The Refugee Crisis: A Jewish Perspective

Few stories have dominated the airwaves in recent months like the growing refugee crisis across Europe in the aftermath of widespread unrest in the Middle East. In September 2015, the image of three year old Aylan Kurdi lying face-down and motionless on the Turkish beach proved to be a harrowing turning point in the global debate and highlighted the moral responsibility of developed countries to do more to help. Three years later, there are over 3,000 children from Central America forcibly separated from their parents and a staggering 5.4 million Syrians displaced from a country overwhelmed by the destructive forces of ISIS and civil war.

Beyond this, Europe is witnessing a rise in right-wing populist parties driving hard-line anti-immigration policies not seen since the pre-war era. Both sides of this bitter divide scramble constantly to take the moral high ground. The political ‘left’ repeatedly emphasise how the West bears a significant portion of blame for the apparently infinite number of flashpoints in the Middle East, how we – as affluent, modern and educated people – should shoulder the responsibility of asylum as a matter of principle. Meanwhile, those on the ‘right’ bellow about concerns that some migrants bring with them behaviours and opinions that are simply too extreme to adjust to the West’s liberal democratic value system, and that in an age of shrinking productivity and global uncertainty, the least moral thing to do is flood communities with millions of economically dependent people.

The question is: what is the Torah’s perspective?

Historically, as Jews we don’t need to delve far back into the archives to acutely feel the pain of today’s victims. Perhaps of even greater significance to the Holocaust than the infamous Wannsee Conference of 1942 was the 1938 summit at Evian in France when, on a beautiful summer’s day, delegates from 32 countries decided almost unanimously (the Dominican Republic being the sole exception) to slam their doors shut on any further refugees fleeing Nazi persecution and the storm clouds gathering over Europe.

On multiple occasions, the Torah reminds us of our duty to treat the ‘stranger’ with kindness and compassion, recalling in turn the fact that we were strangers in Egypt and met with unspeakable suffering as a consequence.

“Do not oppress the stranger, for you know how it feels to be a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 23:9)

Beyond this, the harsh admonition against accepting the conversion of Ammonite & Moabite males is predicated on the fact that:

“They did not greet you with bread and water as you journeyed out of Egypt”. (Deut. 23:4, Yevamot 76b)

Clearly, there is a solid weight of responsibility incumbent upon the Jewish people to actively seek out and see to the wellbeing and welfare of society’s most vulnerable, not least because of the hypocrisy inherent in a people who have suffered through slavery, inquisitions, pogroms and holocausts turning a blind eye to the self-same pain elsewhere. 

However, as is so often the case, it can be dangerous to use emotional arguments to justify political decisions. It was with this in mind that the Ashkenazi communities of Europe in the Middle Ages established a policy known as ‘Chezkat Hayishuv’. This edict, loosely based on Talmudic sources (Bava Batra 21b), stated that local councils reserved the right to deny residence to Jewish refugees fleeing persecution. Still in practice as recently as the 19th Century, the rationale behind the statute was as agonising as it was simple: Ashkenazi communities lived by-and-large in abject poverty, lacking the financial or political clout to successfully absorb large numbers of non-residents. Beyond this, there was a grave fear that sudden increases in Jewish demographics would lead to a proportionate increase in anti-Semitism, and the downtrodden refugees would consequently end up – ironically – bringing with them the very problem they sought to escape (Aruch Hashulchan C’M 156:12)

It is highly likely that the validation of the Chezkat Hayishuv was also based on the well-known comment of Maimonides:

“The poor of one’s household take precedence over the poor of one’s city. The poor of one’s city take precedence over the poor of another city”. (Mishneh Torah, Gifts to the Poor, 7:13).

Maimonides’ vision of concentric circles as the most pragmatic and practical approach to charity suggests that until one’s own house is ‘in order’, it is counter-productive to search further afield for more problems in need of solutions. This position strongly implies that whilst countries like our own have made tremendous progress in tackling poverty, until the 15% of the UK population living below the poverty line no longer find themselves in that damning statistic, it would be unwise to welcome in an influx of more economically needy people.

Beyond this, the paranoia surrounding the concern that certain demographics of refugees may well contain extremist elements (a claim based on some evidence, if nowhere nearly enough to justify the frenzy stirred up by the media and right-wing politicians) also has a firm basis in Halacha. It was in this spirit that the prophets warned the Jews exiled to the Diaspora:

“Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have led you in exile. Pray to God for it, for if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jeremiah 29:7)

Sage advice that has been echoed in Synagogues throughout the world for generations via the Prayer for the Welfare of the State. Furthermore, it is clear that the ‘strangers’ we are compelled to treat with compassion are in turn expected to conform to the central theological and philosophical norms of a Jewish state. Namely, the seven Noachide Laws. A foreign resident living in the Land of Israel who flouts these most basic of laws can be pressurised to leave. The uncompromising cost of refuge is therefore, to some degree, conformity and adaptability. 

Indeed, it is to this end that the most unambiguous call in the Torah to open our borders and accept a refugee with open arms is when that refugee actively seeks sanctuary from oppression via a heightened spiritual lifestyle in the Land of Israel (Deut. 23:16).

In summary, it can be said that while the Torah unequivocally places the value of granting asylum to vulnerable people on a very real moral pedestal, there are considerations that must be taken into account in the decision-making process behind legislature. First and foremost: will acceptance of refugees inevitably lead to increasing socio-economic problems for current citizens? And secondly, will the refugees in question adapt and contribute to the ‘law of the land’ that opens its arms to greet them?

- January 16th 2019

About the Author

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Rabbi Eli Birnbaum Eli studied in Talmudic College in Israel for six years before attaining rabbinic ordination from the Jerusalem Kollel. Eli completed a BSc in Criminology & Social Psychology. Together with his wife Naomi, Eli moved back to London to take up a position in the JLE’s campus department, setting up Lunch & Learns across London’s major campuses, as well as creating the ‘Genesis+’ program, aimed at older students and post-graduates. Following this, Eli taught Jewish Studies at Hasmonean for a year, before moving to Aish to work as an educator, primarily focused on the burgeoning Young Professional demographic and, more recently, as the Director of Education for Aish UK. Eli is a lifelong Spurs fan and an avid reader, citing his favourite book as ‘Legends of Our Time’ by Elie Weisel. Eli and his wife Naomi live in Golders Green and have three adorable children. 

More in this series

Responsibility - The Impossible Dream

I Closed My Eyes….

Trial by Twitter

Track & Trace

What's in a Name

God's Jedi Mind Trick: A Star Wars Story (kind of)

The Dark Night Rises: Exodus with Tom Hardy

Gangs of New York

The Refugee Crisis: A Jewish Perspective

Smoke & Mirrors

Bo - Between a Rock and a Hard Place

#Fakenews - Parashat Vayigash

Vayeitzei - Lies, Damned Lies & Statistics

Toldot - Strength of a Thousand Men

Chayei Sara: The Sequel No-one Asked For

Vayeira: Ctrl + C, Ctrl + V

Sitting on the Fence

Noah’s Sweet Fifteen

Uniting a Fragmented World

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