Ruth was a refugee

What can we learn from the story of Ruth on how to treat refugees and migrants today?

“And Boaz said to Ruth: ‘Because you are an illegal infiltrator, I must take 20% of all your gleanings, and put it aside in a special account, which you will receive only when you leave the Land of Israel.'”

Sound familiar?

It shouldn’t. Because that’s not how the story goes.

Earlier this month, the Knesset implemented a new law (“The Deposit Law”) that requires all Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers (a.k.a. “illegal infiltrators”) to deposit 20% of their salaries – in addition to taxes – into special accounts, which they will supposedly receive only upon “voluntarily” leaving Israel. Additionally, all those who employ African asylum seekers must pay the government an additional 16% “fee” for employing them. This new law, which will seriously harm the most vulnerable of the asylum seeker community, as well as the small businesses that depend on them, is the latest in a series of laws and policies designed “to make their lives miserable so that they leave”. Israeli policy already subjects Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers to arbitrary arrest and detention, humiliating treatment at the hands of Ministry of Interior clerks when they must renew their temporary bimonthly visas, and deliberately denies them access to refugee status.

It is deeply ironic and disturbing that this latest law came into place the same month when we celebrate the holiday of Shavuot and we read the Book of Ruth, a Jewish story of love and compassion for strangers and the most vulnerable.

In the Book of Ruth, Ruth the Moabite immigrates (or perhaps: seeks refuge) from Moab to the Land of Israel, accompanying her aging mother-in-law Naomi who had years earlier migrated from the Land of Israel to Moab in search of refuge. When they arrive in Israel, they are destitute, extremely vulnerable, and have no one but each other to rely upon. They are both widows (almanot), ostensibly fatherless (yetomot), and Ruth is furthermore a gera (immigrant/stranger). In order for both of them to survive, Ruth goes gleaning in the fields – picking up the scraps of grain that have fallen behind the harvesters, which, according to Biblical law, must be left behind for strangers, widows, orphans, and the poor.

Ruth finds herself gleaning in the field belonging to Boaz, who goes above and beyond what is required by law, and sets aside additional grain for Ruth to take home. Ruth is taken by Boaz’s generosity, asking “’Why are you so kind as to single me out, when I am a foreigner?’” (Ruth 2:10). As a foreigner, Ruth is surprised to be treated so well. Perhaps because she knows that other cultures do not treat foreigners well and she is unfamiliar with the customs of Israel; or, perhaps, even in ancient Israel, as today, many Israelites did not follow the laws of compassion toward strangers. In either case, Boaz replies:

‘I have been told of all that you did for your mother-in-law after the death of your husband, how you left your father and mother and the land of your birth and came to a people you had not known before. May the Lord reward your deeds. May you have a feel recompense from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have sought refuge!’ (Ruth 2:11-12).

Boaz appreciates Ruth’s compassionate and selfless dedication to her mother-in-law. He appreciates her vulnerability and the sacrifices she has made as a foreigner. And, echoing the language of Lech Lecha, appreciates the fact that she has chosen to seek refuge among the People, the Land, and the God of Israel, who desires for the care of strangers. Boaz is merely carrying out God’s will.

What would Boaz say is he saw the way Israel is treating its refugees today, taking away their income, humiliating them, sending them to prison, and trying to expel them from the Land of Israel?

What would Naomi say?

What would God say?

When I read the Book of Ruth today I cannot help but think of my Eritrean and Sudanese friends, men and women, who have escaped genocide, dictatorship and persecution, who have sacrificed much and left much behind, who have sought refuge among the People and Land of Israel, worked hard to learn our language, our customs, our laws, showed their loyalty through their friendship and helping to build our country, toiling in the most undesirable of jobs – constructing, cleaning, cooking, and caring for our elderly, our Naomis.

I know that Israel cannot open its borders and “let all who are hungry come and eat”, as in the days of yore, without fences and without walls. We are living in a different world. Still, what can the Book of Ruth teach us about how to treat with compassion, love, and appreciation the refugees and migrants who are already living in our midst, who entered before Israel’s borders were sealed? As Boaz, we must see refugees not as a burden but as a blessing; our welcoming of strangers is not our weakness but our strength, our enactment of Divine will. It is what makes us – or should make us – make the People of Israel. After all, it was the great grandchild of Ruth and Boaz who became King David, the greatest King of Israel.

What would it look like if Israel’s laws and treatment of refugees were based not on the politics of fear, but on empathy, appreciation, and on Divine compassion and love as embodied in the Book of Ruth?  What would Boaz do if he were living in Israel today? What would Naomi do? What would God do?

May it be our will.

About the Author
Elliot Vaisrub Glassenberg is an American-Canadian-Israeli queer Jewish educator and activist.
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