Thursday, November 17, 2011

Citizenship is at its core about people getting along with each other –Abraham in a discrimination case

This week, I had the extraordinary privilege to be part of a group advising the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority about a Civics and Citizenship curriculum. I was there because of my work with diversity education. In the Torah reading this week we have Abraham, as a non-citizen, negotiating with the citizens of Hebron about overcoming discriminatory rules about burial. This is the springboard for a discussion about, discrimination and citizenship.

The word Citizen, refers to “an inhabitant of a city or town; especially: one entitled to …rights and privileges” or a native or naturalized person who owes allegiance to a government and is entitled to protection from it[i]. I would suggest that citizenship goes beyond loyalty to a government in exchange for its protection of the privileges of established citizens. I think it includes a range of responsibilities we have for ensuring justice for all people regardless of where they were born, within the constraints of the collective ability of the nation or city we are citizens of. One limit on this would be the idea that “the poor of your city come first[ii]”.

The role of Government itself is about protecting the vulnerable as reflected in the exhortation to pray for the peace of the monarchy, because if not for it, each man would swallow his fellow alive[iii]. A citizens of representative governments we surely have a role to play as well in ensuring that people and groups are not swallowed alive or treated in a discriminatory way.

Citizenship as scrutiny to prevent discrimination
It is written "The face of the generation is like the face of a dog[iv]" One interpretation of this is that "The face of the generations" means its leaders. And why does it look like a dog? Because a dog runs ahead, as if it were leading the master. But when it comes to a parting of the way, the dog waits for the master to decide where to go. Then it runs ahead again[v]. This means that especially within democracies, where leaders are interested to varying degrees in the views of their voters, citizens have an important role to play to communicate their desire for equitable treatment of all to their leaders and watch them to ensure they deliver.

A defining experience for me was my attendance at an election event where a candidate made a meaningless promise to expand a government program that combats prejudice. The initiative he anounced was an old and underfunded program that was not going to get a penny more. The anouncement was blatantly deceptive.  Yet, I blame the audience. Why did no one except for me, ask a question to challenge this deception or press him for some real commitment? That day I saw a collective shirking of citizenship responsibility which is why the candidate was elected and did very little to prevent discrimination.

Discrimination in Hebron
This dynamic plays some part in the case of Abraham when he seeks to bury his wife Sarah. The sons of Heth, the citizens of ancient Hebron had a custom that citizens had a dedicated burial place for each family, but for the strangers they had a field in which all the strangers were buried[vi]. No family plots for non-citizens. In the ancient world, having a burial ground was linked to citizenship[vii]. This is expressed in the statement “What have you hear, and whom have you here that you have carved out a grave for yourself here[viii].  Apart from the obvious reason Abraham cried for Sarah, an additional meaning of and “Abraham came to eulogize Sarah and to bewail her[ix] is that he cried because he did not have a burial plot for his wife[x]. So he pleads his case, "I am a stranger and an inhabitant with you[xi]”. Like so many who have travelled from place, to place, he asks that in spite of not being from here originally, he wishes to settle and be treated like a local.

Little Brother is Watching
Abraham identifies a plot land. The owner of the land is appointed as a law enforcement official[xii]. The text refers repeatedly to the fact that the discussion about whether Abraham will be allowed to bury his dead is done before the “Sons of Chet”[xiii]. Chief Ephron shows he knows his decision are being watched.  Ephron tells Abraham " listen to me. I have given you the field, and the cave that is in it, I have given it to you. Before the eyes of the sons of my people, I have given it to you; bury your dead”[xiv]. The subtext is Ephron is hinting, that surely you understand that the offer I am making to give you the field for free is because everyone is watching me but really I cannot be expected to give this field for free[xv]. Putting aside the question of price, the grave is provided and praise is heaped on the sons of Heth, who are mentioned a total of 10 times in the Torah[xvi].      

Ismail Mirza
If Citizenship is at its core about people getting along with each other, then one of the most important rituals of citizenship is ensuring that those around us, whether chiefs or ordinary fellow citizens know that we care about how they treat others, and we are watching. One case in point is that of Hazara refugee, Ismail Mirza, who believes he is in grave danger is he is forced to return to Afghanistan this Saturday. It is important that Australian elected leaders know we care about this.

[ii] Talmud, Bava Metzia 71a
[iii] Ethics of the Fathers 3:2
[iv] Talmud 9:15
[v] Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the wording here is from
[vi] Ramban on Genesis 23:4
[vii] Seforno on Genesis 23:4
[viii] Isaaia 22:16
[ix] Genesis 23:2
[x] Chizkuni
[xi] Genesis 22:4
[xii] Beresheet Rabba and Rashi
[xiii] Genesis 22:3, 7, 10, 11, 13, 16, 18 and again in 20.
[xiv] Genesis 23:11
[xv] Haamek Davar
[xvi] Beresheet Rabba 58, note 8 times in this story and the 9th and 10th appearing in 25:10 and 49:32 (Munk, Rabbi E)

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