By Tomer Persico
Debates around national issues in Israel often reach a point where the matter of “the Jewish image” of the state is summoned. This is proposed habitually in order to justify the view of a more traditional and orthodox approach. Thus, when speaking, for example, of introducing public transportation on the Sabbath, such an initiative is negated because it would harm the state’s “Jewish image.”
Invoking Israel’s traditional Jewish image, it must be noted, is itself a traditional Jewish thing to do. As far back as the bible we find not only concern with the Jewish character of the Israelites themselves, but also with their appearance in the eyes of non-Jews. The gentiles who will see the people of Israel in their land will supposedly be impressed and exclaim “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people!” (Deut. 4, 6), and Maimonides in his Guide to the Perplexed explains this verse as attesting to the beneficial character of the divine law, and thus to the people who observe it (3, 31).
It is thus unfortunate not only morally but also traditionally that the state of Israel has not taken a radically different approach to the refugee crises around and within it. With millions of Syrian refugees fleeing their homeland and tens of thousands of Africans who claim to be refugees inside its boundaries, Israel has shown little to no effort to help. Quite the opposite, the State of Israel has repeatedly refused to help Syrian refugees outside its borders, and declined even to review the status of individuals from Sudan and Eritrea, already living in Israel, to ascertain whether they are refugees or simply migrant workers.
Notwithstanding the justified concern of a nation state for its unique culture and demographic makeup, it seems that the Jewish people of all peoples should do a lot more for refugees, both from a traditional and a historical perspective. In fact, Israel has signed international treatises that advance the protection of refugees specifically as a result and in retrospect of the historical lessons the Jewish people have learnt. These treatises, it must be said, forbid the state from deporting refugees, which is sadly one of the reasons for Israel’s unwillingness to determine if any of the Africans that entered Israel illegally are refugees.
Traditionally the matter is very clear. It is written explicitly in the Torah that “Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee: He shall dwell with thee, even among you, in that place which he shall choose in one of thy gates, where it liketh him best: thou shalt not oppress him.” (Deut. 23, 15-16).
We are forbidden to send back a slave that has escaped his master and has found shelter in our community. Quite the contrary: we are commanded to let him dwell among us, “in that place which he shall choose,” “where it liketh him best.” It is easy to see how the Torah is emphasizing the freed slave’s liberty to choose to settle where he wishes, and our duty to offer her or him our assistance.
Commentators on these verses have made clear that they are connected to those that precede them, speaking about war, and so the law includes refugees of war. Ibn Ezra and Abarvanel, when commenting on the above verses, refer to a war waged by the people of Israel, in which they are commanded to offer shelter to slaves of the enemy. Maimonides widens the scope of the law and states that if a slave is to be protected, much more so a free-man seeking our help (Guide to the Perplexed, 3, 39). And following this line it was Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin (1881–1966), who in his commentary on the bible reproved the gentiles(!) who in the second World War did not accept Jewish refugees, or accepted them but put them in refugee camps, and not let each one settle “in that place which he shall choose […] where it liketh him best.”
To these voices from the long line of our tradition we may juxtapose the Israeli rabbinic leadership, which is mostly failing in realizing the commandments of our tradition. We do not hear about our duty as Jews towards refugees from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, nor from Ultra-orthodox rabbis or almost all Zionist-Religious rabbis. A lone voice, until recently, amongst the better-known rabbis in Israel in favor of receiving refugees from Syria was Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, who was immediately opposed by other rabbis, such as Shmuel Eliyahu. As for the African refugees in Israel, Rabbi Israel Rosen wrote already in 2012 that the “African infiltrators” are “a national danger of the first degree,” and that “we have to get them out forcefully from amongst us, and drop them somewhere in the world. Preferably with the consent of a receiving country, but if we will not find one – the IDF will find a forsaken corner in Africa. Period!” (Shabbat Be’Shivto, 16.6.12)
With this as the backdrop it was as a breath of fresh air when in March 2017 the Religious-Zionist rabbinical organization Beit Hillel issued a Halachic essay (Beit Hillel 13) underlining the commandment to help Syrian refugees. In their complex text both male and female halachic figures debated different views, moral and halachic, and concluded that it is appropriate to help innocent lives in danger, even those of an enemy state. Not least in their line of arguments is the Jewish Holocaust, writing that “The terrible event that burns our collective consciousness obligates us to make special efforts and take national and moral challenges upon ourselves.”
And indeed, it is not only our tradition but the Jewish people’s history that commands us to accept and protect refugees. As someone who all four of his grandparents suffered the flight from war and the trials of living as refugees, I find the way the State of Israel acts today devastatingly and dishearteningly disappointing. Stressing again the obligation of a sovereign state to protect its people’s collective rights to a shared culture and identity, no doubt a way could and must be found to treat well those who are indeed refugees from Africa well and to help the refugees from the war that is tearing Syria apart. These, at the very least, are the commandments of our tradition and the duty we owe to our history.
Dr. Tomer Persico is a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and teaches at the Department for Comparative Religion in Tel-Aviv University. His book, The Jewish Meditative Tradition, was published in Hebrew by Tel Aviv University Press in 2016.