As some of my long-time friends know, I’ve always been an advocate for refugees. My very first internship in college was with Jews United for Justice, a DC organization promoting economic and civil rights. I personally lobbied my boss to make our Summer “Labor on the Bimah” workers rights event about immigrants rights. The year was 2006 and Republican Congressmen were pushing a horrific law that would’ve even punished Americans who helped undocumented immigrants. Even pastors that fed them.
My boss agreed and we organized 30 events around the D.C. area on Labor Day to mobilize Jews- alongside Christians and Muslims- to support immigrants rights.
Part of my job was to find Jewish texts to explain why our tradition asks us to speak out on this issue. This is what I compiled.
You may be familiar with the verse from Exodus 12:49: “There shall be one law for the citizen and the stranger who dwells among you.” Or “you shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow Israelite or a stranger.” (Deut. 24:14) Or any of dozens of similar commandments.
I spent much of my career in the U.S. fighting for immigrant and refugee rights. In the government, at NGO’s, and as a private citizen. The struggle there continues. Even this month hundreds of thousands of immigrants and refugees may be deported if the DREAM Act isn’t passed and TPS isn’t renewed. When I left for Israel, Donald Trump was pushing to ban refugees (and even entire countries’ citizens from visiting). Not by coincidence, these countries were largely Muslim and the refugees increasingly Syrian.
I rallied and rallied for humanity. I screamed till my voice was lost. I was invigorated but also scared and exhausted. In my favorite moment from one of the rallies by the White House, I met up with a Syrian refugee friend Remi who I had met on Facebook months before and we fought for justice together.
This picture is what I believe. All of us have suffered. Few peoples more than the Jews. Having been banished from country after country for over 2,000 years- and butchered along the way- we should be the most compassionate towards those fleeing suffering. It’s a biblical mandate and it’s rooted in our history.
Many of the Jews living in Israel are refugees themselves- from the Holocaust, from Arab governments who expelled them, from the Soviet Union, from war and famine and anti-Semitism. Sometimes when people experience trauma, it can be hard to empathize with others. And there are some people who, after putting in a great deal of effort to heal, are able to see the humanity of the other. To realize that the Jewish story, while unique, is not the only story of suffering. And that our own pain must become a source of compassion towards others.
One of the reasons I made aliyah frankly was to get away from the refugee rights struggle. I was tired. It’s painful and the American government is eagerly attacking both the foundations of our democracy and of my friends’ human rights. Since making aliyah, I’ve continued to talk to Syrian refugees in Arabic via Skype through a fantastic program called Natakallam. Since moving to Israel, it’s now easier to schedule since I’m in the same time zone as my Skype partner Shadi in Iraq 🙂 . One day, inshallah, we’ll be able to visit each other in peace, as we both want to do.
In the meantime, I thought I had escaped. And then I met Sadiq. Sadiq is a Darfur refugee living in Tel Aviv. I had signed up to tutor refugees in English, but as a newly arrived oleh with my own stress, I didn’t realize just how hard it would be. Sadiq was sweet and wanted to party at the beach and improve his English. He worked twelve hour days every day of the week. And he hadn’t seen his family in 20 years. I heard about the relatives killed, the homes abandoned, and the pain. He had survived a genocide.
Yet somehow he had a positive attitude and a beautiful smile. And a willingness to learn. I enjoyed learning some Sudanese Arabic from him. I was just too overwhelmed to continue tutoring. So I explained to him why I needed to pause our work together and I took some time to reflect and get my life in order. He understood and I focused on finding an apartment and adjusting to life here.
About two months ago, I found some more stability when I got my own apartment. I took advantage of some cheap flights and took my first post-aliyah vacation to Cyprus. Cyprus is amazing and for all its historical problems, the area I was in was peaceful and relaxing. I was away from the Middle East, from loud Israelis, and from conflict.
Then I saw a woman in a hijab trying to ask a Greek-speaker something. I went up and talked to her in Arabic. She was looking for a grocery store. With my Arabic and my nascent Greek, I helped her communicate with some locals to find it.
We then started chatting. She asked where I was from, I said Israel. Turns out Fatima and her family are from Idlib. They were excited to hear my Syrian accent. She had a son Muhammad and I chatted with him for a bit. And another woman, Jamilah, stood beside them.
After they thanked me for directing them to the grocery store, I asked if they were all family. That’s when Jamilah started crying. She told me, as she bawled, that she had lost all her family in a bombing in Idlib. She came to Cyprus from Syria with Fatima and her son, family friends. And they arrived two weeks ago.
Then everyone started crying. And telling me about their injuries. I didn’t know what to do. I was sad for these people- my neighbors. And angry at the people who had harmed them.
I did my best to offer words of comfort and gave them information for aid organizations. Then I handed them a bunch of Euros and got their contact info to pass on to my friends in the field.
In an astonishing act of gratitude, they asked for my phone number because they wanted to invite me to dinner. Refugees fleeing war, only 2 weeks in Cyprus. From Syria. Inviting an Israeli to their house for a meal. I tear up when I think of the incredible kindness. What utterly generous human beings, an example for us all.
If our interaction brings some peace and understanding between our peoples, I’m all the happier for it. And I hope with all my heart they get the help they deserve. And a future their boy Muhammad can enjoy.
Because in the end, we are all people. I was recently at a Shabbat dinner and I told a Sabra that I was upset when someone here made a racist comment about African Americans. She said: “aval zeh lo pogea becha.” But it doesn’t hurt you. To which I said: “of course it does. African Americans are my friends, my classmates, my neighbors. We are all Americans.”
Which is the point. We’re all Americans and we’re all humans. It davka does pogea bi. The question shouldn’t be “why does this offend you?” it should be “why doesn’t it?”
I live in South Tel Aviv. Not Florentin, Real South Tel Aviv. And in my neighborhood, there are a lot of refugees. From Eritrea, from Sudan, from all over the world. And despite the hubbub you hear in the news, not only is this neighborhood safer than any major city I’ve lived in in the U.S., but a lot of local residents get along fine.
I’ve met a Sabra girl who only hangs out with African friends. I’ve met Filipino and Eritrean kids who speak Hebrew fluently- and to my dismay, not their families’ languages. My elderly neighbors with pictures of Rav Ovadia all over there house love their non-Jewish caretaker. I’ve met Sudanese Christians who could quote the Torah better than most Jews (in a know-it-all kind of way that suits them as Israelis).
So whether it’s Donald Trump or Benjamin Netanyahu trying to oppress refugees and migrants. When they’re ignoring our Torah and abusing people fleeing tyranny. And when the Prime Minister, in the name of my country and my people, is prepared to spend 504 million shekels* to deport refugees.
There is only one answer: no. Refugees are the world’s problem. I can’t explain human suffering. I just know that when someone in is pain, when someone is fleeing death, we should open our hearts and help them.
Your Judaism may be only about helping Jews. If someone insults or harms another group, you may not see it as your problem. But my Judaism and my Israeli identity is about helping my people and helping my non-Jewish neighbors.
My own suffering and the suffering of my people is part of why I care so deeply about helping vulnerable people in need. My Judaism doesn’t stop at the doors of my synagogue nor the borders of my country.
*The government announced a budget that will allot $3,500 dollars to each refugee deported. And it’s about 3.6 shekels to the dollar. There are about 40,000 refugees.