It sounds like a scene out of a dystopian movie: crowds of people in the streets, chanting slogans that demand the refugees go back to where they came from. Molotov cocktails hurled at several homes by night, a daycare center set aflame. Local businesses display shattered windows, and there are reports of individuals being harassed and beaten in the streets. A member of parliament describes the refugees as a “cancer” and depicts them as an economic threat as well as a danger to the national identity of the country.
The depressing truth of the matter? These are real life events, not something out of a movie. The terrifying part? These aren’t scenes from some third world country far removed from our lives; these are all events that occurred this past summer in the familiar streets of Tel Aviv in reaction to the recent influx of African refugees to Israel.
Some of these refugees are fleeing from war-torn countries, others from poverty and oppression. All are in search of a better life. They are, indisputably, among the most vulnerable members of Israeli society. They have little political power and few friends among the Israeli population. Most of them do not know how to take advantage of the protections that a free society should guarantee them, or how to effectively combat the hate crimes that have occurred repeatedly in the neighborhoods where they have settled. Those of us looking to fulfill the oft-repeated Biblical commandment not to oppress the weak in society need look no further than the streets of Israel where so many of us spent our summer. It is difficult to argue that these refugees are not the strangers that the Torah commands us to empathize with and protect.
Issues of immigration policy are obviously complicated, and this is not the appropriate venue in which to discuss them. It is unecessary to explain why racially motivated attacks on indigent civilians are unacceptable in a civilized society. What is necessary, unfortunately, is to ask what should be an obvious question: Why has the American Orthodox community remained silent regarding these events? Why has our community, which feels so deeply connected to Israel, said so little and done even less to help combat the vicious actions that have been so frequently documented in the pages of the Jerusalem Post and Haaretz? How is it that a religious community that feels the right and imperative to influence Israeli policy on all matters related to land policy and national defense feels no need to call on the Israeli government to do everything in its power to protect its most vulnerable residents?
A religious community that is concerned about the security of the Jewish state must also concern itself with that state’s Jewish character. Our community has begun to take part in debates of this nature (many a New York Shabbat table has been the setting of heated debates regarding whether busses should run in Jerusalem on Friday nights and Saturdays), but we failed to do so this summer. True concern about the Jewish soul of the State of Israel means demanding that we as a people examine how it is possible that a country so concerned with determining the Jewish status of converts and Jews of patrilineal descent can so drastically violate the commandment not to oppress the stranger, repeated 36 times in the Torah.
The American Orthodox community has been presented with a choice regarding its relationship with Israel: It can easily remain, as always, a distant cheerleader whose loud voice intrudes only when questions of land and security are concerned. Likewise, it can continue to attend rallies about Iran, UN criticism of Israel, and rely on AIPAC to represent its only real concerns. Alternatively, American Orthodoxy can decide to concern itself with all that and more. It can decide that it is time to lend its voice not only to questions of the religious status of land but also the religious dignity of its people. It can demand that a Jewish state behave in a Jewish manner, and proclaim that the survival of the Jewish state depends not only on a Jewish majority but also on a Jewish character as well.