In Jewish thought, there are several categories of citizenship including stranger, citizen, and in-dwelling stranger. “Ger” means stranger, “gerim,” the plural, means strangers. In Leviticus 19:34, we find a discussion of the ger: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
“Ger toshav (the one who dwells among you)” is distinct from ger. A ger toshav is a positive term to describe a non-Jewish person who stands for the rights of Jewish people, who raises Jewish children but does not themselves convert, who is active in congregational life, or who is on a Jewish journey without being born Jewish. Because ger toshav has connotations of otherness, of being different from the group, some Jewish communities prefer to use the term k’rov Yisrael (friend or relative of Israel). For both ger toshav and k’rov Yisrael the term, and the responsibility it demands, is about allyship.
As I write this, just a few weeks before a summer of epic Canada 150 celebrations, I am thinking about how all non-indigenous people in Canada can be considered gerim. In this analysis, all of us who are not indigenous are visitors to a land that rightfully belongs to the Inuit, the Métis, and the First Nations. According to my hypothesis, if all immigrants to Canada [and their descendants] are gerim, what will it take for us to merit the designation gerei toshav? What does allyship look like? More specifically, what will it take for non-indigenous Jewish people in Canada to be allies of indigenous communities?
No matter how we as contemporary individuals feel about the modern State of Israel, many will agree that our status as a Diaspora community depends on the Babylonian Exile and expulsion from the spiritual and historic Eretz Yisrael. The word “diaspora” is from the ancient Greek word meaning “scattering” or “dispersion.” Jews have been living in Diaspora since ancient times, as strangers within strange lands, and have nurtured new communities away from Eretz Yisrael. Each year at Passover we also remember the end of the Israelites’ first significant Diaspora when they returned to Canaan after several generations of slavery, as well as exile, in Mitzrayim (Egypt).
The Jewish people therefore know a thing or two about being visitors and then settlers to a land. I wonder whether our historic knowledge of living alongside others, and of being a less powerful minority within a majority community, might not be a useful position from which to contribute to the ongoing labour of repairing old relations and nurturing new, healthy relations between settlers and indigenous peoples in Canada. Can Canadian Jews take up the call more loudly, and perhaps, in an institutional way, stand up for indigenous peoples in Canada who, for 500 years, have been reduced to third-class citizens in their own land? If we are visitors here, on land that belongs to others, what can we do to be supportive and ethical in-dwelling strangers, to be supportive gerei toshav?
I write this column at my desk in a house I rent, a house built on the unceded and unsurrendered land of the Algonquin people. In naming my position, I challenge myself to be aware that I am a visitor to this land, just as I am a visitor to this house. It is not mine. It does not belong to me. Yet as a visitor, as an in-dwelling stranger, I have responsibilities to uphold. I must treat this house, this land, this water, this nature, and the people who own it with respect. I must actively practice being an ally. Only then can I be honoured as a ger toshav.
These questions and others will define how I observe Canada’s 150th. How about you?