Avoiding a Jewish heart of hardness

We should note how parts of Exodus narrative and its interpretation relate to how Israel approaches various demographic "threats."

Eritrean Protestors 311 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
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.
Finally, 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 girls.
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 threat.
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 immigration policy.
Or rabbis who release statements urging Jews no to rent or sell property to Arabs.
In 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.