Out of sight and out of mind. That’s the safe and prudent place for the non-citizen to occupy. A society’s primary responsibility is to protect and maximize the well-being of its citizens. By definition, the outsider is of secondary concern at best. To master the art of non-citizenship is to learn how to become important, if not indispensable, to the society and its citizens, while minimizing the burden one places on them.
It is for this reason that non-citizens are permitted and tolerated within certain boundaries, for who would not like to benefit at very little cost to oneself? Which society would not tolerate individuals who serve its citizens and do the jobs that they choose not to do, and at the same time, at a fraction of the cost and responsibility? And so we import them or allow them to enter into our midst to the numerical extent that maintains or preserves maximal benefit versus minimal cost.
If from time to time one of them exhibits unique skills, prized as is a rose, or having the ability to sing like Rose, brings beauty to our shores and serves us with their talent, we lift their veil of invisibility and embrace them. For what these individuals of unique ability give to us we repay with the status of being seen. They are embraced as one of us, all the while enabling us, at least for the time of the embrace, to pretend that through them we are a people who see.
What is to be, however, of those who are neither out of sight nor out of mind? Those who make a claim on us, not by virtue of their service and indispensability to our societal ends, but by virtue of their rights and needs? Individuals who, in the spirit of Kant, demand to be seen and treated as ends unto themselves, independent of their utilitarian role. If they are refugees, they claim their inalienable right to life and to a life free from torture and oppression. If they are job seekers, they claim their right to a life free of disease and poverty, which our society has an ability to provide.
While the legal status of the refugee versus the illegal immigrant is not the same, they both make a moral claim and demand to be seen and treated with the compassion and justice that their humanity implies.
When it comes to illegal immigrants, it is both morally and legally legitimate for a society to measure its ability to respond to their needs in relationship to the needs of its own citizens and its ability to share its own societal goods without harming to too significant a degree the welfare of those toward whom it has a primary responsibility. However, all tzedakah entails accepting some measure of personal harm and financial loss. The moment that one gives to others inherently limits what one has to give to one’s own. Charity does begin at home, but it does not end in one’s home.
Our moral responsibility to the well-being of all humans created in the image of God obligates us to see their needs and to act. How and to what degree will vary in relation to the capabilities and needs of different individuals and societies. The obligation of tzedakah, the duty to create a society of tzedek, nevertheless obligates us to share some of our resources with some of those less fortunate than we are. As Israel becomes ever-more prosperous, our responsibility to serve as an economic safe-haven at least to some, does not undermine the Jewishness of Israel but is its fullest expression. We can debate the number of this “some,” given the size and identity of our society, but as Jews we ought not to debate the obligation itself.
Refugees make an even stronger claim to be seen. They are not claiming their right to prosperity, but their right to life itself. The forcefulness of that demand and its uncompromising consequent responsibility can cause us to want to classify them as merely illegal immigrants, and thus alleviate to some extent our moral and legal responsibilities. The fact that all claim to be refugees, when at least some are not, simply makes it easier for us to demand that they maintain the status quo and continue to follow the rules of the non-citizen – to be neither seen nor heard.
How dare they march? How dare they forget the rules of the non-citizen? How dare they posit themselves as individuals who can demand to be treated as an end and not as a means? How dare they make a moral claim on us, with the consequent guilt which a failure to comply brings in its wake?
These non-citizens are now roughly 50,000 in number. What has changed is that with the fortified border in the South their number will no longer grow, or more accurately, it will only grow to the extent that the government of Israel allows either illegal immigrants or refugees to enter our country. Their numbers do not pose a demographic threat to the Jewishness of Israel, nor do their needs create an unsustainable drain on our national resources.
For the last few years, however, we have preferred that they not be seen and not be heard. While attempting to reduce to some extent the number of mere job-seekers, we have adopted a vision-less and valueless policy which prohibits them from working and which concentrates the non-citizens in as few localities as possible, most notoriously southern Tel Aviv, so that the majority of us can continue to not see them.
How dare they march and demand to be seen? How dare they march and force us to see? It is only we, the citizens, who have the right to freedom of speech and who are endowed with the inalienable rights which give birth to the confidence to march and demand to be heard.
Thank you for marching. Thank you for reminding us that humanity and dignity reside not merely in those who have, in those who are one of us, but are rather traits that cannot and should not be suppressed in any human being. Thank you for making us uncomfortable and for reminding us that you have a right to be seen and to be heard. Thank you for reminding us that it is about time that the homeland of the Jewish people behaves toward you in accordance with the values so central to our tradition.
In a Jewish society, there must be no one who is neither seen nor heard. We have a right to assess the extent of our tzedakah and the extent to which we are capable of opening our doors. As Jews, we do not have a right to deny our Jewish values and responsibility. We do not have a right to pursue a policy of moral indifference and embrace a valueless status quo. As Jews, we must expect and demand more from ourselves. Thank you for marching and reminding us of who we are and more importantly, who you are, and who we ought to be.