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Compassion First – a Response to Robert Magid

August 4, 2012 – 10:05 pm246 Comments

Volunteers from Jewish Aid Australia with Sudanese children. Image courtesy of JAA.

By Rabbi Ralph Genende
Kon Karapanagiotidis may have an unpronounceable Greek surname, but he has an unforgettable presence and a vital message, which, in my mind, is very Jewish in its essence. Kon is the founder and CEO of the Victorian based Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC). He spoke this week at Caulfield Shule. His talk was inspiring, disturbing, and humbling. It was inspiring as a reminder of how you can make a difference if you have a vision and the energy and confidence to see it through. Outraged by the Tampa incident, this son of poor Greek migrants founded the ASRC in a small shop front with a few students. Today it provides services to over 7,500 asylum seekers, employs a staff of 30, and has over 700 volunteers.

It was disturbing because Kon unpeeled the layers of fear-mongering, political machinations, and distortions that cover up this human tragedy in our midst. It was humbling because of the depth of passion, compassion, and the utter selflessness of this man.

Migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees are a hot-button issue not only in Australia but across the world. And Israel today faces its own complex set of challenges with African asylum seekers and Filipino migrant workers.

The debate in Australia is clouded by myths, fear, xenophobia, and politics. It is hard to know what is fact and what is fiction. The reaction of the Jewish community is reflective of the confusion of the general public. We have many champions for refugees but we also have many claiming that illegal immigration is criminal and dangerous, that it will disrupt our society, undermine it economically, and threaten stability. As Jews, we are particularly fearful of Muslim immigrants and their potential for extremism.

These are not light fears but like many fears they are in large part unfounded. Asylum seekers are not “illegal queue jumpers who can afford to pay criminals to deceive Australian authorities.” They are neither illegal (there is no Australian law criminalising arrival without visa), nor are they migrants who leave by choice. The vast majority are desperate people forced to leave their countries (and unable to return) because they fear persecution and even death.

Even unscrupulous opportunists do not put their own lives and the lives of their children at risk to gain freedom and security. Desperate people do. And desperate people sell everything they have to pay the uncertain passage for the hope of safety.  And would you wait in a queue if your family’s life was threatened when you knew that the wait could be longer than 100 years? We are not exactly being flooded by refugees. Australia is absorbing less refugees today than most other countries across the world.

Australia, like Israel, is a society built on migration, and if you absorb your migrants with compassion and skill you build a stronger society both economically and ethically. The challenge for a democratic society is to create hope and opportunities for the disadvantaged. The challenge of a moral society is to provide a home for the persecuted.

We Jews have a long and abiding tradition of caring for strangers. One of the most repeated phrases in the Torah is to remember that we were slaves in Egypt and to therefore respond to the needs of the vulnerable; the widow, the orphan, and the stranger.

The Torah and the Talmud are replete with references to the ethics and laws of responsibility to wider society. Yes, we have a right to first take care of ourselves – but we also have obligations to society: “Mipnei darchei shalom” to create a better, more harmonious world for all. “Kvod Habriyot”, respect and love for humanity is axiomatic to Judaism. Charity may begin at home, but it doesn’t end there. Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it this way: “Poverty, hunger, disease are evils in any culture and those who heal them are giants of the spirit.”

I am also afraid of Islamic extremism, and I do not believe we should just let anyone in; migrants need to be processed and checked. However, we also need to constantly build bridges to other communities, to reach out and support them, to ensure they do not become insulated and the prey of extremists. The work of Jewish Aid Australia (particularly in the Sudanese community) in this respect is superlative.

Unlike Robert Magid in this week’s Australian Jewish News, I do not believe there are limits to compassion. I take pride in being part of a people who put people and compassion first. Compassion or chesed (loving kindness) informs us, it is the imprimatur of our people, pride of our past, and guarantee of our future.

Ralph Genende is the Rabbi of the Caulfield Hebrew Congregation.

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