When I was in Israel this past June, the big political issue besides the nuclear threat of Iran, was what to do about the Eritrean and Sudanese refugees that had sneaked into Israel. It began about 6 years ago with African refugees from war-torn Sudan and poverty-stricken Eritrea desperately crossing the Sinai to find refuge from the horrors of their homelands. Exploited, raped and sometimes murdered by Bedouins who sold their organs, Africans who made it into Israel alive found a sympathetic ear among Israelis.
How could they not? Israel is a country with the single largest number of Holocaust survivors anywhere in the world—a country that has accepted and integrated millions of refugees fleeing life-threatening oppression. Perhaps that is why when Egyptian border guards were shooting to kill, Israel was putting up border camps to provide shelter and medical care to asylum-seekers, and finally, after a brief interrogation, busing them free of charge to Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Park, where they were set free.
Now 6 years later, that trickle has turned into a flood. The yearly number of these refugees has jumped from 3,000 in 2006 to almost 3,000 a month! However much compassion Israel has, there is now a widespread realization that if it is allowed to continue, this influx will drastically change the face of the Jewish state forever—especially since more than half of these refugees are Muslims.
In June the government began an initiative inviting the refugees to report voluntarily to receive a plane ticket home and a 1,000-euro stipend before being forcibly apprehended and expelled without any compensation. A bit draconian, I admit even thought this is a lot of money to these refugees, where in their native land the monthly salary is about $40. However, on the week that 200 refugees were returned home, more than 200 new ones arrived in Israel.
Today’s Torah portion exhorts us with the famous words: Tzedel tzedek tirdof, “Justice justice thou shalt pursue.” You tell me, what is the just thing to do? What would you do? On the one hand, again and again the Torah (Deut 10:19) commands us: V’ahavtem et hageyr, ki geyrim hayitem b’eretz Mitzrayim, “You shall love the stranger in your midst because you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.” Jews know what it feels like to be an outsider, and therefore Israel should be kind to the outsider. However, these refugees are, by and large, young, poor, and unemployed men. They stay awake late into the night, often drinking on the streets. Their numbers are growing from 50,000-70,000 now to soon approaching 100,000. What should Israel do? The truth is that no one knows.
Israelis remember what it was like in the mid-1930’s before the Holocaust, when Germany arrested thousands of Jews who had come from Eastern Europe, put them on trains, and sent them back to where they came from. How then can Israel now round up these refugees from Africa and send them back? Can you picture Israeli police rounding up homeless people, putting them in trucks, and sending them back over the border? The image of that has to make any Jew with a memory shiver.
But on the other hand, what shall Israel do with these people—who are illiterate, and unfit to work at modern jobs? It has reached the point where people in Tel Aviv and Ashkelon and other cities in Israel are afraid to go out at night, for fear of being robbed or raped. It has reached the point where these Africans are taking over abandoned and dilapidated houses, filling them with 20-30 families. It has reached the point where South Tel Aviv is in danger of becoming the new Soweto—the run down place where the blacks who worked in the South African city of Johannesburg were forced to live until they finally revolted.
What shall Israel do with these people? Should it give them free medical care? Should it give their children free education? Should it give them citizenship? Or should they send them back to the lands from which they came, in which they will starve at the best, or be arrested as traitors at the worst?
From what I read in the Israeli press when I was there, it is ripping the Israeli soul apart. Other countries do not seem to feel this pain. Egypt has no qualms about shooting these people, if it catches them crossing into its country on the way to Israel. Jordan, which is next door, has not offered to send in busses and pick up some of these people, even though it is a Muslim country and not so crowded. England, France, Germany and the United States have not offered to send boats to pick up some of these people and resettle them in their countries, even though each of these countries has much more room within its borders than Israel does.
So how should Israel resolve this dilemma? What should Israel do? How many such people should a small, crowded country take in? And how many people can a moral country expel? There are Israelis arguing each side, but almost each of them empathizes with the other side. After watching Israel wrestle with this question, it has reinforced the obvious conclusion that this is not a perfect world. There are some times when we must choose, not between good and bad, but between bad and less bad.
There is a wonderful passage in the Talmud that I think speaks to this situation. The Talmud says that Gd is sometimes caught in the same dilemma. In a comment on the law of capital punishment found today’s parsha, Gd says: “My head hurts if I do not punish this man. My heart hurts if I do.”
In the laws of tzedaka the sages of the Talmud tell us that each and every Jew has to give a 10th of whatever he earns to charity. Even the beggar has to donate a 10th of what he takes in to charity. This rule most of us know, even though I suspect that not all of us observe it. But the Talmud then warns that for most of us who can’t afford it, we shouldn’t give more than 1/5 of our income to charity lest we ourselves end up in need of charity. There is a limit to how much we should give.
That, to me, is the key to Israel’s dilemma. I understand how hard it is to deport people back to Eritrea or Sudan. I understand that these people have literally walked across countries to get to Israel because they cannot endure the poverty and oppression they experienced there. And I believe that a moral people, a people that has been taught by the Torah to care for the stranger and to remember that we were once strangers—must care for these hapless strangers. But there is a limit to what can be done!
Today’s Torah reading has a very powerful verse (Deut. 18:13) that contains all sorts of hidden messages, but on a simple level really speaks to this dilemma: Tamim t’hiyeh im Hashem Elokecha, “You shall be whole with Hashem your Gd!” Being whole with Gd is being loving and compassionate like Gd, but not to the extent where we are no longer whole—when we give too much of ourselves away.
For now, Israel is trying to manage the refugees and encourage them to return home. It’s also quickly building a 200-kilometer barrier along the border with Egypt, which might be turn out to be the most sensible long-term approach to this insoluble problem that pits our hearts against our heads, our near history against our present circumstances.
May Israel somehow figure out how to manage the tension between its head and its heart, without giving in to racism and bigotry on the one side or to naive and unrealistic idealism on the other. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis