Refugees and rabbis

Issue of how to deal with increasing number of refugees, illegal immigrants rouses spiritual leaders to take to their pulpits.

South Sudanese protest against deportation 370 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
South Sudanese protest against deportation 370
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
The decision last week by the Jerusalem District Court to issue an injunction postponing the deportation of approximately 1,000 South Sudanese from Israel until at least April 15 has brought the vexed issue of illegal immigration back to the national agenda.
The sensitive problem of how to deal with the ever-increasing number of refugees and illegal immigrants arriving in Israel has, as with so many concerns, roused the country’s spiritual leaders to take to their pulpits to proffer a religious perspective on the issue.
“The people of Israel brought the concept of compassion into the world,” said Achiad Ettinger, rabbi of the Beit Shapira Synagogue in south Tel Aviv, where large numbers of asylum seekers have ended up. “We are noted for our compassion even by our enemies; Hitler specifically pointed out that we introduced such concepts, and they hated us for it.”
“But excessive compassion can also have negative consequences. We have many of our own vulnerable people who we need to help and absorbing these illegal immigrants entails huge financial obligations,” Ettinger told The Jerusalem Post.
“From a demographic, economic and security perspective we just can’t absorb these numbers of people coming in – and we have to return them either to where they came from or to another country.”
Refugees, Ettinger continued, should be treated humanely and provided with food and shelter, but nevertheless deported.
According to government figures, there are currently about 45,000 people who arrived in Israel illegally, 61 percent from troubled Eritrea, 25% from Sudan and the rest from other sub-Saharan states.
There are also nearly 90,000 legal migrant workers in the country along with 95,000 foreign workers who entered legally but whose visas have now expired.
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, described the challenge of dealing with refugees and immigrants as “the most important moral test for our society.”
The State of Israel, he said, like all other states in the Western world, has to develop immigration policies and take necessary steps to secure its borders.
“It’s okay to have strict immigration policies and to protect your borders,” said Kariv. “But it is not right for us to bring in migrant workers in order to energize and develop the local economy, and then close our eyes to those who use this cheap labor to make easy profits and deny these workers their basic rights.”
“They are human beings who, aside from building our cities and cleaning our homes, have cultural, social and spiritual needs, fall in love and bring children into this world. We need to recognize that.”
Regarding refugees and asylum seekers, Kariv is even more emphatic.
Israel – as a Jewish and democratic state that is cognizant of its past – cannot close its borders to asylum seekers and put them at risk by sending them back to their home countries where the political situation is not stable, he said.
Refugees need to be given temporary residence permits and allowed to work, earn a living, live in dignity and enjoy other basic human rights, Kariv continued.
“The people from South Sudan cannot be sent back at the moment because of the current instability there, and Israel needs to follow the guidelines of international organizations on this issue,” Kariv asserted, in reference to a statement by the UN chief of humanitarian affairs in February that conflict, poverty and food insecurity are creating severe humanitarian problems in the country that are likely to worsen.
Kariv denied that there is any demographic threat to the Jewish majority in permitting those who have refugee status to stay in the country.
“This notion is an attempt to frighten the Israeli public and is simply the racist interpretation a number of politicians give to the concept of a Jewish state. When you have more than 6.5 million Jews in Israel, allowing a few thousand refugees to be integrated into Israeli society is not a threat. By doing it, I believe we strengthen the Jewish character of the state, not weaken it.
“It’s not enough to have a Jewish majority,” continued Kariv. “The state’s policies and behavior need to reflect the values of our tradition and the lessons we learned through our own history.”
Rabbi Benny Lau, a prominent national-religious figure and rabbi of the Ramban Synagogue in south Jerusalem, is also adamant that genuine refugees seeking asylum from life-threatening situations in their homelands should be afforded protection and shelter – and shielded from any attempts to deport them.
But he also believes that stringent immigration laws and practices need to be established to halt the tide of illegal immigrants arriving in the country.
“Having open borders and allowing anyone who so wishes to come in will destroy the country. The State of Israel simply won’t exist any more,” he told the Post.
Once someone gets into the country, however, there is a responsibility to provide them with food, health services, education and all other needs, Lau said.
“What we must do as a Jewish society is design policies according to the Torah, which recognize the foreigner who lives among us as a human being with his own identity,” he said.
“If we do so we will continue to cultivate the vision of a nation-state that believes all men are created in the image of God.”