God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. This is one of the most difficult lines of the Exodus story, and also the one that best encapsulates the lesson of Exodus.
The midrash understands God to have hardened Pharaoh’s heart only after Pharaoh himself refused over and over to repent. Only then did God punish Pharaoh with a heart that could not be moved.
We, too, run the risk of hardening our hearts so completely that we lose any possibility of hearing the pain of others or of changing our own behaviors.
The Torah understands this danger well. For this reason, it derives from the Exodus laws aimed at preventing us from developing a hard heart. Most importantly: “Do not oppress the stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger (nefesh ha-ger), for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The experience of being strangers has been burned into our souls. For this reason, we may not harden our own hearts against other strangers.
To my great sorrow, some of the most vulnerable strangers suffer in our own land — in Israel, created as a haven for refugees with no place to go.
About eight years ago, African refugees, mainly from Sudan and Eritrea began entering Israel via Egypt. Many of them fled persecution or forced conscription. On their journey to Israel, they encountered danger and often witnessed the death of their traveling companions. Traffickers kidnapped these refugees, and held them for ransom in torture camps in the Sinai before releasing them near the border with Israel. In 2012, Israel erected a fence along the border and thereby essentially stopped the flow of migrants.
Some 53,000 African asylum seekers now live in Israel. Since Israel, unlike other Western countries, does not have a fair process for hearing asylum applications, these gerim find themselves in limbo — unable to secure legal status in Israel, but too scared to return to their home countries where they will likely face severe punishment, lifetime conscription or death.
Last December, the Knesset passed an amendment to Israel’s Prevention of Infiltration Law. Under the new amendment asylum seekers who enter the country illegally can be detained for up to a year.
The government incentivized “voluntary” repatriation by offering up to $3,500 to those who agreed to leave Israel. The new Anti-Infiltration Law also allows Israel to hold asylum seekers who are already in the country in an open facility indefinitely.
The new facility, located in the Negev, can hold 3,000 people. It is deemed “an open facility” because detainees can walk out of it. But the facility is in a remote location and detainees must be present for roll call three times a day.
The new law gives African refugees two choices: be detained indefinitely or leave the country. If they fear persecution in the Sudan or Eritrea, they really have no place to go.
The government claims that many of the Africans have taken over large areas of working class neighborhoods in Tel Aviv and have taken jobs away from Israelis.
Yet the asylum seekers primarily work at menial jobs that pay minimum wage or less. At the same time, Israel continues to import other foreign workers, most often from Asia, to fill these jobs.
Israel has an obligation to set up a process by which asylum seekers can have a fair refugee status determination procedure. Israel is a signatory of the United Nations Convention on Refugees which was passed in 1951. The date is important because the U.N. convention was passed due to very fresh memories of refugees fearing persecution in the 1930s and 1940s, having no place to go. According to the convention, signatories are forbidden to restrict the movement of refugees, including refugees who have entered the country illegally.
Some ask why Israel must shoulder the burden of these refugees. This argument begins with the false assumption that Israel is the only country in the region sheltering refugees. In fact, Egypt, Syria, and Jordan all host many times as many refugees as Israel does.
It is easy to harden our hearts against the African asylum seekers. If we do not travel to south Tel Aviv or to the remote detention centers, we might never see them.
For the majority of us who do not have personal experience in Sudan or Eritrea, we can tell ourselves that conditions can’t really be so bad there. We can ask why some other country doesn’t take in all of these refugees.
But the Torah is clear: we must not harden our hearts, lest we suffer the fate of Pharaoh: making our hearts so hard, over and over, that we lose any chance for compassion.
Rabbi Charles M. Feinberg has served Adas Israel Congregation since 2006. He is a board member of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.