One of the more well-known- and powerful clauses in the Torah is ‘כי גרים הייתם במצריים’ – for you were strangers/foreigners in the land of Egypt. Whether as the underlying reason or simply to strengthen its performance, this is typically brought in conjunction with a commandment to treat the convert well or a prohibition on mistreating the convert in some way. While its halakhic (Judaic law) interpretation is generally limited to the convert to Judaism, the moral message of this phrase, repeated in several books of the Torah, seems to be that not only must the enslavement and exodus in Egypt be remembered on a daily basis, but that it should in turn affect the way which we view and treat others now that we find ourselves in positions of power. This is a lesson which Israel’s ‘leaders’ seem to have long forgotten.
The message of ‘treat the foreigner well for you were a foreigner in the land of Egypt’ seems to have a modern rendition, in the phrase ‘Never Again’ coined to refer to the Holocaust. Since the end of WWII, this has served not only to remind the world to be vigilant against anti-semitism, but against many other forms of extremism and politically motivated hate. Clearly then, there is a fundamental and powerful precedent for Jews to learn from history in determining how we treat others, a moral obligation to respond with compassion and empathy in light of our collective history.
In Israel today, in a country and region with a constant stream of (oftentimes negative) headlines, the news spotlight this week has been on the situation, to use a politically neutral word, of the African refugees and migrant workers living in Israel (and especially in South Tel Aviv). The details will be relatively familiar to any Israeli citizen or resident and those relatively familiar with Israeli politics. For years Israel has been the desired destination for refugees and migrant workers from Eritrea, Sudan and several other sub-Saharan countries. The trip is clearly not an easy one, yet Israel is the preferred destination for thousands, if nothing else, the best of an array of awful alternatives perhaps best summed up by the border situation: Egyptian guards will shoot at refugees while Israeli guards pull them to safety, only to send them to isolated, under-resourced facilities or deport them to Egypt or another location. The largest bloc has now settled in South Tel Aviv, living in a general state of poverty, with few opportunities for employment.
Allegations against the African non-citizens in Israel include that they are ‘invading,’ bring a culture of crime, violence and rape to Israel. In the absence of any statistical proof (which is questionable at best), these concerns seem to me, having lived in South Tel Aviv for the better part of the last two years, to be motivated strongly by racist perceptions, whether conscious or unconscious. Moreover, while bigotry has begot violence and fueled literal and political conflagration in the case of African refugees, it neither begins nor will end with ‘only’ a few thousand foreigners.
Living in a homogenous community can and does lead to the perpetuation of stereotypes; this is true of the Jewish communities which I grew up in New York as much as it is true of Israel (clearly this applies to many other places, beyond the scope of this discussion). Naturally this will be a challenge in Israel, which while ethnically and religiously diverse, is predominantly Jewish and often lacks enough positive daily inter-religious interactions (especially in a region dominated by extremely negative media). This is easily predictable; consequently it should also be relatively easy to devise strategies for countering it.
The true culprits to my mind are the politicians- those who could have, who should have foreseen this, the ones who have known of the situation for years and, rather than paving the way for a just and equitable solution, have responded by exploiting prejudice and paranoia for their own political benefit. All too often this comes from a cadre of ‘religious’ politicians who seem to forget some of the basics of our history and religion in their base bigotry.
Somewhat ironically, but also predictably, Eli Yishai, the Interior Minister and a major player in the Shas party, has already made a number of statements which seem truly mind-blowing in their level of virulent animosity and utter lack of compassion. Rather than anything which might have been perceived as showing empathy for the victims of racially motivated violence, a steady stream of bigoted statements by Yishai, Baruch Marzel and other ‘religious’ politicians make it clear that they blame the victims. And typically for an Israeli politician, especially a Shasnik, rather than take responsibility for a situation which has gradually deteriorated to an unmanageable level of animosity, Yishai tries to use a conjured-up bogeyman of prejudiced fears to shirk his and the Israeli government’s own role in this mess.
No one should be fooled. There is no greater culprit here than the Israeli government, which has known of this situation for years and always been two steps behind. It is the inaction of the government, happy to manipulate the situation when deemed beneficial but unwilling to act to improve the situation which has allowed a community of people willing to travel thousands of miles through Africa, leaving friends and family behind, to live in ruins rather than take even minimal steps to integrate this relatively small number of human beings. While efforts are made to promote more and more aliya, while North American and European Jews benefit from programs, privately and publically funded to help us ‘integrate’ into the ‘vastly different’ world of Israel, little to nothing is done to help a group of people whose zeal to reach Israel should shame every member of Israeli society.
Even more egregious, the fact that government officials could think that condemning the clear victims of arson predicated by bigotry, speaks volumes about the degree of racism which we have allowed to run rampant through our national politics. Sure religion is a factor. But race and color are the more fundamental issues here, as Ethiopian Jews have discovered (if ever there was really a doubt). The issue of racism is a major component of the controversy over conversions, one of the only areas of Israeli law where religion plays a direct factor. Ironically enough, this issue comes full circle. A nation of immigrants, obligated to remember being strangers once, is ‘led’ by politicians who mistreat both its own converts and foreigners seeking refuge.
Most tragically ironic, this mistreatment oftentimes comes from those ‘religious’ politicians, be they Ashkenazi of the extremist ilk or the increasingly ‘Haredi’ Shas party. Rav Amsalem, who has written a 500 page, fully-sourced book on the Jewish laws of conversions, and the Tsohar group of national religious rabbis are amongst those fighting this clash of religion, politics and national law. However the political power in the country currently rests in the hands of the extremists, who have used religion for political purposes, but have been similarly manipulative in allowing their political agendas to shape their religious views.
What is called for now is a multidimensional response. The status of the refugees and migrant workers is a sensitive one, with both domestic and international political ramifications. Politicians like Yishai and Marzel should minimally refrain from abusing their positions to incite violence and racist thought; more conscientious members of the Knesset should be focusing on long term solutions to simultaneously shore up Israel’s borders while allowing those who have entered the country to integrate into the country socially and economically. Israel does not have an obligation to allow every migrant worker to enter its borders. It does have an obligation to everyone involved to provide a pragmatic solution for those who have made it through an unbearable trip to arrive in Israel.
At the same time, a more serious question about how we allow extremists to shape our national politics must be addressed. More than any other situation, this is Israel’s existential dilemma. Many social scientists can envision less than apocalyptic, albeit non-ideal outcomes with a nuclear Iran, post-Arab Middle East. Few if any however can offer much hope for Israel’s domestic future if the rifts that have grown between the various communities, Arab, Haredi (Ashkenazi and Mizrahi, themselves distinct), national-religious, masorati, secular, etc. continue to be exploited by politicians acting under the guise of religion.
There are many reasons why we should be concerned with the current status quo. But the most succinct one comes from the Torah itself- we too were foreigners, and we must never lose the ability to empathize with others when we have the ability to help. For it is not only our political scene which is at risk of being distorted by extreme religious views- but our religion (or religions) which are being perverted by the personal political views of a small but powerful group of ideologues.