Is there a Jewish response to refugeedom?

Mensch thought leader of the month

By Romi Kaplan 

In 1994 when I first heard the news about the genocide in Rwanda, I was overwhelmed by a sense of disbelief and horror, and something more — a recognition that I was part of this story. 

“This is it”, I thought, “this is genocide happening in my lifetime, as the Holocaust did in my parents’ time.” While Rwanda  was different, I had learned the Holocaust lessons of victim, persecutor and bystander from a young age, and so I committed to assisting the most vulnerable people to emerge from the conflict — displaced refugees who are not afforded the protection of a state. This was my way of making meaning in the face of suffering. 

My assumptions however, were gravely mistaken. This would not be the nadir of war in our time. A sadly long list of conflict and displacement all over the world has followed since 1994. Just this year, refugees are fleeing conflict and persecution in the Ukraine, Syria, and Afghanistan to name a few. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees asserts that 32.5 million people are currently refugees. 

The second assumption was that Jewish values and history impel us to bring light into the world by caring for others. Certainly, there are religious imperatives, such as ‘You shall love the stranger for you were strangers in Egypt’ (Deuteronomy, 10:19) that can guide us in our relations with the Other. Nevertheless, we choose our religious leaders, and this view is favoured in some synagogues and not necessarily in others. 

I recently learned a lesson on how to forge meaning from our history in a nuanced way. I have been working remotely with Israeli colleagues in offering counselling to Ukrainians now scattered all over Europe. My associate has been working tirelessly — compulsively. One session he shared how he has been battling an internal conflict — his grandparent had been killed by Ukrainians during the Holocaust. Ultimately, he understood that in denying the humanity of these refugees, he would betray his own humanity. I realised that although we did not cause these shifts from fear to certainty to groundlessness, we are incontrovertibly part of this human maelstrom. My colleague chooses to work towards healing this global trauma vortex.

Who better than Eli Wiesel z”l to show us the way? An encounter between Rwandan survivors and Eli Wiesel will always remain with me. I had organised a convention during the time that Israel was grappling with a necessary response to Darfuris escaping genocide at the hands of the Janjaweed. The Janjaweed attacked Darfuri villagers with bombs from above and guns from below, setting fire to their villages. Many of these refugees were young kids who walked across deserts and three borders to reach safety. Yemin Orde housed and educated a number of these traumatised youth who had no family. The head teachers met Mr Wiesel there, and approached him with great respect. I saw them exchange just a few words, and then hug each other. As we walked away, they told me, “It was our dream to meet Eli. We finally met someone who we knew would understand us.” They returned to Rwanda, comforted by those few moments of compassionate understanding from the Holocaust survivor.

Close to home, we could be motivated by our own South African roots stories. Many young men, including my family, fled the shtetl to escape conscription in the 1920s. This is a salient push factor for boys in Eritrea and Ethiopia today. Further, many Jewish families migrated from Lithuania to South Africa when they could no longer afford flour for their Shabbat challot. We found shelter in a foreign country, should others not? 

Despite the historic precedents, the religious imperatives, the Jewish involvement in writing up the Refugee Convention, despite all this, it ultimately comes down to how we choose to live our identity. When we make use of our Jewish cultural resources, we can extend our help and love to all in need. Let us light the shabbat candles this month and remember our family’s own refugee journey, give thanks for our safety today, and extend our love and good wishes to those who currently need shelter. This month Mensch joins with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), has chosen to say, ‘this is who we are, and this is what we do. We invite you to join us’.

* Yemin Orde Youth Village in northern Israel is home, school and safe haven to 450 at-risk youth from around the world.

Romi Kaplan is a Mensch board member. She has a Masters  degree in Forced Migration from Oxford University and is a psychotherapist by training. She was a board member of ASSAF (Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel), convened the 60th Anniversary of the Genocide Convention Conference, and is co-founder of the Counselling Hub, Woodstock. | Mensch on Facebook | Mensch on Instagram

• Published in the March 2023 Digital Edition – Click here to start reading.

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