It was a frustrating assignment. I’ve met Syrian refugees on their country’s borders with Jordan and Turkey and along their migration trail across Europe. This was the first time I’ve seen them, but had no way of making face-to-face contact.
It would have taken a couple of minutes to walk up to them, but a narrow strip of no-man’s land, a border fence, and a minefield prevented any communication.
There was something very dislocating about being in immediate proximity to so much human suffering, to thousands who after surviving over seven years of civil war (the Syrian uprising against the Assad regime began in Daraa on March 6, 2011), have now had to flee for their lives, and not being able to record their story first-hand.
As I was standing at the closest observation post to the two new refugee camps, the IDF’s Chief Rabbi, Brigadier-General Eyal Krim drove up. Naively, I asked him what role the Military Rabbinate was playing in the IDF’s humanitarian operation, which has been delivering regular shipments of food, clothes, tents and medical supplies to the refugees and has so far provided medical treatment for four thousand refugees.
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Rabbi Krim looked at me mystified. “What are you doing here?” I asked again.
“We’re to make sure that the soldiers who have been sent to reinforce the border have properly kosher kitchens and eiruvin [symbolic boundaries] for Shabbat,” he answered.
The idea that somehow the IDF’s spiritual corps should be looking for a way to aid the thousands of human beings stranded just a few hundred meters away from Israel’s northern frontline hadn’t occurred to him, and still didn’t make sense to him when I actually suggested it. He was just doing his job, supplying the religious needs of IDF soldiers.
And maybe that should be a rabbi’s job? Tending to his (or her, though Rabbi Krim wouldn’t recognize a female rabbi) community’s spiritually and making sure they have the basic requisites of Jewish life. Most secular Israelis certainly would be very happy to see rabbis concentrate on their pastoral duties and not interfere in politics. But no rabbi, whether Orthodox or progressive seems reticent when it comes to expressing their political opinions. The two groups have almost nothing in common besides their belief that it is their duty to have a strident view on public affairs.
What a wide gulf separates Rabbi Krim and his like-minded colleagues from the dozens of American rabbis who in recent weeks have joined and led protests against the Trump administration’s immigration policy and even got themselves arrested in the act. There’s probably no issue that better demonstrates that gulf than the different attitudes towards refugees and migrants.
And the same was true in past months of the movement in Israel (supported by many Diaspora Jews) to prevent the Netanyahu government’s plan to deport over thirty thousand Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers back to Africa. Rabbis involved in that movement tended by and large to be progressive ones.
There are a handful of exceptions. A few Orthodox rabbis in Israel, like Yuval Cherlow and Avi Gisser, were publicly against the deportation plan. The Orthodox Union in America added its name to a letter from a coalition of Jewish organizations that expressed "strong opposition" to the child separation policy.
But by and large, it’s the progressives who feel they have to strenuously and vocally act against anti-migrant policies while the Orthodox rabbis in their overwhelming majority who simply don’t understand why helping non-Jewish refugees is something they should be involved in.
The differences are theological, ideological and political. Progressive rabbis will repeatedly remind us that the Torah exhorts us to welcome and love the ger - the stranger living among us, 36 times, more than any other commandment. But even they will admit that this is a new reading of the Torah. The standard translation of ger has always been a person who has chosen to live beside the Jewish people and abide by the Torah’s commandments. Not just any random stranger.
Besides, no amount of warmth to gerim can change the fact that the Jewish foundational text, with its commandments to destroy entire foreign nations and raze to the earth towns of idol-worshippers, is riddled with xenophobia, racism and intolerance to the other. Those looking to the Torah (or the New Testament) for justification for illiberal and cruel policies will always find ample ammunition.
Not that the Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox rabbis are celebrating a particularly "authentic" Judaism either. Just as the progressive rabbis are simply clothing their western liberal values in biblical or Talmudic quotations, so are the Orthodox ideologies modern concepts. There is of course no such thing as authentic Judaism.
Israeli Orthodoxy is a nationalist creed, invented by Rabbi A.Y. Kook a century ago. Ultra-Orthodoxy, or Haredism, is a reactionary movement that is only slightly older, and can trace its roots just as far back as the emancipation of Jews in Europe, which is when Reform Judaism was born as well. All three main ideological streams of Judaism today pick and choose whatever is convenient for their political needs.
There is no "Jewish" attitude towards immigration.
An American progressive rabbi fights for the rights of immigrants on the U.S.- Mexico border because Jewish ideals of Tikkun Olam are identical to standard Western liberal values. An Israeli Orthodox rabbi has no problem with the deportation of African migrants because the Jewish character of Israel must be preserved and he thinks Donald Trump is a good thing because apparently he’s “pro-Israel” and nothing else matters. A Haredi rabbi simply isn’t interested in these matters because a Jew isn’t supposed to get involved in goyshe stuff.
By and large, it doesn’t take that much bravery or conviction for rabbis of any persuasion. In nearly all cases, they are expressing the views that are prevalent among their communities. A Reform rabbi fighting for immigrant rights will be in sync with their members, who are overwhelmingly liberal anyway. An Orthodox rabbi won’t get in trouble for not sticking up for African asylum-seekers as most of his community will be in favor of kicking them out anyway.
A few months ago, a very senior figure in one of the largest American-Jewish organizations called up an old friend of his, a world-famous, celebrated Orthodox rabbi, and begged him to lend his influential voice to the campaign against Netanyahu’s deportation plan. I’m not at liberty to say his name but I’m sure quite a few readers know exactly who the rabbi is and are not surprised at his refusal to stick his neck out.
And let’s be perfectly honest, how many progressive rabbis were standing up for immigrants two years ago, when the administration that was chasing them down and carrying out policies which were not as cruel as today’s, but abhorrent nevertheless, was Barack Obama’s?
Jewish experience teaches us that anti-immigrant policies and governments are usually tainted by anti-Semitism as well and that we have a historical duty to ensure that other immigrants are not treated like our ancestors who were denied safe haven. I believe that. But I’m just one Jew with a column in Haaretz.
Ask French Jews who have worked so hard to successfully integrate in to their society, what they think about the neighboring Muslim immigrant communities whose members have murdered them in recent years. Ask Israeli nationalists who are convinced that security can only be found in a strong Jewish state that accepts only Jewish immigrants. Ask Haredim who will tell you that all this liberal mumbo-jumbo is a deviation from the true path of Torah and a prelude to the holocaust of assimilation.
There is no true Jewish attitude to immigration, one of the greatest defining issues of Western politics in our age. There are competing visions of what it means to be a Jew today and where we stand on refugee rights is intrinsically related to how we see our Judaism and humanity. And the dilemmas are about to get much harder.
If recent reports on an impending four-way deal between Israel, Syria, Russia and the U.S. are anything to go by, the Israeli-Syrian refugee dilemma may be about to become much more immediate, and deadly, very soon. The deal would allow the Assad regime to regain control of the border region in return for guarantees that Iranian-aligned forces would be banished from southern Syria and Israel would be allowed to continue operating against Iranians in other parts of Syria as well.
Assuming the deal goes through, those thousands of Syrian refugees on the Golan could end up being sacrificed.
Will Israel stand by while on its doorstep Syrians are being massacred or deported on buses to an uncertain future? Who will advocate risking the lives of Israeli soldiers and jeopardizing a deal that gets Iran out of Syria to save refugees? There’s no clear Jewish answer for that dilemma.