“Strangers,” in Israel and America

We had a guest from America in our shul this week who discussed the week’s portion, lech lecha. She focused on the question of the treatment of the ger, the person who is a non-Jew in Eretz Yisrael and (variously) a stranger, immigrant, foreign resident, convert, etc. Our speaker interpreted the word ger to mean “immigrant,” and noted that both Sarai (later, Hashem would change her name to Sarah) and Hagar were powerless immigrants. Sarai was exploited sexually by Pharaoh when she was in Egypt during a famine (well, at least he tried to exploit her), while Hagar and her son were expelled from the family in Canaan by a jealous Sarai.

The speaker correctly noted that in multiple places the Torah calls for Jews to treat gerim well. For example, Leviticus 19.33-34 says

33 And if a [ger] sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not do him wrong.

34 The [ger] that sojourneth with you shall be unto you as the home-born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were [gerim] in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.

She stopped short of explicitly drawing political conclusions, but it is clear that she was thinking of the controversy surrounding the treatment of undocumented immigrants in the contemporary USA, and perhaps also of non-Jews in today’s Israel. Indeed, liberal American Jews have often chosen to chastise Israel for her treatment of non-Jewish residents.

But the political consequences depend a great deal on how you understand the meaning of “ger.” And naturally it isn’t simple.

Linguistically, a ger is simply someone who lives or sojourns (that is, lives temporarily) in a place different from his homeland. Rabbinic authorities have historically discussed the ger toshav, a non-Jewish resident of Eretz Yisrael who obeys the Noachide Laws, and the ger tzedek, the convert to Judaism.

I am far from an expert in the Hebrew language or biblical exegesis, but there are some conclusions that can be drawn by simple logic.

For one thing, the ger that we are commanded to love as ourselves cannot be any non-Jew that happens to live in or travel through Eretz Yisrael. For example, King Shaul lost his kingdom because he took pity on King Agag of the Amalekites (and Agag’s animals and property). Whether you find the command to wipe out an entire people, men, women, children, and animals as repugnant or not, it’s clear that your local neighborhood Amalekites are not included among the gerim that you are commanded to treat well!

The rabbinical idea of ger toshav provides a way to resolve this. The Noachide Laws, which forbid idolatry, murder, theft, etc., constitute a simple bottom line for the degree of civilization required from a foreign people in order for them to live alongside the Jewish people in Eretz Yisrael – and to be treated as in Lev. 19.33-34.

From a secular Zionist point of view, a ger toshav might be a non-Jew who lives in the Jewish state, obeys its laws and doesn’t attempt to subvert it. The majority of Arab citizens of Israel fall into this category (although the members of the Knesset that represent them often do not). Clearly the Palestinian Authority, which pays terrorists to murder Jews, violates both the Noachide Laws and the temporal laws of the State of Israel. We are not required by the Torah to love the members of Fatah and Hamas.

Note that the Torah cannot mean that there is no difference between the ger toshav and the Jewish resident, because of the covenant that connects the Jewish people to Eretz Yisrael, and because there are obligations that the Jew has that the ger does not. I interpret the commandment as saying that Jews must treat gerim fairly in legal and business matters, and also that one must make an effort to understand them and put oneself in their place (because we were ourselves gerim…).

Again from a secular Zionist point of view, there is a difference between the Jew in Eretz Yisrael and the ger toshav, no matter how loyal the ger may be. This is expressed in the Nation-State Law, which explicates the concept of “Jewish” in “Jewish and Democratic State.” The Jewish people are the only ones that have national rights, including a right of return, to the state. On the other hand, non-Jewish citizens must have all the civil and political rights of Jewish ones.

Non-citizens, especially those who have entered the country illegally, like the almost 40,000 African migrants that crossed the Egyptian border into Israel in the early 2000s, or the several tens of thousands of tourists and foreign workers from all over who have overstayed their visas, are different. Beyond basic human rights guaranteed by international law, including the right to petition for asylum under certain conditions, they have no legal rights in Israel.

I think, however, that we must agree that we are obligated by Torah principles, to treat them well as long as they are here. Insofar as they obey the Noachide Laws (in secular terms, avoid criminal behavior), they can be considered gerim toshavim. This especially applies to foreign workers who were invited to live here for a limited period that they overstayed, and have had children who have grown up in Israel and may not be familiar with their parents’ home culture.

There is, however, a further consideration. It is vital for a Jewish state to maintain a healthy Jewish majority. Because she has an excellent economy and generous social benefits, Israel is very attractive to people living in countless dysfunctional countries throughout the world. Israel is a small country with a relatively small population, and cannot absorb a large number of non-Jewish immigrants without endangering that majority. She is compelled to prevent illegal immigration and to deport those who are not entitled to stay in order to protect herself as a Jewish state. The tension between protecting the majority and at the same time providing for the welfare of the individuals involved is real.

Turning to the US, the situation is different. The US is a state of its citizens, in which no ethnicity is different from any other in any respect, not only in terms of political and civil rights, but also in national rights. There is no need to maintain a national majority of any ethnicity in the US. It also has massive absorptive capacity, and the economic and demographic resiliency to deal with social problems far beyond that of Israel.

But the US still has the right to defined borders and to make and enforce laws about who may come in to the country. These are basic rights of a sovereign state, whether it is an ethnic nation-state like Israel or a state of its citizens like the US. The US has borders that are long and difficult to secure, and half the world would like to live there. There are tens of millions of undocumented residents there already, enough to effect the employment opportunities of legal residents. The problems are real, but they are not the same as Israel’s problems.

People tend to try to understand unfamiliar situations by making analogies to more familiar ones. One of the most egregious examples of bad analogies is the equation of the Palestinian Arabs to African-Americans, an analogy that is popular in progressive circles in America, and has even been made by such public personalities as Condoleezza Rice and Barack Obama. But even the most cursory examination of the history of both groups, their geographical situation, the religion and ideologies that characterize them, and countless other features, shows that there is almost no similarity between them – except perhaps that the Left wants to portray them both as “people of color oppressed by white Europeans.”

The question of immigration, too, is something that is very different in an American or Israeli context. Maybe the best approach is for Americans to work on fixing things there, while allowing Israelis to concentrate on solving their unique problems here.

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2 Responses to “Strangers,” in Israel and America

  1. David Rosenberg says:

    You wrote “On the other hand, non-Jewish citizens must have all the civil and political rights of Jewish ones.”

    I’ve always understood that “non-Jewish citizens must have all the civil and religious rights of Jewish ones,” but the Mandate for Palestine did not give non-Jews equal political rights , e.g., non-Jews did not have the right of self-determination to form their own government within Israel. That is, there is an important distinction between the civil right to vote and to hold office and propose changes to Israeli laws within the Israel governmental system as contrasted with the political right to say “we are a separate polity and have the right to form our own government.” I’ve understood that while all citizens have the same civil and religious rights, national and political rights are reserved to Jews.

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