From its pre-state days, Israel has aspired to be both a light to the nations and a normal country like any other. These two countervailing goals were articulated by Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. He often spoke to the aspiration that Israel should become, in the language of Isaiah, “a light to the nations,” a moral exemplar modeling justice, living in accord with the ethical norms of prophetic monotheism. Yet, he also famously said, “when Israel has prostitutes and thieves, we’ll be a state just like any other,” i.e. Jews deserve to have a normal, prosaic existence, no longer as a tolerated minority in foreign lands but as citizens of their own sovereign state in their ancestral homeland, with all the attending blessings and challenges.
Seventy years on, Israel still strives to achieve the twin visions of normalcy and ethical monotheism. Yet, at times, governmental policies bring these visions into conflict, and put Israel in the crosshairs of international criticism. In response, her leaders complain that Israel is held to an impossibly high moral standard.
The current ethical dilemma Israel faces is the plight of some 38,000 Eritrean and Sudanese refugees who fled their war-torn homelands in the early 2000s to seek sanctuary in Israel. Despite Israel’s experience in acculturating new arrivals, the government dithered, and the refugees settled in an impoverished area in south Tel Aviv. The process to acquire asylum is especially arduous and changes frequently. Very few have been given refugee status. Of the 38,000, Israel has recognized the refugee status of one Sudanese and ten Eritreans out of thousands who have applied, an acceptance rate of 0.056 percent compared to the Europeans’ recognized asylum rate of 90 percent of Eritreans and 56 percent of Sudanese. Three of those ten Eritreans were resettled in Milwaukee.
Talks continue between Israel and the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees. If successful, the UN will resettle a portion of the refugees to countries deemed safe, while a portion will be resettled in Israel. It’s unclear when a resolution will be reached. In the meantime, 600 refugees each month face the choice of leaving Israel voluntarily or going to prison. Returning home for many would entail mortal danger; most choose detention.
The refugees bring Israel’s conflict of values into sharp focus. The government doesn’t recognize the newcomers as refugees, preferring to see them as economic migrants. Should the UN talks fail, Israel’s government plans to deport almost all of them. The government of Israel ought to
choose to be “a light to the nations.” Jewish heritage commands us to treat refugees as equals, deserving of our protection and care. Jewish history reminds us that we have been refugees again and again, from slavery in Egypt to the Shoah to the exodus of Soviet Jews. Our responsibility is described concisely in the Torah:
“You shall not hand over to their master a slave who has sought refuge with you from their master. They shall live with you in your midst, in the place which they shall choose in one of your towns where it is good for them; you shall not mistreat them.” (Deuteronomy 23:16-17)
The command to reach out to and shelter the powerless is in our Jewish DNA. An Israeli government that aspires to those ideals:
- Would remember its own signature on the International Convention on Refugees in 1951, which guaranteed that that no one would be left as helpless as Jews had been.
- Would recognize the voices of 25 of Israel’s leading jurists who appealed to the attorney general, arguing that the deportation order and the lack of due process for the asylum seekers violate international law, as well as the voices of El Al pilots who have refused to fly repatriation flights.
- Would understand that deportation to Eretrea and Sudan means refugees will likely face imprisonment, indefinite military conscription, additional expulsion, physical harm or even death.
Jewish heritage and history demand such an approach. As it stands, however, the government plans to step up deportation proceedings around Pesach, an unfortunately ironic date to exile refugees who have already walked across the Sinai desert to reach the Promised Land.
Israel cannot have it both ways. If the Israeli government hopes to fulfill its role as a light to the nations, it cannot call foul when others judge its actions by the moral standard to which Israel itself aspires. Instead the Israeli government can look to the American Jewish community and its support for immigrants, refugees and the Dreamers.
It would not be the first time Israel opened its doors to refugees. In the mid-seventies, Israel gave asylum to hundreds of Vietnamese “Boat People.” Menachem Begin z”l understood, and acted on, the Torah’s ethical imperative, “do not stand idly by” as your neighbor bleeds. While today’s numbers are considerably larger, Israel is a considerably stronger country. About 38,000 refugees are just 0.5% of Israel’s population, a number that in no way threatens Israel’s Jewish character. And that number is unlikely to increase, given that Israel erected a fence in 2016 that has brought the influx to zero.
In truth, the threat to Israel’s Jewish character is the government’s refusal to provide shelter to the persecuted. If Israel’s government wishes to be guided by Jewish principles and values they should reach a timely agreement with the U.N. to find a solution for the Eritrean and Sudanese refugees.
Rabbi Steve Adams
Rabbi Jessica Barolsky
Rabbi Renee Bauer
Rabbi David Brusin
Rabbi Noah Chertkoff
Rabbi David B. Cohen
Rabbi Dena Feingold
Rabbi Jacob Herber
Rabbi Rachel Marx
Rabbi Michael Remson
Rabbi Ron Shapiro
Rabbi Moishe Steigmann
Rabbi Hannah Wallick
Rabbi Michal Woll