By DANIEL STATMAN
When Jacob sent his sons to Egypt to buy food, he had no intention of gaining control over that country or of changing its demography. He knew that the future of his descendants lay in the land of Canaan, as God had repeatedly promised him and the other patriarchs. Nor did Jacob change his mind on the matter when he was taken to Egypt to meet Joseph. From his point of view, the stay in Egypt was meant to be temporary until conditions allowed the return home.
But a generation or so after Jacob and his family had settled in Egypt, they began to feel unwanted. The regime – and probably the masses as well – felt that the number of Israelites was growing too fast, that they were controlling the economy, that their loyalty could no longer be trusted. Well before the draconian decrees of Pharaoh, the sons of Israel starting to sense changes in the attitude of the native Egyptians toward them: the cold shoulder, the increasing avoidance of social contact, the reduction of economic relations, and the alarming rhetoric, starting at the periphery and gradually moving to the center, presenting the Israelites as a fifth column, as invaders to the country, as strangers.
As immigrants have learned time and again throughout history, these excluding and humiliating messages are extremely painful. They also prepare the ground for real measures of exclusion, discrimination and persecution carried out against such groups, measures which in turn intensify these messages – and so on in a poisonous and destructive spiral.
The traumatic experience of the Israelites in Egypt serves repeatedly in the Torah as the basis for an uncompromising demand never to behave the way the Egyptians did – not to oppress the strangers but to embrace them with love. "Love ye therefore the stranger; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Deut 10:19).
The gerim that these verses talk about were not necessarily refugees in the legal sense of the term, people escaping to Israel, literally to save their lives. The category of gerim is wider and includes anyone who is likely to be perceived as a foreigner and to suffer the consequences of such perception.
How vulnerable such people were, is evident from a comment made in passing to Ruth by Boaz: "Let thine eyes be on the field that they do reap, and go thou after them: have I not charged the young men that they shall not touch thee? and when thou art athirst, go unto the vessels, and drink of that which the young men have drawn" (2:9).
If it had not been for Boaz’s explicit warning, the young men most probably would have harassed the young girl who had recently arrived from Moab, in spite of her known relationship to Naomi. And without his explicit permission, she would have been barred from drinking the water drawn by the local workers.
That is the grim reality of foreigners: Harassed, thirsty, and completely dependent on the goodwill of others. A negative attitude toward gerim is so prevalent that gerim often take it for granted. "Why," asks Ruth in amazement, "have I found grace in thine eyes, that thou shouldest take knowledge of me, seeing I am a stranger?" (2:10). Again, precisely because of this prevalence, the Bible puts such emphasis on the demand to act otherwise.
With this Biblical background, and given the Jewish historical experience of being strangers in many other and worse Egypts, one would have expected that when the Jews were finally on the hosting side, they would treat their own gerim differently. One would have expected that Jews would be the first to offer hospitality, food and shelter to those strangers that come to live among them as a result of the tough circumstances in their countries of origin.
But, unfortunately, the Jewish State is not living up to these expectations. At the time these lines are being written, thousands of immigrants and refugees from Africa have left their workplaces and are conducting demonstrations and other protest activities against the way they are being treated in Israel: exploited in their workplaces, without basic medical or social rights, and, above all, living with the knowledge that they are unwanted here and are under threat of deportation.
Watching pictures of the thousands of Africans gathered in Rabin Square in the center of Tel Aviv, I felt that this is where I should have been too, together with other Israelis who were there to show sympathy and solidarity. In a sense this is where all Jews should be, imitating the example set by God who "loveth the stranger, in giving him food and raiment" (Deut. 10:18). Giving immigrants food and raiment should be our concern, not questions of how best to get rid of them.
I am not naive and do not underestimate the practical difficulties of absorbing this large group, finding homes for them and providing them with the conditions for a decent life. But Israel has proven its ability to overcome such difficulties with other groups of immigrants – recently from Ethiopia and from the former Soviet Union – so there is no reason to think that the difficulties are insurmountable.
But hey, you must be saying, those were groups of Jewish immigrants. Do I really expect the Jewish State to make similar investments for the sake of goyim? Here we get to the crux of the matter, which is tied up with a fundamental debate about how to interpret the Jewishness of the State.
On the proposal put forward here, a Jewish state is a state whose values are inspired by Jewish tradition, which implies, in the current case, an opening of its heart and pocket to the strangers among us. On the opposing view which informs Israel’s actual policy, to the extent possible, a Jewish state is one that endeavors to maintain, the purity (forgive me for using this word here) of the nation.
While all other nations are morally expected to open their gates to immigrants, especially to Jews in distress, Jews, assumingly, are subject to a different morality. The Jewish State has one of the most uncompromising policies against the absorption of immigrants from the Third World . So far Israel has not been willing to offer the status of refugee to any of the many thousands who have come to her from unstable and tortured countries, mainly Eritrea and Sudan. A fortiori citizenship has not been offered to any one of them – in accordance with government’s general reluctance to grant Israeli citizenship to non-Jews.
This is a true test case for both the Jewish and the democratic nature of Israel. So far Israel has failed, because its default position toward African immigrants has been negative, supplemented with an unclear readiness to make exceptions to "genuine" asylum-seekers.
What is needed is a paradigmatic shift to the opposite attitude – treating all immigrants as gerim, for whom we should care, unless this is impossible or too costly. Let our shared memory as Jews lead us to side with the weak and the vulnerable. We know better than most other nations what it means to be on that side of the equation. For we were strangers in the land of Egypt.