The Only Certainty is Empathy

In Eastern Europe, the rabbi was the undisputed leader of the Jewish people of his village. Not only was he the master of religious wisdom and law, but he often served as the arbiter of disputes and the provider of common sense advice.
One day, two individuals who had a major dispute decided they would each take their case to the rabbi.  The first party to the dispute came to the rabbi and carefully outlined his side of the argument.  The rabbi listened intently, stroked his beard, and finally said, “My friend, you are right.”  The man went away satisfied.
Later in the day, the other party to the dispute arrived and told the rabbi his side of the issue. The rabbi again listened carefully, stroked his beard, and replied after some thought, “You are right.”
Later, the rabbi’s wife, who had overheard the rabbi’s conversations with both men, said to him, “You told both the first party and the second party that they were right. That’s impossible!”  To which the rabbi replied, “And you are right too!”
Strangely, this story came to mind as I read article after article on the subject of what Israel will do with the nearly 40,000 African migrants currently in Israel awaiting resolution of their status.  Let me explain.
Here are the facts.
Israeli authorities have begun handing out deportation notices in accordance with the “Infiltration Law” adopted by the Israeli Knesset in December. Deportations are due to begin in March 2018.  Migrants, who came to Israel illegally, are being offered $3,500 plus a plane ticket to depart. Those who refuse to leave “voluntarily” will be jailed.  The government has not said where those deported will be sent.  The deportation notices simply said they would be sent to an African country that has a “stable government” and that “has developed tremendously over the last decade and has absorbed thousands of returning residents as well as migrants from various African countries.”
The migrant and refugees issues are tremendously complex and shockingly common. There are currently over 65 million refugees. One in every 113 people on the planet is now a refugee. Around the world, someone is displaced every three seconds, forced from their homes by violence, war and persecution.
Many have argued that the African migrants in Israel are refugees deserving asylum.  They have pointed out Israel has recognized refugee status for only one Sudanese and 10 Eritreans, out of thousands of applications for asylum, an acceptance rate of 0.056%.  Meanwhile, the European Union has recognized asylum claims from 90% of Eritreans who apply for refugee status and 56% of Sudanese, according to the European Stability Institute.
At the same time, countries need to do what they feel is best.  Prime Minister Netanyahu recently noted:
“International law places obligations on countries and it also gives them rights. There is an obligation to accept refugees, and we accept refugees, but international law also gives the right to a country to remove from its borders illegal migrants. We have no obligation to allow illegal labor migrants who are not refugees to remain here.”
This doesn’t mean that the decision to deport was an easy one.  Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, when asked about criticism of the Israeli plan as being insensitive, responded: “We are doing this after many sleepless nights. We are not ignoring the issues. We reached the decision that we have to do this for the future of Israel and the future of the people of Israel.”
The complexity of the issue may be why it was recently reported that Israel is negotiating with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees to resettle some of the African asylum seekers in third countries deemed by the UN to be “safe,” in exchange for some of the refugees to be given permanent residency in Israel.
Which side is right?
Most Israelis agree with the government. A recent survey found that two-thirds of the public (65.9%) support the plan. Chief Rabbi of Israel David Lau expressed his support for the government plan. He said, “The State of Israel is obliged to help refugees, but let’s distinguish between refugees and work [seeking] migrants.”
At the same time, there are many voices calling for Israel to reverse its decision.
Over 750 rabbis signed a letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu claiming that Israel must not deport those seeking asylum within its borders. They wrote that “we Jews know far too well what happens when the world closes its doors to those forced to flee their homes.”
There are voices of protest in Israel. Holocaust survivors have pledged to hide the African immigrants in their own homes.  Doctors, nurses and psychologists have said that those the government is calling illegal immigrants are actually victims “who have come to us in their flight from genocide, torture, violence and rape.”  Professor Asa Kasher, author of the Israel Defense Forces code of ethics and commonly cited on moral issues, wrote in a Facebook post: “To get rid of the foreigners is to abandon the Israeli goal of being a model society.”
It’s a complex issue.
Ruth Berdah-Canet, a French-Jewish filmmaker who observed the lives in Israel of a group of asylum seekers from South Sudan in 2012, noted this issue is unlike others that have a more predictable breakdown of who holds certain views based on ideology.
“There’s something unique about this issue in Israel, because it cuts across society. On other issues, like the IDF or the peace process, there are predictable divides between left and right, between religious and non-religious, between young and old – but go to a demonstration against the deportations, and it’s not uncommon to see an orthodox rabbi alongside left-wing activists.”
It is impossible for both sides of an argument to be right, but one thing is absolutely clear in this complex and heartbreaking issue: We need to feel the pain of the others.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has a beautiful article on Parshat Mishpatim entitled “The Power of Empathy.”  We are very familiar with the verses from the portion admonishing us not to oppress the stranger.
וְגֵ֥ר לֹא־תוֹנֶ֖ה וְלֹ֣א תִלְחָצֶ֑נּוּ כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃
 
You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Shemot 22:20)
 
וְגֵ֖ר לֹ֣א תִלְחָ֑ץ וְאַתֶּ֗ם יְדַעְתֶּם֙ אֶת־נֶ֣פֶשׁ הַגֵּ֔ר כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃
 
You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt. (Shemot 23:9)
 
The Torah teaches that our historical experience has conditioned us to feel the pain of others because we have felt that same pain.  This is a mitzvah of empathy.  As Rabbi Sacks writes:
“The religious response to suffering is to use it to enter into the mindset of others who suffer. That is why I found so often that it was the Holocaust survivors in our community who identified most strongly with the victims of ethnic war in Bosnia, Rwanda, Kosovo and Darfur.”
On the one hand, there is a compelling case for Israel to allow the migrants to stay.  On the other hand, there is a valid case for deporting those who do not meet the legal criteria of being refugees.  What is absolutely correct is our moral obligation to feel the pain of the people – real people! – affected.
Rabbi Benny Lau of Jerusalem wrote, “How can we continue life as it is while the works of God’s hands are drowning in fear and uncertainty? What will we tell our children and grandchildren when they are old enough to ask us what we did on behalf of the African children who were living in Israel?”
My good friend Yossi Klein Halevi wrote a powerful piece on this issue entitled “Shame.”  He concluded by asking:
“Where is the sign of unease from our leaders, some indication that they understand why so many Jews are tormented by their decision? Part of my feeling of shame today is the absence of shame among our leaders.”
I hope that the issue of the African migrants can be resolved properly.  I know that each of us must feel the pain of all those impacted by this human tragedy.
About the Author
Rabbi Elie Weinstock is Rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York City. A believer in a Judaism that is accessible to all, he prefers "Just Judaism" to any denominational label.
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