Galilee Diary: Echoes
You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt. -Exodus 23:9
We fight world Jewry as one has to fight a poisonous parasite... -German army manual, 1939
We will not allow illegal immigration to spread like a cancer in our society. -Miri Regev, Knesset Member, at south Tel Aviv rally
Recently I finished a meeting at HUC at the end of the day and was offered a ride to Tel Aviv, thus shortening my trip on public transportation to the Galilee. I accepted, but it turned out that the driver didn’t know Tel Aviv streets so well, and we got lost in the alleys surrounding the Central Bus Station. At one point we rounded a corner and found ourselves surrounded by Border Patrol troops, and squad cars all a-flashing. As we proceeded we found ourselves driving between clusters of scared-looking African refugees on one side of the street, and angry Jews with megaphones on the other side. We were in the midst of one of a series of recent demonstrations by veteran Jewish residents of the poor neighborhood around the bus station, calling for the expulsion of the growing number of Eritrean and Sudanese refugees who have moved in (the next day it turned violent, a day of broken glass). This campaign was given a boost by a couple of recent high-profile crimes, some of which were apparently committed by refugees. (Israel lets the refugees who are caught stay in Tel Aviv, pending asylum proceedings, but to discourage more refugees from arriving, they are forbidden to work; hence the motivation to support themselves by illegal activities).
It is tempting to feel righteously indignant when confronting a public campaign that uses explicitly racist rhetoric, led by respectable leaders of mainstream political parties. We are appalled by the language and its historical echoes. But then, the demonstrators remind us, these miserable refugees are not exactly streaming into the middle class communities that are bastions of liberal self-righteousness. So driving down the street that day I sensed that there was enough misery and powerlessness to go around on both sides, and while I have no problem criticizing the demagogic exploitation of that misery, it seems clear that that exploitation is no party’s monopoly.
As long as the world is divided into poor and rich areas, oppressed and free states, there will be people trying to move to a better place. Whether on the Mexican border, or in rickety boats crossing the Mediterranean, or crawling across the Sudanese desert, the world is full of “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” and those who have achieved (or inherited) prosperity and freedom feel threatened by this human wave. It is not rational to open all the gates, and it is not humane to keep them all closed. Devising a moral policy is a huge challenge that has vexed the western world for a century and more.
It is no easier here in Israel than it is in Texas or in Italy, and we seem to be no better at responding to this challenge than anyone else. When we had no state, it was easy to criticize the behavior of those peoples who had them, especially when they wouldn’t let us in (for which we continue to criticize them). Now that we have one, a little humility would be in order.
Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah