Rabbi’s Weekly Message

Rabbi’s Message, Oct 26, 2023

ABRAHAM—FATHER OF ALL JEWISH REFUGEES

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Illustration: Abraham’s journey from Ur of the Chaldees to Canaan
            What was Abraham’s status when he left his native land, his father’s environs, and set out for the land that God promised to show him? Was he a spiritual adventurer, seeking a virgin land for his new faith?  Was he going where God told him because he walked with God?
            Since the Bible is silent as to Abraham’s motivation, or for that matter, God’s motivation, the Rabbis suggest a variety of reasons. In one midrash, Abraham impressed God as the one man in his society to exhibit a moral passion for justice. Seeing that, God decided to take Abraham out of the settled city-state world of Mesopotamia to give him a fresh field to cultivate.
            But the most famous rabbinic midrash, the one in which young Abram smashes his father’s idols, speaks to our particular day in a most powerful way.  According to the famous story, Terach, father of Abram, was not only an idol worshipper—he was an idol maker. After Abram came on his own to believe in the One God, it became impossible for him to tend his father’s idol shop.  He smashed his father’s idols.

 

Illustration: József Molnár: The March of Abraham. 19th century; in the Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest.
 
            That’s the part of the story we teach in our Sunday Schools. But the story continues in a darker vein.  Terach practices some tough love and turns Abram in to the authorities.  Nimrod, the head of the city, argues in vain with young Abram, trying to get him to worship any one of the gods of the pagan pantheon.  Abram out-argues him and demonstrates the folly of worshiping any god rather than the One God. Exasperated, Nimrod orders Abram to be executed by being cast into a fiery furnace.  But just as God had saved the companions of Daniel miraculously from the fiery furnace, now, in this midrash, God saves Abram from the same mode of execution.  Upon Abram’s emergence from the furnace, God says to him: Get yourself hence from your land!
            In other words, the Rabbis see Abram as the first refugee of our tradition. He left Iraq because those in power there wanted to kill him.  And he went to Israel.
            That is the story of our people in the past century too. Like Father Abraham in the Rabbinic retelling, our people have been a nation of refugees.
            Refugees are all in the news these days—specifically, Palestinians. They are the fourth or fifth generation descendants of refugees from 1948.  Nowhere else in the world would they be known as refugees.  But they continue to enjoy that classification, thanks to the determination of the Arab nations that they shall not be resettled anywhere, but rather used as a tool for pressure against Israel.
            In this message, I want to tell you about Jewish refugees from Arab lands. We don’t call their grandchildren and great-grandchildren refugees, because the State of Israel took them in, granted them vital social services, made them fellow citizens.
As Moses tells us:זְכֹר֙ יְמ֣וֹת עוֹלָ֔ם בִּ֖ינוּ שְׁנ֣וֹת דֹּר־וָדֹ֑ר        שְׁאַ֤ל אָבִ֙יךָ֙ וְיַגֵּ֔דְךָ זְקֵנֶ֖יךָ וְיֹ֥אמְרוּ לָֽךְ׃
Remember the days of old, Consider the years of ages past;
Ask your parent, who will inform you;    your elders, who will tell you (Deuteronomy 32:7)
            Here is the history, freed from the nostalgia and the tendentiousness of many of its retellings: Jews never enjoyed better than a second-class status in Arab countries. They were known as “dhimmi”, the Quranic term denoting their status as a protected minority. We must remember that Jewish (and Christian) social inferiority to Muslims in any Muslim state was considered a religious mandate within Islam. Indeed—for fundamentalists in power in many parts of the Middle East, that is still axiomatic today. That is the rock bottom truth that is eagerly suppressed by propagandists and willingly ignored by well-meaning Westerners.
            No doubt, you have heard differently. You have heard of the spirit of tolerance in 10th century Cordoba, because that brief historical episode is much repeated by contemporary propagandists.  Here is the truth about that: In some exceptional instances, the second class nature of Jewish life lessened, although it never quite went away. A few court officials, a few physicians, pharmacists and perfumers, a few import-export experts enjoyed the passing favor of the powerful in Muslim states from Iberia to Egypt to Turkey. Still, the disabilities remained. Maimonides enjoyed employment as the court physician to Saladin in Egypt, but he rode to work on a donkey, because Jews were prohibited from riding horses as part of their ongoing petty disabilities.  Indeed, the daily reality for most of the Jews living in the House of Islam was one of the kinds of disabilities we in America associate with “Jim Crow” or “Petty Apartheid.”

 

Illustration: Jewish Refugees from Yemen, being airlifted to Israel during “Operation Magic Carpet”, 1949
 
            When the creation of the State of Israel was announced by the United Nations in November 1947, it signaled a rejection of that traditional, hierarchical. Islamic world, in which stateless Jews were protected and simultaneously put into an inferior status by their Muslim overlords. Arabs immediately turned against the Jews of their countries violently. The violence grew worse when the State was born and fought off the Arab invading armies. The situation of the Jews from North Africa through the Middle East became perilous.  Within a few years, most of those Jews had either been expelled or had fled for safety.  Israel became the home of 50,000 Jews from Yemen and neighboring countries in 1949. Another 125,000 Jews from Iraq went to Israel as refugees in Operation Ezra-Nehemiah of 1950-1951. The largest single national exodus was the quarter million Moroccan Jews who fled to Israel in the mid-1950’s.  Other Arab countries likewise turned up the pressure on their Jewish residents producing streams of refugees. While a privileged few of the Jewish emigres had European passports, and went to France or England, the large majority of these Jewish refugees fled to Israel, the only country in the world willing to take them in unconditionally.
 

Illustration: Recent Jewish arrivals from Arab lands leaving Lod airport for temporary housing in one of the ma’abarot, early 1950’s.

 
             When the refugees landed, Israel did not have housing stock for them. Indeed, Israel barely had enough food in those early years.  Israelis had ration books…. One egg per person per week, two for a pregnant woman or nursing mother. But Israel took in the refugees, housing them in ma’abarot, transitional housing.
            The wave of refugees—in some ways like a tsunami-- strained Israel to the breaking point.  But it rose to the challenge—not perfectly, But better than any other nation in history.
            That history of accepting our refugees, of taxing ourselves to the limit to absorb and care for them, gives us the standing to offer this advice to a cynical and selfish world:
 
            Two dozen countries across the Arab world have closed their doors to Palestinians.  Maybe instead of forcing Israel to absorb people bent on its destruction, we could—this time—move in the direction of a solution that could promote long-term peace in the world? We, ourselves refugees, know that home tugs at the heart. But we also know that home can only be home when one is willing to accept a neighbor, not murder him or dominate him, as the condition of going home. When the Arab world accepts that, we will find that peace will no longer be just a dream.