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Refugee Crisis: Not a Political Question, But a Jewish One

Judaism is not based around some philosophical truth, but is the story of a people playing a role in history. From that history we learn, and when necessary shout, that when we say “Never Again,” we do not mean “Never Again for Jews Only.”

In the summer of 2021 the Taliban re-conquered Afghanistan creating a major humanitarian crisis. As a result, Afghans sought to flee the country, with official UN estimates that there were around half a million refugees. There were attempts by Jewish philanthropic groups to find a secure home for a team of female Afghan cyclists. Israel was a potential temporary destination for the refugees. Sadly, the Israeli government did not approve their entry and they were forced to find refuge in a different country. To my mind this is not a political problem, but a Jewish one. The desire of the State of Israel to be a secure refuge not only for Jewish refugees (self-evidently Israel’s primary task is to be such a place for Jews fleeing their home) but for non-Jews fleeing war zones or life-threatening persecution, should arise from it being a Jewish and not only democratic country. There are claims in certain political circles that opening the gates of Israel to non-Jewish refugees “places the entire Zionist vision at risk.” I would claim just the opposite – realizing the Zionist ideal means the ability of the Jewish State to assist non-Jews, when they are in mortal danger due to war in their country, just like the Afghan cyclists and the Ukrainian refugees.

The easiest way to explain this is to go back 80 years in history and remember the many Jews who begged for refuge from the hands of the Nazis, but were unsuccessful in reaching safe harbor. The world’s gates remained firmly and almost hermetically shut. This is of course a good enough reason for the State of Israel to stand as a beacon, an example of proper behavior to a world that wronged the Jewish people in such a circumstance. Judaism is not based around some philosophical truth, but is the story of a people playing a role in history. From that history we learn, and when necessary shout,  that when we say “Never Again,” we do not mean “Never Again for Jews only.”

But the idea is more basic and deeper.

There is a midrash based on the verse in which God calls to Abraham – “Leave your land, your birthplace and your father’s house.” The midrash compares this to a man travelling who sees a palace in flames. The traveler wonders – “Is it possible that the palace has no owner?” The owner of the palace looks out and says, “I am the owner of the palace.” Abraham similarly asks “Is it possible that the world lacks a ruler?” The Almighty looks out and says to him, “I am the ruler, the Sovereign of the Universe.”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks sees the midrash as enigmatic. What connects a palace in flames with Abraham’s journey to an as yet unknown land? And if the world is on fire, why does it’s Almighty ruler not simply put it out? In ‘Radical Then, Radical Now’, Sacks explains that the midrash is describing Abraham’s mission. There is a ruler to the world, and that world is on fire. Abraham’s mission is to douse the flames of God’s world. And Abraham’s blessing is – “Through you, the families of the world will be blessed.” Of course, he is the father of Jewish people and prototype for the Jews.

As individual Jews we have obligations, and as the sovereign State of the Jews I strongly believe Israel does too. This set of obligations includes trying to extinguish the fire in the palace. It’s what Abraham teaches us when he challenges even God himself to be just (with the people of Sodom). Without getting into the actual policy details of how it should be done, I have no doubt that Israel opening a welcoming hand to Ukrainian refugees that are not Jewish not only does not imperil the future of Israel as a Jewish country, but empowers the realization of its dream as a light unto the nations. That light cannot emanate from the help we extend to our Jewish brothers alone, this is of course a given and must be done. The true realization of this mission is not reliant on our international commitments or Western values.  It arises, foremost, from the depths of our Jewish faith compelling us to douse the flames that sometimes consume human beings, dignified by God’s Image, and their palaces in God’s world.

Allow to me conclude with a story, told by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, a leader of US Jewry in the twentieth century, in his book ‘Halachic Man’. He tells of his grandfather the Rabbi of Brisk, R’ Chaim Soloveitchik, the Rosh Yeshiva of the great Volozhin Yeshiva, who was asked what the function of a Rabbi is. Without hesitation he replied, “To redress the grievances of those who are abandoned and alone, to protect the dignity of the poor and to save the oppressed from the hands of the oppressor.” If we want a State that answers this definition we must also reach out to humanity in its moment of mortal danger.

This was originally published in Hebrew in Makor Rishon

About the Author
Daniel Goldman is a social entrepreneur and the Founding Partner of Goldrock Capital, one of Israel's leading multi-family offices. Daniel is the founder of The Institute for Jewish and Zionist Research and co-chairs the Coalition for Haredi Employment. He is the former chairman of World Bnei Akiva, and immediate past chairman of Gesher.
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