
Since its founding in 1948 with just 600,000 citizens, Israel immediately and intensively began bringing in as many refugees as possible, doubling the population in its first decade. In the ensuing years, the dramatic stories of European survivors arriving by ship, Ethiopian Jews upon “the wings of eagles” and Jewish refugees from Arab lands by foot, are legendary.
Israel should boldly embrace our heritage and take in as many Ukrainian refugees as it can under the beautiful, Biblical category of Ger Toshav.
But won’t that weaken our Jewish identity? On the contrary!
Thousands of Ukrainian Ger Toshavs finding safety and security in the Promised Land will strengthen Israel’s Jewish identity. By excelling at “love for the stranger," Israel will become widely recognized as leading the world in compassion and justice, no longer known as the “Start Up Nation,” but as the “Refugee Nation.”
Rabbi Tuly Weisz is the founder of Israel365, connecting Christian Zionists with the Land and People of Israel. He is also the editor of “The Israel Bible” which highlights the role of Israel throughout the Bible. The Israel365 Charity Fund is working tirelessly to assist Ukrainian refugees and help them come to Israel.