Thursday, August 16, 2012

Curbing Compassion for Asylum Seekers?

Restraining Compassion
Australians are witnessing a dramatic shift in refugee policy. Only a few years back a new Labour Government emphatically rejected the previous government’s strategy of sending Asylum seekers to a third country, Nauru. In a matter of days Legislation is being enacted to allow this practice to resume. It has not been an easy decision, clearly some government MPs have reservations. Refugee advocates see this as a step away from a compassionate approach. Some have cried racism and prejudice, claiming that if those seeking entry to Australia were white farmers from Zimbabwe there would be a much more welcoming stance. Others vehemently reject any accusation of prejudice.

There has also been some discussion about an article by a member of the Jewish community about the need to curb our compassion (not the authors choice of title), or redirect it from those on the boats to other refugees waiting in queues. What contribution does my tradition bring to this debate?

The Stranger
Perhaps the most repeated commandment in the Torah is to love the stranger, often combined with a reminder of Jews’ experience of being an outsider in Egypt where we were made slaves. We must be concerned with the welfare of those who are vulnerable and are seen as outsiders/strangers.

To Curb and Not to Curb Compassion
In our Torah reading this week we have instructions both to curb our compassion and not to do so depending on the circumstances.  We are taught to curb our compassion in cases involving a person who leads others astray by promoting idol worship[i] and a Murder[ii]. Both cases involve extremely serious threats to the community, the latter to life itself and the former to spiritual life. In the case of a vulnerable person we are told “you shall not harden your heart, and you shall not close your hand from your needy brother[iii].

Some have portrayed those arriving on our shores in boats as “queue jumpers”. Others have argued that because there are some Muslims who are extremists, this should influence attitudes to Muslim arrivals in general. Generalising from a tiny minority to a huge majority is neither reasonable nor just.

I don’t think it is racist to argue like my Darwin taxi driver did yesterday; that Australia’s charity should be prioritised to benefit people living in Australian, i.e. Aboriginal people living in dire poverty or that we should be equitable in our treatment of refugees whether they are in queues or boats. We are taught that in the administration of justice we must not be swept away by emotion[iv], instead we must be fair to all. Fairness includes being alert to unconscious prejudices that many of us still have in spite of our tolerant or accepting intentions.  

A teacher in Adelaide reflected last week on the fact that many Australians believed initial reports 10 years ago about asylum seekers that “those people” threw their children overboard. Some of us were prepared to believe that the people on these boats were so different from us that they lacked the fundamental human quality of parental love.

It is tempting when refusing to assist vulnerable people to portray them as undeserving. We are warned against this by our sages. The Torah states, “Beware, lest… your eyes will look in an evil way on your needy brother and not give him[v]”. At the simple level it means having an ungenerous perspective, but it is also interpreted to mean that in our reluctance to help a needy person we must not ascribe evil characteristics to the person seeking our help to justify our refusal[vi].

Changed Circumstances Justifies a change of policy
The home affairs minister, Jason Clare, argued on Radio this week that the Labour Government was justified in changing its position because the reality had changed. 600 people had died while trying to gain asylum in Australia by travelling here by boat. The principle is sound, when a law causes significant harm, it is quite reasonable to review the law. God made a law that had the potential to lead to a situation where “there would not be any poor person among you[vii]”. This would be the result of a system of Jubilee and Sabbatical years, in which poverty would not entrench itself[viii]. Every seven years all debts would be cancelled[ix] and poor people who sold themselves into slavery would go free, in the Jubilee they would regain ownership of any property they sold.

The Torah makes it clear that the blessed state of a poverty free society is conditional on obedience of the law[x]. This ambitious scheme was dependent on people transcending their natural self-interest. Some Twelve hundred years later, it became clear that the result of the law was to harm the very people it sought to help. The sage Hillel observed that in the lead up to the Sabbatical year people stop lending money to each other. He found a way around the law, essentially allowing lenders to transfer their loans to the court[xi].   

The application of the principle of changed circumstances to laws about Asylum seekers is less straight forward. In both cases well-intentioned laws are confronted with reality tests and found wanting. However, in the case of loans, the law was a direct and unavoidable cause of hardship. There was no other option but to give up the idealistic law. In the case of Asylum seekers, it could be argued that there is another option; we can choose to allow people to come here by plane which apparently is half the cost that they are charged by the operators of these boats. Others would argue that this is not viable as there are simply far more people seeking to come to Australia than it could accommodate.

