Friday, December 24, 2010

Fear of the "other" in Sefad, ancient Egypt, Aboriginal Australia, politics and ethics

To be opposed to migration or people different to ourselves is generally seen as racist. What are the ethical limits of legitimate fear directed toward new arrivals?

Two Extremes
On one end of the spectrum is proven hostility. Australian Aboriginals had every right to fear white settlers once their behavior demonstrated their hostility to the existing people and their way of life. I am reading the accounts about Ernest Gribble, one figure who colluded with police to have Aboriginal children forcibly taken to his mission where they were forbidden to speak their own language, and actively sought to coerce them to lose their connection to their own way of life1. At the other extreme is baseless fear that is talked up by cynical leaders who know that there is really nothing to fear except their own loss of power.

An inadequate formula
One way to approach our question is to approve of collective self-defence against legitimate threats and disapprove of measures that do not address a real threat. This is an inadequate formula, because there are degrees of “threat” that do not justify the suspension of principles of kindness, nor can it justify the hardship imposed on the “other”.

Exhibit A. Ancient Egypt
The Pharaoh stated that the Hebrews were a threat to the Ancient Egyptians. He declares, that “they are more numerous and stronger than we are...if there will be a war, the Hebrew will join with the enemy, make war on us and go up from the land2”. Thus is born the device of the Anti-Semite, “the international Jew”. The Hebrew, has no roots in our land, he arrived from elsewhere and will return there when it suits him. If there is a war, he may well side with our enemies, pillage and rob us and go to Canaan taking everything of ours with him. He will not fear retribution because he can simply skip the country3.

Was this fear based on fact? We have a range of factors and interpretations to consider.
a) When the Hebrew arrived Joseph had them settled in one small enclave, in the land of Goshen which might have been motivated by wanting to keep them apart from the Egyptians. They did not change their names, language or clothes4. They did not integrate.

Let us not underestimate the significance of language. Aboriginal people were punished on missions for speaking (their) “language”5 because those bent on destroying their people-hood intuitively understood the power of language. “Language has a unique ability to prevent assimilation. A special language allows a nation to stand apart and see themselves as outside the larger society6”.

b) The children of Israel were fruitful, and multiplied like insects, they increased, and were very, very strengthened, the land was filled with them7. It was like a forest, that is sprouting many reeds8. Being the proud owner of a Bamboo infestation on the side of my driveway, I know the metaphor is about a rapid increase in volume and size that can begin to dominate an area.

“Facts”, are of course, used to justify a range of choices. It is often less important to determine if something is “fact-based”, and more important to consider how these “facts” are being selected, contextualised and interpreted.

Political Imperatives
It would seem, the Egyptians were in fear of being “swamped by Jews”. Consider, this Midrash9.

Another interpretation. A new king arose10 (in Egypt). But he was Pharaoh!
Only, the Egyptians said to him. “Come let us engage with this nation”.
He said to them, “fools, until now we have been living from theirs, how should we “engage” with them now?, if not for Joseph we would not be alive”
Because he did not listen to them, they took him off his throne for three months, until he said “whatever you do, I am with you”. So they reinstated him, therefore it says “a new king arose”.

Taking it from this perspective, the “threat” the Hebrews posed, was not real. The fears of being over-run by these foreigners should have been handled with calm thinking and the courage to live with some discomfort and low probability risk.

It has been disheartening, to read about Rabbis in this holy city issuing edicts forbidding the sale or renting of homes to Arabs. There have been reports of an “Arab plot” to buy up homes and 'change the character of the city'. This is different to direct self defence against clear security threats, it is a broad effort aimed at keeping “others” out. Some of the direct quotes from residents reported in Hamodia that I will not repeat had echoes of anti-Semites and bigots everywhere, if your replace the word Arab with Jew, or Black and Arabic with Yiddish or Asian languages. From the comfort of my home in Sydney it is hard to grasp the depth of tension and fear, so I am less interested in the questions of blame or judgement than the moral issue.

