Shana Tova! It has been a while since I have had the chance to write a blog post but I thought I would take advantage of the opportunity today.
For starters, I managed to "shep some naches" this holiday. I guess that can be translated to "deriving pleasure" (or something like that). Usually from your kids. In my case, I had the distinct pleasure of seeing all three of our kids read from the Torah on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. Although the reading is a challenging one, the story of the Binding of Isaac (Akeidat Yitzhak), the trop is so poignantly matched to the narrative, that it is quite the emotional reading. This was the first year that all three children were eligible to read, so it was quite an exciting event.
The Torah readings on the two days of Rosh Hashanah are both difficult readings that raise more questions than they answer. On the first day, we read the story of the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael by Avraham, at Sarah's behest. On the second day, we read the story of the binding of Isaac, at God's behest. Many of us are left wondering about Avraham's value system after the two of these events. But the Jewish tradition has always been to question, discuss, examine and consider these stories from many different angles.
So, as Rosh Hashanah was approaching, we began discussing the first reading in particular and whether it could have anything to say about Syrian refugees. For someone with connections to Canada and Israel, the issue has significant implications for both countries. Judaism has always been concerned with how we treat our neighbours - not just Jewish neighbours - all neighbours. So it is a multi-layered issue.
I thought I would start by poking around with some Israelis. I asked different people if they thought Israel should shelter Syrian refugees - and if so, how many? This is a very complicated issue with no easy answers.
For one thing, Israel is still not at peace with Syria. The Israeli government has no alternative but to view Syria as an enemy country - one which could be at active war with Israel at any time. Which country would be willing to take refugees from an enemy country? Spies could use "refugee status" as an opportunity to enter Israel for all kinds of nefarious purposes. Moreover, those entering Israeli could decide after coming to the country to begin taking action against Israel from within the country. As well, with all of the demographic challenges that Israel faces in trying to sustain a "Jewish state," the notion of bringing a large number of Muslim refugees to Israel could further threaten the character of the state. Finally, there is the risk that openly sheltering Syrians in Israel could provoke the Syrians into taking aggressive action against Israel.
Despite all of these concerns, which have been shared by many Israelis publicly, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, we also consider our imperative obligations as Jews to help others. If there is a way that Israel could help some number of refugees, whatever that number is, wouldn't that be a great example for so many other countries in the world? The Israeli intelligence apparatus is sufficiently competent to minimize the risk in assessing which refugees can be accepted. The number of refugees could be modest enough that it would not raise demographic challenges. And the other issues could be addressed as well. Some people I spoke to suggested that Druze refugees, in particular, would be welcome since they would be most likely to act loyally towards Israel. I am not writing to make suggestions as to which refugees the country could or could not absorb. But in discussing the issue with one person - I said "we can probably both agree that the country could not absorb 100,000 Syrian refugees. But we could also both agree that it could easily absorb more than 5....so let's have a discussion about what the number could be..." It is a difficult challenge for Israel, perhaps even more so than for most other countries. But Israel has demonstrated, on so many occasions, in Haiti, the Philippines, Cambodia and in so many other places that it is willing to save lives of people in need, whether they are Jewish or not. Israel has been saving Syrian lives throughout this civil war, as reported in many different news stories, by providing ongoing medical attention to injured Syrians. And perhaps refugees are being sheltered by Israel, but quietly, to avoid provoking the Syrians. The point here is that saving Syrian lives, at least some, is something that Israel ought to try and do (and certainly has been doing). That could include sheltering some refugees.
Moving to Canada, the challenges are quite different. Canada has the capacity to absorb a much higher number of Syrian refugees. But Canada also has some very legitimate concerns. Would the refugees be properly vetted so that Canada is not sheltering war criminals and terrorists? Both sides of the Syrian civil war have been involved in utterly despicable and criminal acts. While Canada can and should save innocent Syrians from peril, it is not unreasonable to ensure that an appropriate vetting system is in place. Canada can and should have legitimate security concerns. Canada also has reasonable demographic concerns. While the country could easily absorb 10,000 or 20,000 Syrian refugees without threatening its cultural fabric, the absorption of hundreds of thousands of refugees, as proposed by some, could have some very significant repercussions. One need only look at the challenges that France and other European countries are facing by being unable to absorb large numbers of immigrants.
Interestingly, recent graphic pictures of two dead Syrian children led the NDP and the Liberals to turn the issue of Syrian refugees into a political issue for the current Canadian federal election campaign. The parties began falling over each other to demonstrate which party would be willing to immediately accept a greater number of refugees and to attack the incumbent Conservatives for failing to do enough. While it is certainly admirable that Canadians want to help (as they always do), there are legitimate issues to consider in developing the best possible approach.
For Canada and Israel - as well as so many other countries, there are a range of additional issues to consider aside from their own potential capacities and abilities to absorb refugees.
The first and foremost issue is figuring out how to end this conflict, stop the flow of refugees and allow people to return to their homes or to rebuild their lives in their own country. This is obviously the main issue that the UN and other world bodies should address.
The second issue is pushing many other countries to accept refugees - including countries like Saudia Arabia, the UAR, Russia (which is probably one of the root causes of the war in the first place). The onus of saving Syrian lives should not fall only on Canada, the US, Israel, Jordan, Turkey and a number of European countries. It should be distributed among most, if not all of the UN member nations.
Getting back to the religious source of some wisdom on this issue, the Talmud teaches us that saving one life is like saving an entire world. And we know, as a people who suffered through the Holocaust, that we look back with such disappointment on all of the countries that failed to save Jewish people when those countries had the chance. So logically, religiously and historically, we know that we must take action to save Syrian lives even as we face different challenges in doing so.
Shana Tova to everyone - and hoping for a peaceful year.