Arik Ascherman

‘We didn’t choose to be persecuted. But, you can choose to protect us’

In this week’s Torah portion we are finally free of Egyptian slavery, but the road ahead will be filled with peril.  The Torah, prophets and rabbis heap scorn upon those who showed us no sympathy, and even added to our suffering.  “No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted into the congregation of Adonai, none of their descendants, even in the tenth generation, shall ever be admitted into the congregation of Adonai, because  they did not meet you with food and water on your journey after you left Egypt. (Deuteronomy 23.4)

Chapter’s 12 and 13 of Exodus (In this week’s Torah portion) command us to remember for all time our degradation in Egypt, and our redemption.  We reread 12:1-20 when we enter the month of Nisan, and are preparing to celebrate Passover.  However, we are to remember more than just the fact that God redeemed us. Time after time we are commanded to recall the experience of being a stranger in a strange land, and treat the strangers among us differently.  We are taught to remember those who refused us aid when we fled Egypt because God expects us to be different.

From almost as long as I can remember I have seen the striking dichotomy between those Jews whose reaction to the oppression of Jews is that looking after what they perceive to be Jewish interests outweighs all other considerations, and those for whom the command emerging from Jewish history is the obligation to ensure that no human being ever again be forced to suffer as we did.  I have never felt that I had the right to judge those who personally suffered oppression and survived with scarred souls.  However, we must live up to God’s expectations of us.

Five years ago, almost to the day, I wrote an open letter to then Education Minister Gideon Saar saying that we must change the way we teach Jewish history because of the way we are treating asylum seekers, and those Israelis who seek to help them.  We can no longer judge those who closed their doors to us during the many times in our history that we fled for our lives.  We can no longer judge those who remained silent, if we remain silent.  When the asylum seekers from the very same countries are given refugee status at rates of over 90% in other countries, we can no longer refuse to properly apply the international tests to determine who is truly a refugee, grant that status to less than a handful of applicants, and then tell ourselves that these never examined applicants are actually infiltrators looking for jobs. With all the evidence about what really happens to those sent to Rwanda and Uganda, we can no longer continue to tell ourselves the lie that they will be OK in those places.  We can’t decry those who said that the Jews would be a cancer threatening their cultures, when we repeat those very same words.

I am inspired by the current outcry by Israelis and Jews around the world, particularly by those who have devoted their lives to combating slander of Israel.  People are preparing safe houses, and calling upon pilots not to fly planes potentially taking asylum seekers to their deaths.  I am also deeply saddened that it has come to this.  I am hopeful that, history will look back at this as the moment we finally looked in the mirror, didn’t see what we wanted to see, and changed the way we treat all those living among us who are weak and oppressed because they are different.

I am haunted by the charge I heard this week from Mounis Harun. After telling of how his mother was killed and village razed in Darfur, and of his many friends who were killed after leaving Israel, and of what it feels like to be called a cancer, he concluded by saying,

“”We didn’t choose to be persecuted. But, you can choose to protect us.”

On this Shabbat when we are commanded to remember, let us remember to choose morally, and not as so many chose to treat us.

Shabbat Shalom

About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He and "Torat Tzedek" received the Rabbi David J. Forman Memorial Fund's Human Rights Prize fore 5779. Rabbi Ascherman is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.