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September 1, 2014 | 6th Elul 5774

Strangers

Galilee Diary #351, August 19, 2007

Marc J. Rosenstein

Cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts and stiffen your necks no more. For the Lord your God is God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, Who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

-Deuteronomy 10:16-19

Throughout the years of exile, there were many Torah laws that we mostly observed through abstract study. From land-based laws like the sabbatical year, to moral exhortations like the passage above, our lack of a land and lack of sovereignty made whole sections of the Torah somewhat irrelevant in real time. We were, after all, powerless strangers in the lands of others. We were struggling to keep our heads above water; we didn’t really have a lot of opportunities to bestow generous favors on others – especially when the others were often our oppressors. We did what we had to in order to maintain peace, and to survive, and often no matter how generous we were, we failed to maintain peace – and to survive.

Over the years, we developed a certain self-righteous bitterness about how the world continually treated us. Expulsions, pogroms, inquisitions, ghettoes, crusades, massacres, forced conversions, everyday discrimination, bullying, and violence – we seemed to have been singled out for a rich variety of suffering at the hands of those more powerful than we, for reasons we couldn’t really understand. But we were not like them. We would never do things like that. We couldn’t even understand how their minds worked in such cruel ways. And even those who weren’t cruel were passive, standing silently by, looking the other way, locking their gates and their hearts as our books were burned, our homes looted, our blood spilled. We had the Torah (see above); they had, it seemed, nothing but animal instincts or worse.

1948 represented a historic turning point: the Jews returned to history, regaining sovereignty, land, political and military power. While we may have political or psychological reasons for wanting to continue to portray ourselves as victims, at the mercy of powers greater than we, the fact is that we are a nation like any other, with borders and an army and prisons and spies and corrupt politicians just like everybody else. We have allies and enemies and interests, and it turns out that the simple good-bad dichotomy that informed our view of the world before 1948 has become dismayingly complicated. There is really nothing surprising about this, and it was to be expected. However, we have continued to ride on the rhetoric of simple oppressors (them) vs. victims (us) for so long that we don’t quite know what do with ourselves when that rhetoric bumps up against realities that don’t fit.

For example, the Israeli government finds its interests tied to those of the Turkish government to such an extent that denying the Armenian genocide of 1915 has been an unshakable element of our foreign policy as we continue to decry Holocaust denial, which we are happy to note is prosecuted as a crime in many countries (in Turkey, mentioning the Armenian genocide is a crime).

For example, we have commemoration ceremonies every year for those Holocaust victims who died because the world closed its borders and ports to the desperate refugees, while we close our borders to the refugees of Darfur genocide (consider the possibilities of terrorism, the economic and social burden, the diminution of the Jewish majority, the drain on resources we need to bring in Jewish immigrants, the danger that once we allow in a few, the masses will storm the borders, etc.).

Obviously, we cannot save the world. The opening of borders to refugees is a vexing moral decision faced by many nations in the world. Whatever you do, it is the wrong thing. Seeing the pictures in the newspaper of the Sudanese refugees sitting in a prison compound in Israel awaiting a dreaded trip back across the border to Egypt makes at least some of us squirm. That’s good. Our message all along has been that people in power should squirm (Pharaoh missed the point); and now, here we are.

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