Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Stronger in a Strange Land

That’s not a typo in the title — read on to understand why not.

Let’s start with two non-trivial, Bible trivia questions: 1- What commandment is mentioned the most times in all of the Torah? 2- How many times? Try to answer before reading on…

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There are many issues that are high on the public agenda in Israel and the United States: Corona pandemic, economic recession, very low level of government bipartisanship, problematic image in the world. To all these, one can add illegal or “problematic” immigration.

The Trump Administration has tried to stop the huge flow of humanity, mostly from its southern neighbors – with the president calling them murderers, thieves and other similar pejorative names. Moreover, its policy vis-à-vis those who have made it through the border has been highly controversial: separating children from parents being only the most egregious example.

Israel too has its illegal immigrant problem, almost all refugees from war-torn African countries. Although the flow has been completely stopped by a wall at the southern border, the problem festers as most of the immigrants have congregated in southern Tel Aviv, exacerbating the already-poor conditions of the Jewish residents living there for decades (since their immigration in the 1950s). And now the issue has arisen again, a result of Israel’s normalization with the government of Sudan. Many of the illegal immigrants had fled the civil war (on and off since 1955!) and other forms of persecution in Sudan. International law, to which Israel is a signee, does not allow repatriation to a country in civil war or where the refugee is in mortal danger, so that Israel was stuck with these refugees. However, after the country officially (and peacefully) split into two countries (Sudan and South Sudan, the latter gaining independent status in 2011), and recently the South Sudan civil war (2013-2020) has ended, these Sudanese can be sent back to Sudan or South Sudan.

Beyond that, Israel also has several problematic “immigration” issues. First, the Ethiopian Falash Mura are controversial in Israel: in the distant past they were Jewish, then converted to Christianity in the 19th century (they claim under duress), and now have reverted back to practicing Judaism. The Falash Mura demand the “Right to Return” as Jews to Israel – just as their Ethiopian Jewish relatives did in the 1980s and onwards. Given some Israeli political parties’ opposition, the government has dragged its feet on the issue, but under counter-political pressure they have allowed some to arrive in dribs and drabs (mostly relatives of Ethiopian Jews).

Another problematic immigration origin is the Ukraine and other former Soviet Republics, half or quarter Jews (one Jewish parent or grandparent), most of whom have no connection to Judaism and aren’t interested in one either but see Israel as a ticket out and perhaps a waystation to more green(card) countries. Here, too, the issue has become a political hot potato with charges of “racism” on one side and “hypocrisy/false pretense” on the other side. Of course, the Chief Rabbinate’s draconian conversion process doesn’t make resolution of the issue any easier for all concerned, given that anyone who wishes to convert has to promise to lead a strictly Orthodox lifestyle.

By now you can probably guess the answer to the biblical trivia question raised here at the start. The answer (with several light variations): “Do not oppress a stranger, for you know what it is like to be a stranger as foreigners in Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). Of course, one could add to the last part of this commandment: “a stranger as foreigners in Babylon, Persia, Rome, Spain, Germany, Poland, Russia, and America.”

This is not a directive for a policy of “open borders”; it is a commandment for how to treat immigrants or refugees once they are in our midst – no matter who they are, how they got here, or why they left where they were. As Jews, we don’t need to have a long historical memory harking back to the Bible. In America, it’s enough to recall the mid-20th century numerus clausus used against Jewish students (and professionals); in Israel, how the British and Arabs mistreated (and worse) the pre-state Zionist settlers.

To all this one can add a socio-economic aspect. Academic research clearly shows that immigration always leads to a stronger economy for the entire country, despite some social unrest along the way. Even if one doesn’t feel particularly “humanitarian” or “altruistic” when faced with the strangers in our midst, it is worth considering self-interest as well. After all, the United States of America didn’t become a world superpower by closing its borders; quite the opposite! And where would Israel be demographically and economically without mass immigration?

Ah yes, the second question: how many times is this commandment mentioned in the Torah? According to the Talmud (Bava Metziyah 59b), no less than 46 times!! Perhaps not the absolutely most important mitzvah but certainly up there with Judaism’s central mandates.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published three books and 60 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. For more information and other publications (academic and popular), see: www.ProfSLW.com
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