Sermon: The First of the “Ten Commandments” and Israel’s treatment of African Refugees

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 3 February 2018

How many commandments has Marni just read for us?
It’s another one of those QI type questions.  A question to which you absolutely know the answer – they are after all called the “Ten Commandments” (capital T, capital C), or in Hebrew the Aseret HaDibrot, ten utterances.  So the answer is Ten.

But the fact that I am even asking the question means you know that the answer can’t just be ten.

It all depends on how you divide up the text.

If you read the “Ten Commandments” carefully, you see that some of them contain more than one instruction.  For example, look at what we call the second commandment.  In his enumeration of the mitzvot, Maimonides identifies two negative commandments in this block – both, “You shall have no other Gods but Me” and “You shall not make yourself an idol” are in his list as separate mitzvot.  You can do something similar with other sections, too, especially number ten, which is even laid out in a Torah as more than one instruction.
So, depending on how you count there may be ten, eleven, twelve or even thirteen separate commandments in there.  All in all, the number ten seems to be more an aid to memory, or convention, rather than a matter of theological significance.

And different religious traditions divide the verses into a round ten in different ways.
In the Protestant tradition the prologue, the first line, is not understood as a commandment at all.  Instead, the second is split into two, to give ten.  In a classic Catholic catechetical formula, what we would call commandments one and two are merged into a single statement “I am the Eternal your God; you shall not have strange Gods before me”, so we are down to nine – but then the tenth commandment is split into two – wife and possessions are seen as separate commandments to make ten.  In the Samaritan tradition there is a completely different extra tenth commandment – but that is a whole different sermon!

The picture gets even more confusing when you add the slight differences in text in the version in Deuteronomy, which are understood in the classical rabbinic tradition as having different meanings.  And we don’t even need to get started on whether the text we have received is in the ‘right’ order – which some manuscripts, and a number of prophetic echoes suggest they aren’t.

So ten, and also not ten, is the answer.

One of the factors in this question, as I’ve alluded to, is how to treat the opening line: “I am the Eternal your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the Camp of Slavery”.  Is this a separate idea?  Is this a ‘commandment as such?  Is it a standalone Number One?

Only in one version is it understood as being so.
It’s the version that you have in your siddur; that is found in siddurim across the denominations and around the world; the version that is in the Talmud –the classical Jewish reading.

And this is significant.

In this formative text as we read it is a fundamental and unambiguous expression of who we are.  Fundamental to Jewish identity – and not to that of other traditions who read the text as sacred – is the idea that commandedness comes from the Exodus, from our own experience of slavery, of otherness, of being ones who have fled.  To be obligated, to be in relationship with God however understood, is, in our understanding, to be aware of our identity as former slaves, and to be in relationship with the world through that prism.

It is an idea expressed explicitly elsewhere in the sheer number of mitzvot instructing appropriate treatment of the stranger – because, you were strangers in the land of Egypt.  It is in the ge’ulah at the heart of each of our morning and evening prayer services.

And here at the beginning of the revelation narrative, comes this statement of identity, of obligation out of being – not out of having once been – but out of being – those who fled.

This being the case, we would reasonably expect that of all the countries in the world, the one that would have the most humanitarian approach in its treatment of asylum seekers and refugees; the one that would work hardest to give them dignity; the one that would be least likely to design policy only according to the letter of the law; the one least likely to descend into derogatory language; would be the one that identifies itself as the Jewish state.  The one of which one of the signatories to its Declaration of Independence stated at the United Nations: “Israel will strive to keep the Jewish name high and to live up to the noble record of Jewish tradition”.

Alas, this is not the case.

There are currently around 38,000 African asylum seekers in Israel, mainly from Sudan and Eritrea, all of whom made the same journey through Egypt, wandering through the wilderness of Sinai before ending up, in most cases by accident not design, in Israel.  Israeli policy towards this group has been far from welcoming.  And, in the last few months has become actively hostile.  Under new policy many of these asylum seekers will effectively have to choose between agreeing to “self-deport” or face indefinite imprisonment in regular prisons.  Each will be offered £2,500 in cash in return for voluntarily leaving the country, to be sent to Rwanda, irrespective of whether it is their home country.  Anyone who refuses this voluntary choice will face an indefinite jail term.

A reasonable question in any immigration policy is, of course, whether the individuals concerned are really asylum seekers or are economic migrants.  And here, Israeli policy has been to apply international law in the most minimal way possible.  Many of this group, for example, were granted Temporary Protected Status on entry and so did not file individual applications for refugee status – as a result they are being treated as non-asylum seekers.  And when processing asylum applications, Israel seems to apply a particularly harsh set of criteria: An extraordinary statistic is that outside of Israel approximately 56% of Sudanese and 84% of Eritrean asylum applicants have been recognized as refugees.  In Israel the number is 11.  Not 11%, 11.

Meanwhile Israeli government rhetoric has stripped these groups of their dignity, using prejudicial terminology such as “illegal work migrant” or, worst of all, defining them as “infiltrators.”

Over the last few weeks there has been an extraordinary mobilization within Israeli society in support of African refugees in the face of new policy.  Educators, academics – recently El Al pilots, have spoken against.
And the same has been true, internationally of rabbis.  A letter to the Israeli government asking that the deportations be stopped has been signed by 900 rabbis, cantors and rabbinic or cantorial students around the world.  Local copies of the letter have delivered to Israeli embassies and consulates around the world.

On Wednesday morning, I, together with a Liberal and a Masorti colleague, and representatives of the New Israel Fund, hand delivered the UK copy to the Deputy Ambassador, Sharon Bar-Li, signed by 65 colleagues from across our movements, and spent 30 minutes with her sharing our concerns.

What is most remarkable to me about this letter is not simply the number of rabbis and cantors who have signed, but their breadth across the political spectrum.  As we emphasised to the Deputy Ambassador, this level of agreement and willingness to step forward is incredibly unusual.  Colleagues who would never normally be associated with organisations like NIF, or initiatives of this sort were willing to attach their names to this letter.  Colleagues like me who are asked so often to sign letters and petitions that they rarely do so felt moved on this occasion to add their names, their voices.  We also know that a number of Orthodox ministers who felt unable to publicly support this letter sent a private copy of their own.

And this takes us back to the ten – or maybe eleven, or twelve, maybe thirteen – commandments.
Or, at least, to what we, and we alone, would unambiguously call the first.
Because this is not about our politics, not about left or right; not about Likud, Labor, Yesh Atid, Kulanu – peacenik or hawk, this is about religion.  It is about the fundamental ideal expressed in our texts, about that deep seated sense of identity.  To be Jewish is to read Aseret Hadibrot, the ten utterances, as beginning with a statement of identity. “Anochi Adonai Elohecha asher hotzeiticha me’eretz Mitzrayim, mibeit avadim”.
Our obligation as Jews comes out of our own knowledge of our own status as slaves, as strangers, as other, as those who flee, and therefore extends especially to those who come to us as vulnerable others.

That Israel, of all countries, does not honour that ideal raises questions about its very description as a ‘Jewish’ state.