Welcoming Strangers and Ethnic Cleansing: Parshat Mishpatim Exodus 21-27
What does the dictum to welcome the stranger have to do with ethnic cleansing?
Chapter 22:20 of Exodus reads: “And you shall not mistreat a stranger, nor shall you oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Chapter 23:9 reads: “And you shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, since you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Rabbi Gunther Plaut used to remind me that the commandment mentioned most frequently in the Torah is the injunction to welcome the stranger. Rabbi Yael Splansky reminded us this past September, when our congregation initiated both a joint recollection with the Vietnamese community about the role Jews played in 1979 and subsequently in welcoming the Boat People to Canada, and when the congregation also launched its campaign to bring to Canada Syrian refugees, of Rabbi Plaut’s 221-page report on “Refugee Determination in Canada,” commissioned by the Government of Canada to propose changes to Canada’s refugee determination system. That Report began with a personal introduction:
“I was a refugee once, having fled from Hitler under whose rule I had lived for more than two years. I came to the New World exactly 50 years ago, after finishing law school in Germany and having been deprived of pursuing my chosen profession because I was a Jew. In a miniscule fashion my own life rehearses the story of my people who have been refugees all too often. I know the heart of the refugee, a person who desperately seeks for a place to stand, for the opportunity to be accepted as an equal amongst fellow humans…. I belong to the fortunate ones whose quest has been generously answered. My personal experience and my own religious tradition have moved me to put on Canada’s national agenda the larger issues that arise from a consideration of refugees and their problems.”
Rabbi Splansky went on to say that, “Every single member of our congregation has his and her own story of migration. None of our family lines is indigenous to Canada. Against the backdrop of Jewish history, we are relative newcomers to this good country. Therefore, we Jews easily identify with the asylum seeker, the migrant, the refugee who searches for a better life and a place to call home. No matter his religion, no matter her country of origin, the empathy comes easily to us.” Rabbi Splansky cited that week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo (the text study was dedicated in memory of three year old, Alan Kurdi, a refugee child from Syria found drowned on a beach in Turkey). Splansky reminded us that, “Moses instructs the people to share the land’s bounty with the vulnerable – the orphan and the widow as well as the foreigner, that is, ‘the stranger’,” and to do so joyfully.
At the same time, in this week’s Torah portion, the text promises to execute a few of the most vulnerable and to turn most of the inhabitants of the land into the vulnerable by forcing most off the land.
The text commands the Israelites to execute witches. You shall not allow a sorceress to live.” (22:17) This commandment alone can be cited as a major source of persecution of women from the Biblical period through the Salem witch trials to current uses of text to demean women, whether in Judaism, Christianity or Islam.
More significantly, for today’s purposes, to force out the inhabitants, the Torah portion for this week promises that God will send the tzir’ah [insects like hornets, but they blind and make the person whom they bite impotent; perhaps the word is prophetic and the Israeli IDF is about to acquire CF-18 Hornet fighter planes to do the job.] The tzir’ah will “drive out the Hivvites, the Canaanites and the Hittites,” but by a process of stealth and gradualism “little by little” until such time as the Israelites have increased and can occupy the land.” (23:27-30) Reading this does it not remind us of the settlers in Israel in the West Bank?
According to Joshua 14, it took six years to overcome the military might of the Canaanites “to subjugate their portion of land and remove the defeated people.” But of the twelve possible tribes of Canaanites – the Canaanites themselves, the Perizzites, Gittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Jebusites, Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hivites, Hittites and the tribe of Raphaim – why are only three mentioned here for ethnic cleansing? After all, Leviticus (18:25) said that the land vomited up its inhabitants. And Deuteronomy (7:1) mentions seven, not three, though not all twelve. The Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Gittites and the tribe of Rephaim are omitted.
The omission of the latter five and the inclusion of seven could be explained because the five did not occupy land promised to the Israelites. Perhaps only three are mentioned here because they were the fiercest and the strongest and were in possession of the most strategic portions of the land. But why were the Philistines not included as well as the Canaanites? In any case, whatever the number and the group, ethnic cleansing is ordained. How does one reconcile that with empathy for the stranger?
Only, I believe, by distinguishing between enemies versus strangers. Enemies are those who would do you in if they have the chance. Strangers are Others who are no threat. But how do you distinguish the two? After all, in today’s world, some would target all Muslims for exclusion and not just Daesh or al-Qaeda. One burlesque madman would even exclude Mexicans. Are Israelis to define all Palestinians as their enemies, including their own citizens, or only those determined to drive Israel into the sea?
It seems there will always be a political debate about whether the definition of enemy, on ethnic, religious or ideological grounds, should be drawn widely, moderately or narrowly. Some would not target any group at all, even determined exterminators – unless they are a direct existential challenges to one’s own people. I, myself, believe that some – like Nazis and members of Daesh – need to be targeted, but the targeting should be narrow and neither made moderate to allow a margin of safety and certainly not drawn broadly. The latter results in McCarthyism and fear- mongering of the worst order.
So welcome the stranger. Be reasonably cautious but do not exaggerate a danger.