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Netivoteha Shalom on Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel - jeremy_milgrom
Netivoteha Shalom on Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel

Does the Torah's attitude towards the ger provide guidance for Israel's treatment of the African asylum seekers/refugees, and if not, are there more applicable biblical precedents? [I promised last week that I'd try to come up with something on this topic, and I suspect that during the reading of the second half of Sh'mot and Vayikra, others will be also be inclined to go beyond temple and cult to more topical issues]

Both the African asylum seekers and the biblical ger fit (or better, define) the category of The Other; therefore, the humanitarian concern for the latter in positive as well as negative terms (loving them, feeding them, identifying our own roots in their predicament, and not oppressing them) should be learned for the former. But it's not as simple as all that: just as the thrust of th e biblical text is on God's providence over the Israelites, so, too, is the raison d'etre of the state of Israel the creation and maintenance of a state for Jews (rather than “a Jewish state”, a phrase that means many things to many people). These ideologies build in a tendency towards marginalizing the Other.

Into which of the two categories of non-Israelite Other that are found in the Torah, the ger and the nochri, would the African asylum seekers fit? The ger is a disadvantaged resident who feeds her/himself by picking up the gleanings in the field – which means s/he doesn't raise his/her own crops, presumably because s/he is landless. Were Israel to decide to grant permanent residence to these Africans, they would fit the criteria of the biblical ger, but as long as we're only dealing with temporary residence, the category of nochri, the transient non-resident, would seem to be more applicable. Yet the nochri does not appear in situations of distress or in need of social welfare, but rather as a person of means who could buy a slave (as could the ger toshav in Leviticus 25) ; when s/he takes out a loan, perhaps it is for business purposes, not for food, and therefore can be charged interest.

As Avi Novis Deutsch points out (http://www.truah.org/issuescampaigns/asylum-seekers/jewish-resources/312-ki-tetze-2012.html), the predicament of the African asylum seekers can be compared to the case of the runaway slave in Deut 23: 16-17. The Torah gives priority to the slave's desire for freedom over its concern over the financial loss of the slave owner, and the community must provide support for the runaway slave, even though this means swelling the numbers of those in need of social welfare; the parallels to the case of the African asylum seekers, and how Israeli society should react couldn't be clearer.

While the articulation of the legal obligation towards refugees in the Torah is limited to this case, the Israelite consciousness is replete with tales and memories of flight and refuge. Natural and man-made disasters often forced our ancestors to seek refuge in foreign lands (e.g., Abraham, to Egypt; Isaac, to the land of the Philistines; Jacob and his sons, to Egypt), where divine Providence sometimes looked after them (as in those patriarchal stories) and sometimes continued to torment them (as promised in the tochekhot of Lev. 26 and Deut. 28; Elimelech, Naomi and Ruth didn't seem to do too well in Moab, and David laments that Saul's pursuit forced him away from God's nahalah to a place where he had no choice but to worship other gods).

Israel didn't receive much of a welcome when seeking refuge in all these cases; even when it started out well – Joseph looking after his brothers in Goshen – it ended up in slavery. The Israelite memory of precarious refuge becomes the predominant theme song of Jewish history, one which the modern State of Israel was meant to solve...for Jews. And for non-Jews...not even temporarily?

I'd like to close by sharing the words of Jonathan Sacks (Covenant and Conversation Exodus pp 185-6), which read like a commentary on Lev. 25:23b, כי גרים ותושבים אתם עמדי in the spirit of Lionel Blue and Jonathan Magonet's rendering of שלא עשני נוכרי in their mahzor – something to the effect of "for not making me estranged from myself”:

To be a Jew is to be a stranger. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that is why Abraham was commanded to leave his land, home and father's house; why, long before Joseph was born, Abraham was already told that his descendants would be strangers in a land not their own; why Moses had to suffer personal exile before assuming the leadership of the people; why the Israelites underwent persecution before inheriting their own land; and why the Torah is so insistent that this experience - the retelling of the story on Passover, along with the never-forgotten taste of the bread of affliction and the bitter herbs of slavery – should become a permanent part of their collective memory . . .

The Torah asks why should you not hate the stranger? Because you once stood where he stands now. You know the heart of the stranger because you were once a stranger in the land of Egypt. If you are human, so is he. If he is less than human, so are you. You must fight the hatred in your heart as I once fought the greatest ruler and the strongest empire in the ancient world on your behalf. I made you into the world's archetypal strangers so that you would fight for the rights of strangers – for your own and those of others, wherever they are, whoever they are whatever they are, and whatever the colour of their skin or the nature of their culture, because though they are not in your image, says God, they are nonetheless in Mine. There is only once reply strong enough to answer the question Why should I not hate the stranger? Because the stranger is me.


Shabbat shalom,


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