We are Og: Turning the Tables on World Refugee Day

Wednesday, June 20, 2018 is World Refugee Day. At the end of 2017, 68.5 million people in the world had been forcibly displaced from their countries. Of those, 16.2 million were displaced during 2017.

Syrian Kurdish refugees cross into Turkey from Syria, near the town of Kobani. ©UNHCR / I. Prickett

At the end of this week, on Shabbat Hukkat, we’ll read an episode from our own history that exposes a raw nerve of the refugee experience: gratuitous rejection.

Numbers 21:21Then Israel sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites, saying,22 “Let me pass through your land. We will not turn aside into field or vineyard. We will not drink the water of a well. We will go by the King’s Highway until we have passed through your territory.” 23 But Sihon would not allow Israel to pass through his territory. He gathered all his people together and went out against Israel to the wilderness …

A lesson we learned then, reinforced countless times in the meantime, is that refugees are rarely greeted, let alone welcomed in, either by national representatives at the borders or by private citizens. Most countries admit refugees begrudgingly, if at all, and they’ll hardly ever see the door of a private house crack open, a hand extended with a glass of water or a piece of fruit. God forbid they might take advantage and force their way across the threshold, demanding more and more.

Those of us fortunate enough to have countries and homes to live in tell ourselves that refugees will steal our money, damage our property or rape our women. But deep inside we know it’s not about them, it’s about us. We’re afraid we’ll see their faces or, worse still, catch sight of one of their kids. That would really be the end. A glimpse of those intelligent, hopeful eyes, and we’d have to admit that refugees are human-beings just like us. Wouldn’t we?

South Sudanese children, educated in Tel Aviv, forcibly repatriated to South Sudan but now. thanks to an Israeli NGO run by volunteers, at boarding schools in Uganda. Credit: Come True Project

(Well, maybe not …)

Following an ancient Jewish tradition of commenting on the Torah by retelling its stories, I’m stepping into the court of the other Amorite king who rejects the wandering Israelites in this week’s parsha: Og King of Bashan,

Numbers 21:33 Then they turned and went up by the way to Bashan. And Og the king of Bashan came out against them, he and all his people, to battle at Edrei. 34 But the Lord said to Moses, “Do not fear him, for I have given him into your hand, and all his people, and his land. And you shall do to him as you did to Sihon king of the Amorites, who lived at Heshbon.” 35 So they defeated him and his sons and all his people, until he had no survivor left. And they possessed his land.

We learn a curious detail about King Og in Deuteronomy:

Deuteronomy 3:11 Now only King Og of Bashan was left of the remnant of the Rephaim. His bedstead, an iron bedstead, can still be seen in Rabbah of the Ammonites. By the common cubit it is nine cubits long and four cubits wide.

And Bashan gets more bad press, albeit long after Og’s demise, from the prophet Amos:

Amos 3:15 I will tear down the winter house as well as the summer house; and the houses of ivory shall perish, and the great houses shall come to an end, says the Lord. 4:1 Hear this word, you cows of Bashan who are on Mount Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to their husbands, “Bring something to drink!” The Lord God has sworn by his holiness: The time is surely coming upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks.

It’s not challenging to read King Og’s story from his own perspective. Sure, back then he was the callous power and we were the refugees. But today the roles have reversed. If we live in Israel — Diaspora Jews have their own refugees and migrants to think about — the 37,000 African refugees (there’s plenty of bad news about their situation, but here’s a recent positive development) in our midst, the ones our government is desperate to expel, are the Torah’s Israelites.

African asylum seekers wait outside the Israeli Population and Immigration Authority office waiting to find out their status, in Bnei Brak, Israel, February 13, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

And we, the citizens of present-day Israel, are Og.

A DAY BETWEEN THEN AND NOW IN KING OG’S PALACE 

Knock, knock.

K*N*O*C*K, K*N*O*C*K.

KING OG: Enter!!

OG’S AIDE [known to his friends as AIDE D’OG]: Sorry to disturb you, Sir, but there’s another demonstration outside.

KING OG [brandishing the earplug he’s just removed]: I’m well-aware of that. Left or right?

OG’S AIDE: I don’t know, Sir, they both look the same.

KING OG: Not my earplugs, idiot. The demonstrators. Left-wing or right-wing? As soon as I hear the drone of someone against something whining about justice for someone else, I reach for my Mack Daddies.

OG’S AIDE: Sorry, Sir. Right-wing, Sir. They’ve heard rumors of a mob of refugees from Egypt heading our way. Religious extremists, it seems. They claim there’s only one god and – surprise! – he’s theirs.

KING OG: What’s the problem? Send them back where they came from.

OG’S AIDE: We can’t, Sir. They were kicked out of Egypt years ago. Suspected of contaminating the water supplies and spreading infectious diseases among animals and humans. The Egyptians won’t take them back unless they’re in body bags.

KING OG: OK, so we’ll issue them with short-term transit visas, and keep them under constant police supervision until every man, woman and child has left the country.

