Governments Can Shift to Inclusive Migration Policies. It's All in the Bible

Mimicking Sarah's abusive treatment of Hagar is not the way. The welcome Germany has given migrants proves that governments and people can change policies.

Nicolas Pelham
Nicolas Pelham
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Syrian refugees stand outside a house in the Kucukpazar area of Istanbul, on March 4, 2014.
Syrian refugees stand outside a house in the Kucukpazar area of Istanbul, on March 4, 2014.Credit: AFP
Nicolas Pelham
Nicolas Pelham

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has good authority for maltreating and banishing destitute migrants to the desert. None better than the Torah portion read on Rosh Hashanah.

“Get rid of that slave woman and her son,” Sarah, the first matriarch of the Jewish people, harangues Abraham. “For that woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.”

Uncomfortably, she gets divine backing. God's angels first order Hagar, Sarah’s Egyptian slave, first to stop fleeing her mistress’ blows, and then a guilt-stricken but passive Abraham to imlpement her expulsion order and send Hagar and his first-born, Ishmael, into the desert.

Hagar is migration and refugee encapsulated. Her name, say the rabbis, could read as HaGer, “the resident alien,” or archetypal “stranger.” It derives from the same root as hijra, Arabic for migration — most famously the Prophet Mohammed’s flight from Mecca to Medina. Eliezer Ben Yehuda used Hagar (and the Arabic) to coin the modern Hebrew word for migration, hagira.

And Sarah is Netanyahu’s Israel encapsulated. Like her, he derides the distress latter-day Abrahams express at the ill-treatment of migrants and refugees as woolly liberalism whose entry might undermine his inheritance. Africans fleeing persecution are not asylum seekers but unruly infiltrators posing an existential threat. While Israel’s smaller and poorer neighbors give sanctuary to Syrians fleeing war in their millions, he builds walls to deny them entry.

And don’t dare think about Palestinian refugees or those kept on drip feed behind Gaza’s walls. In recent days in Downing Street he made a comfortable duo with his British counterpart, who has taken to summarily executing British citizens with drones and withdrawn the British Navy's Mediterranean rescue missions and leaving people to drown in the sea. In keeping with Sarah, the two prime sarim, ministers, followed Sarah in sending outsiders away to die.

In the Torah portion, God seems to condone such inhumanity. But it is not where the Torah ends. For God’s endorsement of Sarah has a twist. He follows her command, but far from condemning Ishmael to death, he elevates him to greatness. Sarah can defy but not divert a purpose which is universal. God has renamed Abraham Abraham— the father of a multitude of nations (av hamon go'im nataticha) — and Sarai (my minister [of the Jewish People]) Sarah — the generic minister of mankind (according to tradition [Gen R 47:1]). The couple were supposed to have been the progenitors of multinationalism and multiculturalism.

Ishmael is left to die in the parched desert. He becomes a wild ass of a man, a brute of carnal desire, a pariah, with Isaac, our patriarch, grabbing all the inheritance. And that’s where the story, in our modern telling for a xenophobic, frightened, self-serving world, happily ends.

So he rescues Hagar and Ishmael. Twice He sends his angels — for the first time in the Bible — to comfort Hagar. A generation before Jacob, he blesses Ishmael with 12 tribes, or rather ummas, tribal confederations.

Instead of the zero-sum game, and the "her-son-grabs-all" outcome that Sarah wanted, both Ishmael and Isaac inherit their father’s spiritual legacy and the land of his wanderings – eretz mguircha (Gen 17:8). Universalism triumphs.

Indeed — in contrast to the notion of enmity projected today — the Torah’s telling of Isaac and Ishmael binds them strangely together. As children both were about to be killed by their father, until God intervened and brought both deliverance from a bush.

And when Abraham dies, both come together to bury him at the Machpelah — the Tomb of the Patriarchs. With reverence the Torah reserves elsewhere only for Jewish heroes, it counts that “Ishmael lived out his days until 137 years and was gathered to his people.”

Muslim tradition completes the circle. While Isaac laid the foundations of the temple on Mount Moriah, Ismail – Arabic for Ishmael - laid the foundations of Mecca. Hagar, the migrant slave, found a home in which to live. HaGer, the stranger, became the HaGar, the home bound. The spring the Torah describes that saved Ishmael in the desert continues to flow as the zamzam that pilgrims on Haj cherish today.

The time was Jewish tradition honored Ishmael too. Anyone who sees Ishmael in a dream, says the Midrash, will have his prayers answered by God. Many great rabbis took his name. It says Sarah died early, 48 years before 48 years before Abraham, as punishment for banishing his first born. Even the Ramban (Nachmanides) condemns Sarah for abusing Hagar, and Abraham for letting her do it. But like many other personalities associated with Islam, Ishmael today gets bad press. He is derided with pejoratives reserved for Arabs and Muslims, recycling the insults Paul flung at Ishmael in his New Testament letters.

The word shanah is the same as the Hebrew for change. Rosh Hashanah — the New Year — might as accurately be translated as the "Change Ahead." Is it too much to hope that this year’s change might be upholding Sarah’s obligation to protect the migrant and share Abraham’s inheritance?

The welcome Germany has given migrants and the passports Spain plans to issue to the Jews it banished five centuries ago proves that governments and people can change policies, give sanctuary to others and increase their stature because of it. May this year mark a change for the good in Israel, too. In short, Shanah Tovah.

The author is a writer on Middle East affairs based in London.

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