Ianai Silberstein
Ianai Silberstein


What’s the deal with refugees from a Jewish point of view?

A few days ago I came across a tweet which quoted a graffiti in a Tel-Aviv wall: “if you just look back-you have a refugee in your family”. So, this could be true in many countries for many peoples; still, it was in a graffiti in Tel-Aviv, of all places. A city which has become as cosmopolitan, unequal, and a refugee haven as any large western city in Europe. Let’s leave America aside for now, the subject is too sensitive. Let us focus on the refugees and us, the Jews.

As Donniel Hartman likes to remind us, all we need to know is in one sentence: “you shall remember you were a slave in Egypt”. It is repeated many times in the Torah and it is the justification of every commandment or mitzvah we’re instructed to keep. So, what defines us is our journey from slavery to freedom; we learn our laws during the journey; and we’re challenged to perfect them for all time. Indeed, ours is a story of refugees.

What refugee does not flee a condition of slavery, even if the word is used metaphorically? What refugee does not search for a promised land of opportunity? What refugee does not seek his/hers/their pursuit of happiness? The analogy is almost too obvious, still one finds the need to delve into the concept and develop the idea further. I’m convinced that we as Jews are the paradigm of a refugee. However, much too often we tend to forget such condition: although The Jewish State of Israel still welcomes Jews from all over the world, we’ve grown used to a precarious stability, a position of relative strength, and an almost certainty of the power to determine our own future.

Precisely because of this (almost) certainty, of this (precarious) stability, of this (relative) position of strength, we need to go back to basics. The issue of the refugees worldwide is a crisis turned into an opportunity, even if only so as far as we can have a conversation about it. It is a crisis we all surely prefer avoided.

Mr. Netanyahu’s tweet boasting of how he stopped illegal immigration from Africa was tactless, as President Trump’s bragging about Mexico paying for the wall. I suppose bad habits are contagious. As President Trump in regard of America’s greatness, Mr. Netanyahu is much too hooked on the heroic, powerful version of the story of Israel and Zionism. One day he reminds us of the Holocaust and the Iranian threat, the next he bullies his policy through by allowing new building projects in the occupied territories or strengthening the knot around the Palestinian people. The problem is not so much of action, but of discourse. Actions deal with the issues on the ground, discourse deals with ideals. The State of Israel must defend itself at any cost, while at the same time pursuits the ideals on which it was founded. It is a hard contradiction to live by, but it is what it is. For a while the lamb won’t lie by the wolf.

Our founding, national story as a people clearly begins with a clear, unequivocal, although somewhat complex command: “Lech lecha”, “Go-for you” or it could well be “go-into-you”. That’s how our story begins, and it becomes a story of permanent movement and search. We’re refugees roaming through the land of Canaan, we’re refugees going into Egypt and back (the going back being especially relevant), we’re refugees conquering the land, dealing with the Philistines, and we’re refugees again when the 1st Temple is destroyed. Since then, we’ve been refugees until our very days, when Jews in France are leaving to move to Israel. So, how can we boast about the efficiency of our walls?

Building walls is a course of action to avoid self-destruction, but it is not an ideology. It is only so if we refer to Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” and his magnificent phrase, “good fences make good neighbors”. Again, this is poetry, at its best. The “neighbor” in Frost’s poem also likes the fence and the act of mending it every year; they are, truly, good neighbors. But we all now vicinity can be hostile; that’s when one needs walls. One does not need, however, to be proud of walls. They can make good neighbors, but they are built mainly to keep bad neighbors out.

The problem will be the day the Messiah comes, when indeed the lamb will lie with the wolf and good fences will make good neighbors. If at that time, whenever it is, our discourse is not one of welcoming and recognition, but rather one of rejection and alienation, it will be impossible to seize the day. As Haredi Jews like to say, you have to do mitzvah to be ready of the Messiah, should he come tomorrow. Likewise, should we agree on some terms of cohabitation, at whatever level, we don’t need a xenophobic discourse but rather a welcoming one.

This is when our condition as permanent potential refugees comes handy. At the same time that we protect ourselves (Jewish People, State of Israel) we must lead a conversation regarding refugees, bans, sea crossings (we know about that too, from the Red Sea to the ship Exodus), tent camping, land distribution, food supplies, etc etc. It is not that we sacrifice ourselves for present-day refugees, but that we lead in providing help, raising awareness, and putting forward the needed conversation on the issue.

Because we were slaves in the land of Egypt.

About the Author
Sixty-two, married, a son and a daughter. Very closely related to Israel, residing in Uruguay. Retired. Lay leader for the Masorti congregation in Montevideo. Served as President of the Board. Vice President of the Board of the Jewish school. Twenty years involvement in community affairs. Attended the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem seven times for their CLP programs. Writer & lecturer.