Shayna Abramson
Shayna Abramson
Featured Post

Syria, Sudan, and the Jewish identity quagmire

Teach Jewish Israeli children their heritage of kindness to the stranger and transform how Israel relates to all humanity

There are approximately 40,000 asylum seekers living in Israel, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan. Their demands are simple: to have their paperwork processed by Israel, so that a decision is made regarding whether or not they have legal refugee status, to not have their wages confiscated by the State as a means of pressuring them to go to Uganda or Rwanda, where many Sudanese and Eritrean people relocating from Israel have been killed or found the situation so bad that they wind up in their war-torn countries of origin, and to not be detained at a detention facility repeatedly ruled as illegal by the Israeli Supreme Court.

A few hours drive away from my home, Syrian children were gassed to death yesterday. Their demands were simple, too: to grow up, to breathe, maybe even to be loved. Perhaps, in a more open world, they would have been able to flee Syria before the chemical weapons reached them.

With the first issue, the solution seems relatively simple: stop detaining people illegally. Process paperwork, fully accept those we grant official refugee status to, and send the rest away.

With the second issue, I acknowledge that the situation is complicated. But I don’t accept that there is nothing that can be done, whether that thing is accepting more Syrian refugees, offering humanitarian aid, or yes, perhaps even some kind of limited military intervention.*****

Israel is a Jewish country. It is a country of a people whose founding story is that of experiencing oppression, a story that would repeat itself throughout history for 2,000 years, culminating in the Holocaust. In a few days, Jews around the country will celebrate Passover, recounting the Exodus story. In Judaism, however, it is not enough to remember the past: the past acts as a moral imperative for the present and the future. That is why, 22 times, the Torah reminds the Jewish people not to oppress others, because they were slaves in Egypt.

The first chapter of the Torah lays forth the principle that all people were created in the image of God, and are therefore equal — a principle echoed in the Talmud, and recycled in Maimonides codification, that “Anyone who saves one soul, it is as if he established an entire world”.**

So both of these issues should be at the fore of the Israeli conscience — and indeed, thousands of Israelis have opened their hearts, homes, and wallets, both to Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers, and to Syrians across the border.

However, we are also witnessing a political phenomenon, in which supporting a political cause that advocates for non-Jews is left-wing, and supporting Jews is right-wing. Being loyal is right-wing, and being a traitor is left-wing.

Now, deciding which asylum seekers are really refugees, keeping those that are, and kicking out those that aren’t, really should enhance Israeli security. Helping Syria might be more complicated — many view the enemy they know (Assad) as less dangerous than the unknown, but it’s hard to argue that providing humanitarian aid poses a security threat to Israel.

But they both fit into the “advocating for non-Jews” side of the political paradigm, which puts them on the wrong side with many Israeli voters and, by extension, many Israeli politicians — a natural effect of democracy, is that voters affect politicians’ agendas.

This is where I’m going to do an about-face: I think the reason Israel has so lost its sense of Jewish responsibility towards the Other, is because it has failed to provide proper Jewish education for its citizens. The National Religious and ultra-Orthodox provide their own versions of Jewish education for their constituents, focused on brainwashing their own, rather than on reaching out to others. The secular schools offer Bible education, the same way one might study the Odyssey: an outdated ancient text that has become a classic. However, they fail to provide a proper literacy in the Jewish religious texts, which are important, because those texts comprise a large part of Jewish intellectual history, and also, shaped Jewish community life for thousands of years. They are important not because they have religious content, but because, until the beginning of the Modern Era, they were the primary cultural content of the Jewish people, and thus, act as foundational texts even to the Jewish secular culture that came after.

As long as there is a state Rabbinate bent on forcing people to adhere to its own version of Judaism, any attempts to introduce Jewish literacy into Israeli public schools will be seen as an act of religious coercion*. This is not a mistake: The thing that the Rabbinate fears most is committed, engaged Jews, because those Jews will become active stakeholders in fostering their own version of Judaism or Jewishness, which conflicts with that of the Rabbinate. As long as the Rabbinate can keep the Israeli public apathetic enough about Judaism to farm it out to the Rabbinate, while ensuring that the public cares enough to bother farming it out to the Rabbinate***, it can happily maintain its monopoly on religious power.

As long as we have no sense of Jewish culture, that can be shared by secular and religious Israeli Jews, we have very little to bind us together, other than our shared ethnicity and history of suffering from anti-Semitism. If I treat other ethnicities as equal, I am negating the ethnic bond between us, saying that it does not confer special status on you. This makes equality towards the Other an existential threat to our shared identity. If the other thing we have in common is the trauma of anti-Semitism, I cannot let go of my fear of persecution or suspicion of non-Jews, because if I do, I will be letting go of my Jewish identity. In both cases, my Jewish identity is based on juxtaposition to non-Jews: Jewish ethnicity in contrast to other ethnicities, and the Jews as a persecuted group in relation to the wider non-Jewish world. In both cases, it is a very Diaspora Jewish identity: It’s not based on Jews defining themselves on their own terms, but rather, on defining themselves in relation to the Other, on terms and categories dictated by Western society. It is a disempowering identity, antithetical to the empowering ideal of Zionism, which involves creating a discursive space in which Jews can define themselves without reference to non-Jewish society.****

By encouraging a shared positive Jewish identity, rather than a negative Jewish identity, based on the fact that we’re not non-Jews, the Israeli education system could create a Jewish identity with space for equality towards the Other, which would no longer form an existential threat to Israeli Jewish identity. So ironically, it is when Israel becomes a Jewish state that it will becomes a state of all its citizens, for all humanity.

On that day, Jerusalem shall be, in the words of Isaiah, “a house of prayer for all the nations.”


*By its nature, public education is coercive. Its role is for the State to provide an education in the things it wants to teach you in order to make you a good citizen. So is teaching Jewish culture coercive? No more or less than teaching Western culture, or maths and sciences.

**I lifted some of these sources from a source-sheet I have in my house from a shiur given by Debbie Zimmerman. The views I express here are my own, not hers, but I wanted to credit her with giving me some of the Torah knowledge that I used in writing this.

***This modicum of caring is pretty much guaranteed, thanks to the Holocaust.

****Yes, Zionism, as a modern, national movement, grew out of the wave of European nationalism, and thus, by its nature is not a Jewish concept. Also, in a country where 20% of citizens are not Jewish, in a globalized world, clearly, that discursive space is never really going to exist in its pure form. But that was part of the original idea, and for more, see the works of Ahad Haam.

*****One of the things that struck me when reading former UN Ambassador Samantha Power’s book on genocides and interventions, was that the Western world has a tendency to wait until it’s too late before taking action. It’s possible we’ve already passed that point.

About the Author
Shayna Abramson, a part-Brazilian native Manhattanite, studied History and Jewish Studies at Johns Hopkins University before moving to Jerusalem. She has also spent some time studying Torah at the Drisha Institute in Manhattan, and has a passion for soccer and poetry. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in Political Science from Hebrew University, and is a rabbinic fellow at Beit Midrash Har'el.
Related Topics
Related Posts