Parshat Bo: Seeking Sanctuary

  February 2, 2017                            6 Shevat 5777


Parshat Bo:  Seeking Sanctuary


Decades ago, I read a Hebrew play about a group of religious men living through an Israeli-Arab war.  At the end of the play, one of the men learns that his son was killed in battle. As he is coping with the initial shock, one of his friends approaches and reminds him it is time for the Minha (Afternoon) service. The friend was not aware of the tragedy, but the play suggested that the future security of Israel require more than just the scrupulous observance of ritual.  Concerning my weekly columns:  Although I consciously distance myself from any kind of partisan politics; it would be irresponsible for me to write about ‘Torah’ in a vacuum. We cannot be blind to local and world events; as if Judaism has nothing to address.  My challenge is to connect Judaism (and Torah) with the global world; but to do so without arguing that God is Democrat, Republican or Independent.


The Torah portion of Bo details the final stages of Israelite slavery in Egypt.  The last (and most severe) plague hits Egypt; Pharaoh has been emasculated to the point of total ineptness.  As Moses shares God’s words to Pharaoh-for the final time-it is Moses who departs from Pharaoh angry and defiant.  He conveys God’s words with great passion and emotion; because it was Pharaoh who was responsible for Israel’s suffering.  No people should ever be compelled to endure such slavery. No people should be homeless and insecure.


Throughout the world, there are people suffering under the rule of modern Pharaohs:  People in places like Syria and other Middle East countries where might rules with an iron fist.  As Jews, we appreciate both from our ancient history and our modern history (the Holocaust, the USSR of the 50s and 60’s, Ethiopia of more recent times), the degradation of slavery and persecution.  During the Holocaust and during the final years of the British Mandate in Palestine, we Jews sought refuge in countries which turned us away.


For these reasons and more, the recent Executive Order placing any kind of ban on refugees entering America strikes me as immoral and certainly anti-Jewish.


Let me be clear:  I believe in the need to eradicate terrorism in all its forms.  We, as a nation, have an obligation to combat terrorism on all fronts, and to do so as forcefully as possible.  However, as reflected in the Conservative Movement’s Statement on Immigrants and Refugees this week, targeting individuals based on religion is an affront to our fundamental values. 


In the fight against terrorism we need to separate fact from fiction.  I just participated in a conference call with a leading, highly respected Jewish spokesperson working with Syrian refugees.  She spoke about three misguided fears which are being spread to falsify information about Syrian terrorists attacking citizens on our land.


Fear number one is the economic impact of future Syrian refugees on our economy. Many Syrians in the US have become physicians.  Others have risen to highly skilled occupations with significant income. She spoke about visiting a Syrian refugee camp where many of the ‘residents’ established small businesses to serve the population.  Even in the midst of squalor enterprising Syrians created opportunities for work.


Second, she addressed the fear of terrorism. According to one leading American think tank, the odds of a Syrian terrorist attacking on Amercan soil is 3.6 billion to one. There is a much greater risk of being attacked by our neighbor.


Finally, there s the fear of Islamophobia: Syrian refugees are a small group; they embrace American values and display a general disdain for Sharia law. The Executive Oder threatens to leave people in limbo, and may create an atmosphere of unrest which does not exist at the present time. In addition, the vetting process has been so effective that (unlike in Europe) it has been extremely difficult for any terrorist to sneak in.


Also participating in the conference call was a leading Syrian advisor to Syrian refugees; someone who risked his life before escaping to the United States(he is now a citizen).  One of the points he made was that Israel was among the first nations reaching out to him personally and to other Syrians fleeing their homes. On the subject of Islamophobia, he too, argued that Muslim refugees (and certainly those coming to the US) are the first to oppose Sharia law.  The point here is that we can make various arguments to oppose immigration of Syrians and other refugees.  Many of these arguments though, are based on fear rather than on fact.  Although conditions were certainly different, the United States and other nations gave numerous, non-factual excuses for turning their backs on Jews.  We must not do the same toward others.


The Conservative Movement’s Statement on Immigrants and Refugees includes the following statement:


We call on the US government to reject policy proposals that would halt, limit, or curtail refugee resettlement in the US or prioritize certain refugees over others…As Jews it is not only our religious values that speak to welcoming those who seek shelter and safety, but it is also a pillar of free, democratic nations. 


My hope is that when considering refugees fleeing from persecution, we will recall our history as slaves in Egypt.  Fighting terrorism is one thing; upholding Jewish/humanitarian values is something else.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Klayman