Israel is founded on two counter and often contrary Jewish narratives. One speaks about the continuity of Jewish values, and the other the Jewish value of continuity.
The first narrative is highly attuned both to the moral ideals expressed in the biblical injunction to remember that we were slaves in the land of Egypt, and to our duty to leverage our past suffering by creating a society committed to the highest level of sensitivity to others.
As a people who majored in statelessness and oppression, we are obligated as a Jewish society to feel a deep sense of kinship with and responsibility toward those in a similar predicament. Under this narrative, the notion of limiting access to African refugees, or limiting our responsibility to them, is morally inconceivable, aesthetically reprehensible and a sin to our collective memories.
The second narrative looks at our history, suffering and precarious existence over the centuries, embraces life and survival, and sees the necessary response as Jewish sovereignty and a commitment to its viability. The survival of the Jewish people is a value and a priority, both for the individual and the society as a whole. A policy toward African refugees that does not support or enhance this value is perceived as contrary to the raison d’etre of the state and a sin to Jewish memory.
These two narratives have created a split within Israeli society at its extremes and an untenable policy at its center. At the political poles, individuals have aligned themselves with either one of the narratives, advocating for a limitless refugee policy, or seeing every refugee as a threat to the Jewishness of Israel.
Most Israelis, however, find both narratives compelling and recognize that the Jewishness of Israel is dependent on an amalgamation of the two.
The tragedy and failure of Israel in its policies toward refugees is founded on the way these narratives have been joined. Instead of attempting to integrate the two, in modern Israel each narrative dominates its own distinct arena.
The first narrative, the continuity of Jewish values, is dominant when it comes to accepting African refugees into the state. The fact that no significant resources had been allocated to closing off our southern border prior to the increased security threat from the Sinai Desert indicates the unpopularity of denying access to individuals escaping persecution.
The second narrative, however, dominates Israeli consciousness and policy when it comes to the treatment of these individuals once they become refugees within our borders. Once here, mainstream Israeli society generally is unconcerned for them or their needs and ceases to see them, except when one of them commits a crime.
In reality, we are still separating the two instead of integrating them. The Jewish value of continuity obligates us at the entry point to Israel, and the continuity of Jewish values obligates us after they have arrived at our doors.
As a co-signer of the 1951 U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, we cannot allow the value of Jewish continuity to cause us to shirk our responsibility or be deaf to the needs of others. As a strong and successful country with a clear and sustainable Jewish majority, we have the ability to assimilate thousands of individuals a year without weakening our national identity.
Given Israel’s size and the value of Jewish national continuity, however, this number is not unlimited. We need to determine a realistic policy that recognizes our responsibility as Jews and our responsibility to the Jewish people. Once this policy is in place, the doors to Israel must not be limited to the treacherous terrain of the Sinai but must be open to those in need through our embassies throughout the world.
More significant, the number of refugees must be determined by our economic and social ability to provide these new citizens with a good life, commensurate with our values as Jews and the economic opportunities and social safety net provided by the State of Israel.
With Zionism, the Jewish people have entered into the arena of political sovereignty with all of its gifts, challenges and opportunities. We need to defend our borders and defend our national identity. We must also make sure, however, that we do not create a state whose border policies are Jewish but where life within those borders is not conducted with the highest standards of Jewish moral principle.
Rabbi Donniel Hartman is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.