Benjamin Lau

A Jewish response to the plight of Israel’s African migrant workers

Both Judaism and democratic values demand that we treat African migrants humanely, for they too are created in the image of God
Illustrative: Students and teachers from Seminar Ha'kibbutzim protest against the deportation of African asylum seekers, in Tel Aviv, January 24, 2018. (Tomer Neuberg/ FLASH90)
Illustrative: Students and teachers from Seminar Ha'kibbutzim protest against the deportation of African asylum seekers, in Tel Aviv, January 24, 2018. (Tomer Neuberg/ FLASH90)

Leaders shoulder a weighty responsibility. They must hear the cries of injustice that arise from the street and, at the same time, filter out the noise that threatens to divert them from doing what is right and good.

In May 2012, I was privileged to teach at the Tanakh (Bible) study circle that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held at his home in memory of his father-in-law. The text was the Book of Ruth. The group spent nearly the entire session discussing the dubious lineage of King David, descendant of a Moabite woman, Ruth, and the remarkable way in which the biblical Israelite society overcame their xenophobia and absorbed this foreign woman.

As we sat in Jerusalem, demonstrators in South Tel Aviv were calling on the prime minister to expel all migrant workers and illegal immigrants. The Jewish character of Tel Aviv, the first modern Hebrew city, must be preserved, they argued.

Six years later, Prime Minister Netanyahu faces new demonstrators, but from the opposite direction. They are intellectuals, physicians, public figures, and members of the media who are protesting the government’s callous policy regarding tens of thousands of refugees living in our midst.

A state must not set policy in response to ambient noise but must operate according to a set of fundamental values. In the case of the African migrant workers, the question is: Is Israel remaining faithful to its internal moral compass as the democratic state of the Jewish people? Is it taking into account the cries of the individuals knocking at its doors in search of asylum?

On the one hand, the Israeli government has an obligation to ensure the State of Israel remains the state of the Jewish people, with a clear Jewish majority. The country cannot simply open its doors to anyone seeking employment. As a sovereign democratic state, Israel has the legitimate right to erect a fence at its borders, establish rigorous criteria for the entry of migrant workers, and expel infiltrators.

Yet, Israel has a competing moral Jewish imperative to preserve the dignity and lives of those who reside within its borders. A decade ago, Metzilah, an organization headed by Professor Ruth Gavison, formulated an immigration policy based on the principle “hard on the outside, soft on the inside.” It asserted that Israel should take a tough position regarding migrant workers who wish to enter the country but a gentle one regarding those who already reside legally in the country. This nuanced policy is one that can readily stand up to the test of Jewish values and universal values. It can give Israel the moral stature required of a Jewish and democratic state, while nurturing the vision of a nation-state that believes that all human beings are created in the image of God.

Meetings with individuals involved in immigration policy and enforcement in Israel, as well as with the staff of centers for refugees and asylum seekers, have convinced me that we can sound an “all clear” regarding Israel’s immigration policy even if its policy still requires some work.

Since the large wave of immigration in 2006-2012, fewer than 40,000 African immigrants remain in Israel. Most of them live in South Tel Aviv and about 10% of them came from Darfur. Israel has no intention to expel these immigrants from Darfur. They receive temporary residency status, which includes health, education and personal insurance. In addition, a segment of the 40,000 receive refugee status in line with the strict definitions of the UN. They, too, are not in danger of being deported from Israel; neither are women, children, the elderly, or men who have families.

The only group that faces deportation is single men without families who came to Israel because it is a comfortable Western country and not because their lives were threatened. It seems to me that this group, which numbers no more than a few thousand, does not pose an existential threat to Israel and that the damage that will ensue from deporting them is greater than the benefit. Is expelling them a wise move? I don’t think so. Is it a forbidden act that will cause a permanent stain in our national fabric? I don’t think so. It may be unwise, but it is not immoral.

As a Jewish and democratic state, Israel has an obligation to ensure the health and well-being of the thousands of African residents who live here. They are neither refugees nor asylum seekers. But they have lived with us for years. It is true that they came here illegally and that Israel has the right to preserve its Jewish identity. But at the same time, we must treat them humanely, for although they are not part of the Israeli and Jewish collective, they are human beings created in the image of God.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazic chief rabbi of pre-state Israel, learned from the laws of the “resident alien” that we must not deprive a foreigner who lives among us of the status of a “resident who lives in your midst.” He taught: “You must recognize ‘the foreigner who lives in your midst,’ as a resident and establish cordial relations and uphold his freedom and rights worthy of any human being. [At the same time], you must not deny him his innate feelings for his people and land … [It is this balance that will lead to] true and just peace.”

Once the African foreigners of today are “in our midst,” the Israeli majority must protect their body, property, and dignity. This is an obligation that emerges from our status as citizens of a Jewish and democratic state.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Benjamin “Benny” Lau is the Director of the 929 Tanakh B'Yachad daily Bible study initiative.
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