By Rabbi Josh Weinberg January 22, 2021 – ט’ בשבט תשפ”א
(תּוֹרָ֣ה אַחַ֔ת יִהְיֶ֖ה לָֽאֶזְרָ֑ח וְלַגֵּ֖ר הַגָּ֥ר בְּתוֹכְכֶֽם׃ (שמות יב:מט
“There shall be one law for the citizen and for the stranger who dwells among you.” (Exodus 12:49)
A number of years ago, I was sitting in a graduate seminar in Jewish Education at the Hebrew University and struck up a conversation with the person next to me. A veteran Bible teacher in a secular Israeli middle-school, she was in her mid-fifties and considered herself to be on the center left of the political spectrum. The course was focused on contemporary issues and teaching controversial topics. That day’s topic was the integration of Palestinian-Israelis (often referred to as Arab-Israelis) into society. In a small breakout group, she shared her frustration: “Oy, what do they want from us? We gave them the right to vote, and they have representation in the Knesset…” she exclaimed proudly. An awkward silence rested on the group. I asked her: Do you think that “the right to vote,” and “to have representation,” is something that should be seen as a privilege as opposed to a right? Are you saying that we should be seen as behaving with largesse because we made the decision to include non-Jews in the democratic process? Or should these basic democratic rights be expected and actually taken for granted. She grinned sheepishly and admitted that she had not thought about it that way. She, like many Jewish Israelis, viewed the 1.5 million Arab citizens of the State of Israel as being somehow at the mercy of the goodwill of the majority and the dominant ethnicity. We only have one Jewish State, after all.
In fact, Israel’s Declaration of independence clearly states:
“WE APPEAL — in the very midst of the onslaught launched against us now for months — to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the upbuilding of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.”
This is in full accordance with this central teaching that we read in Parashat Bo this week: “There shall be one law for the citizen and for the stranger who dwells among you.” In case you might think this verse is an anomaly, we see nearly identical verses in Leviticus 24:22, Numbers 9:13, Numbers 15:15, creating a consistent proclamation of the equality of the stranger in justice, Torah, and law.
There are some who take this Torah lesson and emphasize the importance of equality above all other values.
In a much-discussed essay this past summer, journalist Peter Beinart came to his own conclusion regarding the importance of equality:
“Israel has all but made its decision: one country that includes millions of Palestinians who lack basic rights. Now liberal Zionists must make our decision, too. It’s time to abandon the traditional two-state solution and embrace the goal of equal rights for Jews and Palestinians. It’s time to imagine a Jewish home that is not a Jewish state.”
Beinart’s conclusion – preferencing equal rights over the preservation of a Jewish State – is highly problematic. The logical fallacies in his argument are blatant, and his proposal will not yield the result of equality.
In his last book Dear Zealots: Letters from a Divided Land, Amos Oz writes that equality is not possible in a shared bi-national entity:
“Apart from Switzerland, all binational and multinational states are either barely squeaking by (Belgium, the United Kingdom, Spain) or have already deteriorated into violent conflict (Lebanon, Cyprus, the former Yugoslavia and the USSR). There’s no successful historical model of two people’s living side by side in one state, especially in the Middle East…
There must be compromise between Israel and Palestine. There must be two states. We must divide this land and turn it into a duplex.”
Will Oz’s warning come to pass then, or will the establishment of a future Palestinian state lance the boil and enable Palestinian-Israelis to achieve a level of self-determination with equal treatment? Even current questions about the distribution of Covid vaccines to Palestinians are questions we, as recipients of this Torah tradition must grapple with in context of this mitzvah. This begs the question, that perhaps, with a Palestinian state and a substantial minority of Palestinian-Israeli citizens within Israel itself, would fulfill the aspirational statement of “one law for citizen and stranger.”
Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman, in the book Deepening the Dialogues, shared the following:
“Furthermore, Ben-Gurion declared in a speech to the Keren HaYesod (United Jewish Appeal) in 1947:
‘In the Jewish State we will not only be responsible for Jews… but for all who live in the country and for all residents equally. We must care….for Jew and Arab equally, without distinction….on the basis of complete and absolute equality.’
“Sadly, Israel has failed to fulfill this promise. Arab citizens see resources distributed unequally: Jewish citizens of Israel receiving more, while they receive less. There is less funding for Arab schools per child, less investment in infrastructure, and lower levels of social services, and police protection in Arab towns and villages than in Jewish towns and villages.”
Every observant Jew will read this verse tomorrow morning. We will chant the words “one law for the citizen and for the stranger” yet some will not hear this is a direct imperative. So many other mitzvot in the Torah – Shabbat, Kashrut, prayer, and other such rituals – are performed with great devotion and fervor. They become central to daily existence.
Why then, is this mandate – clearly stated, and oft-repeated – not fulfilled, acted upon, or taken as seriously? Why do observant Jews, who claim to uphold the Torah to the letter of the law, not emphasize the importance of these mitzvot and rarely concentrate considerable towards their fulfillment in the Jewish State?
“The failure to compromise,” Oz wrote, “could be disastrous. The opposite of compromise is not pride or integrity or idealism. The opposite of compromise is fanaticism and death…”
If we don’t adhere to this Torah principle – “one law for the citizen and for the stranger” – we can easily slip into the forcible suppression of opposition, and the creation of a hierarchical citizenry. PM Netanyahu has invested efforts in courting the Palestinian-Israeli community and to garner votes in Israel’s upcoming elections. Netanyahu should receive credit for investing in the Arab-Israeli community more than any previous Prime Minister, despite also having fanned the flames of racism and division in past campaigns. We will yet see if the efforts of his administration will improve conditions and succeed in greater steps toward equality.
Bible scholar Prof. Richard Elliot Friedman explains that “something extraordinary happened in ancient Israel. The writers of the Torah, who came from the stock of those who had experienced the exodus, bequeathed to us something tremendous:
Treat the alien equally. Love your neighbor as yourself.
This piece of wisdom has reached us from a text written over two millennia ago. And, if we are right in our analysis, it derived from an event over three millennia ago. We no longer need to argue over the precise meaning of “neighbor” in the verse “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Let us, instead, use our time trying more than ever to live it.