VR Podcast Episode 3: A Shabbat Morning Service
Loving the Ger

For you were strangers in the land of Egypt


Photo of the anti-asylum-seekers rally in Tel Aviv by Tomer Neuberg.

My friend rabbinic student Marisa James shared this photo on FB, adding, "At the anti-asylum-seekers protest yesterday in Tel Aviv - the slogan on the shirt reads "death to the Sudanese." I'd love to know where the girl wearing the shirt would be living today if her ancestors had been deported back to where they came from. Or if she would be living at all." Her comment struck a chord with me, and it's been resonating in me uncomfortably all day.

I've been reading news stories about the violence against Sudanese migrants at the recent rally in Tel Aviv. Here are a few: Hundreds demonstrate in south Tel Aviv against illegal migrants (Ha'aretz); Israeli politicians are fanning the flames of anti-migrant tension (the Guardian); Africans attacked in Tel Aviv protest; MKs, 'infiltrators' are cancer' (+972); Politicians stoke hatred for African Refugees (NIF newsletter). The rhetoric is ugly (right-wing members of Knesset calling illegal migrants "a cancer in our body"); the violence and beatings (Ha'aretz reports that "nine people were arrested, some while they were beating Sudanese migrants") even more so.

Here in the States our discourse around immigration, and migrant workers who are here illegally, can get pretty ugly too. (I'm not going to dig up links, but we all know it's out there; instead I'll link to The Damage of Anti-Immigrant Laws and Rhetoric, an excellent interview which deserves the signal-boost.) If it's troubling to mistreat illegral migrants who are seeking a better life for themselves and their families, how much more so when the mistreatment is of those who seek asylum.

Of course, there are voices within Israel -- including members of the Knesset -- who are outraged by the rhetoric and the violence. (See, e.g., Gal On: Stop Inciting Against Illegal Aliens!) MK Gal On argues that the violence we've just seen in Tel Aviv is ultimately caused by economic hardship -- which makes sense to me; when people are feeling economically and socially marginalized, they lash out at someone more marginal than they.

Violence against those who are powerless happens everywhere. And it shouldn't. But one could argue that it especially shouldn't happen in a state which aims to embody Torah ideals. "You shall love the stranger," Torah tells us, "for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." (For some beautiful commentary on this verse, and how it applies today, see Va'ahavtem et ha-Ger: Love the Stranger; also Love the Stranger [pdf] by Rabbi Mordechai Liebling.)

Jewish history is filled with exile and wanderings. Our community retains the memory of being marginalized and mistreated. When economic times were tough, time and again, we have been the victims of attacks, of prejudice, of pogroms. I'm reminded of another verse from Torah: that which is hateful to you, do not do to another. (The sage Hillel famously cited that verse as a summation of the entire Torah -- adding, of course, "all the rest is commentary; go and learn.")

In Ha'aretz this morning I read an essay by Sudanese refugee Adam Ibrahim, who writes:

If you don't want us here, don't turn your rage at us, because we have no choice. I have nowhere to go. I just want to live in safety. I agree to be deported to any African country, other than Sudan. I just want to live with dignity, without people talking about the color of my skin, and I want to stop feeling hostility on the streets.

It is important for me to say that we are not a burden on society. We work for less than minimum wage in jobs that Israelis wouldn't want to do themselves anyway. We pay rent, and make do with organizations that we established ourselves. It is hard for me to hear Eli Yishai's statements in the media. Their impact on Israelis is tremendous, since in Israel everyone listens to the news.

The state is spreading negative propaganda against us – they say it is unsafe here because of us. I feel that the Jews are doing to us the exact same thing the Germans did to them.

(That's from his essay An African migrant's plea for a few basic rights.)

Props to my friends and colleagues in Israel who are standing up against this wave of anti-immigrant hatefulness. (ETA: props to the New Israel Fund for Our Book of Ruth, which connects this situation with the book of Ruth which we'll read in a few days on Shavuot, and to Rabbis for Human Rights for Today Ruth Would Be Considered an 'Infiltrator,' Forbidden From Gleaning.)  If you're wondering what you can do to help, The African Refugee Development Center does good work, and they're raising funds to support their community in the wake of the attacks.

I'll close with a few words from Haggai Mattar, from his essay How I Survived a Tel Aviv Mob Attack (again in +972):

Morning is now up, broken windows of shops and houses need mending, and the peace is somewhat restored. At the end of the day, we must remember that most of the people in our southern neighborhoods largely live together in peace. Many try to bridge gaps and find solutions. Many on both sides know that their enemy is not the asylum seekers or the local Israeli population but the government – which is both creating this impossibly flammable situation and throwing burning matches into it. But this is not the end of the story. It is only the beginning.

What would it take to change the story -- to move from this beginning into a story of compassion and connection?