Photo: Amit Shavi
Foreign workers at a Knesset construction site
Photo: Amit Shavi

Slavery in Israel?

Foreign workers in Israel suffer under inhumane conditions

There is a hidden conspiracy in the state of Israel that everyone knows about and no one talks about. It is a conspiracy to which both the religious and secular populations are party.


Both sides have agreed on a definition of what it means to be "Dati"; "A Dati is a person who does not drive on Shabbat". Or more precisely, to be Dati means to keep the ritual mitzvoth of Judaism, including the laws of chagim, Berit Milah, and so on.


This narrow and distorted definition of religiousness maybe the single biggest spiritual tragedy in the state of Israel today. The result is that we can speak Lashon Hara day and night, cheat in business, be totally disgusting to the stranger and perhaps not even notice the stranger's pain, and still be considered in the eyes of the community, Dati. Let me state it simply and clearly. This is a lie.


In order to expose this lie we need only to turn to the central theme of this weeks Parshat Hashavua; the slavery of the children of Israel in Egypt.


The children of Israel arrive in Egypt. Pharaoh, driven by fear of the stranger and considerations of power politics, enslaves the Jewish people. The memory of this experience is absolutely central to the definition of what it means to be a Jew.


The biblical mantra "Do not oppress the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" appears in thirty nine different forms throughout the torah. Sensitivity to the stranger received more mention then any other single issue in the Torah. The reason is simple. We will show in this column that the entire covenant between the Jewish people and the Infinite One, upon which all of Jewish history depends, is directly dependent on the relationship to the stranger.


Strangers, Slaves, Oppression


To understand the hidden meaning of this absolutely central idea we must look beneath the surface and reveal what I call the source code of the text. There are three key words used to describe the experience of the children of Israel in Egypt: Stranger, Slave, and Oppression. Gerut Avdut and Inuy.


Slave,Avdut: "The Egyptians enslaved the children of Israel". Inuy,Opression. "They afflicted them".


Gerut,Stranger. The third word, stranger, also in this week’s Prasha is uttered by Moses, who in a literary sense represents the entire people. Moses names his son Gershom, for he says "I was a stranger, Ger in a strange land". So the source code words in this story are Gerut Avdut and Inuy. Of course these same words are the words of the original covenant with Abraham. "Your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not their own; And they will enslave and afflict them". Again Gerut Avdut and Inuy.


What this tells us is that the very covenant of the Jewish people requires us to go through the experience of slavery in Egypt. For one reason only! When biblical text refers to the Egyptian experience it reads: "You shall not oppress the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”


The essence of the covenant is the magical alchemy of turning suffering into compassion. Usually, a person who is abused or victimized, sadly become abusers themselves. How many times in the last century did we see revolutions which became infinitely crueler then the regimes which they toppled? This pattern is called by Freud repletion compulsion. I do to others what was done to me.


The alchemy of the covenant to break free of this terrible dynamic and to learn the secret of transforming suffering into compassion. This is the point of the thirty nine repetitions in various forms: "Do no oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt". Do not turn your experience of being a Ger into oppression of those who are vulnerable, Gerim. Rather know how to transform your experience of being a Ger into radical compassion for the Ger.


Being observant


When is the last time you went to Synagogue on Yom Kippur - the day when the covenant between God and the people is re-established every year - and heard some talk about the strangers among us? Who is talking about Justina Fernandez, a foreign worker, who was forced to work "Avodat Parech" from six in the morning till 11 at night, day after day, whose passport was forcibly taken from her, who was kept a virtual prisoner in the house of her wealthy "employers" and who was paid for this privilege eight thousand shekel a year.


A figure not even paid to her but to her brother in India. Her case was dismissed by the police because of it was judged “non-relevant to the community.”


When was the last time someone talked on Yom Kippur about Ella Muvrakav. Ella is married to an Israeli citizen. She has a child with him and two children from an earlier marriage, 13 and 14-year olds. Our government told her that she had to choose. "Sophie's Choice". She either had to leave her husband and new baby girl and return with her children from her first marriage to the Ukraine or she had to watch her two children be deported back to Ukraine where there is no one to care for them in order to stay with her new family in Israel.


Is it possible that Israel's Ministry of Interior forces a woman to make this kind of agonizing and impossible choice?


Very often in the Synagogue, rabbis remind the community of our terrible enslavement in Egypt where we build the homes and temples of Egyptian society. But who has remembered that most of today's Israeli homes and synagogues are built by foreign workers, laboring often under the most terrible and inhumane conditions.


Have we forgotten the covenant which created the Jewish religion? "Do not oppress the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt". Have we forgotten the sacred alchemy of turning suffering into compassion?


Have we forgotten what it means to be Dati? Even more deeply however, this is not about Dati or Chiloni; it is about a shared spiritual language of compassion that we must all share! Have we forgotten what it means to be Jewish?


פרסום ראשון: 01.20.06, 22:12
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