This past Wednesday I participated in a tour of the south Tel Aviv neighborhoods populated by some forty thousand migrant workers and asylum seekers. The tour was given by Lisa Richlin, who has been involved with these communities for eight years.
As a rabbi who serves near Jerusalem’s city center, where a small but growing community of foreign workers resides, and after a local home of migrant workers was set on fire and spray-painted with the words “get out of our neighborhood”, I felt compelled to learn more about this difficult and disturbing situation.
The walk in Tel Aviv, beginning in Levinsky Park, was surreal. This was an area I knew well from the days of my youth, but the people had changed. The dissonance I experienced seeing an Israeli city defined by an unbelievable concentration of forty thousand foreigners is hard to describe. My emotional response was one of discomfort and fear, and I found myself turning my attention inward, exploring the contours of that visceral response.
“These people do not belong here” was the strong voice clamoring up from my heart, and I discovered that the spray-painted message on the Jerusalem stone was not as foreign to me as I had thought.
The challenge of migrant populations is a worldwide one faced by most Western countries. More so here. Most of us came to Israel specifically to live in a Jewish state, and this reality touches upon delicate demographic questions still defining that dream.
But the global and national issues present in this issue are deeply intertwined with human ones. As human beings we like to surround ourselves with our own, and we become uncomfortable when we feel out of place. Africa is a different world and culture - this is about as foreign as it gets. Yes, there are black Israeli Jews, but the Ethiopian aliyah can also serve as fig leaf helping us pretend that there is not simple racism also at work here.
To me this is clear. When black people are being beaten up on the streets of Tel Aviv because they are black, when apartments are being set on fire in Jerusalem because of the nationality of their residents, we have truly descended into darkness.
If the Jewish people can tolerate this lowest of human behavior, and rationalize it with the difficulty of the situation, then we may as well pack up and leave the Jewish state right now. Our tradition teaches us that the Jewish people are “rachmanim bnei rachmanim” – a Distinctly Compassionate People. Well folks, here is where that stands to test.
The order of the day is discernment; national discernment on a simple level between criminals and innocents, between economic migrants and refugees, between beleaguered residents and displaced migrants etc.
But there also must be inner discernment; “Bein kodesh lechol, bein ohr l’choshech – between the holy and the mundane, between light and darkness” (from the traditional Havdala service), between our legitimate opinions and concerns, and between our lower human potential for bigotry and prejudice.
I pray that we will merit the role of holiness that is our heritage, and remain in the light.
Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz is Dean of Sulam Yaakov, a Beit Midrash for Community Leadership Development in the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem.