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April 18, 2014 / 18 Nisan, 5774
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The Soul of the Stranger

African refugees in Israel

Photo Credit: Deborah Sinai/Flash90

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Israel faces a genuine dilemma about the best way to handle the influx of African refugees and migrants. Many people are already debating the policy decisions that will need to be made in this regard.

Of greater concern to me than the specific arguments in this debate, is the shocking naked racism and hatred for Africans that it has exposed across all levels and sectors of Israeli society. From elected officials to people in the street, from the highly educated secular upper class to yeshiva students to the working poor, numerous Israelis seem to share a lexicon and intellectual framework which denigrates and dehumanizes Africans, belittles their suffering, and trivialized their plight. This in and of itself should sound an alarm for all of us that something is seriously amiss in the core of our culture and society. When the tone set by such speech boils over into outright acts of physical brutality, how can we fail to realize that we must, as a society, engage in introspection and self-evaluation?

I hesitate to write the following lines because I believe everything I have to say should be self-evident. There is something inappropriate about writing a formal religious discourse about a matter of values that should be so elementary as to require no explanation. In light of the apparent need for this article I have elected to compose it; I do so with a heavy heart. I also regret that I have little novel to write. Most of what can be said on this subject should be familiar to anyone with a passing familiarity with Jewish texts.

The Torah tells us that God chose Abraham because he was confident that he would instruct his descendants to follow a path of righteousness and kindness (Genesis 18:19). The midrash (Devarim Rabba 3:4) takes this further, and says that there are three distinctive characteristics of the Jewish people: they are meek, merciful, and perform acts of kindness.

The Torah reiterates on many occasions that Jews should be especially sensitive and caring towards the stranger in their midst, for we ourselves were once strangers in the land of Egypt. Rashi (Exodus 22:20) understands that the salient feature of a “stranger” is that he is displaced from his homeland. That is why he is deserving of special compassion, and that is the basis of the comparison between strangers in Israel and the Jews’ status in Egypt. Other rabbinic interpretations focus this message on the convert to Judaism, but Rashi’s simple reading of the verse stands: in a majority Jewish country, we must be especially sensitive to the rights and feelings of minority groups, because of our own unique history of oppression in alien societies.

Performing acts of kindness in a discriminatory manner is seen as a sign of corruption. The chasida (commonly translated as stork) is singled out as a non-kosher bird, even though its name means “the kind one,” because, according to our rabbis, it is kind only to its own species. The kindness for one’s own species is transformed into a perverse act when it is part of a pattern of abuse towards outsiders.

Above and beyond imploring us to perfect our actions, our rabbis were concerned with the nature of our speech. They repeatedly implored us to speak respectfully to, and of, every person. In tractate Avot, they reminded us to greet every person first and with a welcoming face, and that the most honored person is the one who accords others honor. The right path that a person should choose, they instructed there, is one which engenders the respect of God by those who observe it.

In tractate Yoma (86a) they went much further, singling out the public disgrace of God’s name as one transgression that cannot be atoned for, even through repentance on the Day of Atonement. What constitutes such a transgression? A person known to be devout and pious, who does not speak gently with others and conduct his affairs with integrity. Outrageous racist statements, parroted from the most disgraceful historical antecedents, certainly run afoul of this teaching.

Building Israel as a utopian Jewish nation should not entail inflicting suffering on others. Rambam (Hil. Melachim 12:4) writes that the sages and prophets did not desire the messianic era of Israel “in order to conquer the entire world, or to oppress the gentiles…,” rather only “to be free to study the Torah and its wisdom without persecution and interruption, and thus merit the world to come.”

Our character as a Jewish nation depends not on our contempt and disdain for non-Jews living in our midst. On the contrary, it depends on our fulfillment of our own tradition, which calls on us to accord them respect, support, and compassion. It is a unique and tragic sign of our times that such basic lessons must be based on scriptural and Talmudic evidence rather than on common sense and human compassion.

We must rededicate ourselves to listen to the basic truth written in our Torah and our hearts. Human compassion, for all humans, and especially for disadvantaged groups, is a core component of our identity which we must embrace and cultivate. Rather than weakening our identity as Jews, it strengthens and affirms it.

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About the Author: Rabbi Aharon Frazer lives in Alon Shvut, Israel, and is an active volunteer supporting Blessing's Day Care. http://www.facebook.com/BlessingsDayCare


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3 Responses to “The Soul of the Stranger”

  1. Anonymous says:

    You're right. And most of us agree with you with our hearts. But our minds tell us that it's not so simple. We are & want to remain a Jewish state. There's a limit to our resources, financial & geographical. We want Jewish values to predominate. We want our schools to be teaching Jewish stuff. At least 20 percent of our population is moslem — in some places much more. We're not trying to be a melting pot or a haven for those seeking a better life, although we'd like to be, if we could. We know what it's like to have nowhere to run. But we're not permitted to kill ourselves in order to save someone else. Not simple, this problem.

  2. Chayim Goldberg says:

    "and you shall love the stranger…"

  3. John DeLancy says:

    You, Israel, are Or L'Goyim. You are a light to the nations. Goyim like me and the South Sudanese and other Christians will come to you and mob you. 10 of us will grasp your Tallit and say, "we will go with you, because we have heard that Ha'Shem is with you." At that time, please teach us. We _WANT_ to learn the Torah. Please teach us. We are also poor and uneducated. All that you will get in return for teaching us is that we will know Torah… and Ha'Shem will bless you for teaching us the Torah. We love you, Ha'Shem is your Supply. You never _have_ to teach us. If you do teach us, you will be blessed.

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