We are all far too familiar with the argument that ‘we were all once refugees’ – it permeates the discourse of Jewish and Israeli development organizations that engage in working with the refugee and asylum seeker communities, both within Israel and globally. This line of reasoning is, without a doubt, important and often necessary to engage the wider Jewish community, through creating a relational dynamic for individuals to empathize with.
I can certainly say that on a personal level, during the protests in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in 2018 against deportation of asylum seekers, these words particularly resonated with me and this was the emotional argument that I tried to make to some family and friends to persuade them away from much of their skepticism. Many times I argued that we as Jews were the ‘stranger’ once upon a time and often historically been treated as such, and oppressed in the various lands we have settled in. As we are told, “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9) – we are commanded to relate to others with compassion, as we have known the pain of oppression and lack of belonging.
But is it enough for us to care about refugees and asylum seekers purely because we can create an emotional relation to their plight through our ancestors? Does this just send the message that we are only obligated to care about the issues that we can personally relate to?
If we look at some of the core values of Judaism, it is easy to see that we are commanded to pursue righteousness and justice (Tzedek), to give to others less fortunate (Tzedakah), to act with compassion and loving-kindess (Chesed), and to respect and honour the human dignity of others, acknowledging that all human beings are created equal (Kavod HaBriyot). The Talmud states that when a guest comes to our door, we should welcome them wholeheartedly and feed them the very best we can offer from our own table. It is imperative that we act towards strangers with as much love and generosity as we would offer to those we are close to – not just generosity with material possessions, but also generosity of spirit.
In discussing issues surrounding refugees and asylum seekers with acquaintances, I often find that despite their acknowledgement of these values and commandments within Judaism, there is still much apathy towards this cause, if not sometimes outright disagreement with our obligation to provide assistance. Additionally, even among those who understand these Jewish values mentioned above, there is a particular skepticism surrounding these issues, especially with regards to the situation in Israel and our responsibility as a state; it has become all too common to hear the argument thrown around that most asylum seekers in Israel (or other more developed countries) must simply be there as economic migrants under the guise of fleeing hardship and persecution.
Why are people often so quick to give money and attention to other causes – especially those that seem geographically far away from us, usually located in less developed countries – but as soon as it reaches close to home, they feel threatened or distrustful? As a people with a joint responsibility for the welfare of others, it is vital to act with the aforementioned generosity of spirit by giving ‘strangers’ the benefit of the doubt and giving of ourselves to help in any way that we can.
In this time of increased mistrust of strangers globally, it is entirely necessary for us as Jews to guard and protect those whose situations are less secure than our own. Standing up for the rights and interests of the refugee and asylum seeker population and taking action to provide whatever help we can, on our land and in others, is not just a humanitarian concept, but an essential Jewish value.
Although we are commanded and obligated to this duty, particularly in regards to giving generously of our material and physical assets, I suggest that we can also think of this as a choice: a choice to act in the interests of others with a generous spirit rather than begrudgingly or half-heartedly, as we know how it is to be ‘strangers in a strange land’.
As for welcoming strangers and guests to eat the best of what we have to offer from our metaphorical table…we must remember that when we give from our own plate with gratitude and compassion, it does not decrease what we ourselves have, but rather increases the bounty on offer.
Originally from London, Lara worked in varied marketing and project coordinator roles in both the commercial and nonprofit sectors before completing her MA in International Development (Glocal) at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, with a special focus on gender and development. With a passion for engaging in social action both at home and further afield, Lara has taken part in volunteer experiences in India and Ghana, as well as interning with a social enterprise in Rwanda for four months. Lara officially moved to Israel in January 2020 and is excited to join the OLAM team for the next few months.