Deportation of south Sudanese refugees, Tel Aviv, Israel, 8.8.2012 A South Sudanese girl holds a message she wrote in Hebrew: “Axsosa you are my best friend in school”. This is the seventh mass expulsion to South Sudan since the Israeli government’s initiative – led by Minister of Interior Eli Yishay – to revoke the temporary protection of South Sudanese citizens which initiated a mass deportation operation. Photo by: Guest photographer: Shiraz Grinbaum/Activestills.org
A few years ago, I heard a little about Darfur and I tried to examine how to speak about the issue of Darfur from a Jewish perspective. It should be mentioned that in Israel the voice of Darfur was only disseminated slowly, whereas in the Jewish community in America Darfur was a significant issue, as it had been in earlier years when international Jewish charitable organizations intervened to help the inhabitants of South Sudan in different ways, including the provision of solar cooking panels in order to reduce the danger of their contact with the Jinjawad militias. The activities of these organizations are based on the religious duty to act to save every human life. In Israel, the issue came to attention chiefly when South Sudanese found an escape route from South Sudan to Israel, and placed Israel in a dilemma due to its immigration policy and the status of the refugees. To a certain extent, Israel’s response was post factum and did not come from an attempt to help people whose lives were in danger. Rabbi Avi Novis-Deutch is challenging the immigration policy of Israel.
This week, when I sat down to write the Dvar Torah on the parasha, I knew that this was an issue I wanted to write about in the light of disturbing headlines about the deaths of refugees who returned to South Sudan, and about equipment to assist them which remained in Israel. But I did not remember that the ruling I used was at the heart of our parasha. The parasha (XXIII, 16) talks about a slave who has run away from his master and come to you; a little surprisingly the parasha rules that you are forbidden from returning him to his master, rather you should settle him near you, wherever he wants, where it is good for him. The command ends with the words “thou shalt not wrong him,” in other words the Torah is aware of the great potential for exploiting the weakness of the runaway slave and warns “thou shalt not wrong him” – do not deceive him.
Are the runaway slave and the refugee the same thing? Not exactly, but the basis of being a refugee is running away from a kind of slavery - just like a runaway slave, who is escaping from a cruel master. Actually, as opposed to the slave in whose case one might think that – in a world where slavery is legitimate – he should be returned to his master, the refugee has lived in conditions of slavery and so you should settle him in your camp, in the place he chooses.
In fact, the assumption of the Torah, and certainly of the Midrash, is that the runaway slave should be settled near you and absorbed into society. The Midrash clarifies that the place he chooses should be is a place where he can make a living, and that the city where he is integrated is not a border city or a city with other problems, but rather a city which can comfortably integrate him. If we translate this into modern terminology, our job is to absorb the refugees in areas of high socioeconomic standing where he is able to make a living.
What happens if the status of the refugees changes? This question is not relevant to the runaway slave, but it is relevant to refugees. It seems that proper carrying out of stage A releases us from stage B since the slave is fully integrated into society, and even has an important economic role there, but what should be done if the status of the refugees changes and he has not yet been integrated? In this case the ruling we have here does not supply an answer, but the parasha suggests a number of rulings that touch on the basic law about the stranger.
“Thou shalt not oppress a hired servant that is poor and needy, whether he be of thy brethren, or of thy strangers that are in thy land within thy gates. In the same day thou shalt give him his hire, neither shall the sun go down upon it; for he is poor, and setteth his heart upon it; lest he cry against thee unto the Lord, and it be sin in thee.” (Deuteronomy, XXIV, 14 -15)
The stranger appears in the same list as the poor man and the needy and not by chance, all belong to the population whose hardship can be exploited. The parasha stresses – it is forbidden to do this, there is a duty to pay his wages so that there will be no sin.
The Integration of the Stranger
The parasha adds:
“Thou shalt not pervert the justice due to the stranger, or to the fatherless; nor take the widow’s raiment to pledge. But thou shalt remember that hou wast a bondman in Egypt, and the Lord thy God redeemed thee thence; therefore I command thee to do this thing.” (Deuteronomy, XXIV, 17-18)
One should behave properly towards the stranger and not infringe his rights, and this should be done on the basis on your memory of history, remembering that you were a bondsman. With these rules we can return to the issue of the southern Sudanese, who during their years here have gone from having the status of refugees to obtaining a new country. The status of slavery of the runaway slave has been cancelled, and he can return to his country. It is not at all clear if he has to be compelled to do this, and it is preferable that, over the years, the refugee be integrated into a good environment with a place to work. Unfortunately, the reason this does not happen has more to do with Israeli policy than with the refugees, but this is the reality.
Should they be forced to go home? It is likely that immigration policy requires this, but it is clear that the refugees must be returned in a responsible way, with all the medical and economic assistance needed so that they can be properly absorbed anew in their country. This stems from our basic duty to every man and, even more, from the repeated commands concerning the stranger, and from our historical memory as a people beginning with our experiences in Egypt and continuing with our trials throughout the Diaspora. Therefore, I hereby call on the government of Israel to immediately transport equipment for the refugees which is presently stuck at Ben Gurion airport and to get involved in securing the arrival in Sudan of inoculations against malaria and other measures to reduce the health dangers lurking for those who used to live in our country.
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