A Mensch courageous conversation-piece

Is there a Jewish Response to Refugeedom?

Words: Romi Kaplan.

In 1994 when I first heard the news about the genocide in Rwanda, I was engulfed by a sense of disbelief and horror and something more, a recognition that I was part of this story. “This is it”, I thought, “this is genocide happening in my lifetime, as the Holocaust did in my parents’ time.” While Rwanda presented different characteristics, I had learned the Holocaust tropes of victim, persecutor and bystander from a young age, and so committed to assisting the most vulnerable people to emerge from the conflict – displaced refugees who are not afforded the protection of a state. This was my way of making meaning in the face of suffering.

My assumptions were, however, gravely mistaken. The first was that this would not be the apogee of war in our time. A sadly long list of conflict and displacement all over the world has followed since 1994.

Just this year, refugees are fleeing conflict and persecution in the Ukraine, Syria, and Afghanistan to name a few. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees asserts that 32.5 million people are currently refugees.

The second assumption was that Jewish values and history impel us to bring light into the world by caring for others. Certainly, there are religious imperatives, such as “You shall love the stranger for you were strangers in Egypt “(Deuteronomy, 10:19) that can guide us”

In our relations with the Other.  Nevertheless, we choose our religious leaders, and this view is favoured in some synagogues and not necessarily in others.

I recently learned a lesson on how to forge meaning from our history in a nuanced way. I have been working remotely with Israeli colleagues in offering counselling to Ukrainians now scattered all over Europe. My associate has been working tirelessly, compulsively until one session, he shared how he has been battling an internal conflict –  his grandparent had been killed by Ukrainians during the Holocaust. Ultimately he understood, that in denying the humanity of these refugees, he would betray his own humanity. I realised that we did not start this constant swivelling from fear to certainty, safety to groundlessness, but we are incontrovertibly part of this human maelstrom. My colleague chooses to work towards healing this global trauma vortex.

Who better than Eli Wiesel  z’l to show us the way? An encounter between Rwandese school principals and Eli Wiesel will always remain with me. I had organised a convention during the time when Israel was grappling with a necessary response to Darfuris escaping genocide at the hands of the Janjaweed. The Janjaweed attacked Darfuri villagers with bombs from above and guns below, setting fire to their villages. Many of these refugees were young kids who walked across deserts and 3 borders to reach safety. Yemin Orde housed and educated a number of these traumatised youth who had no family. The principals met Eli Wiesel there, and approached him with great respect. I saw them exchange just a few words, and then hug each other.  As we walked away, the principals told me, “ It was our dream to meet Eli, we finally met someone who we knew would understands us.” They departed better for the few moments of compassionate understanding from the Holocaust survivor.

Close to home, we could be motivated by our own South African roots stories: many young men, including my family, fled the shtetl to escape conscription in the 1920s. This is a salient push factor for boys in Eritrea and Ethiopia today, 2023. Further, many  Jewish families migrated from Lithuania to South Africa when they could no longer afford flour for their Shabbat challot. We found shelter in a foreign country, should others not?

Despite the historic precedents, the religious imperatives, the Jewish involvement in writing up the Refugee Convention, despite all this, it ultimately comes down to how we choose to live our identity. When we make use of our Jewish cultural resources, we can extend our help and love to all in need. Let us light the Shabbat candles this month and remember our family’s own refugee journey, give thanks for our safety today, and extend our love and good wishes to those who currently need shelter. This month Mensch, along with HIAS, has chosen to say, this is who we are, and this is what we do. We invite you to join us.

Romi Kaplan is a Mensch board member. She has a Mst in Forced Migration from Oxford University and is a psychotherapist by training. She was a board member of ASSAF (Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel), convened the 60th Anniversary of the Genocide Convention Conference, and is co-founder of the Counselling Hub, Woodstock.

Mensch is a social Justice NGO, committed to capacitating and supporting our Jewish Community’s response towards Social Justice in South Africa. Click HERE to read more about Mensch.