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.”