OG’S AIDE: I’m afraid the punters won’t be satisfied with that, Sir. There are rumors that they’re carrying infectious diseases they brought from Egypt. Their leader’s sister just died – she’d had leprosy, supposedly recovered, but who knows. She was barely in her grave when his brother died too. They claim that was stress-related – there’s constant infighting with these types – but I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re all contagious.

KING OG: I suppose we could quarantine them at the border and send teams of medics to test them before we let them in.

OG’S AIDE: We could, Sir. But that won’t solve the problem of the long-term health hazards. We’ve heard reports of mountains of dead birds piled up around their last camp. They’re not Canadians, Sir.

KING OG: Ugh. I get the picture.

OG’S AIDE: We also need to think about the crime rate, Sir. It seems they left Egypt with suitcases full of silver and gold they’d ‘liberated’.  The last thing we need is a spate of breaking and entering in South Bashan. (That reminds me, did I mention that their leader’s wife is … a person of color?)

KING OG: Wait a minute. Didn’t I see in my last monthly ‘All you need to know to rule Bashan’ power-point presentation that we’re suffering from a severe shortage of construction workers?  If my memory serves me correctly, this gang were brick layers. Let them work on the state of the art business-park-cum-luxury desert retreat-center that’s been languishing half-built for years.

OG’S AIDE: It’s not that simple, Sir. The Minister for Trade and Industry has a brother-in-law in Heshbon, where the building boom has already peaked. They’re about to open an employment agency issuing qualified Heshbonite laborers with permits to work on construction sites in Bashan. There’ll be an agent’s fee, of course.

KING OG: But I read in yesterday’s Daily Shemesh that Heshbon was just razed to the ground. Won’t they need all the workers they can get for their own construction projects?

OG’S AIDE: Fake news, Sir. And anyway, if we’ve waited this long, we can wait a bit longer for qualified workers. Plus, it’s been years since any of this lot laid a brick, Sir.  They’ve been wandering around aimlessly, living on free handouts. Doesn’t bode well for their work ethic.

KING OG: I see your point. So, what do you suggest?

OG’S AIDE: Well, Sir, your popularity ratings haven’t been too hot since the First Lady imported that shipment of ivory beds purchased with tax-payer’s money. There’s a lot of sensitivity around elephants, right now.

KING OG [shuffles on his throne]: Don’t remind me. Og Junior’s begging me to let him go on one last hunting expedition before it’s banned completely. What does he care about public opinion!

OG’S AIDE: I think it might help if you go to the border yourself, Sir, flanked by a massive display of military might and a pack of reporters.

KING OG: Hmm. Not a bad idea. Maybe the press will finally forget about that humiliating episode with my bedstead they keep harping on about…

OG’S AIDE [under his breath]: Fat chance. It’s unforgettable. [To the king]: My brother-in-law’s the editor of the Shemesh. You can trust him to find the right headline. Brave Boss Bolsters Borders. Courageous Chief Cuts Off Criminals. Daring Director Defends ….

KING OG: Enough, enough! ‘Brave Boss’ and ‘Courageous Chief’ might do wonders for my popularity ratings at home but think of the international picture. I’m being hounded by one of those holier than thou Human Rights Organizations demanding that we love the stranger in our midst. H.A.S.H.E.M, or some such acronym.

OG’S AIDE: Precisely, Sir, which is why I suggest that we don’t give these infiltrators a foot in the door. If they’re not in our midst, bingo – we won’t have to love them! Besides, they claim they won’t stray from the highways blah, blah, blah, but you can’t believe a word they say. They’ve been telling the world that their food handouts came from heaven when we all know that they were dropped by one of those world hunger relief organization with an acronym – M.A.N.N.A., I think – trespassing into our airspace.

KING OG: But there are women and children among them, old and infirm, people with disabilities. Are you suggesting we send them packing too? I’ll never hear the end of it from those meddling watchdogs, what do they call themselves?

OG’S AIDE: Accord Migrants Acceptance Love Empathy & Kindness, Sir.

KING OG: Yes, that’s it. Now I remember. I always forget. A.M.A.L.E.K. Another bunch of bleeding heart liberals out to destroy the state from within. OK, you’ve convinced me. Troops to the border! Bring me my hat!

OG’s AIDE: Right away, Sir. Here it is, Sir.

If you want to help African asylum-seekers in Israel, consider donating to ASSAF, which has been working been working with them and on their behalf since 2007 (when the organization was co-founded by my husband’s daughter, Elisheva Milikowsky).

About the Author
Before coming to Israel in 2011, Diana Lipton was a Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge (1997-2006), and a Reader in Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at King's College London (2007-2011). Here in Israel, she's lectured on Bible at Hebrew University's Rothberg International School and, currently, in the Bible Department at Tel Aviv University. She's the very proud mother of Jacob and Jonah, and lives in Jerusalem with her husband Chaim. Her latest book, 'From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey: A Commentary on Food in the Torah' (Urim Publications) is available on Amazon; proceeds go to Leket, Israel's national food bank.
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