What is the Jewish perspective on the illegal immigration crisis in Israel? The Torah commands us to care for the foreigners and immigrants among us. Does that extend to illegal immigrants? Is it right to send them back, as is happening now, or are we obligated to take them in and help them?
The presence of illegal immigrants in Israel presents a most delicate and vexing issue. Emotionally, it is difficult to turn away any person who flees persecution and suffering, as we are quite mindful of our own recent history and the doors that were closed to Jews who wanted to flee Europe. The situation is exacerbated because these refugees are primarily Christians who are fleeing from Muslim persecutors, and ironically seeking safe haven with Jews.
Rationally, though, we recognize that every nation must place limits on the number of foreigners who wish to reside there. If such is true of the largest countries in the world, including the United States, it is certainly true of small Israel. Illegal immigrants currently number in the low hundreds of thousands – not significant in real terms but most substantial in relative terms. In a country with approximately six million Jews, and over a million Arabs, the character and culture of the Jewish state will be diluted once a critical mass of non-Jews is allowed to permanently reside there. If the gates are completely open, Israel can be overrun with another million or more foreigners – non-Jews who do not share the values and destiny of the Jewish people, and the Jewish State will begin to evaporate.
Obviously, the Torah recognizes limitations on a non-Jews’ right to live in the land of Israel. First and foremost, only gerei toshav (literally, resident aliens) – those who formally accept the seven Noachide laws – are allowed to traverse the land of Israel, much less live there. But the numbers have to be monitored so the foreign influences do not predominate. And that is the problem today, along with the fact that we no longer formally accept gerei toshav.
Rav Shlomo Aviner, the Rav of Bet El and one of the great rabbinical leaders in Israel today, notes that most (not all) of the illegal immigrants are law-abiding and have come to Israel to improve their lives. That they do – despite all the threats and problems in Israel – is a tribute to the remarkable character of the State of Israel. But the primary responsibility of Israel has to be to Jews, not non-Jews. Israel is in the process of gathering all Jewish exiles, including us. They will need jobs, homes, and infrastructure. It is simply not possible for Israel to become the world’s haven; it lacks both the physical space and the material resources. He concludes: “We must distinguish between individual morality and communal morality. It is impossible to run a country based on emotions. Everything must be carefully analyzed.”
Therein lies the critical distinction between the Jewish experience and these illegal immigrants. Jewish refugees often sought temporary refuge in friendly countries (like Shanghai, China, declared an international free zone during the Holocaust) but permanent residence in countries where we would be welcomed, and legal residents. We are obligated to offer temporary refuge to any person, to assist him in his time of need. But the emphasis is on “temporary.” The Torah obligates us to assist non-Jews – their poor, their sick, their homeless – in order to set them again on sound footing. But we are certainly not obligated to provide a permanent solution to an international crisis, a “solution” that will surely undermine the viability of the world’s only Jewish state. To channel Justice Robert Jackson, the Torah (like the US Constitution) is not a suicide pact. Nations can operate in their own interests in order to preserve their viability.
An illegal immigrant should have no expectation of remaining in the country that he has infiltrated. The reference in the Torah to the “strangers among us” relates primarily to those in the land when we arrived, and not necessarily to foreigners who came later. Some did, and all are to be treated humanely, but the notion that illegal immigrants have a moral claim on the country to which they emigrated is novel. It is part of the new American ethos that “illegal immigrants” are not really “illegal” but just “undocumented.” But they are more than “undocumented;” they carry no “documents” because, unlike millions of others trying to come to America but are obeying its laws and waiting their turn, they chose to break the law and breach the borders of the country.
The same applies to Israel’s illegal immigrants. The Vietnamese boat people who were admitted in the late 1970s by PM Menachem Begin were admitted because of their desperate plight and their relatively small numbers. The new illegal immigrants are far different in scale, and not all are political refugees. Any nation that has porous borders will soon cease to be a nation, and Israel’s margin is much smaller than most other countries. What is required is an international solution that provides a permanent home to these unfortunates. Otherwise, massive illegal immigration will be among the frightening enemies Israel has to overcome in the next two decades.
Temporary refuge – yes. Permanent home – no. Clearly, the Torah, which delimits the very residence of non-Jews in the land of Israel, endorses the deportation of illegal immigrants, young and old, who would threaten the existence and welfare of the State. Do all have to be deported? Certainly not. But the number of people that need to be deported must be determined by the government which is mainly responsible for the lives and well-being of its citizens. That number will certainly be informed by the humanitarian impulse that characterizes the Jewish personality. As Rav Aviner wrote: “Although we have a great desire to help humanity, our primary obligation is to strengthen ourselves here, and then we can bring a blessing to humanity.”
A good part of that blessing should be the concept of universal human rights and dignity, so that human beings are not forced to flee the evil that threatens them in their native lands, and a permanent end to the reign of the tyrants who torment millions across the globe.
Every sovereign state has the right to regulate its borders and to determine who may immigrate and who may not. For Israel, the challenge of maintaining a uniquely Jewish democracy adds additional variables that must be considered. However, the meaning of “Jewish democracy” cannot only be a question of the religious affiliation of its citizens. A Jewish democracy must be guided by Jewish values, must answer the call of the Jewish soul and of the Jewish conscience.
The foundational story of our People is one of fleeing persecution and seeking a new life in a Promised Land. Every year at Passover, we remind ourselves that we are to see ourselves as though we personally came out of Egypt-- to remember that the story of our ancestors is also our story, and that we have a sacred obligation to remember its message and live out its ethical demands. No fewer than thirty-six times in the Torah we are told to care for the stranger, even to love him, because we were strangers in the Land of Egypt. We know her heart, because we faced the same unimaginable challenge of faith of seeking out a new life in an unknown place, with hope that it would be better for ourselves and our children.
The modern story of the Jewish People is also one of seeking refuge. For those of us who live in America, it was our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents who crossed oceans to build new lives in the goldene medina, who welcomed the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Even more so, Israel was founded to be a gathering place for Exiles-- for those who had faced Hitler's hellfire and for those from all corners of the Earth who were weary and ready to come home after two thousand years. Israel is a land of refugees who came together to erect a modern miracle.
Today, thousands of Africans are literally walking across the same deserts that we once traversed, fleeing regimes of genocide and mass starvation, in hope of finding welcome in the Promised Land. The Jewish soul, the one that marched out of Egypt, the one that crossed through Ellis Island, the one that left Europe and Yemen and Morocco and Ethiopia and built a thriving, vibrant country, cannot be indifferent toward their plight. To do so would be a shameful betray our deepest memories and our most foundational ethics.
As a Jew, I am ashamed at the heavy-handed way Israel is treating these people.
We are a people of compassion and Israel is about compassion, refuge and taking care of the 'ger toshav' - the resident alien among us. These people entered illegally, to be sure. But how, exactly, does someone enter legally when they can't fill out paperwork in Southern Sudan?
The argument that the refugees use is that they are economic refugees and not political refugees. That is probably more true than not. But if people from outside the Land want to help build inside the Land, surely there are other paths for a modern state to take than deportation.
I understand the argument that if Israel takes them in, it will dilute the Jewish demographic of Israel. That is true. But surely Israel can offer temporary visas. How can we, of all people, send people back to a place of hopelessness? If there is a halachic justification for sending people back to despair and desperation, I have yet to find it in any Jewish literature.
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