The Four Questions of the Ma Nishtana are a cinch compared with the question facing Israeli society this Passover: What to do with the approximately 38,000 Eritrean and Sudanese refugees in Israel?
The State of Israel has proposed the following: A grant of $3,500 each and a one-way flight to an African country, or indefinite incarceration. The refugees have until April 1 (the second day of Passover!) to decide.
There is much internal opposition to the move to expel the African refugees. Petitions against the expulsion have been brought by Israeli pilots, doctors, retired diplomats, Holocaust survivors, professors, rabbis, architects and musicians. Often the Holocaust is invoked, a time when millions of Jews were desperate for refuge, only to find the world largely indifferent.
Frankly, I am not persuaded by an argument from the Holocaust. I’m not sure that the fact that Jews could not find refuge 75 years ago from Nazi Germany is relevant to the realpolitik of contemporary Israel. While Israel allowed Hitler to basically dictate our immigration policy (the Law of Return being the obverse of Hitler’s racial laws, with one Jewish grandparent marking a person for citizenship rather than death), that’s probably as much influence as we want Hitler to have upon Israeli society.
A better argument against expulsion comes from democratic principles of fairness, due process and equality. The number of black African refugees represents about one-third of the “illegal” residents in Israel (most of the other two-thirds are Russian speakers). It does not seem fair that the Africans alone are being targeted. Also, the refugees work at menial jobs, such as those in the hotel and restaurant industries. Since all agree that if we expel the refugees we would have to replace them with other foreign workers, and since there is little danger of large numbers of new refugees arriving (thanks to a 2012 steel barrier constructed along the 150-mile border with Egypt), on what grounds should other foreign workers be preferred to the refugees?
The best argument against expulsion comes from the story of Passover — not so much because of our people’s experience of slavery, but in the divine commands that issued forth about that experience; e.g.: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Lord am your God” (Leviticus 19.34).
A believing Jew will try to obey God, and thus a believer ought to side with critics of the expulsion policy. But what the vast majority of these critics, many of whom are not religious, don’t understand is that without a turn to faith, their argument is as best weak and at worst racist. If the Bible is not sacred, if it is just an important text of the Jewish people, this is not enough of a reason to oppose the government of the Jewish state. In the absence of religious command, and yet in the presence of many surrounding enemies, why must Israel act like the most enlightened of Western countries in terms of immigration policy? Because of our Jewish genes? Because of our Jewish blood?
It all comes down to how you view Passover: Is it just the Jewish people’s spring holiday, or is God somehow involved? If you answer the latter question in the affirmative, however you want to define “God,” it seems to me that you have to be against the expulsion. After all, the Bible seems fixated upon the fair treatment of “strangers,” mentioning this an astonishing 36 times.
Here’s another example: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23.9). A good way of not oppressing strangers is not to expel them.
Teddy Weinberger lives in Givat Ze’ev, near Jerusalem.
(American Jewish World, 3.23.18)