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Jewish Homeland Must not Seek Political Gain from Aggression Against Refugees

What is it about Israel as the home of the Jewish people that Netanyahu and his ministers believe to be so endangered?
Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute and holds the Kaufman Family Chair in Jewish Philosophy. He is author of the highly regarded 2016 book, Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself, and is the host of “For Heaven’s Sake,” one of the most popular Jewish podcasts in North America. Donniel is the founder of some of the most extensive education, training and enrichment programs for scholars, educators, rabbis,

The Jewish Homeland Must not Seek Political Gain from Populist Aggression Against Refugees

First posted on Times of Israel

We are bringing to a close a year in which our world has seen much hardship, pain, and hatred. A year of deep divisiveness among people of diverse religious, political, and national identities. The “other” has been subjected to increased vilification and had their rights challenged. Attacking the “other” has become commonplace and morally acceptable, and pursued for political advantage.

No group, including ours, whether Jews or Israelis, has been spared from this hatred. We have been both its victims and its perpetrators. While we are not responsible for what others do or fail to do, we are responsible for what we do or fail to do. It’s all about our small steps in the spaces we control.

Over the past decade, in Israel, the homeland of the Jewish people, 45,000 non-Jews from Africa have come to seek refuge and a better life. In our world in need of repair, there are today roughly 60 million refugees. Our share in this humanitarian crisis is less than one-tenth of 1 percent, lower than our relative percentage of the world’s population, and significantly less when considering only developed countries.

Yet, once Israel’s Supreme Court rejected the government’s policy of indefinitely imprisoning asylum seekers in order to facilitate their “consent” to “voluntary emigration” back to Africa, many within our government, including our Prime Minister, Minister of Justice, and Minister of Interior, declared war on these 45,000 human beings. They are portrayed as endangering the Jewishness of the State, and undermining the Zionist enterprise as a whole. The Court, because of its ruling, is castigated and branded as left-wing and anti-Zionist.

Wherein lies the danger that our leaders are so concerned with? Why does it seem that Netanyahu is following the same script as other Western leaders, whose moral values and commitments are questionable at best?

How does the presence of these 45,000 asylum seekers threaten the Jewishness of Israel? True, Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people, requires a strong Jewish majority. There are, however, approximately 6.5 million Jews residing today in Israel, and 2 million non-Jews. Does 2.045 million change the status quo?

Perhaps the danger lies in a potential future onslaught of hundreds of thousands who will come if we welcome those who are already here? Israel cannot withstand a limitless influx of refugees. Our pledge to human rights cannot trump our commitment to the viability of the state granting those rights. However, this fear has no basis in reality, as Prime Minister Netanyahu himself, has admitted. The construction of the fence on Israel’s southern border with Egypt, which Netanyahu built and takes credit for, coupled with the ISIS dominance of Sinai, has reduced the number of asylum seekers over the last number of years to basically nil. Those fleeing Africa believe that their chances are better traversing the treacherous Mediterranean waters off the coast of Italy and Greece.

So why does Prime Minister Netanyahu declare by definition, and without investigation, that all 45,000 are merely migrant workers and not refugees, and outside the  protection of the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which Israel has signed? Is Netanyahu privy to knowledge unknown in any other part of the Western world? Undoubtedly some of the 45,000 are here in search of work. It is equally certain, however, that many, especially the Christians from Sudan, who comprise the majority of the asylum seekers in Israel, are indeed refugees and deserving protection.

What is it about Israel as the home of the Jewish people that Netanyahu and his ministers believe to be so endangered? The home they seek to protect is certainly not a Jewish home. It is a home established on the principle that Jews are created in the image of God, instead of our tradition’s teaching, that all human beings are created in God’s image. It believes that because we were strangers, we have a right to vilify the stranger, instead of our tradition’s teaching that we must love the stranger, for we were strangers. It believes that human rights are antithetical to the Jewishness of Israel, instead of our prophetic teaching that Zion will be redeemed through justice.

Hillel the Elder taught us, “What is hateful to you, do not do unto others; that is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary.” A Jewish home does not attempt to garner political favor through populist aggression against the other. It does not view xenophobia as a strength but as a sign of weakness. It does not build its collective identity on fear and victimhood, but rather on values and principles. It does not look at the moral failures of other leaders as either a paradigm for emulation or permission to do the same. A Jewish home is committed to living up to our responsibility to build within our home a space worthy of our Covenant with God.

Tikkun Olam. It’s about the small steps. It’s about all of us across the country, and not only those in southern Tel Aviv, taking equal responsibility to welcome these refugees into the Jewish people’s home. It’s about recognizing our failures. It’s about working to ensure that while our world may not as yet be repaired, it is our obligation to ensure that next year it improves, one step at a time.

You care about Israel, peoplehood, and vibrant, ethical Jewish communities. We do too.

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