Universal standards of morality
Jews are called on to seek to influence other members of the human family in relation to seven “commandments”, one of which is the establishment of justice. As so many other Jews, I am grateful to live in the time when Martin Luther King jnr's dream is an accepted standard for moral behaviour. This is clearly part of mankind engaging in the pursuit of justice. Ethnic cleansing is rightly condemned by the world. We rightly condemn shedding the blood of civilians and women and children as the wrong way to deal with territorial disputes. There are international standards about how to deal with competing claims and desire for the same land, killing civilians is out, lawful purchase is in. We must embrace international principles of justice, and abide by them.

I am grateful not to have been a refugee from the Holocaust, desperate to escape being murderously unwanted in one place, but unable to find refuge because someone thought “we don't have a racial problem in Australia and see not need import one”11. There is plenty in our holy Torah that calls for doing that which is “right and straight”, remembering that “we were strangers in Egypt” and therefore should be more sensitive to the needs of other less powerful minorities when we have power.

There are facts and fears that justify defensive measures, equally there are facts and fears that must be dealt with without resorting to discrimination.

(For a more Halachic/Legalistic scholarly view, see blog post of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein's view, )

1Halse, C., (2002) A Terribly Wild Man, Allan & Unwin, Australia.
2Exodus 1:9-10
3Ramban, on Exodus 9:10
4Midrash Vayikra Rabba 32:5
5Halse, ibid
6Rabbi Yosef Yitzchat Schneerson, quoted by Shaul Leiter.
7Exodus 1:7.
8Midrash Tanchuma, Book of Exodus, Parsha Shemot 5, and commentary Etz Yosef.
9Midrash Tanchuma ibid.
10Exodus 1:8
11Thomas White, Australia's representative to the 1938 Evian conference seeking to justify Australia's tight quota on Jewish immigration


  1. I think it is simply our greatest human challenge - to love the stranger.... the one who is strange to us, whatever that difference or strangeness might be. there is evidence enough i the torah:

    Regarding the asylum seeker, in Deuteronomy 23.16 it says “You shall not return a runaway slave to his master......Let him stay with you anywhere he chooses in one of your settlements, whatever suits him best: you shall not wrong him.”

    Or in Exodus 22:20 “ You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

    I dont think its ambiguious. Its required of us if we wish to be truly human.

  2. thanks Donna. This is the way of the Torah.

  3. donna shalom,
    all true, in an emptier world. I would love to feel welcoming towards the many newcomers here in Israel, but accepting their presence raises many questions about how societies function best.
    the fact that Israel is only a walk away from africa means that we are faced w/ a huge influx of people who share none of our history; their worldview is shaped by very different considerations. how to help them w/out disasterously undermining our own project (securing a homeland for own group)?
    it would be lovely to let these seekers settle anywhere they choose but market forces being what they are, they are for the moment settling in our lowliest areas and having babies as quickly as they can, knowing that these babies are the best way to ensure their continued presence here.
    the neighborhoods hosting the largest numbers of these uprooted people have become dangerous and problematic... from personal experience I can say that being anywhere near the central bus station in tel aviv has become unnerving, at the very least.
    israelis in general are quite nonracist about this. I never hear 'wish all these black people would go away', but rather 'quantities of disconnected people are scary'. if we don't encourage them to put down roots, they continue to be a difficult element. but how can we encourage them to put down roots, knowing that if they choose to join our nation, it is only from economic stress - not a great basis for spiritual communion.
    the problem of foreign immigrants is one wh/ challenges my sense of identity on many levels, not least that of myself as a jew. I wish to follow our teaching, but how to do so when following it seems to lead to weakening it? how to build a homeland and at the same time, fill it w/ people whose homeland is elsewhere?
    thoughts from michal in sderot

  4. Thank you Michal for the challenging question from Sderot. I would love to hear what Donna or others thinks about this. I am going to read a story to my son and hope to come back to this.

    One interesting thought is that Haman's justification for eliminating the Jews (in the Megilla) is not that the Jews were inferior but that they "were different". Research into racism has found a "new racism" that emphasises difference.

    Stil the challenges you raise about the practical difficulties that result from diversity need serious thought, better dealt with when not keeping a 5 year old waiting for his story.