Israel and the Refugee Crisis

Today, the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, the Jewish world celebrates Tu B’Shevat, the holiday that marks a New Year for the Trees. This is the season in which the earliest blooming trees in the Land of Israel emerge from their winter sleep and begin a new fruit-bearing cycle. This is the beginning of the season when nature magically renews itself, to our great admiration and delight.

Tu B’Shevat is also when Israel marks the February 14, 1949 founding of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, the unicameral national legislature of the Jewish State. As the legislative branch of the Israeli government, the Knesset passes all laws, elects the president, approves the cabinet, and supervises the work of the government.

The term Knesset is derived from the ancient Great Assembly, which was convened with 120 scribes, sages, and prophets in the period of the Second Temple. Aside from the number of members, there is very little similarity between our modern Knesset and the ancient one.

Since that body, which was followed by the Sanhedrin, the council of 71 Jewish sages who constituted the high court and legislative body in Judea during the Roman period, the Jewish people didn’t have a sovereign state with the ability to legislate its own Jewish laws.

Since the 1948 founding of Israel, we are free to take care of ourselves, free to rule, and free to determine our present and future. With this freedom comes great responsibility.

One of the most important laws that the Knesset passed is the 1950 Law of Return. Based on this law, “The State of Israel will be open to the immigration of Jews and the ingathering of exiles from all countries of their dispersion.” This law reinforces one of Israel’s main missions, to gather Jews from around the world by granting them the right to settle in Israel, gain automatic citizenship and full civil rights. But can this law be stretched to allow safe haven to all people?

These days, one of Israel’s laws is being challenged: A few weeks ago, the Knesset approved the law permitting authorities to detain migrants without valid visas indefinitely. Some 60,000 migrants, largely from Eritrea and Sudan, have crossed into Israel across a once-porous border with Egypt since 2006. These people see themselves as refugees, while many Israelis believe they are economic migrants and infiltrators.

How did we get here? How did Israel, a state founded to house a rootless, wandering Jewish people, find itself needing to expel thousands of desperate immigrants? It’s important to remember that these refugees experienced an extremely dangerous journey from their countries through Egypt to Israel. The Egyptian security forces shot many of them, and they faced torture, organ theft, rape and assault by traffickers in the Sinai desert. Once they crossed the Israeli border, the Israeli government granted them residential permits for four months, first aid when needed, basic supplies and transportation to Tel Aviv. There growing numbers of them wander the streets, trying to pick up day labor and depending on NGOs for assistance.

A coin has only two sides, but our complex reality has many more:
Are we obligated to look at our own history, back to the days our people sought shelter and country after country sealed its borders? Can anything be compared to the horrors of the Holocaust?

On one hand, we can all quote from our Jewish texts and see that our ethics demand that we provide these people with hope, with a new safe start, with a future, with life. But, and this is a very big “but,” at what cost? Can we risk our own safety and security in our own homeland? Do we want South Tel Aviv, Israel’s first Hebrew city, to lose its Jewish/Hebrew identity to hundreds of thousands of foreign refugees and to the many more to follow? For one, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu views the presence of many of the Africans as a threat to Israel’s Jewish social fabric.

Whatever we do, it will have consequences; consequences that will impact who we are and who we want to be.
So what is Tu B’Shevat? It’s a holiday of blossoming, of renewal. Perhaps the Knesset was established on Tu B’shevat to remind us that ruling comes with the necessity to re-examine, renew and refresh in order to stay relevant, full of life. But, at the same time, just as the trees we celebrate today, can grow only in well kept, nurtured soil into proud, tall forests, we, the Jewish people, should refresh our soil, nurture our existence, but at the same time respect and protect our roots in eternal Jewish values.

Happy Tu B’Shevat
Leah Garber, Vice President, JCC Israel Center
leah@jcca.org

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