The Immigrant, the Refugee and the Jewish Experience

The Syrian Civil war has been called “the worst humanitarian disaster of our time.”  It has been estimated that there are 7.6 million Syrians that have left their homes for other parts of Syria, and 4 million Syrians who have fled to other countries — two million to Turkey, a quarter million to Iraq, a million to Lebanon, three-quarters of a million to Jordan, and 150,000 to Egypt. As we have heard and read in news reports, Syrians, Afghanis and Africans fleeing from their war torn country have sought refuge in Europe. This year alone 700,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean into Europe. Some European countries have threatened to close their borders, thus blocking these refuges from reaching a safe haven.

Last week I attended a study session with Rabbi   Saul Berman, a Modern Orthodox Rabbi and an attorney.  Rabbi Berman is an Associate Professor of Jewish Studies at Yeshivah University and an Adjuct Professor of Law at Columbia University. The topic of his talk to The JUF Rabbinic Action Committee was on the issue of immigrants and refugees. He reminded us that from the very beginnings of the Jewish people in Mesopotamia, we have been both immigrants and refugees. As is says in Psalms:

“You were very few in number/ little more than strangers in the land/ Wandering from nation to nation/from kingdom to kingdom.”

In the Book of Genesis, the Torah vividly portrays the vulnerabilities and compromises that the immigrant and/or refugee must make to his or her surroundings. Abraham and Sarah immigrate to the Land of Canaan from the city of Haran in Mesopotamia.  In Canaan they will found a new religion, Judaism.  But they and their family are strangers in a strange land.

The absence of legal standing of the refugee is brought home to us when Abraham and Sarah descend to Egypt.  They are fleeing famine in the Land of Canaan. As they enter Egypt, Abraham resorts to lying in order to assure his survival and that of his wife. “When we are interviewed by the immigration authorities at the Egyptian border,” he tells Sarah, his wife, “and they ask you what our relationship is, tell them you are my sister.” Abraham feels compelled to do this because he knows that as a refugee, he has no rights in Egypt. He has no legal protection, no recourse to the courts if he is harmed. The Egyptians can do with him what they want, and he fears they will kill him and take Sarah by force if they know they are married. So he lies on his immigration application. Sure enough, the Egyptians do take Sarah, thinking she is indeed Abraham’s sister. Apparently Abraham can do nothing about this – he is, after all, a foreigner, a “griener” in Yiddish. He is at the mercy of his host country. Or, as he later explains, after again lying to authorities, “I did not know that there was a respect for the rule of law in this country.”

This is the psychological and physical reality of all refugees, and it is repeated over and over in the lives of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob, of Joseph and of his brothers. As they travel to foreign lands, they are deceived, they are taken advantage of, they are exploited, they are imprisoned unjustly, they are the subject of envy, xenophobia, and prejudice. They are vulnerable, unprotected, and weak. Although initially welcomed in Egypt by Pharaoh, the Jewish people will suffer the humiliation of being enslaved because they are suspected of being disloyal citizens of Egypt. Never fully accepted by the Egyptians as full citizens, their “outsider” status eventually leads to envy, suspicion, dispossession and slavery.

Such is the experience of the Jewish people in the Bible, and such are the experiences of all refugees and immigrants to this present day. Most of us here this evening are the children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren of people who sought refuge on these shores. All four of my grandparents were born in Europe and came to the United States as immigrants in their late teens in the beginning of the 20thcentury. Like the millions of Jews who came at that time, they were both immigrants and refugees. Immigrants — in that they were voluntarily seeking to settle permanently in a new country. Refugees – in that they were escaping war and poverty and persecution that was their lot in life in Europe. They were both fleeing danger and seeking a safe haven where they would have an opportunity to earn a living and raise their families – much like the immigrants and refugees today from Syria, Afghanistan and Africa in Europe, and from Mexico and Central America in the United States.

Perhaps the Jewish experience of immigration is why the Torah repeatedly commands — nineteen times in all – that we should treat the immigrant in our midst with fairness and with compassion.  We know – we have been there. Here is just one example from the Torah, Leviticus 19 verse 34:

“The stranger who sojourns with you shall be as a native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord Your G-d.”

It is interesting that this particular verse follows the verse commanding us to rise before the aged and show deference to the old. The medieval commentator Ibn Ezra notes that this is no coincidence. Just as the elderly citizen may have little strength due to illness or infirmity, so the immigrant is relatively powerless compared to the native born citizen.  The immigrant, after all, dwells in the land only because the citizen allows it. Both the elderly and the immigrant need special consideration due to their vulnerable position in society.

To say the least, how to deal with waves of refugees fleeing from war and violence is an extremely complex issue. When Menachim Begin was elected prime minister of Israel in 1977, his first official act was to allow 66 Vietnamese boat people, who had been denied refuge in Asia, a haven in Israel. In doing so he compared their situation to the plight of Jews escaping Europe during World War ll. In all, Israel welcomed 360 Vietnamese refugees between 1977 and 1979, granting them citizenship, full rights and government subsidized apartments. Today, Prime Minister Netanyahu rejects the idea of admitting any Syrian refugees to Israel.  Although opposition leader Isaac Herzog says that Israel “cannot remain indifferent” to Syrian refugees and others advocate admitting up to 10,000 Syrian refugees to Israel, the Prime Minister worries that opening the gates to Syrian refugees threatens the Jewish character of the state. He also worries that Israel will be admitting people who are hostile to the very idea of a Jewish State in the area. On top of this, Israel continues to grapple with the tens of thousands of refugees from Eritrea and Sudan who have sought asylum in Israel by crossing from Egypt. Once again, the fear is that granting them permanent asylum will threaten the Jewish majority in the State in future years and the Jewish people will lose control of their own destiny.

I don’t know what the answer is. I am sympathetic to the positions of both sides of the issue. What I am  prepared to say  is that at the present time, we Jews, wherever we live, have a particular responsibility to bring the experience, teachings and values of our people to bear on how we think about, and how we treat the immigrant and the refugee.

Shabbat Shalom