More broadly we are meant to see our assistance to those in needs not as charity but as an act of justice[xii]. The Torah states that if a poor person will cry out to God because he cannot get a loan in the lead up to the seventh year[xiii], this will be considered a sin for the person refusing to lend him money[xiv]. This is because the person who has the ability to give is like a king’s bursar, entrusted by the king to distribute funds. When the poor person cries out it is like a citizen complaining to the king about the bursar withholding funds that the king had allocated for him[xv].  It has also been taught that the reason that one person is poor is order to create an opportunity for another to have the merit of providing for him/her[xvi]. Our decision to share our resources with an individual knocking on our door, either of our house, our embassy or in a leaky boat needs to be informed by the knowledge that ultimately all our wealth is not absolutely ours but has been given to us in trust, perhaps to share with that exact needy person.

Further Considerations
On one hand there is something beautiful about the way no expense is spared when someone is in trouble, such as some adventurer in a row boat on the high seas who lost her paddle. Yet, questions about equitable use of limited public funds sometimes need to be asked. Questions also need to be asked about the justice of treating some people harshly in order to deter other people from risking their lives. Australia will be bringing in plain packaging for cigarettes to discourage smoking, it could be argued that if we applied the same logic being used in the asylum seeker debate to smokers, we would be locking them up to help deter others from smoking. 

There is more that can be said about all this. We are taught, it is not for you to complete the work, but you are not free to desist from it. 

Closing with hope that fewer people have the need to flee their home countries, and that wise, compassionate and equitable response are found to respond to those who choose to flee or migrate for whatever reason. Until then, let us never lose sight of humanity, both our own and those of all our fellow humans. 

[i] Deuteronomy 13:9
[ii] Deuteronomy 19:13
[iii] Deuteronomy 15:7
[iv] Exodus 23:3, “and the poor, you should not be glorify in his (legal) fight”.
[v] Deuteronomy 15:9
[vi] R. Shmelkeh of Nikolsburg, a variation of this also appears in Yalkut Hagershuni that reinterprets the phase in genesis 18:20 about the city of Sodom, “their sin is very grievance” which literally is understood as the words of God about the inhabitants of Sodom, but could also be interpreted as the words of the Sodomites about poor visitors to their city which justified their inhospitable practices. Both cited in Nachshoni, Y., (1989) Studies in the Weekly Parshah, Mesorah Publications, Brooklyn New York,  p.1280
[vii] Deuteronomy 15:4
[viii] Chizkuni based on the Bchor Shor
[ix] Deuteronomy 15:2, this idealistic conception of the cancelation of debts is hard to reconcile with the restriction of this amnesty only to Jews. One more practical explanation of the law by Chizkuni ties it to the ability to pay in normal years by selling crops. Jewish farmers were forbidden to sell crops in the Sabbatical year and therefore did not have the ability to pay. Non-Jewish farmers were not obligated to leave their land fallow which meant that they could pay their debts. According to this explanation Jewish craftsmen should have to pay, while non-Jewish unemployed people, especially farm hands who might find work on Jewish farms that would now be directly impacted by the Sabbatical year should be freed from their debts. This is not the case. Perhaps the counter argument would be that the law is formulated according to the majority. What I like about this argument is that it implies a rejection of discrimination by seeking a technical justification. Of course it would suit me better if the law treated both Jews and non-Jews equally.
[x] Deuteronomy 15:5
[xi] Sifrei, the technical fix interprets the words “do not press your brother for payment” as applying only to a direct transaction between the lender and “his brother”, it does not explicitly restrict the court from collecting debts, so by transferring the loan to the court collection becomes permissible.
[xii] This point is discussed by the Lubavitcher Rebbe in Likutei Sichot, based on the Hebrew word for giving to the poor being Tzedakah which is related to the word Tzedek/justice.
[xiii] During the 7th year all loans were cancelled in Biblical times. This led lenders to be reluctant to lend as the year approached.
[xiv] Deuteronomy 15:9
[xv] Michca Belulah
[xvi] Ohr Hachayim on 15:7

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