For the Sin of Silence
On my way to work in south Tel Aviv, I walk past many Africans. I want to be able to look them straight in the eye, smile, nod, whatever, with pride, knowing that we are treating them justly and fairly. But I can’t. I know that my government is planning to arrest, deport and/or resettle them. Even though the fence it has erected has put a stop to further infiltration of people fleeing oppression in Eritrea and Sudan, and other African countries, hopefully putting those who smuggled them across our border out of business, the government wants to get rid of the 60,000 or so refugees or asylum seekers presently living in Israel. I am ashamed.
How different I felt in June, 1977, when our government elected to rescue Vietnamese boat people, adrift in the ocean without food and water. In the end, Israel took in about 300 Vietnamese in all, showing the rest of the world that we could not remain indifferent to their plight, we who knew what it meant to be refugees that no one wanted to take in, as Prime Minister Menahem Begin reminded everyone.
The numbers may be different, but the situation is the same. We who are obligated by our ancient laws to help the helpless, cannot turn them away from our shores. We who have had the doors of freedom slammed in our faces in recent times, cannot turn away those who have gained their liberty at such a high price. Certainly we cannot send them back to the places from which they fled. We who we were all once refugees, can certainly find a way to deal justly with these refugees.
The shame I feel was aptly described in an editorial in the Rosh Hashana edition of Haaretz. http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.545303. The article notes that “The commandment to love [deal justly with I.K.] the stranger is the most frequently cited mitzvah in the Torah.” Indeed, Kol Nidre, considered the most important prayer on the holiest day of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur, says: “And it shall be forgiven to the whole congregation of the children of Israel and to the stranger who sojourneth among them for all the people did it in ignorance.” From this, it seems clear that if the strangers among us are to be forgiven for their sins, along with us, it means that they are part of us and should be treated as members of our people, as we would want to be treated.
So why, if both our teachings and our history tell us that we must treat the stranger, the less fortunate who need our help, with dignity and provide them with means of support, are we not protesting the government’s machinations against them? Why are we not, for that matter, protesting against the mistreatment and even physical abuse of the Africans, as well as minorities living in Israel, albeit by fringe groups?
The Al Chet prayer, also recited on Yom Kippur, does not include the sin of silence, of refraining from protesting injustice, of indifference, but it should. I know that this is one sin I will be berating myself for. For I, too, have not protested this obvious breach of our covenant, our right of existence as a people – in our own eyes, not those of our enemies. In fact, I believe that the litmus test for our right to exist as a sovereign, democratic nation (again, in our own eyes) is how we behave toward “the widow, the orphan, the stranger,” or in contemporary parlance: those who are vulnerable, less fortunate than us, those who come to our shores for shelter – temporarily, or permanently – those who are not part of the majority…
I just read about the field hospital operating on our border with Syria, which is treating victims of the civil war there. This, too, filled me with pride. So if we can extend a hand to our sworn enemies, why don’t we treat those who sojourn in our midst with the same humanity – not matter how they came here or for what reason?
The Haaretz editorial also speaks about dreams. Perhaps the writer was inspired by the recent fiftieth anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. So my dream is that we never lose sight of who we are and where we came from. That we first look to ourselves and our own behavior. That we condemn the racists among us. That we aspire to practice, and educate our children toward tolerance and understanding.
Speaking of dreams, it is ironic that Uganda, the country once proposed as a homeland for the Jews, has been designated for the “resettlement’ of the African refugees whose presence is seen as undermining our demographic balance, and the Zionist dream – something we’ve been doing very well all on our own for some time. The Zionist dream talked about working the land, building our homeland; but who is doing that work today: strangers.
Perhaps, rather than deporting the refugees from Africa and “importing” guest workers from other countries to do the work the Zionist dream envisioned that we would be doing – the work we once did, tilling our fields and building our houses – we could let those who are already here do this work.
Whether we recite the Al Chet or not, in the end, we are obligated by our ancient laws, our recent history, and international laws to which we are signatories to deal justly with the stranger who sojourns among us.
Let us remain silent no longer.