The headlines make for difficult reading. Some 38,000 Sudanese and Eritrean nationals apply for asylum in Israel, the sole democracy in the Middle East. According to the Jerusalem Post, the Israeli interior ministry plans to incarcerate or forcibly expel them to Rwanda. Rwanda appears willing to accept them for a fee of $5,000 per person.
They are among the nearly 65 million children, women and men across the globe meeting the criterion established by the UN Convention on Refugees, to which Israel is a signatory.
The prime minister, public security minister and culture minister of Israel claim that only a fraction of these refugees are legitimate asylum seekers. Rather, according to government pronouncements, they are dismissed as “infiltrators,” “economic opportunists,” and “criminals.” In 2013, the government agreed to review 12,000 refugee applications from African individuals. Since then, 11 refugees have been accepted.
What are we to make of these policy decisions? Is the Israeli government afraid of people of colour? How is it that while the government obfuscates about African asylum seekers nearly 25,000 Ukrainian and Georgian refugees have fraudulently entered Israel since 2011, mostly through human smuggling scams?
The Zionists who founded Israel had three basic objectives: to create a Jewish state; a democratic state; and a state that would be located in the historical homeland of the Jewish people. In November 1947, when the United Nations offered the Jews roughly half this area for their state, while offering the rest for the formation of an Arab state, the Zionists were forced to answer a fundamental question: “What kind of state do we wish to be?”
David Ben-Gurion, then leader of the Jewish Agency, did not shrink from laying out the choice before the Jewish people. Ben-Gurion essentially said, “My friends, we are offered a chance for a Jewish state and a democratic state, but in only part of the land of Israel. We could hold out for all of the land of Israel, but if we did that we might lose everything.”
That has been Israel’s enduring tension. Can Israel maintain both its Jewish and Western democratic characters? Can the state expand to include all of the biblical land of Israel and remain a democracy?
It currently appears that land and a very narrow definition of “Jewish character” are in ascendency over Western democracy. How else to understand the ongoing fight over an egalitarian worship space at the Kotel? How else do we understand the reluctance of the government to ease the path to conversion for nearly 500,000 Russian immigrants who cannot marry or be buried according to Jewish tradition? How else do we understand attempts to curtail police investigative powers into government corruption? How else do we comprehend the disparity between funds offered to Israel Jewish communities and Israeli Arab communities for education, infrastructure and services?
It should be most concerning to us that the definition of “Jewish character” appears to be narrowing. The sacred text of our people clearly proclaims that we must remember that we were strangers in a strange land and that concern for the widowed, the orphaned, the homeless, and the oppressed was incumbent upon us.
In Israel that historic charge now seems to be relegated to concern only for other Jews while in North America that concern has been generalized by many Jews to include all inhabitants of the world. The tension is palpable. There are many other examples of this tension. Recent conflicts in Beit Shemesh between modern Orthodox inhabitants and haredi Orthodox fundamentalists required civil authorities to intervene. The positions enunciated by certain Orthodox religious political parties concerning the maintenance of trains on Shabbat is another example of how a more narrow definition of “Jewish character” now predominates in Israel.
These tensions have impacted on how we understand “Jewish character.” What is to define the “Jewish character” of our community? Must the Soloway Jewish Community Centre remain closed on Shabbat morning to define us? Must the Ottawa Jewish Community School teach texts from only one perspective? Must the food service in buildings on the Jewish Community Campus be kosher? The list goes on. Is there only one narrow definition for “Jewish character”?
Ben-Gurion understood the need for compromise to establish a Jewish state. I wonder if we might not need some old fashioned Zionism to maintain one!