In marmur

By Rabbi Dow Marmur.

The primary purpose of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state is probably to make sure that, after they get their state, they cease to make claims on Israel, as their present ideology may prompt them to do.

At a symposium held last Monday in the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem I heard three versions of what the Jewish state should really be beyond the political arguments. In addition, of course, there’s the demand that it should follow Jewish law in all its minutiae; a Jewish version of Muslim sharia law that the haredim seem to want.

The three other versions were well reflected in the discussion at the symposium about what Israel should do with its African asylum seekers in the light of the Jews’ collective memory of the past, particularly the Holocaust.

Proponents of the first version argued that, having experienced the Holocaust and having ourselves been refugees with nowhere to go, it behooves us Jews to live by the Biblical command to care for the stranger because “you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The idea of people seeking refuge in the Jewish state to be turned away in one form or another was – rightly, in my humble opinion – deemed to be scandalous.

A second version, not surprisingly argued by two panelists close to the government, suggested that precisely because we’ve been slaves in many lands and have survived the Holocaust, we must make sure that Israel remains a place for Jews (and Jews only?). A large influx of foreigners may turn out to constitute “an existential threat” to Israel. We Jews have no other country than this, so let’s keep it Jewish.

In order to augment this argument, one of the panelists insisted that the overwhelming majority of Africans come to Israel for economic reasons and, therefore, the humanitarian principles that proponents of the first version put forward don’t apply. Israel is the only developed country accessible on foot by people living in Africa. They choose not to stay in the many other countries they pass on their way and come to Israel primarily because of the economic opportunities it offers.

A third version, argued most persuasively by a lawyer who has worked with refugees for the last decade, challenged the premise of the second version that Israel should be for Jews only and that the Africans come to make money, not to save their lives. She insisted that the overwhelming majority who come here are in real danger and that it’s, therefore, the duty of this, like every other democratic state, to provide shelter for them. The personal stories some of the asylum seekers tell are heart-breaking.

Israel has signed the relevant international treaties and, therefore, is duty bound to adhere to them instead of seeking excuses and using bureaucratic subterfuges to renege on its obligations. To be a Jewish state isn’t only to rely on memories of the Holocaust and other Jewish calamities (first version) or to deny entry to refugees because of it (second version) but to adhere to international principles of goodness and justice.

I, too, find it impossible to accept the second version. Any state that may act callously towards others – whatever the demographic excuse or the historic reason – isn’t a state in which I’d like to live, let alone a Jewish state. A combination of the two other arguments in favour of leniency towards asylum seekers appears to be the most authentic manifestation of what a Jewish state ought to be and what Judaism seeks to instill in us.

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