Loving the foreigner is a hallmark value of Jewish tradition. It’s written several times throughout the Hebrew Bible and focuses on two central themes: love and empathy. In Exodus 23:9, God commands the people of Israel not to oppress the foreigner who dwells among them, for “you were also strangers in the land of Egypt.” Leviticus 19:34 emphatically states, “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as a native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.”
In both excerpts, Israel is not only called but commanded to love and respect the foreigners dwelling among them. Other verses go on to mention not only to love and respect them, and not to oppress them, but also to provide for and share with them. It’s written in Leviticus 19:10, “Nor shall you glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the needy and the stranger.” Thus, we can see that this is a value not merely to refrain from causing harm but rather to actively love and show compassion to the foreigner.
Empathy through memory is also central to these passages. Anyone growing up in a Jewish home knows that memory is part and parcel of our tradition. It’s everywhere. And much of the time, we are specifically commanded to remember once being slaves in Egypt. There are studies in psychology which show that past experience can help us understand and empathize with others undergoing similar struggles. This is why memory is so crucial in Judaism; not only for the preservation of our collective identity as Jews or to remember the power and righteousness of the Almighty, although these are extremely important. But rather, to empathize and love those who are weaker and worse off than us, foremost among them the foreigner who dwells among us. We can only achieve this if we remember that we too were once “aliens in the land of Egypt.”
This week, Israel embodied this value through its COVID-19 vaccination campaign.
Like most countries around the world, the coronavirus has detrimentally affected Israel. As of today, just over 5,257 Israelis have died from COVID and 709,729 people of an approximate 9 million total population have contracted the virus. Despite this, Israel has become a world leader in distributing vaccines. Close to 40% of the total population has received at least one dose and 25% have already completed both.
While elsewhere around the world, such as in the United States and Europe, vaccinating local citizens has been a slow process, Israel has stepped up and begun providing vaccines to the ‘strangers among them’.
Israel’s Ichilov hospital in Tel Aviv began Tuesday (February 9) to vaccinate the city’s refugee population. Many of them have fled the grim conditions of their home countries of Sudan, Eritrea and others hoping to find a better life in nearby Israel. Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai posted on Twitter stating, “We’re proud of our efforts to make Israel among the first countries to vaccinate refugees and non-citizens.” Ichilov administrative officials also called for other countries to follow suit.
After significant pressure from many civil organizations, Israel’s Channel 13 News reported yesterday that Palestinians who work in the country began receiving (February 10) vaccinations. Israel’s national EMS organization, Magen David Adom (MDA), is supposedly the body responsible for carrying them out. Today, there are close to 73,000 Palestinians with a legal work permit in Israel, not including the settlements in Judea and Samaria.
Although the Palestinian Authority (PA) possesses a form of limited autonomy, many aspects of the daily lives of Palestinians living in Judea and Samaria are heavily controlled by Israel. Therefore, Palestinians should also be seen as ‘strangers’ living among us, especially the thousands who are working every day inside the country. Remember that the Bible calls us not only to abstain from harm and oppression but to actively provide for the stranger. Those verses challenge us even more when we look at the fine print and read that we are commanded not to see them as strangers but to treat them as natives among us (Leviticus 19:34). Thus, to love the stranger isn’t to be content with vaccinating the Palestinian workers, but to provide for the entire population.
Who can empathize more than us? After years of brutal enslavement in the land of Egypt, the Jewish people were graciously redeemed and led into the Land of the Israel to love and provide for the stranger. After centuries of egregious antisemitism in Europe, culminating in the Holocaust that left 6,000,000 Jews systematically murdered, the Jewish people miraculously stepped out of the ashes of the concentration camps and into a rejuvenated national home in the historic Land of Israel.
The expectations are no different. The blessing of dwelling in the land comes with the burden of responsibility. We must actively love and provide for the stranger among us.