Galilee Diary: Homeless, Tempest-Tossed
Two were walking on the way; one had a canteen of water; if they share the water, they will both die [before reaching a source of water]; if one drinks all the water, he will survive. Ben Petura taught: Let them both die, so that neither will see the death of his comrade. Then came Rabbi Akiba and taught: “…that your brother may live with you” [Leviticus 25:36] meaning that your life takes precedence over your brother’s.
-Bab. Talmud, Baba Metzia 62a
In considering the place of Israel in the global refugee crisis, I suggest we try to set aside the often strident rhetoric of guilt, self-righteousness, fear, and victimhood, and create a framework for a policy discourse worthy of the Jewish state. Such a discourse would need to take account of the following factors:
- Israel, like any state, has the right and obligation to see to the welfare of its citizens and thus to adopt policies that further their security, freedom, and well-being. There is nothing immoral about having a policy that regulates immigration; indeed it would be immoral not to.
- Israel, like any other ethno-cultural nation-state, has the right to grant preferential treatment to members of its dominant ethnic group, at least with respect to immigration. The “Law of Return” is a manifestation of this right and is not unique among civilized western nations.
- Israel is a member of the developed world – and despite its small size and embattled history – has a high standard of living, based on the wise exploitation of human and material resources. As a “have” nation, it has both a self-interest and a moral obligation to help the “have nots” of the world. In tranquil times, this obligation can be fulfilled by providing agricultural and educational assistance; in difficult times, it means taking on a share of the responsibility of the developed world for the wave of human misery breaking on its beaches and borders.
- As a Jewish state, Israel must consider what its “Jewishness” has to offer in guidance for immigration policy. On one hand, as the passage above indicates, there is support in the tradition for self-preservation as an obligation. On the other hand, the frequent references in the Bible and later texts to the creation of all human beings in the Divine image – and the admonition not to wrong the stranger, for we “know the heart of the stranger” – suggest that self-preservation must not be the only pole on our moral compass. We are obligated to strike a balance among values that are not always obviously congruent – or comfortable.
- We know the heart of the stranger not only from ancient texts, but from recent history, when the unwillingness or inability of the world to help the Jewish people with its refugee crisis had horrific consequences. It would seem that this painful experience ought to have an influence on our thinking and our action now that the tables are turned.
A policy based on these considerations might look like this:
- An analysis of resources and Israel’s share of the world’s need would yield a proposed annual number of immigrants to be absorbed outside the framework of the Law of Return. This analysis would of course be updated every year, and publicized.
- People wishing to be accepted into this framework would apply to an agency established for this purpose. Preference would be given to those already present in the country (i.e., currently illegal immigrants); and preference would also be given to those who can establish refugee status (asylum seekers).
- Those accepted as prospective immigrants would enter a naturalization process leading to citizenship. They would be offered a package of benefits for a limited period, including, especially, vocational training and subsidized employment; and of course medical care.
- Provisions would be made for helping these new immigrants integrate into Israeli society – language, schooling, finding housing – and for educating the public to welcome and help them.
- Those not accepted would be assisted in finding and reaching alternative destination countries.
- Implementing the policy fairly would require fencing and patrolling Israel’s borders.
No political process can yield an ideal result, and bureaucracies are generally subject to all kinds of deficiencies. This proposal includes both. But doing something seems, despite the pitfalls, better than doing nothing.