By Rabbi Dow Marmur.
Refugees have become an acute problem in the world and Israel hasn’t escaped it. Though the country not only welcomes but canvasses Jews to come and live there, it’s less than enthusiastic about non-Jewish immigrants who desperately seek themselves to these shores, mostly to avoid persecution and death in their home countries. (By contrast, Jews now living in the Diaspora are by and large safe, despite anti-Semitic incidents.)
The Jewish state believes that it can’t afford to welcome the refugees. In fact, most of the 50 000 or so asylum seekers find themselves in great difficulty here. They came at great cost – many of them are middle class – and at great risk to their lives – many perished on the way. But they haven’t found a safe haven in the Promised Land.
More than 2000 are now kept in detention camps, mainly in Holot in the southern Negev. A group of us, rabbis under the auspices of Rabbis for Human Rights and the New Israel Fund, travelled there earlier this week to express solidarity with the detainees and to give vent at our own despair that Jews – the perennial asylum seekers from the day of the first Jew, Abraham – should treat others the way they’ve been treated for much of history. Every nation is under obligation to treat refugees well; Israel only more so.
It’s not suggested that Israel should open its gates indiscriminately to those who want to come here. In fact, now when it seems to have succeeded to stop the influx, few Israelis come out in protest against this measure. (The offer of money for the refugees to go elsewhere – Uganda, of all places! – is a cheap escape, not a moral solution.)
We came to protest about how Israel treats those who’re already in the country. Instead of denying them the opportunity to work and confining some of them to seeming endless detention, they should be given work permits that would enable them to work and thus be less a burden to the state and much less prone to criminal activities. Many would probably replace the temporary workers who’re now brought into the country and not deprive Israelis of work.
However, for that Israel needs moral imagination in place of the tendency to chauvinism. It needs greater commitment to Jewish values than the current unholy alliance of religious orthodoxy and nationalist triumphalism espouses in order to be able to adequately respond to this and many of its other challenges. The little ceremony that was arranged at which we all wore T-shirts with a quote from the Torah that we must be good to strangers for we were strangers in the land of Egypt tried to make this point.
Did it help the hapless detainees? A colleague reassured me that by making us feel good and attracting some media attention we may have exerted some pressure on the government to act more humanely and more prudently. I hope that he’s right.
The morning before I left for Holot I got an e-mail from the daughter of a woman who was one of the 14 people who lived in our single-room hut for some five years in an Uzbek village during World War II. She wanted to know how we got there and what it was like to be there, because her late mother wouldn’t talk about it.
I kept thinking about my five years in Uzbekistan – in the summer almost as hot as it was the day we visited Holot – and didn’t have to ask much to know what it’s like: the tedium, the sense of hopelessness, the fear that family members back home have been put to death. Ultimately our ordeal came to an end. Will theirs?