What Do You Do When A Friend's Dvar Torah Offends You?
The past week’s parsha (Torah portion), Mishpatim, tells us that because we were strangers in Egypt that we need to welcome those strangers in our midst. And we do. The movement to bring our Ethiopian brothers and sisters, as well as the Bnei Menashe, is supported widely in Israel.
The recent controversy over whether illegal immigrants should be deported or not has raised some interesting questions about our values as Jews and whether we are adhering to the call to welcome the stranger.
On Shabbat, a good friend presented a drash (speech about the Torah portion) that covered two issues in relation to the parsha. One issue was the denial of a visa (either student or visitor) to a young man from Kenya who had undergone a Conservative/Masorti stream conversion to Judaism.
The second issue he raised was the controversy regarding the deportation of Africans who had entered Israel illegally. So far, so good. The question of our commitment to “welcoming the stranger” took an unneeded turn at one point in this well-meaning drash by invoking the Holocaust. The speaker’s main question was “Where were Jewish values?” in questioning the denial of the visa and the deportation. This phrase was used often in the drash and is valid and also well-meaning.
Regarding the young man denied a visa: I believe, along with the speaker, that he was denied the visa based on race and method of conversion. He is a husband and father, is building a library for his Jewish community, and had no intention of overstaying his visa after studying at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. The denial of a student visa makes no sense.
This past Shabbat, I met a Christian man from Uganda, also black, who is studying in Jerusalem for three months and easily received a student visa, so the ruling on the visa for the young Jewish man seems arbitrary, but is seemingly tied to his conversion and skin color. Yes, where are our Jewish values when this can happen in the Jewish homeland?
When we look at the situation of the illegal African immigrants (mainly from the Sudan and Eritrea), it is quite different. The Israeli government has issued deportation notices to single men, while allowing most married men, women, and children to remain and apply for residency in many cases. The original destination for those deported was going to be Rwanda, but that apparently has been rescinded for the time being as other options are examined.
Those being deported will receive some financial compensation (I have seen different amounts mentioned in the media, up to the equivalent of $3500). There are massive demonstrations against deportation and there are valid points on both sides of the issue.
Once the analogies to the Shoah began, however, I started to feel uneasy. The comparison to the turning back of Jews (for example, Jews fleeing Europe on the St. Louis in 1939) from various ports was almost a fair analogy, unless you look closely at the circumstances. The analogy is false for many reasons. They were seeking legal refuge, as opposed to crossing over borders and entering a country illegally. The situations in Sudan and Eritrea are grim, for sure, but not analogous at all to an escape from a planned genocide of one particular population.
Then it took a turn that I found disturbing. Frustration with Misrad Hapnim (Israel’s Ministry of the Interior) is common. That they denied this young man’s visa is worrisome. And yes, it is troubling that there might be some people deported who could be in danger when they are sent home or to a third country.
But when it was mentioned that this is akin to Mengele making selections during the Shoah, I was stunned. The analogy made was that when decisions are being made about these situations by the Israeli government, that it is the same as Mengele’s selections, which sent people to either instant death, slave labor, or to be used as lab rats in experiments.
It is not, not by a long shot, and it is dangerous to make these analogies as historical revisionism and plain old denial is threatening to change how the Shoah is viewed and what people believe actually happened. .
Maybe the speaker never sat face to face with someone who actually survived a Mengele selection. Maybe he used it for dramatic effect. Nevertheless, this comparison is another version of the “everyone I hate is Hitler” syndrome, in which the Shoah is dragged out as a convenient device for whatever it is you are advocating for or against.
At the end of the drash, I shook my friend’s hand and told him that his friend In Kenya would be proud of him. This is a good friend, a surrogate brother in a way who welcomes me into his home for Shabbat. He is someone I respect and adore.
But as I walked away, the vision in my head was of a woman sitting with me in Washington, DC in 1983 at the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors. She described a Mengele selection from which she survived, but her younger sister did not. No one was provided a notice ahead of time, no one was offered money and a plane ticket out, no one was told that they could appeal, there were no people demonstrating on their behalf, and no one expected to survive that very moment when a hand pointed left or right.
Our obligation, as Jews, is to fight injustice and welcome the stranger. And the intent of this drash was to do exactly that and partially succeeded. That, however, does not give us license to violate what has become necessary to maintain Jewish values, from generation to generation: to always tell the truth about the Shoah, to honor the dead, and to not minimize it by analogies that can lead to historical revisionism that will eventually wipe out the truth.
Where are Jewish values? They lie in respecting and honoring our history, our dead, and always remembering the truth about what happened to our people in Europe in the last century.
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