In a Jewish Society, All Must Be Seen and Heard

Out of sight and out of mind. That's the safe and prudent place for the non-citizen to occupy. A society's primary responsibility is to protect and maximize the well-being of its citizens. By definition, the outsider is of secondary concern at best. To master the art of non-citizenship is to learn how to become important, if not indispensable, to the society and its citizens, while minimizing the burden one places on them.

It is for this reason that non-citizens are permitted and tolerated, for who would not like to benefit at little cost? Which society would not tolerate individuals who serve its citizens and do the jobs that they choose not to do – at a fraction of the cost and responsibility?

If from time to time one of them exhibits unique skills, brings to our shores beauty and serves us with their talent, we lift their veil of invisibility and embrace them. They are embraced as one of us, enabling us at least for the time of the embrace, to pretend that through them we are a people who see.

What is to be, however, of those who are neither out of sight nor out of mind? Those who make a claim on us, not by virtue of their service and indispensability to our societal ends, but by virtue of their rights and needs? Individuals who, in the spirit of Kant, demand to be seen and treated as ends unto themselves, independent of their utilitarian role. If they are refugees, they claim their inalienable right to life and to a life free from torture and oppression. If they are job seekers, they claim their right to a life free of disease and poverty, which our society has an ability to provide.

While the legal status of the refugee versus the illegal immigrant is not the same, they both make a moral claim and demand to be seen and treated with the compassion and justice that their humanity implies.

When it comes to the illegal immigrant, it is morally and legally legitimate for a society to measure its ability to respond in relationship to the needs of its ability to share its societal goods without harming too much the welfare of those toward whom it has a primary responsibility. What one gives to others inherently limits what one has to give to one's own. However, all tzedakah entails accepting some personal harm and financial loss. Charity does begin at home, but it does not end there.

Our moral responsibility to the well-being of all humans created in the image of God obligates us to see their needs and to act. The obligation of tzedakah, the duty to create a society of tzedek, obligates us to share some of our resources with some of those less fortunate than we are. As Israel becomes ever-more prosperous, our responsibility to serve as an economic safe-haven to at least some does not undermine the Jewishness of Israel but is its fullest expression. We can debate the number of this "some," but as Jews we ought not to debate the obligation itself.

Refugees make an even stronger claim to be seen. They are not claiming their right to prosperity, but their right to life itself. The forcefulness of that demand and its uncompromising responsibility can cause us to want to classify them as merely illegal immigrants, and alleviate to some extent our moral and legal responsibilities. The fact that all claim to be refugees, when at least some are not, simply makes it easier for us to demand that they maintain the status quo and continue to follow the rules of the non-citizen.

But how dare they make their presence known? How dare they make a moral claim on us, with the consequent guilt which a failure implies?

These non-citizens number roughly 50,000. With the fortified border in the South their number will only grow to the extent that the government allows illegal immigrants and refugees to enter our country. Their numbers do not pose a demographic threat to the Jewishness of Israel, nor do their needs create an unsustainable drain on our national resources.

For the last few years, however, while attempting to diminish to some extent the number of mere job-seekers, we have adopted a vision-less and valueless policy which prohibits them from working and concentrates them in a few localities, most notoriously southern Tel Aviv, so the majority of us can continue to not see them.

Yet their demands have become public in recent months. Their demands remind us that humanity and dignity reside not merely in those who have, who are one of us, but are traits that should not be suppressed in any human being. Their demands remind us that they have a right to be seen and heard. I thank them for reminding us that it is about time that the Jewish homeland people behaves toward them in accordance with the values so central to our tradition.

In a Jewish society, there must be no one who is neither seen nor heard. We have a right to assess the extent of our tzedakah and the extent to which we open our doors. But as Jews, we do not have a right to deny our Jewish values and responsibility or to pursue a policy of moral indifference and embrace a valueless status quo. As Jews, we must expect and demand more from ourselves.

Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is President of Shalom Hartman Institute and Director of the iEngage Project.


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