Africans Tel Aviv May 2012
Israelis are mixed on their feelings about Africans seeking shelter or work, as is evident in the flustered debate on what to call them. Photo by Moti Milrod
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Foreigners have become a loaded topic in Israel these days. What should they be called? "Refugee," "migrant worker," "asylum seeker," "fugitive" and "infiltrator" are just a handful of examples. Whatever you call them, a growing number of people are coming to Israel from other countries, some to escape persecution and others for economic opportunity.

Much of the chatter is about a small number of immigrants who have recently been implicated in cases of rape or theft. With presumed victims becoming alleged victimizers, the complex and conflicted feelings Jews have toward "the other" are coloring the words they are choosing.

The Jewish understanding of "the other" was also recently explored in Shavuot study sessions around the country. The Book of Ruth, which is traditionally read on the holiday, is about a foreigner, migrant, hanger-on and convert. Through the loving-kindness she showed and was shown, Ruth became the great-grandmother of King David, and thus is a progenitor of the messiah.

As always, this column will explore the meaning behind the words. When is a foreigner considered a zar - זר, "stranger" or "alien," and when a ger - גר, "temporary resident"?

When is an 'ach - אח, "brother," and when an 'acher - אחר, "other"?

The words zar זר and ger גר have quite loaded Biblical subtexts. An 'oved zar עובד זר, "foreign worker," is not just potentially muzar מוזר, "strange" or "weird." He is doing 'avodah zarah עבודה זרה, literally "strange or foreign labor" which is the traditional Jewish term for idolatry (work = service = worship). This phraseology was adopted to stigmatize non-Jewish, or foreign, workers. Talk about negative connotations!

Ger גר, while no less laden, has almost opposite associations. It originally meant stranger as well – as in "stranger in a strange land" (Exodus 2:22). But it also meant a fellow resident, who along with other disenfranchised populations, such as widows and orphans, required protection – one law for the ger and for the citizen (Lev. 19:34, Num. 15:15-16) – and even love – "you shall love the ger" (Deuteronomy 10:19).

Later, the word came to mean convert, but that clearly was not the case in the Torah, since all the concern about gerim is based on the Jewish experience as oppressed gerim in Egypt – aliens, not converts! (And one issue facing today's resident aliens is indeed megurimמגורים , "residences" or "housing," from the same root.)

Zarim or gerim: one word invites hostility, the other hospitality.

So which one to choose? Shall we "absorb" them – kolet קולט– or "spew" them back out – polet פולט?

These roots are very relevant to this discussion: k-l-t קלט, and p-l-t פלט. They are related not only in this context, but in many others as well.

For instance, in computers – the kelet קלט is the "data that is entered," the "input," and the pelet פלט is the "output" or "printout." K-l-t, "absorb," "take in" or "record," is also very central to the music industry: a haklatah הקלטה, is a "recording," a taklit תקליט a "record," a kaletet קלטת, a "cassette" and a taklitorתקליטור , a "CD" or "DVD."

Going back to politics, there is a whole government "absorption ministry," Misrad Haklitah - משרד הקליטה, which is devoted to helping new immigrants integrate into society. And all Israelis know where to run when there is threat of attack – to the miklat מקלט, "the shelter." This comes from the Biblical 'ir miklat עיר מקלט, "city of refuge" (Numbers 35), from which we also get miklat mas מקלט מס, a "tax haven," and miklat medini מקלט מדיני, "political asylum."  

In a very different vein, p'litat peh פליטת פה, is both a "baby's spit-up," and a (more linguistic) "slip of the tongue." When you've committed one, you can excuse yourself by saying: "Niflat li נפלט לי("p" and "f" are the same letter in Hebrew and alternate depending on the form) – "It just sort of slipped out!"

Some slips of this nature might be considered of the Freudian variety, especially if connected to that other p'litah פליטה, meaning "ejaculation."

But with a slight change in vocalization, we return to politics and history with p'leitah פליטה, a "remnant," a term often used to describe Jews who have survived persecution. P'litim פליטים means "refugees," or people who, like many of those now knocking on our collective door, have been spewed out, or r/ejected.

This is where k-l-t קלט and p-l-t פלט reconnect. Despite their almost contradictory meanings ("taking in" versus "discharging" or "sending out"), one root gives us miklat מקלט, "shelter," while the other gives us miflat מפלט, "refuge." Refugees from Africa and elsewhere are seeking both when they come here.

What is our responsibility – 'achrayut אחריות – towards these 'acherim אחרים, "others"?

As the late revered rabbi and activist Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote: "In order to be responsible, we have to be responsive." And how do we become responsive to the plight of "the other," and not just to our own needs? It is here we need to ask ourselves: 'ata kolet? אתה קולט? Meaning first: "Do you absorb (i.e. understand) it?" And only second: "Are you absorbing them?"

Comments? Queries? Quibbles? Write: jeremybenstein@gmail.com. Particularly promising or piquant posts will be addressed in this space.