The crackdown on African migrants in Israel is an ongoing source of sadness and personal frustration. I cannot help but recall the Biblical commandment to treat “the stranger who dwells among you as a citizen” and to “love the stranger as you love yourself.” Why, then, do many of my fellow Orthodox Jews remain indifferent to the plight of the African migrants who dwell among us?
The various streams of Orthodox Judaism offer meaningful paths toward a special closeness with G-d, our fellow human beings, and our inner selves. No matter what sort of kippa or head-covering we wear (or don’t wear), we share a commitment to the precepts and principles of the tradition revealed at Mount Sinai. Yet, in our quest for punctilious ritual observance, we have lost sight of a teaching mentioned no less than thirty-six times in the Torah: love, and do not oppress, strangers among us.
Somehow, Orthodox communities have fallen victim to prejudice and racism. A recent survey by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University found a direct correlation between Orthodox religiosity and xenophobic intolerance. The poll found that 82% of ultra-Orthodox Jews, as well as 66% of Orthodox Jews, share MK Miri Regev’s view that African migrants are a “cancer in the body of the nation.” Among secular Jews, only 38% agree with Regev’s dehumanizing racial epithet.
Orthodoxy’s failure — our failure — to root out xenophobia and racism is particularly incomprehensible in light of last week’s Torah portion. Toward the end of the portion of Behalotecha, Aaron and Miriam are rebuked for speaking ill of Moses and his wife. Events reach a climax when G-d afflicts Miriam with a plague for remarking on the dark skin of Moses’s wife, who was a Midianite by birth. The message of this episode is clear — there is no room for racism in Judaism.
Of course, the suggestion that Orthodox Jews (or Israelis in general) are uniquely and inherently racist is patently untrue. The issue of illegal migration vexes policy-makers throughout Europe, the United States, and beyond. Balancing humanitarian imperatives with the sovereign right of the nation state to govern its own borders and maintain its national culture is a difficult task in an increasingly global world. Xenophobia often rears its ugly head when a population fears that the culture and society of its political collectivity is threatened by an influx of unfamiliar peoples. In this regard, Israel is no different from any other country, and Orthodox Jews are no different from anyone else.
Nevertheless, as self-proclaimed “Torah Jews” who proudly bear “the yoke of Heaven,” we have a responsibility to hold ourselves to the ethical standards set forth in our tradition. Our committed observance of halakha serves as a constant reminder that the Torah empowers human beings to transcend their baser instincts in favor of higher, G-dly, ideals. The laws of marriage and family purity channel the lust of sexual desire into a sanctified union of two people, which encompasses the mind, body, and soul. The blessings over food transform the intake of nutrients into an affirmation of our relationship with G-d, who sustains our existence through the bounty of His creation. Our burial rites affirm the dignity and respect owed every human being at the very moment when the human body appears void of any significance.
If we remind ourselves of Judaism’s core precepts through the daily observance of the mitzvot and regular Torah study, how can we allow fear and xenophobia to misguide our moral compass? How have we forgotten the commandment to love, and not oppress, the strangers among us? How is it that officials of an Orthodox political party are leading the effort to round up African refugees in deportation raids? How has the religious Zionist community, which mobilized thousands in support of the Givat Ulpana families, remained silent? Why aren’t Orthodox Jews taking the lead in searching for compassionate alternatives to mass forced deportations?
The existence of the State of Israel after 2,000 years of exile is nothing short of miraculous. Its scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs are among the most innovative and creative in the world. Israel’s institutions of Jewish learning have been at the forefront of reviving Torah study after the catastrophe of the Holocaust. Its Torah scholars, in yeshivot and universities, have led the way in creatively and faithfully applying Jewish law to life in the 21st century. Surely, we are capable of developing a policy toward African migrants that protects Israel’s demographic character and vital interests while living up to our most sacred ideals.