The Triple Lives of Refugees (Parshat Shemot)

Commentary on Parshat Shemot (Exodus 1:1 – 6:1)

The opening lines of the book of Exodus serve as a bridge between a family history and the birth of a nation. Somehow, in an infinitesimal span, the progeny of one man becomes an entire people: the Israelites. And a very prolific one at that.

The new pharaoh is threatened by this numerous and foreign people who are living among the Egyptians. “Look,” he says to his people in Exodus 1:9-10, “the Israelites are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them.”

What is the reason for Pharaoh’s misgivings? Had the Israelites shown themselves to be a dangerous group? Had they been a drain on resources? Had they done anything to cause such abject hatred?

The text explains that Pharaoh fears them not because of past behavior but because they will continue to increase and may prove to be disloyal in the case of some future war. In other words, they might become a fifth column.

Questioning the motives and loyalty of those who are different, then, is clearly nothing new. Neither is the generous use of scare tactics to convince a populace that foreigners are dangerous.

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In the Book of Esther (3:8), this is exactly how the highest-ranking political adviser in Shushan convinces King Ahashverosh to order genocide. “There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people, and who do not obey the king’s laws: and it is not in Your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them.”

It’s an effective strategy: Point out a group. Show how easily they infiltrate society. Remind how they flout laws. Conclude that they are dangerous. Remove the threat.

At this moment, there are 68.5 million displaced people on this planet who have had to flee their homes. This includes refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced people. (For the distinctions among these categories, see this handy fact sheet from HIAS.) Put another way: That’s the size of a population bigger than France.

In fact, if it were a country, it would be the 21st-largest country in the world. Sixty-eight and a half million displaced people. That’s 1 in 113 people, or 1 percent of the global population. Though that number might not seem like much, consider that Jews make up just 0.2 percent of the global population. In addition to the 68.5 million displaced persons there are also an estimated 12 million stateless people who have been denied a nationality. Unlike individuals who have been displaced from (or within) their country of origin, someone who is stateless has no legal standing in any country and is therefore denied protection and basic human rights.

Find more commentaries on Parshat Shemot.

The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives, a collection of essays, opens with the following by editor Viet Thanh Nguyen: “I was born a citizen and a human being. At four years of age I become something less than human, at least in the eyes of those who do not think of refugees as being human.”

We know better than anyone what happens when humans are seen as anything less than human.

Refugees and migrants are rarely viewed as individual people. Instead they are seen as a faceless entity and are referred to in dehumanizing terms like “aliens” or “illegals.” Rather than vulnerable mothers, fathers, and children who are escaping horrors unlike anything we’ve experienced, those approaching our southern border are typically portrayed as conniving fortune seekers who would rather live in the land of opportunity than in their “third-world” home countries. But that’s simply not true. In a Twitter exchange on September 18, 2018, Lulu Garcia-Navarro, host of NPR’s Weekend Edition, shared that “people who leave their homes don’t want to leave.”

They don’t want to leave their homes. They don’t want to leave their families. Their friends. Their language. Their culture. They don’t want to leave their identity and trade it in for the one of “refugee.”

According to Dr. Beverly Crawford, professor emerita at the University of California, Berkeley, refugees live three lives: the first is spent escaping the horrors of whatever has forced them from their homes. The second is trying to survive the journey towards refuge, and the third is starting over in a new country.

Another way to think of this is that refugees were unwanted where they came from, unwanted where they are, and unwanted where they want to go.

This is our story. Since Abraham ventured forth from his father’s land, we have experienced horrors that have kept us on the move, unwanted in every land. And we were never meant to forget that sense of continual displacement.

Again and again our tradition reminds us that we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Embedded in that reminder is the expectation that being a stranger no more, having cast off our powerlessness, we never take on the mantle of the oppressor.

Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr is a rabbi in the Lehigh Valley (PA) and is the editor of The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate, winner of the 2016 National Jewish Book Award in Women’s Studies.