Israel is founded on two counter and often contrary Jewish narratives. One speaks about the continuity of Jewish values and the other the Jewish value of continuity. The first is highly attuned to the moral ideals expressed in the biblical injunction to remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt,
and our duty to leverage our past suffering to create a society committed to the highest level of sensitivity to others, in particular, fellow sufferers.
As a people who majored in statelessness and oppression, the Jewishness of Israel
obligates us to be a society which feels a deep sense of kinship with and subsequent responsibility toward those who find themselves in a similar predicament. Under this narrative the notion of limiting access to African refugees or
limiting our responsibility to them is morally inconceivable and esthetically reprehensible, being a sin to the consequences of our collective memories.
The second narrative looks at our history, suffering, and precarious existence over the centuries, embraces the value of life and survival, and sees Jewish sovereignty and a commitment to its viability the necessary response. Jewish sovereignty is where the survival of the Jewish people is a value and a priority both for the individual and for the society as a whole. A policy toward African refugees which does not support or enhance this value is perceived as contrary to the raison d’etre of the State and a sin to Jewish memory.
These two narratives have created a split within Israeli society at its extremes and paradoxically have served as a foundation for an untenable policy at its center. At the political poles, individuals have aligned themselves with one of the narratives, one advocating
for a limitless refugee policy, and the other seeing every refugee as an existential threat
to the Jewishness of Israel.
Most Israelis, however, feel compelled by both narratives and recognize that the Jewishness of Israel is dependent on an amalgamation of the two. The tragedy and failure of Israel in its policies toward refugees, however, is founded on the nature of the way these two narratives have been joined.
In modern Israel we have combined the two narratives sequentially. Instead of attempting to integrate the two, each is dominant in its own distinct arena. The first narrative, that is, the continuity of values, is dominant when it comes to accepting African refugees into the State. The fact that no significant resources
had been allocated to closing off our southern border prior to the increase in the security threat from the Sinai desert was an indication of a basic unpopularity of denying access to individuals escaping persecution.
The second narrative, however, has dominated Israeli consciousness and policy when it comes to the treatment of these individuals once they have become refugees within our borders. Once here mainstream Israeli society is generally unconcerned for them or their needs and has ceased to see them, with the exception of when one of them commits a crime.
This sequential manifestation breeds self-righteousness immune from self-criticism, as the myth of loyalty to the purity of each narrative is maintained in its distinct circumstances.
In reality we are still separating the two, instead of integrating them. The value of continuity obligates us at the entry point to Israel and the continuity of Jewish values must obligate us also after they have arrived at our doors. No society can maintain its identity without control over its membership policies.
The size of Israel’s population relative to the enormity of oppression facing countless individuals in Africa obligates Israel to engage in a serious assessment of the share of the responsibility it can bear in responding to this humanitarian crisis. As a Jewish state committed to the continuity of values and as a co-signee of the UN Convention on the Status of Refugees, the value of Jewish continuity cannot be allowed to cause us either to shirk our responsibility or to be deaf to the needs of others. As a strong and successful country with a clear and sustainable Jewish majority we have the ability to assimilate thousands of individuals a year without weakening our national identity.
Given the size of Israel and the value of Jewish national continuity, however, this number is not unlimited. We need to determine a realistic policy which recognizes both our responsibility as Jews and our responsibility to the Jewish people. Once this policy is in place, the doors to Israel must not be limited to the treacherous terrain of the Sinai desert but must be open to those in need through our embassies throughout the world.
More significantly, the number of refugees must be determined by our economic and social ability to provide our new citizens with a good life commensurate with our values as Jews and the economic opportunities and social safety net provided by the State of Israel.
As a society committed to the continuity of Jewish values we cannot allow any discrimination to take root within our society. Nor can we allow the claim that a moral and generous treatment of refugees will just encourage others to come. By amalgamating fully both of the above narratives the highest level of moral decency is not perceived as undermining our national identity but as its greatest source of strength.
With Zionism the Jewish people have entered into the arena of political sovereignty with all of its gifts, challenges, and opportunities. We need to defend our borders and defend our national identity. We must also make sure, however, that we do not create a state whose border policies are Jewish but where life within those borders is not conducted with the highest standards of Jewish moral principle.
As Jews we have matured sufficiently in our treatment of our border policy but we have yet to do so when it comes to our internal policy. We have created our Jewish state precisely for such an opportunity. It is time for us to embrace it and move our society to greater heights.
Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute